David, I mentioned Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (Rutgers University Press, 2003). The week after the conference, I happened to discover that this book comes with the recommendation of Daniel Dennett, who mentions it approvingly in the preface to Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006). I originally made my way to Nanda via Alan Sokal, who draws upon Prophets Facing Backward in his essay "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?", which is available from his NYU website.
The central irony which Nanda explores is that our common notion of postmodern ideas --- science as a social construct, "incredulity toward metanarrative", all that --- which we associate with the "political Left" is really an illusion due to a Eurocentric bias. If we look farther afield than the Parisian faculty lounge, we find that these same ideas have been appropriated by fervently nationalistic ideologues. In the ivory towers of the West, "postcolonialism" is a trendy pomo thing, a way of feeling warm and fuzzy after decades of imperialist stomping over these other cultures. Uphold the validity of their beliefs! Give them affirmation, confirm their customs and their "ways of knowing".
The problem arises when actual members of these former colonies pick up the postcolonial speech habits. Fundamentally, it comes down to the question of what you do when science, whether foreign or domestic, challenges a comfortable ideology. One approach, beloved by Young-Earth Creationists, is flat-out denial. Another, more akin to Intelligent Design, is to appropriate the words but leave behind the music: by practicing a kind of epistemological judo, one can adopt the useful fruits of technology while ignoring what the basic scientific discoveries imply about your belief system. At the same time, all the people who acknowledge the abundant evidence that science **works** --- and who therefore have a default respect for the men in white coats --- have a new reason to trust your ideological pronouncements.
Sokal's essay discusses how practitioners of "alternative medicine" have done this in the United States. There's nothing quite like a dose of quantum physics to make your aura vibrate at a higher harmonic and up the effectiveness of your uber-holistic Touch Therapy! And if the Medical Establishment comes along to question the effectiveness of this Touch Therapy, then you can whip out the "all world views are valid" line. It's not as good as real scientific evidence, but it can compel a degree of belief.
Nanda addresses how this has played out in modern India. One crucial difference between quantum altie woo in America and Hindu "Vedic science" is that the nationalist practitioners of Hindu "Vedanta" **do** uphold the primacy of one worldview: Western science is merely an imperfect realization of the truths spelt out in Vedic texts millennia ago. From page 197,
" [...] the Hindu right wing is modernist in a reactionary, anti-Enlightenment way. Hindutva is gobbling up modern science by declaring the Vedic knowledge systems to be at par with modern science in rationality and credibility. Proponents of Vedic science claim the Vedas to have presaged all the advances in modern science without admitting that in fact, modern sciences challenge the metaphysical foundation of the Vedic view of the world."
Notions of "decolonialization" have found a favorable home with these people, because they downgrade the primacy of Western science and insulate the Vedic alternative from disproof. The political beliefs of the French and American postmodernists don't matter, once their ideas have been spread --- ideas which those of all political persuasions can use to rationalize the antirational. (I'm tempted to use the word "meme" here.) The propositions of this "Vedic science" would be laughable if no one believed in them. Nanda summarizes Raja Ram Mohan Roy's **Vedic Physics** (1999) in the following words (p. 114):
"Roy's book is a compendium of absurdities where references to animals mean bosons and fermions, animal sacrifices stand for quark containment, where annihilation of dark-skinned people means annihilation of anti-matter, food is matter-energy, and where the reference to 10 directions stands for superspace, so on and so forth . . . ad nauseam."
Roy's ideas, and those of Vedanta enthusiasts like him, have been adopted wholesale by the Bharatiya Janata political party (now in opposition).
Nanda's book contains large amounts of interesting stuff which is not easy to summarize. Methinks the verbal ejaculations of postcolonials, whether in American literary journals or Vedic-science textbooks, are particularly resistant to my old-fashioned linear paradigm of thought.
Blake goes on to add:
I was able to dredge a copy out of a Google hit parade:
Here's the money quote:
"The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion.
If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics."
-- Blake Stacey
Randroids are what I call Platonists. And alas, the libertarian movement, which OUGHT to be supremely modernist and pragmatic and logical, is instead one of the modern movements most rife with romanticism, impracticality, misplaced idealism, obsessive cultism and an absolute dedication to incantations whose sole result is to provoke a drug high of indignation. Never practical and incremental improvement of markets or freedom.
Platonism is the very worst enemy of democracy and modernism because it is the romantic variant that KNOWS democracy and understands it, and yet loathes and despises it down to the very roots. It has poisoned so much of the Enlightenment and provides intellectual fiber to the mad neocon priests like Perle and Wolfowitz and other followers of Leo Strauss. True, much of their coalition is made up of OTHER enemies of the Enlightenment... neo-feudalist oligarchs and kleptocrats and future-terrified nostalgists. But these are the guys who betray us with open eyes.
see my article: Neoconservatism, Islam and Ideology: The Real Culture War
Slowly, we are coming to see that the real enemy is human nature itself, which seems always lured and tempted by certain things: Self-delusion. Incantation. Nostalgia. Self-serving demonization... and a level of self-interest that ruins markets instead of playing fair in them.
Human nature would destroy the Enlightenment, if it ever gets a chance, and snuff it out far LONGER than those same forces kept Pericleanism quashed, the first time. 2500 years of darkness. It happens so easily! The French wing of the Enlightenment got lured back into Platonism - believing you can attain truth through incantation.
Even American modernist ikons like Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Moses gave into the temptation to become tyrannical gurus, in the wizardric tradition, rather than collaborative modernist pragmatists. Modernism barely survived their antics and the NAME was driven into the wilderness.
What a slender thread is the trail that leads from
Pericles, through scattered candles of light, to John Locke and
Adam Smith and Ben Franklin, who pointed us down a new
One that is under attack even as we speak.
I think the very unlikeliness of this event helps to
explain why the stars seem so empty of intelligent
And (as I have often said) this time our enemies have vowed. When it is quashed, they will NEVER let it be tried again.