How much bad writing has been inspired by Ulysses? I have no idea, but I have made my own modest contribution to the genre. Several years ago, inspired by re-reading James Joyce’s masterpiece (see my appreciation here), I wrote a fictionalized, stream-of-consciousness account of a day in my life. (When I described the project to a book agent, she responded, “Oh dear.”) I have published one excerpt on this blog: “Stream of Thought Description of Teaching James’s ‘Stream of Thought: A Work of Faction.” (“Faction” is the term coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz for imaginative writing about real people and places.) Here is another excerpt, based on a luncheon conversation between me and three colleagues about truth, science and Thomas Kuhn (see my article about Kuhn here). The excerpt opens with a description of the three colleagues, whom I call Jim, Dave and Francois. –John Horgan
Jim is an historian of science who trained under Thomas Kuhn at Princeton and maintains a Kuhnian view of “truth.” He looks like college professor should look. He has splendid, curly, white hair and beard, and wears a black academic gown when teaching.
Dave is a nice guy and, for a mathematician, almost eccentric in his lack of eccentricity. His humor can have an edge. He once said, "I like hanging out with you fuzzy-minded humanities people." When I reminded him that some mathematicians practice “fuzzy logic,” Dave replied, "Even our fuzziest logic isn't as fuzzy as humanities logic."
Francois is a physicist-engineer, gourmet, oenophile, whose French accent is as thick as Hollandaise. He’s a Know-It-All who brings out the Know-It-All in me. What happens when two Know-It-Alls butt heads? Extreme boredom for bystanders.
We dine in our university’s Faculty Club, which offers a splendid view of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline.
Me: "So Jim, I need advice from you. Tomorrow in my history class I'm going to talk about Lavoisier, the invention of modern chemistry, blah blah blah. And here's what I need to know: Is it phlo-gis-ton, or phlo-gis-ton? I can never remember."
Jim eyes me suspiciously: "Phlo-gis-ton."
Francois, an expert on all things European and scientific, nods sagely: "Yes, that's right."
I can't stop myself from baiting Jim my postmodern friend, just as I bait Christians, Buddhists, evolutionary psychologists, Freudians, Singularitarians and other True Believers. Jim is a True Un-believer, which is pretty much the same as a True Believer.
Me: "I love telling my students about this triumph of modern science over phlo-gis-ton, alchemy, all that bullshit primitive pseudoscience."
Jim, his mouth full of greens, shakes his head vigorously and emits muffled cries of alarm. "Mmmm! Mmm!"
Me: "Don’t worry. I give them your postmodern view, and then I tell them why it's wrong. Lavoisier discovered oxygen and figured out its role in combustion and showed that the phlo-gis-ton theory of combustion was wrong."
Jim, after gulping his food down: "Let me just interject. You can say my position is bullshit and your realist position is whatever it is. But to go back and call alchemy and phlogiston pseudoscience is, I think, a mistake." Jim loves reminding us that Newton filled notebooks with descriptions of wacky alchemy experiments and religious ravings. The Hero of the Enlightenment was a crank.
Me: "So I guess I shouldn't have told them that geocentric astronomy was pseudoscience."
Jim: "Yeah! Alchemy and geocentric astronomy are models for science!"
I look at Jim. "Okay, I think we should settle this once and for all. This thing you have about scientific"—I claw the air with curly fingers--'truth.'"
Jim, with calm warrior confidence: "Bring it on."
Dave: "Uh oh."
Me, ignoring Dave: "Jim, obviously you are a very well educated person."
Jim, with extra sarcasm: "Thank you."
Me: "You're a scholar! Professor! Esteemed historian of science! And yet you don’t really believe science is capable of producing truth."
Francois, wearily: "Oh, God. Not this again."
I glance at Francois, weighing the pros and cons of an alliance with him. "Francois, I forget what your position is on scientific truth."
Francois, with oodles of French sauce: "My position is very nuanced."
Jim chuckles. "Mine is not. And I can give it to you quite easily. Science is stories we tell about nature. And some stories are better than other stories. And you can compare stories to each other on all kinds of grounds, but you have no access to"—he pauses for dramatic effect—"The Truth. Or any mode of knowing outside of your own story-telling capabilities, which include rationality, experiment, explanatory scope and the whole thing. I would love to have some means of making knowledge about the world that would allow us to say, 'This is really it. There really are goddamn electrons.'" He whacks the table.
Me: "What about elements! You can't be sure elements are real? The discovery of elements is just another story?"
Jim, stabbing a cherry tomato with a fork: "Yeah, it’s a story, because what do you mean by an element? In 1880 you mean one thing by an element. Post-Einstein you mean something else by an element. And post, uh, post-Higgs boson you have another view. There's no one thing: element. It’s a set of sentences that we make and say, 'That's an element.'"
Me: "So the implication of your view is that you can never say that science converges on the truth. If we keep practicing science, we will keep generating new theories, new stories that we tell about nature, forever."
Jim: "I would say so."
Francois, thrusting his bottom lip forward, says to Jim: "You are full of bullshit."
I cheer, and Dave and Jim guffaw.
"Postmodernism is bullshit," Francois continues, pleased with our reaction. He lifts his glass of iced tea. "I mean, I firmly believe this glass of ice tea is cold now, and after a while it will get warm. And that demonstrates the truth of the second law of thermodynamics."
Jim: "Okay, this is a very good example. So the idea that this glass isn’t cold or that there is no evolution or something, those are stories we want to reject, just like we reject geocentrism. But still, what we mean by the story is not a fixed thing. What we mean by evolution, what we mean by the second law of thermodynamics, keeps changing."
Francois, squinting skeptically at Jim: "In science we rarely go backward. We go forward and explain a much larger set of data. And it becomes harder and harder to contradict those. So I don’t think we will ever go back and say, 'We have to give up the theory of the elements.'"
Jim, jabbing air with fork, talking fast: "But the question is, what are we comparing our theories about nature to? We can always say the claims we're making now are superior to previous claims based on this and that and the other thing. And so if you want to call that truth, I don't have a problem with it. But he"—points fork at me—"thinks truth is this absolute, objective thing outside of ourselves that we can know. And he uses things like elements as examples. But these are moving targets! The truth is not the same thing at any moment of time!"
Francois: "That's where I disagree. I think at some point there is universal agreement, like on the existence of elements."
I nod vigorously. Francois is coming through. I want to clap him on back.
Jim: "Yeah, there is universal agreement. But what do we mean by that? For most of the 19th century, elements didn’t have any parts. Now, suddenly, they got parts! They got atoms and protons and neutrons and electrons. Whoa! And then those things have parts, and those things have parts."
Francois, serenely: "That doesn't bother me." Francois is a very smart, sensible guy.
Jim, agitated: "It doesn't bother me either! But you can't say there is one thing: an element. It's a set of sentences that we have at this point in time, and we say, 'These are elements.' And I agree! It's a hell of a story!"
Me: "Was it Kuhn who made you this way? Did he brainwash you when you were his grad student?"
Me: "Seriously? You didn’t believe all this postmodern shit before…"
Jim: "No! I was just a kid before I met Kuhn! And I grew up with this '50s mentality about science: Science is true, it eliminates superstition, it's got this great scientific method, and it churns out true facts about nature."
Me: "You used to be a naïve realist like me."
Jim: "Of course! By the way, Kuhn was a realist. He actually believed there is a real world out here. It's just unknowable."
Me: "Part of me, the old flaky acidhead part, agrees with Kuhn that reality is fundamentally ineffable. But the rational science journalist in me says, 'There is such a thing as truth, and we can discover it through science.'"
Jim, sly smile: "Jack, what's going on in your psyche that makes you have this need to know?"
Dave, quietly chewing noodles, watches us with amused detachment. I wonder if Dave can help me out. He’s a mathematician, believer in logic, deduction, proof.
Me: "Dave, most mathematicians believe in truth with a capital T, right?"
Dave, in his mild, unflappable way: "Well, it depends what you mean. Most mathematicians would say they believe in proof from axioms. You start with these assumptions, and then you prove something, and that means something. But as to whether the axioms hold or not…" He shrugs.
Me, heart sinking: "Okay, but you don't agree with this idea that all our knowledge is constructed, do you? Aren't most mathematicians Platonists? Who believe mathematical truth exists out there? Apart from us?"
Dave: "Well, most of us do believe in some not very well articulated way that there are absolute mathematical objects, which we discover." He pauses, tipping his head. "And you do have to wonder why math seems so unreasonably effective in describing the physical world."
Francois pounces: "It's just luck."
Dave, amused: "Just luck?"
Francois: "Yeah. We develop all these mathematical models, like catastrophe theory, and bifurcation theory." He sticks out his lower lip and shrugs. "Some of them turn out to be useful, they do some things. But it's purely coincidental."
Me, hoping to steer conversation back to more promising trajectory: "But most physicists don't just think of math as tools that we invent. They think there is mathematical order out there in the world, and we are discovering it."
Jim: "I would say that the tools we're using to explore the natural world give us what it is we discover."
Me, sneering: "Yeah, I can guess the rest. We confuse our tools, and maps, and theories with reality, right?"
Jim: "Yeah! And there's no other way to know the reality. You can't call God and say, 'What's the real reality?'"
Something moving outside window catches my eye. An ocean liner, like a skyscraper on its side, cruising up Hudson.
Me, looking at Dave: "Is it because of Godel that you can't be sure about mathematical truth?"
Dave: "No, it's not that you can't be sure about mathematical proof. Godel just showed that, whatever your axioms are, except for very simple cases, there will be statements in those axioms that you can't prove are either true or false."
Me: "So do mathematicians actually worry about that?"
Dave: "No, we don't. Maybe we should worry more about the logical foundations of mathematics, because basically there aren't any." He smiles, shrugs. "And yet we don't really worry about it."
Me: "Because math works! Math gave us the H bomb! Math put Whitey on the Moon!"
Jim, smiling indulgently: "Math leads to useful results."
Dave: "Yeah." Pause. "Tenure, for example."
Jim: "Oh ho ho!"
Me, losing hope that Dave will help me crush Jim: "Dave, what about scientific truth? Do you agree with me that science can uncover genuine truth, or is it all story-telling, like Jim says?"
Dave: "Well, you do seem to have a succession of more and more accurate theories. But it could be that there is no limit to this series of theories. Then I guess you'd have to say that there is no truth out there waiting for us to find it. Like Jim says."
Jim, food in mouth, triumphantly: "Mmm hmm!"
Me, after theatrical sigh: "So here's the problem I have with Jim's theory."
Jim: "It's not a theory."
Me: "Yeah, you're right. Theory gives you too much credit. I mean your… view. Your attitude. Your"—sneering—"opinion."
Jim: "Ha ha ha."
Me: "There are areas of science where progress is very rapid. Even postmodernists have to grant that physicists in the first half of the 20th century were doing experiments that produced completely novel and unexpected results, leading to rapid advances in theory, which then led to more predictions and confirmations and so on."
Jim: "Like The Bomb."
Me: "Exactly! Talk about a confirmation of your paradigm. Then you have fields like psychology. There are all these books now on neuroscience and psychology that say meditation is probably the best thing you can do for mental problems like depression and anxiety. Meditation! Proposed by Buddha 2,500 years ago!"
Jim: "What's wrong with that?"
Me: "That would be like physicists at the Large Hadron Collider saying, 'You know what? We just discovered that Aristotle was right after all! There are only four elements: Earth, Wind, Fire and...' Shit, what's the fourth element? I always forget."
Jim: "Water. And it's Air, not Wind. You're thinking of the old rock group. Okay, let me give you the Kuhnian answer to what you just said. In psychology there's no paradigm or frame of reference that all researchers are going to agree upon, which gives you the problems you are going to research, the techniques you are going to use. It's possible that you will have paradigmatic research at some point, just not yet."
Francois: "I have no doubt that 50 years from now we will have a much more deterministic view of what the brain does."
Jim: "Okay. But whether scientists agree on a paradigm or not is no test of the success or truth-value of any of these sets of claims. We can't use these different degrees of maturity of these different inquiries as the basis to say something about their truth value."
Me: "You’ve already granted there are ways of judging the relative merits of different theories. If it's possible to make those sorts of comparisons, then you've got some kind of transcendent standard of truth."
Jim: "No, you don't. You have a comparison of apples and oranges."
Me: "What!? No, come on. Surely you're not saying that."
Jim: "Of course I am! That's exactly what I'm saying. Some stories are better than others and you determine that…"
Me: "Yeah, but apples and oranges means it’s just a matter of taste."
Jim: "No. That, I don’t mean. There are criteria that can help you make judgments. Explanatory scope, applicability, evidence of one sort or another. It would be those things that would allow you to say theory A is better than theory B. But you can't say theory A is true and theory B is false. They're different. Apples and oranges."
Me, staring at him: "Are most historians of science…"
Dave: "Are they as crazy as you are?" Everyone laughs, Jim hardest.
Me: "What's infuriating to me is that a lot of super-smart people think if you're super-smart you should have this subtle postmodern view of truth."
Jim, gleeful: "Oooooh! So that explains it! Now we're getting to the bottom of this! Your psychological need!"
I’m getting too serious, shrill, self-righteous, but I can't stop. "It's not only a psychological need, Jim. It's actually a political and moral issue for me. Let's say we're talking about projections of global warming and whether they are strong enough to merit various aggressive countermeasures. Or the challenges of creationists to evolution. I think—I know—that postmodernism undermines the ability of scientists to prevail in these debates."
Dave, derisively: "Yeah, because all those people in the Bible Belt are reading Kuhn or Bruno Latour."
Me: "It happens!"
Dave, eyebrows raised: "It does?"
Francois: "The people in the Bible Belt are postmodern?"
Me: "Listen, you probably wouldn't think fundamentalists would read someone like Steve Gould, but they did. When he started critiquing conventional Darwinian theory back in the '80s, the creationists loved it. They all quoted him. Gould was appalled. He had to scale back his rhetoric."
Jim, serious now, seeing how serious I am: "This seems like a phony argument. So scholars have developed these very sophisticated views of what is knowledge, how do we create knowledge, how do we express knowledge, what is communication, what is language, what are words."
Francois, amused: "Is there a postmodern exegesis of the Bible?" He pronounces "exegesis" as if it were a delicious hors d'oeuvre.
Jim, sternly: "Let me just finish my thought. I don't see how all this undermines a liberal, progressive, morally sensitive set of arguments about the issues that we face today. Postmodernism, all this stuff we've been talking about, is completely irrelevant to politics."
Francois: "It's really just liberal versus conservative. That has nothing to do with truth."
Me: "You're wrong. If you're the kind of postmodernist who says all truth claims serve the purposes of the group that’s making them, that undercuts the whole point of arguing on the basis of facts and evidence. My job as a science journalist is to say, 'I think this is bullshit. This makes sense to me, and here's the evidence.' And if some professor, some smart person like you…"
Jim, laughing: "Smart ass!"
Me: "You're saying, 'Well, this is a good story. Some people like this story, but, hey! This is a good story too!' That’s a huge problem."
Jim. "Okay, let's even grant that. But it doesn't seem to me that you want to then become a naïve realist, and think there are no issues here about how knowledge is constructed."
Me: "I realize there are certain arbitrary, cultural, constructed aspects of our knowledge. But when it comes to elements and electrons and atoms, after a while we can forget about all that Kuhnian postmodern stuff, because the evidence is so overwhelming. When we look at psychology or behavioral genetics, and scientists are saying there's a warrior gene, which explains why certain ethnic groups are more violent than others, then you need to think about the role of racism and politics and all those sorts of things."
Jim: "You can enlist postmodernism in your campaign! If you think there is a gene for criminality, or homosexuality, you could say, 'Well, look at the social construction of knowledge. Look at the egregious claims made by really qualified scientists about intelligence or whatnot.'"
Me: "I do that all the time. But that skeptical, postmodern treatment is justified if you're talking about behavioral genetics, because it has produced one outrageously crappy claim after another that has failed to hold up. Like the schizophrenia gene, and the gay gene, and the high-IQ gene. But that's not true of fields like nuclear physics, where you get real progress."
Jim: "Well, I wouldn't use the word progress. There are some things that we know more reliably, that are less impacted by social and political factors in the community constructing this knowledge. You can see that in physics. But Newton's world, his physics, his science, is nothing like the world of modern physics. Space and time are different. Mass is convertible to energy for Einstein, not for Newton. The whole schmagoogle. It's a different world!"
Jim: "Schmagoogle. A good Yiddish term. Look, some things are more, uh, foundational than others. Thermodynamics is foundational. It's going to take a lot to overturn thermodynamics. Biological evolution is another one. So you're going to be hard pressed to have a worldview that doesn’t have some version of those."
Dave: "So you might call them 'almost true.'"
Jim: "Yeah! Almost true, man."
Me: "So you grant that some paradigms are so effective that you might as well call them true."
Jim, laughing: "I like that! 'You might as well call it truth!' Fine!"
Francois: "Truth with a small t!"
I’m dissatisfied with this quasi-concession, quasi-resolution. I want total victory, unconditional surrender. But I need to let it go. Persistence after certain point becomes weird, a category error, like throwing your racket at a tennis opponent. My ice tea is gone. I lift the glass, tip ice an ice cube into my mouth and crush it in my teeth.