Postmodern attack on Science

Vincent Kundukulam

One of the striking features of postmodern thought is to attack the objective claims of science. The scientists generally think of themselves as contributing to the construction of meaningful narratives regarding the realities in the world. Not merely the scientists themselves, the common people also consider the scientists as those who really know how the things are. The general belief is that the knowledge of the scientists about the casual laws help the world to yield inventions that make a difference. The standards of the evidence and verification which control the conceptual frameworks are formed by science.

But this general understanding is called into question by the postmodern philosophers. According to the latter the findings of scientists are relative and they cannot be given any privilege of perennial truths. To them the scientists produce only one story among many others. The pretentions of scientists are unjustified. Their theories and innovations could be opened to all sorts of criticisms. Their theories are shaped by the ideological agendas of the powerful elites. For instance, those who worked on the atom bomb were aware of the eventual use of it for economic and political interests of the powerful nations.

The criticisms raised by the postmodernists against science are not welcomed by the scientists. They point out that the postmodern thinkers fail to understand the claims of empirical science because they don’t know how the key theoretical frameworks in science function. These philosophers are interested in the sociological and political aspects of science but they don’t enter into constructive dialogue with the scientists and verify the empirical claims they make.

Having said this, one does not demean the contributions they make by opposing the narratives claiming the holistic truths. The postmodern critics were very much liberating for the subaltern groups like women, cultural minorities and the marginalized sections of people. This is possible because the postmodern assumptions can be successfully applied to the ethical and social fields where the law-makers and law-executors often use power for their vested interests.

The postmodern analysts observe that all the discourses that are systematically cooked by the authorities have a power-enforcing function within their social groups. The discourses are constructed on the basis of mutually supporting statements which help us to describe a subject matter. Such types of discourses are very common in the disciplines of law, medicine, and aesthetic judgment. For example, the language games of the surgeon in the hospital, of the professor in the class and of the judge in the law-court are normative in their respective fields. Their discourses express political authority and discrete petit interests of those in power.

In his works on law, penology and medicine Michel Foucault has written at length about how the powerful discourses within such disciplines control people. To him, what we call the disciplinary fields such as hospitals, prisons, schools and army impose interests of its users. Foucault studied them from the victim’s position and found that the will to exercise power beats the humanitarian egalitarianism every time and everywhere. The reliance upon universal principle and reason conceal totalitarian tendencies because reason makes what it considers marginal as non-rational.

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