EDIT: Been told by people I trust that this is not a good explanation. Retracted.
Some of the Seattleites put together a Postmodernism For Rationalists presentation that’s been sparking a lot of discussion. It’s not quite the way I would have explained things. I’m no expert in postmodernism, and can’t give anything more than a very simple introduction to one of many facets of the movement. But I am an expert in explaining things to rationalists. So it’s worth a try.
Last week, I went over the evidence for and against a European Dark Age. Most people on both sides agreed on some facts in favor, like:
1. The fall of Rome was associated with a decline in wealth and population in Western Europe.
2. The fall of Rome was associated with a loss of capacity for things like urban living and large-scale infrastructure in Western Europe.
3. The intellectual output of the period included less literature and philosophy of lasting value than periods before and after
And on some facts against, like:
4. A lot of the worst-looking trends actually started before the fall of Rome, and were getting better by the time Rome finally collapsed.
5. Any collapse was relatively circumscribed both geographically (didn’t extend to the Islamic world) and temporally (didn’t last into High Middle Ages)
6. Few people thought the world was flat, the Church mostly didn’t persecute scientists, and there were lots of knowledgeable and cultured people.
So was there really a Dark Age? This question is meaningless insofar as there’s no objective criteria for what a Dark Age is. Even if there were (for example, historians decided that any century in which economic activity contracted by greater than 10% was a Dark Age) those objective criteria would themselves be subjective (why didn’t the historians decide 5%?). Any assessment would have to combine objective historical facts with subjective beliefs about what metrics were important.
And these subjective metrics will inevitably include political agendas. For example:
A. New Atheists might want to say there was a Dark Age, because it supports a narrative of religion crushing progress.
B. Classicists might want to say there was a Dark Age, because it makes Greece and Rome look extra good if their fall destroyed everything.
C. Conservatives might want to say there was a Dark Age, because it reminds us that civilization is fragile and needs to be protected from barbarism.
D. Catholics might want to deny there was a Dark Age, because they were ascendant during that period and it would be pretty embarrassing.
E. Multiculturalists might want to deny there was a Dark Age, because a Dark Age would imply that some cultures and time periods are better and more civilized, while others are superstitious and barbarous.
F. Whigs might want to deny there was a Dark Age, because it hurts their narrative of ever-improving human progress.
Postmodernism is the belief that thinking about agendas A through F is at least as important as thinking about facts 1 through 6.
A postmodernist will be less interested in recalculating the GDP per capita of Carolingian France for the twentieth time, and more interested in investigating how all of the historians who invented the idea of Dark Ages were atheists who emphasized all of the most sensational examples of the Church screwing things up in order to fit their agenda. They focus less on objective facts than on how politically-motivated people choose to weave those facts together to tell one story rather than another. Then they explain how many of the stories and concepts we unquestioningly believe come from processes like this.
In the Dark Age debate, they’d probably just notice that lots of the people defending the Dark Age’s existence are atheists – which wouldn’t be too interesting. More creative postmodernist scholarship finds cases where there isn’t yet much debate, and explains why it might be in the interest of society as a whole (or rich capitalists, or white males, or whoever else they think controls society) to tell only that side of the story. For example everyone knows “the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD” even though it clearly didn’t; the Roman Empire survived until 1453 AD, but after 476 we arbitrarily switch to calling it “Byzantium”. Maybe that’s because our civilization has a line of descent that passes through Charlemagne, who was personally interested in having Rome be gone so he could be Holy Roman Emperor? Maybe it’s because the West is pretty proud of being the heirs to Rome, Russia is pretty proud of being the heirs to Byzantium, and the West doesn’t want to have to share its patrimony with dirty Commies? I don’t know. But this seems like the sort of question a postmodernist scholar would look into.
Postmodernists don’t necessarily deny the existence of objective facts. But they find them hard to pin down. It would be tempting to say “It’s a matter of opinion whether the fall of Rome started a Dark Age, but it’s an objective fact that the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD.” But we just saw otherwise. Even a more careful statement like “the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD” is iffy; barbarians deposed Emperor-claimant Romulus Augustulus in that year, but an equally legitimate claimant, Julius Nepos, ruled some Roman territories until 480. The date of the Western Roman Empire’s fall implicitly depends on whether you support Augustulus’ or Nepos’ claim to the throne.
Maybe there’s still an objective fact like “Romulus Augustulus, who claimed to be Roman Emperor, was deposed in 476 AD”. I can’t think of anyone annoying enough to dispute that, or any non-ridiculous argument against. But post-modernists would draw the boundary of ‘objectivity’ at “how annoying and ridiculous it would be to argue” rather than as a fundamental feature of the world. This doesn’t deny objective reality as a generator for these kinds of statements. It just urges extreme wariness about claims that any particular human statement captures it perfectly.
In practice, practically all of us are postmodernists sometimes. Last week I asked about why New Atheism failed as a cultural movement. Some people blamed certain facts about New Atheists, like:
1. New Atheists are often annoying socially inept people
2. New Atheists often repeat stuff to people who already know it, the equivalent of telling everyone incessantly that the world is round
3. New Atheists had trouble with accusations of sexism, racism, and harassment.
But other people pointed out that these “facts” were negotiable. New Atheists are annoying and socially inept only if our type specimen is a teenager posting “CHECKMATE FUNDIES” on r/atheism, rather than the suave and charismatic Christopher Hitchens sorts. New Atheists often repeated stuff everyone already knew, but no more than global warming activists, Trump #Resistance members, and other groups who are still in good standing. New Atheists had trouble with accusations of sexism etc, but were they worse than others, or did the accusations just stick to them better?
These questions inspired a second range of explanations for New Atheism’s decline: it was no longer useful to people in power. For example, the Democratic coalition kept New Atheism around to embarrass GW Bush style fundamentalists on the opposite side. But by the late 2000s, the evangelical Christians were no longer such an important political force, and Muslims had become a key part of the Democrats’ strategy. New Atheism switched from being convenient to the Powers That Be on the left, to being inconvenient – so the Powers arranged to have it crushed.
(these aren’t literal Powers any more than there’s a Council Of Males taking actions enforcing the patriarchy; it’s just a shorthand for what happens when people organize to protect their own interests)
In these explanations, everything else is downstream of the Powers’ decision to crush New Atheism. New Atheism was inconvenient, therefore the Powers arranged for coverage to focus on its most annoying members. New Atheism was inconvenient, therefore the Powers arranged to have the sexism and harassment allegations against it stick.
If this sounds paranoid to you, keep in mind that something similar is a pretty standard explanation of why the Harvey Weinsten assault stories came out now rather than twenty years ago. Weinstein was a Power, or at least a friend of the Powers, so he was untouchable. Then he became weaker, and we learned he was terrible. There was an objective reality – he really did assault lots of people. But the way the rest of us understood it was filtered by his social position and by the media industry’s interests.
And if this still sounds paranoid to you, fine – lots of postmodernist theories sound pretty paranoid. The point is that this isn’t just about college professors who think history books were written by the patriarchy. It’s something everybody does on every point in the spectrum. Trump supporters who say the rest of us are deluded by the liberal media are making a postmodernist claim – this is why there are so many articles calling Trump our “first postmodern president“. I myself think like a post-modernist every time I see a new study come out saying that priming implicit-associated stereotype-threatened ego-depleting power poses has proven that plumbers are racist. I don’t react with “I guess that proves plumbers are racist”. I react with “Huh, apparently the Two Minutes Hate is being directed at plumbers today, I wonder why the Powers are angry at them.” The information content is boring; only the signals it carries about who’s in power and what they want are worth examining.
This way of thinking makes its way into all the other stuff we call “postmodernist” – postmodernist art, postmodernist literature, postmodernist architecture, etc. For example, postmodern literature sometimes uses unreliable narrators, transforming a text from an objective records (albeit of fictional events) into a heavily filtered account where we have to consider what our source is trying to make us believe. This is one of my favorite examples of a similar technique.
Optimistically, postmodernism isn’t necessarily opposed to rationality: rationality says to believe what is true, and it’s true that people are often trying to manipulate us. Hopelessly optimistically, both groups are engaged in the same project of overcoming bias, just taking different perspectives.
But pessimistically, there’s a risk that postmodernism collapses into people ignoring any facts they disagree with, arguing that facts are just mutable products of hostile power structures trying to perpetuate themselves. And by “pessimistically there’s a risk”, I mean “this has obviously been going on for decades”. Again, I’m not just complaining about lefty professors here. The guiding narrative of Breitbart – that Cultural Marxists have taken over society and are indoctrinating everyone with their own concepts and language in order to make it impossible to think outside their boxes – is postmodernist as hell.
This leads to the classic freshman-philosophy critique of postmodernism: “Postmodernism says nothing is objectively true and it’s all just opinion. But in that case, postmodernism isn’t objectively true and it’s just your opinion.” Make this a little more sophisticated, and we can get an at-least-sophomore-level critique: “Postmodernism says that facts have enough degrees of freedom that they often get reframed to support the powerful. But there are bucketloads of degrees of freedom in how to use and apply postmodernism; it’s inevitably going to itself be twisted to support the powerful.” Whether “the powerful” are cultural Marxists, or far-right media, or whatever, gets left as an exercise for the reader.
(cf. the Less Wrong Sequences, Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People)
I don’t know if the postmodernists have a good solution to this problem (I think I know what their bad solution is, but I’ll stay quiet lest I strawman a movement I’m not qualified to speak for). But the rationalist solution is some combination of The Fallacy of Gray and The Lens That Sees Its Flaws. Yes, everything potentially contains elements of subjectivity, but not everything contains exactly the same level of subjectivity; there’s still some real way in which Breitbart News is worse than BBC. And although our perceptual and cognitive apparatus is biased, it has some non-zero connection to objective reality that we can bootstrap from to reach reflective equilibrium.
I expect most postmodernists would consider this hopelessly naive. But I don’t know what the alternative is.