Saturday, April 23, 2016

Postmodernism vs. Empiricism

     Just a few years ago I was living under a rock and almost completely oblivious to a relatively recent intellectual movement called Postmodernism. A little over a year ago I somehow became aware that “postmodern” didn’t refer simply to the most recent events and trends of the modern world, but something else in particular. I asked a friend of mine who is an architect what postmodernism is, and he gave me his take on postmodern architecture; and shortly afterwards another fellow gave me a copy of Simulations by Jean Baudrillard (author of the book in which Neo stashed his bootlegged computer discs in The Matrix), which I read and found to be almost unintelligible in most parts. So even just a few months ago I was still of the impression that postmodernism was just some kind of intellectual esthetic fashion within Liberal Arts, an effete philosophical art form with some applications in architecture, art, and literature, but still quite on the fringe of mainstream culture, something for people who read Foucault, wear berets, and actually take abstract art seriously. 
     Then very recently, during my fascinated, occasionally horrified binge of studying recent developments in Western “progressive” liberalism, I learned that recent “third wave” feminism, along with the new liberalism in general, has adopted a fundamental postmodern tenet with regard to the culturally conditioned nature of truth, and thus of virtually everything else. Thus postmodernism is plunging right into the heart of Western society. And so I feel the urge to write about it.
     As far as I could tell from the dense, convoluted, self-indulgent, and almost unintelligible prose of Baudrillard’s book, he considered symbolism to have reached a point in Western civilization where it no longer represents anything but itself. Symbols are purely artificial, yet nevertheless have become the highest reality of our society. Postmodernism on the whole seems to endorse this view to some degree: truth is merely relative, and created by society; therefore, we create truth to suit ourselves, or rather to suit whatever cultural positions we consider to be proper, or expedient.
     As a Buddhist I can accept this to some degree. Buddhism teaches two truths, conventional and ultimate; and I consider any “truth” that can be put into words or otherwise symbolized to be merely conventional. The “reality” of the ordinary person is also merely conventional and not ultimate. Also, I consider it very possible that our beliefs radically condition the world as we see it, and may even alter the empirical world accordingly.
     My acceptance of this aspect of postmodern philosophy goes beyond the limitations of Theravada Buddhist philosophy, as I can accept it more than a devout Abhidhamma scholar possibly could. I can seriously entertain the idea that we create our own reality practically from scratch; so that an alien being radically different from us in its perception of reality might somehow be in the same room with us, yet it would not see us, nor we it. (This is getting into the realm of philosophical idealism, which admittedly has gone very much out of fashion in the West ever since scientific realism became almost a monoculture, metaphysically and ideologically.) I wouldn’t insist upon that point of view, but I do consider it to be a possibility.
     In such a state of things, it would be our similarity as people that allows us to interact in this world. Although we human beings have many differences, with each of us being unique, still the similarities far outweigh the differences, psychologically as well as physically. In other words, it is our shared human nature that allows us to agree on as much as we do, one with the other.
     The point at which I deviate from this relativistic attitude of postmodernism, and at which “hard” science in general also deviates from it, is where the postmoderns declare that this same human nature is itself purely a social construct. (I suspect that to some degree this belief of the postmoderns is derived from Karl Marx, as he also ignored natural human instincts, and as Baudrillard in his book seemed incapable of keeping Marxism distinct from metaphysical and epistemological issues. This tossing together salad-wise of philosophy and social theory seems to be a characteristic of much of European philosophy in the past century.)
     This is rather a tricky issue, since ultimately I consider objective truth to be an artificial construct; yet we really do appear to be born with innate human nature which restricts the range of what we are able to perceive or create without being insane to a clinically significant degree. In other words, we apparently have to have certain similarities even to be born into the same empirical universe. Objectively and empirically, if we look at the evidence scientifically, we see clearly enough that Marx was wrong, that most 20th-century psychologists were wrong, and that we humans are a species of animal as laden with animal instincts as any other mammal.
     A classic and very typical example of this was given by Charles Darwin in his monumental and ground-breaking The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, namely: When we are surprised, our eyebrows go up and our mouth drops open. Why? Is this simply a cultural construct that somehow has become universal in the human race, or could it be called an animal instinct in us humans? (It’s more than just a knee-jerk reflex, as emotion is the trigger of it, the emotion itself arguably being a kind of animal instinct.) Imagine that you are a stone age hunter-gatherer a hundred thousand years ago, you are walking alone down a forest path, and suddenly you hear a twig snap in the underbrush nearby. To react naturally with the aforementioned symptoms of surprise would have real survival value: the eyebrows go up to help you open your eyes more widely, thereby increasing your peripheral vision and allowing you to see danger more easily. And your mouth drops open to allow you to stop breathing through your nose and start breathing through your mouth, which in humans makes less noise and allows you to hear danger more easily. (Darwin points out that a panting dog who is suddenly surprised does the reverse: he stops panting and starts breathing through his nose, since in dogs that way makes less noise.)
     We humans, from a biological point of view, are laden with these kinds of instincts, generally speaking. There will be exceptions to the rule, but even so it is human nature for us to prefer sweet food to bitter; to prefer flowery smells before we reach puberty, to prefer musky smells when sexually mature, and to start preferring flowery smells again in old age; to dislike slimy substances or small multilegged creatures getting onto us; to shout or scream in alarm when something really bad or frightening suddenly happens; etc. I have even read that the human brain actually has a snake recognition center, thereby presenting a physiological basis for a common human fear (or at least wariness) of snakes. All of this had real survival value to our prehistoric ancestors, again going with a scientific perspective. To believe that a human mind is a blank tablet at birth, and that all our emotions and seemingly innate human tendencies are purely social constructs, betrays a profound ignorance of basic human nature.
     This is not to say that we are entirely driven by instinct, or that we cannot counteract some of our instinctive drives via cultural conditioning. We are no longer in the stone age, and the modification of some of our natural drives is quite necessary. But even some behaviors that may appear to be purely artificial have a basis in instinct. To give a nonhuman example, few people would deny that the domesticated cat has a hunting instinct. Kittens chasing and pouncing on balls or each other are clearly acting out this instinct. But still the hunting instinct may be reinforced, as when the mother cat teaches her kittens to kill, or suppressed, as when a kitten is punished for trying to catch the family gerbil, or by simply lacking opportunities to hunt. We human beings also are born with instincts which can be culturally reinforced, suppressed, or modified. Our language may appear to be a purely social artifact, yet we do have speech centers in the brain, and even the babbling of babies follows a kind of proto-grammar which, along with a human eagerness to learn and practice talking, instinctively ensures that almost all humans learn how to speak a language, though not any particular one. Instinctive human drives are well documented by countless reputable scientists, and should not be controversial except to those whose ideology compels them to reject this.
     Enter 21st-century Liberal Studies (including much of what now is called Cultural Anthropology), and third wave feminist Gender Studies in particular. For reasons of their own, the followers of these ideological fields of study have largely adopted the same postmodern, pseudoscientific idea of the blank tablet that helped Marxism to fail as a viable system in the 20th century—any system that ignores or denies fundamental human nature is bound to be a bad fit for humanity and unstable in the long run. (This is not to say that Marx himself was a postmodernist. He was simply an intellectual who was ignorant of human nature—including the power of innate greed to fuel an economy—and of cognitive science, which did not yet exist in his day. He was also under the spell of Hegel, who wrote masses of verbiage even more elaborately incomprehensible than Baudrillard ever did.) 
     The way in which so-called “third wave” feminism has adopted postmodernism, which apparently is in vogue in the humanities to a degree I had not suspected even a few months ago, is to adopt this artificiality of truth, and of human behavior, to declare that gender itself is purely culturally conditioned, that gender has zero basis in biological human nature.
     This idea or ideology, like the denial of instinctive human nature in general, is essentially pseudoscience, debunked over and over again by scientific studies, not to mention careful introspection. Way back in the 1980’s I read a book entitled The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, by Melvin Konner. He described a study by psychologists in which children were raised in a gender-neutral environment, with boys and girls being treated essentially the same since infancy. Even under such conditions, the researchers found that there were some clear differences between the boys and girls with regard to their behavior: girls still much preferred playing with dolls, and boys were much more likely to prefer rough play and machinelike playthings such as toy trucks. 
     Similar studies have been conducted in the 21st century, especially with infants too young to have been culturally conditioned. Baby girls, even if they are too young to play with them, show significantly more interest in doll-like objects, while baby boys show more interest in objects like toy trucks. Interestingly, this kind of study has been conducted with chimpanzees and at least two species of monkey, and the results are similar: girl chimps and monkeys prefer dolls and faces, and boy chimps and monkeys prefer mechanical objects. (This is not a scientific paper, so I’m not bothering to include bibliographical references; although you can pick up some details on the toy preference experiments in publications by Gad Saad.) These differences are attributed mainly to prenatal testosterone levels, and their effects on the human brain.
     It should not be too difficult to see how a liking for dolls could be more or less instinctive in females: It is a manifestation of a mothering instinct and a fascination for nurturing babies. It is quite natural for women to be more interested in babies than men are, especially considering that for most of the existence of the human race, up until the last century, raising children was one of a woman’s primary responsibilities in almost every culture.
     The liking of machine-like objects in young boys is maybe less obvious, but for that very reason more interesting to me. Based upon my many observations of the human race, it seems fairly obvious to me that men tend to be more objective, and women more subjective, speaking generally, in terms of average trends. Men are more interested in manipulating objects, like figuring out how to make better hunting weapons, while women seem more interested in interpersonal relations. Thus it is no surprise that men tend to be more interested in fixing machines, and women are often much better at public relations and learning new languages. A woman may make a better family physician due to a natural tendency toward compassion and a better bedside manner; yet men tend to make better surgeons, since a surgeon’s job is to treat a human body like an object, like a machine to be fixed. I would guess that most surgeons are men, even in societies in which most family doctors are women.
     But this is all politically incorrect of course, because it goes against the preferred ideology. Even plain facts are suppressed in the West nowadays as a result of what is called “cultural Marxism”: sacrificing empiricism and even sometimes reason itself at the altar of postmodern ideology. This is what happened in the glory days of political Marxism also; for example Lysenko’s theories of heredity were endorsed in the USSR for years, despite their conflict with internationally accepted empirical science, because they were somehow more in harmony with Marxist ideology—which eventually turned into an embarrassing fiasco, effectively sabotaging Soviet agriculture, since denying facts for the sake of political correctness is to deny empirical reality, which eventually leads to trouble.
     Nowadays it is politically correct to speak of sexist discrimination when trying to account for the fact that there are many more men than women in hard science and technology fields. Even when affirmative action is applied and women have the social advantage in getting an engineering job, still there are many more men. The feminist ideology blames an oppressive patriarchy for this, but a major reason is simply that men are more interested in such technical fields, being naturally more object-oriented. (This is also one reason for the notorious “pay gap”: highly technical and object-oriented jobs such as metallurgical engineering, along with dangerous jobs such as crab fishing in the Bering Sea, are simply less attractive to women despite the fact that they pay well—not so much because women are ostracized, but more because most of them just don’t want to do it, in accordance with innate feminine human nature.)
     Setting aside engineering, let’s look at a field that I have never heard a feminist complaining about: auto mechanics. Very few people would deny that fixing cars is almost entirely monopolized by men. I do not remember ever seeing a female professional auto mechanic. Why is this? Two obvious answers come to mind.
     1. There is a patriarchal conspiracy to prevent women from making a living by fixing cars. 
     2. Women in general simply are not interested in making a living by fixing cars, or by fixing machines in general.
     One can say that if men and women were truly treated equally, with totally free choice for everyone, there would be as many female mechanics as male ones, but I consider that to be extremely unlikely. Research has even indicated that in the most liberal societies, such as that of (rapidly disintegrating) Sweden, women deviate more from men in their life choices than women do in more traditional societies. So a woman may be even less likely to work at a traditionally male occupation in Sweden than she would in, say, Guatemala. Although I would guess that there are extremely few female auto mechanics in either country.
     What we’ve got going now in Western countries—especially among the political left, although it is becoming pervasive—is a case of cultural Lysenkoism, a rejection of empirical fact, along with natural human nature, in favor of an approved ideology, followed partly out of conformist herd instinct and a fear of being publicly attacked as a sexist, or racist, or whatever, and partly out of subjective emotionality. If disliked truths simply cannot be denied, a newly devised defense against them is to label them “hate facts.” It is largely the aforementioned feminine tendency for relative non-objectivity which is conditioning this trend. The situation is currently out of balance, in addition to being at odds with objectivity; and if this imbalance is not to result eventually in some kind of societal collapse, a more harmonious balance of masculine and feminine forces will probably be required.
     Of course this essay is totally politically incorrect, and so I may as well conclude by gratuitously making it even worse. Based upon an interest in philosophy and an observation of who the greatest and worst philosophers have been, in my opinion, I arrived long ago at the hypothesis that women, artists, and French people should stay away from philosophy, as they rarely make a decent showing of it. My guess is that for whatever reasons they tend to be too subjective and “touchy-feely” to come up with philosophical theories that hold water. I like Voltaire, who was an artist as well as a Frenchman, although his greatest philosophy consisted of little more than mocking the stupidity of the human race. This is not to say that I’m against women, artists, or French people. I like women, I like art, and most of the few French people I have known have been very likable people. I’m just unimpressed with their attempts at philosophy, with extremely few exceptions.
     The reason I bring this up is because I wish to point out that the philosophy of Postmodernism appears to be predominantly a French invention. So it goes. And finally, at the risk of tiresomely repeating myself over and over again like a mantra, Fuck Political Correctness.



  1. You have to ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste.
    - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    1. You may have to ask them, but I doubt that you will receive a very explanatory answer from them. Especially from the birds. On the other hand, if you want hard facts about the biology of cherries and strawberries you may have to ask a scientist.

  2. I'm pretty sure Johann was speaking metaphorically.

  3. "But it seems like there ought to be clearly distinguishable words and concepts for klansmen and demagogues who deliberately stoke racial anxieties, on the one hand, and college students who take a test that suggests that they have mild, negative associations about a racial group, without harboring any animosity toward people in that group, acting badly toward any members of that group, or advocating for anything but full equality on the other. Those college students may be labeled “prejudiced” or “racist,” but few people will be inclined to exclude them from their homes or their workplaces."

    It seems like political correctness has done a great thing in making 'klansmen and demagogues' unacceptable in modern societies. On the other hand, it has encouraged an unhealthy 'victim culture'. Are these two sides of the same coin? Is it worth it to have to put up with whiny college students in exchange for not having to live with blatant racists? I would say 'yes, for now'. I hope we are on a path of maturation that has started to leave racism/sexism behind and the PC problem only represents some some growing pains.

    1. In a truly free society, even "blatant racists" would be allowed to express their opinions, so long as they are not slandering anyone, depriving others of their rights, or inciting crimes. As it is now, blatant racists and sexists who say things like "kill all white men" are considered much more acceptable than, say, people labeled as transphobic. I consider the PC situation to be a regression back toward irrational, puritanical religious dogmatism, although with a different (and worse) set of values than Christianity had as a unifying social ideology. Social Justice, so called, has become a kind of cult, with hysterical hatred of "racists," for example, in the name of non-hatred. I consider freedom to be essential, even if it entails a considerable amount of chaos and insecurity, and I consider PC to be a monstrous betrayal of values that caused western civilization to thrive in the first place. But that's just my opinion.

  4. Hi Banter, after reading your article, i am going to buy this book "the tangled wings" by konner to read and compare it with Buddhism view on human nature. Is there any other good books u will recommend? Like a top 5 list from you?

    1. The Tangled Wing may be a bit dated as a science text, as it was written back in the 1970s or 80s. So there is probably a lot of more recent research that may be more advanced; but I'm not sure what book it would be in. You might try to research some of Gad Saad's articles or YouTube videos for more info. But if you don't mind old science, then Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is still classic and well worth reading. It's public domain now, too, so it can probably be downloaded for free from the Internet. Another very old book, but a classic and well worth reading, is David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in which he points out how irrational and driven by animal instinct we are.

      Oh, another one I just thought of which is oldish but very informative is Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, by Carl Sagan and his wife whose name I don't remember. Some parts of it are deliciously politically incorrect.

  5. Thank you bhante for your recommendations. I feel newest may not always be the most brilliant. In fact I feel human mind in general as a whole has degraded with time. Some classic or ancient writing are timeless.