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Deconstructing the Cheshire Cat

[Religion News Service, November 12, 1996] 

Well, here we are. Or are we?

It’s an open question among some academic sophisticates. Does anything exist? If it did, how would you know? Is there any feasible way to prove it? Or is everything we perceive (if indeed there’s anything there at all) so colored by preconceptions that nothing can be definitively stated?

Is what we call "reality" merely constructed of our prejudices and whims ‑‑ or worse, constructed of our desire to gather power and subjugate others? Can one really state that "physical reality … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct"?

That’s what Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, asserted not long ago in the pages of the journal, Social Text. Unfortunately for the editors of Social Text, Sokal was only kidding. His article, bearing the five‑dollar title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," is an elaborate hoax.

Sokal and many other scientists are annoyed with moony academic notions that reality is slippery or unknowable. It’s the kind of sappy, self‑satisfied nonsense that would annoy anyone, but for those in the more rigorous disciplines of science it’s even more problematic.

Hard science, as you would no doubt guess, depends on reality staying put, right where it is. Today’s measurements must reliably compare with yesterday’s and tomorrow’s. An assertion that reality is itself a mere whimsy makes science impossible and absurd.

This battle between philosophical deconstructionists and hard scientists has been sawing back and forth for some time now. One particularly nettling point has been the development of a new postmodernist academic discipline called "science studies." Science studies puts the scientist himself under the microscope, seeking to analyze his prejudices and politics. On one hand, the science community does exist and may be studied as fairly as any other. On the other hand, being the subject of such study does feel dismissive and patronizing. Particularly if the non‑scientists studying you believe your work to be only as valid as any other magical‑emotional belief system.

In his parody, Sokal pretends to agree with the deconstructionists in criticizing old‑fashioned views like these: "that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws and that human beings can obtain reliable … knowledge of these laws by hewing to the objective procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so‑called) scientific method."

On the contrary, Sokal writes (with tongue in cheek), "scientific knowledge, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it."

So the Sokal hoax is a great coup for the proponents of reality, and the editors of Social Text aquitted themselves clumsily by claiming with huffy dignity that although the piece is a parody, they still found it worth studying.

Sokal’s own assessment: "My article is a melange of truths, half‑truths, quarter‑truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever. (Sadly, there are only a handful of the latter; I tried hard to produce them, but found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn’t have the knack.)"

A couple of weeks ago, New York University brought together Sokal and Andrew Ross, Social Text’s editor, to discuss (according to the moderator) whether "there are any intellectual standards in this corner of the left."

The New Yorker magazine described the event, and the participants: Sokal "a boyish, bespectacled man, with a physicist’s haircut and a mischievous look in his eye," and Ross "a brooding Scotsman, with matinee‑idol features and a certain dark charm." Sokal gave an example of muddy thinking that he found self‑ evidently absurd. An archaeologist had observed that scientists believe Native Americans came to this continent across the Bering Strait, while some Native Americans believe their ancestors arose from an underground spirit world. The archaeologist had gone on to say that these beliefs are not incompatible. Sokal disagreed: The statements plainly were incompatible, and he asked the audience which one was true.

But instead of answering his question, the audience had a question for him. "On whose authority should we be forced to answer your question?" one member asked. And another: "Should the question be answered?" Andrew Ross inquired, "Why would you choose a question that would put on trial Native Americans?"

Sokal, a scientist, believes that questions are for answers. The deconstructionists observing him believed that questions beg more questions, enabling a never‑ending prowl for hidden motives and furtive prejudices.

Once unexpectedly thrust under the microscope, Sokal went from puzzled to exasperated, the New Yorker tells us. Then "if you looked very closely you could see that the little look of mischief in his eye had vanished."

The departure of reason from scholarly discourse signals the departure of reality. When tossed into deconstructionist quicksand, scientific wiseacres begin to disappear, like a Cheshire Cat in reverse gear.

The first thing to go is their mischief.

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