The Sokal Hoax Fifteen Years Later: A Philosophical Reading of the Controversy

In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated a hoax on the academic journal Social Text intended to text the intellectual rigor of postmodernist thinking. Jonathan Reynolds reassesses the affair

Mixing metaphors, celebrating the 15-year anniversary of what still must be considered a total slam dunk in what was called the “science wars” or the “culture wars” – framed as for or against Truth and Objective Reality – it is worth remembering the publication in 1996 in the spring/summer issue of Social Text, a leading scholarly review of postmodern thought, of a completely over-the-top parodic article called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The article, a savage satire concocted by Alan Sokal, a physicist, and planted like a Trojan Horse in the camp of the enemy, brought to a head a couple of decades of a simmering dispute between presumably some of our best thinkers – certainly those, at the time, with the greatest professional repute and renown on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sokal’s scathing parody paid no attention to the rules of discourse in the academic world. The larger purpose – as he put it, to “counter epistemic relativism” – to him, warranted breaking the rules. Relativism is a a simple and basic issue in epistemology, which asks, how do we know we know the universe or objective reality? What pricked the tender skins of the postmodernists Sokal was attacking was the unbridled vehemence of his outrage – so, defensively, they were outraged, in turn. But to Sokal, the stakes were the highest. To him, PM was threatening not only the standards of determining objective knowledge but the scientific enterprise, itself – the triumph of Western Man since the Enlightenment of reason and what became the scientific method.

Because epistemological uncertainty vs epistemological certitude is central to the underlying questions in the dispute, in this article I want to correct misconceptions about this long-standing conundrum. As Sartre wrote early in Being and Nothingness, and as Nietzsche and other 19th-century European philosophers demonstrated some hundred years earlier – contrary to much postmodern thinking and propositions, and still unreferenced or acknowledged by many professional intellectuals in America – continental philosophy (1, see footnotes below) solved the division between subject and object. This development did not imply a relativist conclusion that we cannot know reality or even that no single external reality exists. What one must understand is that mainstream continental philosophy – as opposed to its derivatives in postmodernism – emphasized epistemological certitude as opposed to what hard science, as a matter of faith, posits as a, or the, single reality heuristically in order to conduct its researches. To give readers a clue as to how this has been accomplished, the term continental philosophers have used for the totality of reality, being, contrasts with the language of hard science of an “external reality independent of the observer”, in other words, a total reality – the single reality. That Sokal and other physicists employ the term, “external reality”, the adjective “external” gives away the assumption by the hard sciences that the “subject” and “subjective” phenomena, or impressions or beliefs, as contaminants need to be removed from the process of knowing and revealing reality. It’s important to grasp that just as there is no evidence God exists, there is no final evidence or proof a single reality exists. The essential thing to grasp is that for mainstream continental philosophy reality is particular. That it is particular means that it is accessed “by degree” and ultimate or complete revelation of total reality can never be gained, even though for temporal epochs a revelation or group of revelations overcomes most doubt or uncertainty. With consideration of particularity we enter the existential realm, because the particular is an infinite, just as, as Sartre says, consciousness is “infinite interiority”.

The Bones of the Affair

By the 1990s PM critical theory had reached full bloom before being clipped back neatly by the spoof article. Implicitly or explicitly denying the existence of a single knowable reality, whether the postmodernists Sokal attacked truly were the relativists he and other physicists charged or were not, the implication was that greatly in-fashion, indeed, almost deified, PM thinkers were bloviators of nonsense, masquerading as legitimate critics of hard science. Turning PM jargon against itself, the parody – knee-slappingly, breathlessly funny to many academics at the time – displayed a close study of its writing and writers.

“It has… become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ‘knowledge,’ far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz’s analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics in Ross’ discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science; in Irigaray’s and Hayles’ exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics; and in Harding’s comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular”.

Say what?

A few weeks later Sokal published in the journal Lingua Franca the revelation that the paper in Social Text was an intentional spoof. His twofold goals, he claimed, were not grandiose but, instead, quite simple: ridiculing would-be science writing and “gross abuses of scientific concepts by certain French [and British and American] philosophical literary intellectuals”. But his charge of “epistemic relativism” against postmodernists, characterizing them as asserting there is no objective, external reality, was big-time and drew much blood.

Defensive reaction was harsh and immediate. A front page article in The New York Times quoted some of Sokal’s outraged targets: “‘He says we’re epistemic relativists,’ complained Stanley Aronowitz, the co-founder and a professor at CUNY. ‘We’re not. He got it wrong. One of the reasons he got it wrong is he’s ill-read and half- educated’”.

One is tempted to compare Sokal’s spoof to the culmination of Sherman’s March, the burning of Atlanta. Contrary to Aronowitz’s charge of being poorly educated, Sokal has degrees from Princeton (B.A. summa cum laude, M.A.) and Harvard (Ph.D.). Sokal now holds joint appointments as a professor of physics at New York University and University College London; his info web page lists his expertise or physics specialist foci as “statistical mechanics; quantum field theory; mathematical physics; and computational physics”.

Postmodernism, critical theory, and relativism from “deconstruction” had led to the “unpacking” of every manifestation or claim, via “hermeneutics”, in order to strip away all hidden presuppositions to reach a pure core of meaning. Michel Foucault referred to an “archaeology” of knowledge. Ultimately, this led to all statements as “texts” whose meaning could vary or be read differently depending on the reader. Relativism was promoted via the postmodernists and their assertions and conclusions about the ability of human knowledge, even formal hard scientific inquiry, to describe and know the universe and reality and objective truth. Generals of the army of the opposition included Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Deleuze, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Aronowitz, among others. (2)

The American Civil War presents a tempting analogy (Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, used it, too in a commentary), albeit completely unfair in its implications about these folks just listed and sure to produce angry objections. The conflict was bloody between the “Union”, in this case, mainly hard scientific proponents of a full or complete understanding of the universe and reality, and a “Confederacy”of dissenters, the relativists – those who emphasized the social construction of all knowledge. Specifically, Sokal aimed his guns, first, at the editors of Social Text, and mentioning as some of the principal offenders Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, Baudrillard, and Aronowitz.

As a social scientist and self-taught reflexive or critical philosopher, but also as an anthropologist who feels his feet are planted firmly in the real world, my own reaction was to laugh out loud and to yell, “Right on!” to Sokal for a great accomplishment in the science wars – science vs “cultural studies”. Nevertheless, I felt some uneasiness that Sokal oversimplified the issues and omitted essential relevant considerations from long-standing discourses in pure philosophy.

The present essay dives into the implied philosophical thinking underlying the controversy. It presumes the reader is at least somewhat familiar with continental philosophy – the principal foundation claimed by PM thinkers for their assertions, even as the derivatives to it in postmodernism may have gone awry from its mainstream currents.

With this in mind, a reexamination of the controversy Sokal’s spoof generated 15 years later is worthwhile because it opened up rich and valid areas for thought, with still debated conundra that go back to Descartes and Kant. As the shouting has died down to murmurs or silence (one can now assert that throughout much of academia postmodernism has been abandoned (3)), the antagonists presumably still hold largely to their views, leaving important issues floating aimlessly at sea.

For those who knew little or nothing about the controversy, I suggest here some purely philosophical thoughts to help close out an angry truce-by-frustration that has existed since the arguments exploded into the intellectual stratosphere 15 years ago. (4) Hopefully the present effort will be a real addition to the important issues raised by Sokal and his antagonists. It is worth pointing out that, despite declaring more than ten years later a regret that the controversy consumed three years of his life, Sokal has continued to follow up with the affair, publishing in 2008, for example, an entire book recapping the arguments. What has, as I say, entirely been omitted from the argument are the insights of continental philosophy – the tradition beginning with Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, and continuing through Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, and, in the last century, Husserl, Sartre, and Heidegger. The intended coda by Sokal in 2008 still does not take into consideration the continental philosophical underpinnings of what became postmodernism and which continue to have relevance to the issues raised, whether you or I define those issues as a sharp and necessary reaction to “an assault on reason and science” (ibid.) or as a simplification, and misunderstanding, of the still undetermined and ultimately undeterminable degree that data are constructed by us, and of what is meant, in a pure epistemological sense, roughly by the “social construction of knowledge”.

Extrapolating from the ruckus, though not articulated as such, I will assert that the battle had legitimate motivations as it was fought over dichotomies between two universes, the universe and the human universe – between two ways of approaching or accessing reality and objective truth, each of which, in its best form, are necessary parts of science and human understanding of reality and the universe, and necessarily, from the dialectic in the knowledge enterprise between observer and observed, or, theory and data. The fundamental difference between the two approaches is that science seeks continually to remove “observer bias” from its calculations, while philosophy, specifically continental philosophy, not only accepts the observer but requires as necessary and fundamental in the knowledge enterprise study of human consciousness, the medium and constructor to whatever degree of both what is observed and of “what is”, or being.

In addition to an “external world” vs being, and exclusion vs inclusion of the observer in constructions of reality, other dichotomies – actually polar or requiring each other in a dialectic – are key to proper explication: “partial” reality as opposed to absolute reality, specific or particular vs abstract, empirical vs “lived experience”, “fact” and “meaning”, and “how” – asked by science – or “why” – asked by philosophy. “History” and “process”, and “material” and “ideal”, are other, more general dichotomies in the social sciences. A tip here: we enter the existential realm of thinking when we speak of these dichotomies; specific or particular vs abstract, for example, because it is only because of the one-way arrow of time (5) and therefore (our) finitude that, each of us representing an individual organism, we are mortal and die.

The Reaction

Immediately after Sokal’s paper in Social Text and his simultaneous revelations in Lingua Franca that the paper was a parody meant to discredit PM thinkers, on its front page The New York Times characterized the hoax as “one more skirmish in the culture wars, the battles over multiculturalism and college curriculums and whether there is a single objective truth or just many differing points of view” (May 18). Along with the weighty Times acknowledgment, Sokal’s spoof was heatedly discussed in a bevy of academic journals that entertained postmodern views.

For some days and weeks thereafter, a flurry of letters appeared in The Times, praising the hoax and denouncing it. Without elaboration, on May 23, Bruce Robins and Andrew Ross, editors of Social Text, published a brief letter in The Times, denying that they “were championing a disbelief in the existence of the physical universe”. (6)

More reasoned but no less outraged on May 21, 1996, in a guest column in The Times entitled ‘Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke’, Stanley Fish, the prominent “literary theorist and legal scholar”, (7) pointed out an obvious nuance – one that Sokal may well have been aware of – but was harsh on Sokal.

“What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed – fashioned by human beings – which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing… [F]raud is said to go ‘beyond error to erode the foundation of trust on which science is built.’ That is Professor Sokal’s legacy, one likely to be longer lasting than the brief fame he now enjoys for having successfully pretended to be himself”.

Then, in a piece published in The New York Review of Books a few days later, Nobel Prize-winner Steven Weinberg weighed in with a fellow physicist’s eminently reasonably toned characterization of the affair and in some detail critiqued Sokal’s article and responded to the other side’s outraged objections and complaints. Weinberg is worth quoting at length.

Categorizing “Sokal’s hoax [as joining] the small company of legendary academic hoaxes, along with the pseudo-fossils of Piltdown man planted by Charles Dawson and the pseudo-Celtic epic Ossian written by James Macpherson…” However, he added: “[t]he difference is that Sokal’s hoax served a public purpose, to attract attention to what Sokal saw as a decline of standards of rigor in the academic community, and for that reason it was unmasked immediately by the author himself”. He commented further that: “[w]here the article does degenerate into babble, it is not in what Sokal himself has written, but in the writings of the genuine postmodern cultural critics quoted by Sokal. Here, for instance, is a quote that Sokal takes from the oracle of deconstructionism, Jacques Derrida: ‘The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a center starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game.’ I have no idea what this is intended to mean”.

Taking into consideration a bit more kindly than Sokal the other side’s arguments, he added:

“[S]cientists like Sokal find themselves in opposition to many sociologists, historians, and philosophers as well as postmodern literati. In this debate, the two sides often seem to be talking past each other. For instance, the sociologists and historians sometimes write as if scientists had not learned anything about the scientific method since the days of Francis Bacon, while of course we know very well how complicated the relation is between theory and experiment, and how much the enterprise of science depends on an appropriate social and economic setting. On the other hand, scientists sometimes accuse others of taking a completely relativist view, of not believing in objective reality. With dead seriousness, Sokal’s hoax cites ‘revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science’ as casting doubt on the post-Enlightenment dogma that ‘there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole.’”

While he found fault with Sokal – “[t]he trouble with this satire is that most of Sokal’s targets deny that they have any doubt about the existence of an external world” – elsewhere Weinberg took note of some big names on the relativist side: “[t]he objective nature of scientific knowledge has been denied by Andrew Ross and Bruno Latour and (as I understand them) by the influential philosophers Richard Rorty and the late Thomas Kuhn, but it is taken for granted by most natural scientists” (my emphasis).

Naming more names, he further added:

“I criticized the feminist philosopher of science, Sandra Harding (one of the contributors to Social Text), for taking a relativist position that denied the objective character of physical law. In evidence I quoted her as calling modern science (and especially physics) ‘not only sexist but also racist, classist, and culturally coercive,’ and arguing that ‘physics and chemistry, mathematics and logic, bear the fingerprints of their distinctive cultural creators no less than do anthropology and history.’ It seemed to me that this statement could make sense only to a relativist; what is the good of wishing that the conclusions of scientific work were friendlier to multicultural or feminist concerns if these conclusions are to be an accurate account of objective reality? I sent a copy of this part of my draft to Harding, who pointed out to me various places in her writing where she had explicitly denied taking a relativist position. I took the easy way out; I dropped the accusation of relativism, and left it to the reader to judge the implications of her remarks”.

Like Fish, relying on negative evidence, that is, what Sokal had not said but could have or would have or might have said, but very much to the point of what I will discuss here, Weinberg commented about the limits of scientific theory:

“There is another complication here, that none of the laws of physics known today (with the possible exception of the general principles of quantum mechanics) are exactly and universally valid. Nevertheless, many of them have settled down to a final form, valid in certain known circumstances. The equations of electricity and magnetism that are today known as Maxwell’s equations are not the equations originally written down by Maxwell; they are equations that physicists settled on after decades of subsequent work by other physicists… They are understood today to be an approximation that is valid in a limited context (that of weak slowly-varying electric and magnetic fields), but in this form and in this limited context they have survived for a century and may be expected to survive indefinitely. This is the sort of law of physics that I think corresponds to something as real as anything else we know. This appears to be a point where scientists like Sokal and myself are in clear disagreement with some of those that Sokal satirizes”.

Sokal continued the argument with mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg, who reacted to Weinberg’s article in an online piece (last updated 2004), claiming to refute many of Sokal’s and Weinberg’s assertions. I am in agreement with Stoltzenberg on one issue, “positivist” physicists, in general, may not fully understand some fundamental insights of modern continental philosophy – for example, as I discuss below, the concept and ramifications of the “hermeneutic”. However, in a direct exchange in 2003 between, on the one hand, Sokal and his colleague and coauthor for a volume published after the hoax article, Jean Bricmont, and Stolzenberg, on the other, in the journal Social Studies of Science, the issue for the latter boiled down to a “strong program” of deconstructionist validation of scientific theory that included consideration of social and historical context. Sokal and Bricmont dismissed this as “tendentious” and misleading and, ultimately, no different in substance from the counter-criticisms of Sokal.

Error by Omission: Continental Philosophy

The purpose of this article is not painstakingly to review the history of the hoax-by-parody and its aftermath, nor is it necessarily to revisit the personalities and particular motivations behind the claims and counter-claims. It is, again, simply to suggest what I believe most importantly has been missing from the debate. We get a clue to this from Weinberg. In addition to the different terms employed by the opposing sides, “external reality”, and “being”, tellingly about a fundamental inability to understand as having any validity the entire concept of the critical or the reflexive, Weinberg referred to the “hermeneutic” as a stick-in-the-craw word:

“I thought at first that Sokal’s article in Social Text was intended to be an imitation of academic babble, which any editor should have recognized as such. But in reading the article I found that this is not the case. The article expresses views that I find surreal, but with a few exceptions Sokal at least makes it pretty clear what these views are. The article’s title ‘Transgressing the Boundaries – Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, is more obscure than almost anything in his text. (A physicist friend of mine once said that in facing death, he drew some consolation from the reflection that he would never again have to look up the word ‘hermeneutic’ in the dictionary)…”

As a self-taught reflexively-oriented philosopher, frankly, I don’t know why scientists hate the word, “hermeneutic”. But because they do, and admit poor or no understanding of it, it’s not surprising continental philosophy has been ignored. Consider points as follows:

  1. The word means, fundamentally, “interpretation”.
  2. Accordingly, “interpretation” means, and in agreement with Fish, that there is a subject – you or I or Alan Sokal or Steven Weinberg, or any so-called conscious entity – who understands or seeks to understand things, and this subject inevitably and necessarily comes between the objective reality of the universe such that you or I or Alan Sokal or Steven Weinberg formulating a description, or characterization, or law, uses your or my or their language – or mathematical symbols – to construct and represent that formulation – and, obviously, the representation is different from the thing represented. We, the subjects, also come between full discovery and understanding, “full” such that if we have made ideally an absolute replica or simulacrum of the original, any such formulation would have to include the observer; the reflexive stance becomes clear also, here, since, as hard science always seeks to remove the “observer bias”, this removal would have to study exactly what the contribution the observer makes to the reconstruction. A key distinction here is between what Sokal refers to as “correspondence with reality” and complete or exact correspondence with reality; more on this key point below. However, for the moment, even without exploring the implications of whether incrementally more accurate descriptions in scientific laws justify being called “laws”, we cannot say that gradual accumulation of knowledge does bring us, theoretically, ever closer to the totality of reality. “Positivism” (discussed in the sidebar article) denies that the observer gets in the way and presumes that reality is transparently available. A good example of how the social context plays a role in the construction of knowledge – or at least of theory – positivism arose at the apex of the industrial revolution. In effect positivism, as a paradigm, declared that we as the subject do nothing to the reality that we observe – we do not construct our ideas about it, it simply appears to us, and the social and historical context plays no part in that construction.
  3. As Kant suggested – though he didn’t use the term – all that “hermeneutic” means is that there is a difference between noumena and phenomena; later philosophers, including Wittgenstein, corrected this dichotomy as not logical because we cannot know noumena and “[w]hat we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”, as he wrote at the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). (8)
  4. What Wittgenstein’s contemporary, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and completely opposed in his thinking to Wittgenstein and Wittgenstein’s school of thought, the “logical positivists”, meant when he spoke of intentionality – a key point in continental philosophy – is that consciousness is always consciousness-of-something or “intentional”. Husserl wrote of the “construction of evidence” but also of “radical empiricism”. Following up on this, Sartre distinguished between thetic and non-thetic consciousness, corresponding, for the latter, to the kind of non self-aware consciousness we are enveloped by or fully immersed in; in non-thetic consciousness we are simply taking in what appears to us without reflecting on it as a self-conscious observer. This is often referred to also as “lived experience” or the “lifeworld”, and might be described, roughly, as “emergences” – a perceived but real union between subject and reality, relative only because of the arrow of time. By “union” I mean that an exact simulacrum can be constructed of the real thing; this is so because of the particularity of reality (see below). This is the active, creative consciousness that continental philosophy came to study explicitly by Husserl and which Heidegger looked at with respect to the original creative intersections of human consciousness in time and the world.

In broader answer to Weinberg, his admission as a physicist that all scientific laws are only true and valid in limited circumstances must mean that these laws are not true. “Partially true” is a contradiction in terms – a woman can’t be half-pregnant. On the other hand, Sokal’s insistence on the existence of an external world that exists independent of us; this insistence requires the assumption of a totality, an absolute reality, one reality. Weinberg’s admission, on the one hand, that physical laws are never absolutely precise (though he posits “quantum mechanics” as conceivably absolutely precise), in other words, are partial descriptions of reality, and Sokal’s (and, I am sure, Weinberg’s and most physicists’) assumptions, on the other, about the existence of one (external or objective) reality, reveal or highlight the crux of the matter and how we might get past the disagreements.

I say this even as I understand and find reasonable the way Weinberg speaks about this, and which implies a stability or homeostasis for a period of time, during which the law seems closely or to whatever degree to describe phenomena. But with Weinberg’s disagreement with Kuhn, a subtle point implied here is that “partial” or “temporary truth” that has sudden loss of validity seems to support Kuhn’s conception of paradigms of scientific theory and, therefore, “truths” that have a limited shelf- life.

Furthermore, and in the interest of “common sense”, with regard to Weinberg’s dismissal of Kuhn, I would only tweak Weinberg in the sense that science must consider itself to be an accumulative enterprise in order for the true discovery of the universe to continue, processed by testing to see if a theory is false, per Popper, collecting data to support a proposed theory, and then testing that theory by the same or other data. However, accumulation of knowledge has limits. Apart from terminological considerations, in one more broadly conceptual connection between positivist hard science and continental philosophy, that limits exist is acknowledged by French existentialist, Sartre, when he speaks of the “infinite interiority” of consciousness. (9) This is because, existentially – because of time and finitude – consciousness always overcomes its object.

A related question: doesn’t the correspondence of any scientific law with reality only have meaning when the human subject is included in the consideration and understands the data and how they can be described in that law? In other words, can there be truth without understanding? It seems terminology is in play here, “truth” vs “reality”, the former needing to be confirmed, the latter not. For how can we know things without the dialectic or “lived” interaction with the real, eternal reality? To “understand” – as opposed to believing one understands – means at least a rough union between subject/observer and object/the observed/the universe or reality; full “union”, however, comes only at the putative end of a dialectical process, and can never completely be achieved. This is why scientists such as Weinberg admit to the limitations of scientific laws as operating only within certain parameters.

Yet another nuance I suggest here as comment on Weinberg is that the dichotomy between the particular vs the abstract is relevant to the discussion of partial truth vs truth: all laws of science, all representations that by their nature are limited by the language or the mathematical symbols employed in the representation cannot include or make reference to all of the specifics or particulars of reality. Theory selects data but excludes other data; data confirm but also suggest how the theory does not work. We can say that, of course, the tree falls in Siberia whether one observes this or not. But we cannot speak of this or that “actual” or specific tree falling in Siberia unless we do see it, or unless we are speaking of “it” in the abstract, (10) even as “it” in the abstract is the concept of a particular tree! – as one step further, in a way, from Kant’s noumenon. We are still limited to consciousness-of-something. Even if we do witness the tree falling our perception of it must be distinguished from the tree falling as it occurs in and of itself, about which, according to Wittgenstein and modern science, we cannot speak except as a matter of faith, and as always no more than approximately.

These points bring me to the case I make here to circumvent the stalemate between Sokal and his postmodern adversaries. As continental philosophy makes clear, we can and do know truth and reality as much as it is possible as a lived experiential leap from detail to “larger truth”, as the hermeneutical circle describes, in other words, that includes the observer constructing, to whatever degree, the datum. Statements of certified truth or reality, in order to be accurate, must include the observer’s constructions, either positively or negatively. This assertion admits that truth and reality are relative in the sense of being matters of degree of the observer seeing less or more deeply into the scheme of things. However, since reality is, in effect, changing, and can be described as a matter of degree, and because reality is particular, and, finally, because, existentially, we attend only to particulars, we can and do access and know reality. Finally, reality is particular in the sense that distinct historical epochs exist, during or in which “epistemes” (11) arise – individuals who express truths particular to their epoch, these expressions over-determining or overcoming the particular truths, enabling, therefore, new developments to take place. Truth described by the episteme is creative in the sense that the insight into reality overcomes or is more than, in a sense, the object or entity considered, and this, then, leads to more – or deeper – realizations of reality. Again, there can be no simulacrum of an instant in time, like a snapshot. There can only be – at its best – the scientist (or artist, or philosopher) being seized by a sudden insight that not only takes in or explains data or experience (the “empirical”) in such a way that what is encompassed in the realization or insight is is more than the object considered since ramifications or implications pop into the scientist’s mind.

Let’s follow out this line of thought, because it appears to bring us to a full resolution between hard science and the so-called relativists (giving the benefit of the doubt to those cited here). One might call the reasoning engaged in here Hegelian, in the sense that progression toward the Absolute is in play, the end or the Absolute determining somehow back through time the progression. Now, we have Weinberg’s admission – a common one, I am sure, among hard scientists – that not only are all scientific laws approximations of reality, they are partial, that is, valid only within certain parameters or circumstances. We have to conclude, then, (as have others including Charles Sanders Peirce more than a hundred years ago, rejecting “instrumentalism” (12)) that the existence of a single external reality is a necessary faith by scientists (and resembles Hegel’s Absolute Mind or God as the end of history – necessary because they have as their construction, the notion of an/the absolute at the putative end of scientific inquiry. Now we also have seen how the so-called relativists became entangled in their own rope once they cut the connection to the “radical empiricism” of Husserl. Husserl’s phenomenology, in part, spawned Heidegger’s; at roughly the same time, Sartre was developing his existentialism within which were certain built-in absolutes, one of which was – more or less in concert with Heidegger – the notion of finitude and our own mortality. From this, of course, we are freed from dictates from God and can choose our own actions and construct our own lives, since we alone are responsible for our lives. If death is an absolute, so is the “infinite interiority of consciousness”, again as Sartre put it in Being and Nothingness.

To both Sartre and Heidegger existential choice is not absolutely equivalent with relativism. Humanity is bound to try to avoid “bad faith” and “inauthenticity” (these assertions more or less resemble Kant’s categorical imperative). More to the point, here, epistemologically, and to reiterate, is that just as truth is an acceptable or desired absolute in existentialism, in hard science external reality is a matter of faith and must be held in mind by the scientist. Both are governed by their own rules, but this governance in hard science is a matter determined more by disciplinary and historical factors than a fully logical or unavoidable one. Sartre and Heidegger relied on – claimed human consciousness knows or should know – certain existential verities or absolutes, such as that we die. Alan Sokal and Steven Weinberg must assume the existence of a or the “single external reality”, for, otherwise, none of their work has any meaning. Only in the sense that Sartre and Heidegger did not know that some part of us does not survive physical death, or that metempsychosis does not occur, are their philosophies based on conjecture and faith. Just as a or the “single external reality” is a matter of faith, so is individual finitude. Nevertheless, even if finitude or human mortality is an unproven assumption since we do not know what happens after we die, one-directional time continues to be considered an absolute both by continental philosophy and by physics. (13) This is why time remains a complete mystery to both scientists and philosophers.

The notion of context is relevant here, as is the question, can there be such a thing as partial reality, even in the sense of the social construction of knowledge? For one can ask, how much of true insights about reality depend, for example, on historical context? Can the thing be understood in isolation from its context? Often I have wondered why the Greeks never discovered Descartes’ cogito, which when thinking about it appears transparently true or completely self-evident. (14) That they did not might suggest that a relativist perspective on truth and reality is justified – that there is no single truth or reality but, rather, truths and realities that differ or change through time and depending on circumstance or context. The Greeks may have been right – to a point – with general dichotomies; for example, between Parmenides and Heraclitus – that reality and the universe was one timeless whole or that reality was always changing – or with particular calculations such as Pythagoras’ measurement of the distance between the earth and the moon; more specificity was for whatever reason not sought or required in antiquity. Here is a hint about accumulative knowledge but in the sense I mean it, here, that is, that reality is a matter of degree.

It is only if Kuhn’s theory of paradigmatic change means that a totality of a particular scientific paradigm’s laws lose all validity when a new paradigm replaces it, that is, if there is no carryover. Accordingly, one might ask: did Einstein’s general theory of relativity, followed by and qualified by – and contradicted by! – quantum theory, mean that nothing of what Newton wrote continues to have validity? And even if Newton’s laws are still useful for general purposes, or incorporated within some kind of running general theory of physics or physical mechanics and reality, even as it approximates certain cause and effect operations, as suggested, because they cannot any longer describe and explain a more complete reality revealed by Einstein, can they be considered to be transparently true and in an absolute sense? The answer, of course, is no. “Absolute”, “everything”, and “universal” are words that necessarily can only be considered in philosophy and as zero and infinity in mathematics. Terms that refer to complete or total significance, otherwise, are matters of faith, and every utterance or claim about an absolute that science has both described and explained is qualified or underlain by belief in an absolute standard which we compare our propositions to and that we must believe in, as a matter of faith, in order to make any claim about the validity of an observation. Einstein did speak of “God”, for example, “God” not “throwing dice”. Thinkers, including physicists, ironically must have that same faith that a totality exists, or one ultimate and complete reality, even as they speak confidently of a future “theory of everything” and the lack of the necessity of a god or demiurge creating the universe. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and others who decry religion and dependence by so many billions of people around the world on a religion and on God or gods as complete wastes of human time and energy – because, they say, there is no evidence God exists – are unable to provide answers with respect to the totality of reality. Stephen Hawking recently asserted that the existence of “multiverses” could explain why our universe came into existence; in his physics, multiverses spontaneously can create new universes. But, obviously, one can ask about the prime mover: how did the multiverses come into being? Science, of course, does not ask why in an absolute sense. But human beings remain free to ask why; in the human universe as opposed to the universe, the question of meaning is central. Meaning in physics, or in any of the hard sciences, mostly or completely is entirely not of interest, the word having no place in the physicist’s lexicon.

In sum, for the sake of understanding the ramifications of the debate between Sokal and PM thinkers, it is vital to understand that Husserl and subsequent continental philosophers were misinterpreted by the latter (grouped in a very broad stroke here) because they did not understand the full meaning and implication of what continental philosophy refers to as the Lebenswelt or the “life-world”. Admittedly, it is difficult to explain why this is crucial for understanding the necessary connection of this concept to the concept of one accessible reality; one way to understand the connection is by thinking of reality as it is accessed by human beings rather as a “matter of degree”. The Lebenswelt describes nothing other than the consciousness experiencing reality as part of reality. Epistemology begins, then, with the thetic.

This may be the same as asserting that knowledge is accumulative, but it can also mean that a theory that connects or explains more data, and disparate data, such that it simplifies the axiom produced, goes deeper into reality. To the continental or romantic philosopher, in general, who considers the human universe, and what meaning – understanding – is constituted of, the greater degree of “involvement” or the degree of the intensity of the non-thetic consciousness engaged in the world – the “life-world” – the greater the ability of the mind or the intellect to see connections between otherwise disparate data.

Continental philosophy often resorts to literature and language; “literati”, as Weinberg puts it, might cite Gustave Flaubert’s aphorism as apt: “love is the atmosphere of genius”. By this the novelist meant intense involvement in experiencing something can make one privy to deeper insight. In the simplest – non-romantic – sense, the grasping of a concept – a “leap” otherwise between otherwise dead data – exemplifies this and is described by the “hermeneutic circle”. For hard scientists who will squirm at citing a novelist, that is, a writer of fiction, as part of a serious, logical argument, for example, about philosophy, I suggest it is important to keep in mind that the focus of continental philosophy since Descartes has been on so-called subjective evidence which, of course, is the purview of literature; Husserl founded his phenomenology precisely to study human consciousness through phenomena. Late in life Heidegger focuses on the language of poetry studying the great German poet, Hölderlin. Again, contra relativism, Husserl did believe in an objective reality, indirectly accessible via what he theorized as “intersubjectivity”. Sartre and Heidegger explicitly believed in the existence of being as distinct from consciousness, both asserting that “existence precedes essence”.

Pink Flying Elephants and Moons of Green Cheese

Some further thoughts to illustrate the points made above. If we posit the absolute – one reality – as we do existentially with respect to our mortality and finitude (in our quotidian life whether conscious of it or not), and which scientists like Sokal and Weinberg assume as a bottom line in their work, the following line of argument might be constructed. If we posit or assume one reality – the Absolute – by necessary logic an infinity not only of possibilities exist but an infinity of things does exist. (15) One might ask, for example, do pink flying elephants and moons made of green cheese exist? With such a question we see where the correspondence between the representation of things – constructed in language or mathematical symbols – and the things, themselves, breaks down. We can understand how the “subject”, you or I or Alan Sokal or Steven Weinberg, must absolutely necessarily be included in our calculations of reality. For, here, we see the intimate or intrinsic connection between the Absolute and the relative or “subjective” – you cannot have one without the other.

This has a parallel, epistemologically, in that you cannot have the particular without the abstract – the actual thing and the simulacrum or representation of it; again, this is “all we can talk about” since we have no transparent connection immediately to the actual thing except in the Lebenswelt which does not permit us reflexively to abstract the particular for the purpose of general “laws”. But let’s continue to consider pink flying elephants and moons of green cheese. Again, if we assume the Absolute or one reality, then we must admit not just the possibility that such entities exist but the necessity that not only they but any seemingly absurd thing has to exist! On the other hand, physics, and “common sense”, tell us that pink flying elephants and moons of green cheese not only do not exist, they cannot exist. Why is there this seemingly impassible contradiction? It is clear from this argument that the representation – in this case, in the words, “pink flying elephants” and “moons of green cheese” – is what makes us conclude such entities do not exist, although we don’t have any direct evidence that they do or do not exist. Again, any representation – always and only from the “distanced” perspective of the thetic consciousness – of an actual thing existing in our one reality is not the thing. Indeed, it is entirely plausible that scientists in the future may discover entities in the universe that they call “ pink flying elephants” and “moons of green cheese”, and perhaps even because there are some actual correspondences between such words, at a different point in time, and real things, that what is absurd to us now is not absurd any longer, the words conceivably used as metaphors, for example, for things that are not absurd, or, much more speculatively – and, of course, such speculation at present is crazy – if scientists do determine that what we understand through our language or symbols as irreal or imaginary actually has some kind of real connection or relation to real things!

Accordingly, the misunderstanding between Sokal and his adversaries in PM thought is due to neither side appreciating how there is a continual dialectic between our assumption of one reality, and our accumulation of evidence for it and the things in it, employing symbols (words or mathematical symbols) to represent this one reality, e.g., “everything” and ∞ and the things in it.

By this reasoning we can see how, epistemologically and ontologically, the only fully humanly constructed thing is the Absolute, or one single reality, for there is no evidence whatsoever that such an absolute exists – it is a matter purely of logic, or faith, albeit also an assumption necessary for any serious or scientific effort to know the universe or, better put, being or “what is”. We can also see how the only way we can consider these matters is to include the subject or the observer, for, otherwise, there would be no basis upon which to decide if something exists or does not, and/or if our representation of such a real thing is accurate or not. The usual example of the observer or consciousness affecting or being part of reality is described by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If physicists could truly understand and explain how or why the uncertainty principle – which is only a partial or even merely descriptive “principle” – I believe, as many physicists believe, an understanding would develop as to how quantum theory truly, to date, is only descriptive and not analytic or explanatory – that is, that quantum theory will be explained in such a way that the phenomena, for example, of entanglement or superposition, will be understood by expanded laws of cause of effect.

Accordingly, we can see how PM theorists do emphasize the role of the subject or the observer in the construction of reality, even as relativism – asserting that one reality does not exist or that we cannot declare there is one reality – makes the same error that Sokal and Weinberg make in excluding the necessity of the dialectic between observer and observed in the determination of reality, an existential enterprise which is continual and ongoing. (16) Accordingly, both sides in the controversy made errors in thinking about the issues. Nevertheless, as I have tried to articulate, reality is particular. This means that we can say with certitude that there is one reality – which others call being – and epistemologically we can know particulars of one reality, albeit this is mediated by the episteme or epistemes rising above their particular historical epochs.

In sum, as I’ve said, the only completely constructed things in the universe are absolutes: nothingness, infinity, eternity. By definition, nothingness is nothing; it does not exist. Infinity and eternity do not exist because if we add ourselves or anything to these absolutes they neither add nor subtract from them. Accordingly, they do not exist because they are outside the range of real possibilities. We can only have discernible – observable – particularities, which though instantly we abstract them, are real because they are constructed from data in the dialectic between observer and observed, mediated by epistemic “leaps” from data to theory. A similarity or union can be envisioned, therefore, between positivist physics and continental philosophy, specifically in Heidegger’s formulation of time as an absolute reflected or required by finitude, that is, made epistemologically certain or unassailably existent, by Dasein – which expresses the notion of the “thereness” of being human or consciousness in the world and in time, again underlain by the cogito.

Further Thoughts on Time: Can the Hadron Collider Find the Chronon? And the Significance of Particularity or the Unique

Following are some thoughts offered in the hope of comment from informed readers of Spike that are intended to show that the divide between the opposing sides in Sokal’s hoax is small and might, on analysis, be illusory, with the sticking points caused by choice of particular words and by writing styles.

But, first, a little aside of completely playful speculation. Since time is such a mystery, and thinking as physicists, working from their positivist attitude, can all phenomena ultimately be reduced to physical particles? For example, for a long time I have thought about the chronon – a particle of time. Can or will the great collider at CERN not only find the Higgs boson but the chronon? If it can find the latter, and it collected enough chronons and then inserted them into a collection of other, undoubtedly much more lasting particles, what would happen? If time is an absolute with endless or infinite possibilities, but as time means that particulars always are produced as time flows on, what would the interaction produce? A pink flying elephant or a moon of green cheese? Or would the new entity simply be the same one before the introduction of the chronons into it but as it appears or is at a later or earlier time? I do hope a physicist reads this and comments.

Leaving aside my speculative fantasies, in consideration of time or temporality, only if time and history stopped or did not exist would a “theory of everything” – this phrase bandied about commonly by cosmologists and physicists – be possible. (17) Heidegger’s magnum opus is entitled Being and Time because the two notions are co-dependent; human being, or consciousness, he refers to as Dasein, “being-there”, to indicate that there is no being except as man is “in the world”, or “already there”. Existence precedes essence. Recall Husserl’s intentionality. With these self-given insights we can see how the division between subject and object is dissolved.

And here, with great trepidation as a non-physicist I venture to mention that, as Weinberg suggests about quantum “entanglement” or “superposition”, the identity paradox, otherwise, is in effect: because of time, one can never fabricate an exact duplicate of something. Any simulacrum of an object or entity, because of time and history, encounters to whatever degree the effect on the accuracy of the reconstruction of the entity by the observer. As another possible corollary, the uncertainty principle, Weinberg describes as follows: “Electrons in atoms do not have definite velocities or positions until these properties are measured, and the measurement of an electron’s velocity wipes out all knowledge of its position” (op. cit.). I qualify the suggestion that this law brings to mind time and uniqueness in a or the history of particular events by adding that this physical law is repeatable sufficiently such that we can consider it to describe real phenomena, while non-scientific suggestions of cause remain theoretical and unprovable. And again, in systematic fashion, the nature and implications of time and agentive history is explored by continental philosophers such as Heidegger.

Now, if we assume that there is an objective, real universe – a universe of all and everything that does exist in reality, and for purposes of argument, of all of the possible multiverses included within one overall and absolute universe – scientific determinations, for example, by physicists, that construct mathematically or in whatever way an exact duplicate of that one overall universe, are not possible. This is, again, because of time and the existence of the observer whose observation does have an impact on the observed; this is to say that there cannot be an immediate and transparent revelation corresponding exactly and in every way to the thing observed. Any reconstruction must include the fact that physicists built the duplicate, the least of which alteration from original to copy is that this history would not be contained in the original. More generally, since we, and presumably the universe, as well, exist in time, and even as time has been shown, because of the effect of gravity, to be variable, the clock never stops ticking and all objects or entities, therefore, would seem to have at least the unique characteristic of a time when they exist. Only, theoretically, before the Big Bang that presumably created the universe, was there no time. But more emphatically, in consideration of lived experience or the Lebenswelt, the observer does construct do whatever degree the “truth”, abstracted from particular data.

Concluding Thoughts

When I was nine years old, I asked my older brother what every thoughtful child sooner or later wonders: “Why are we here?” With the intention of being constructive (!) in a positive way (!), and to clarify the issues – it boils down to one dichotomy: scientific truth versus existential truth – that we were born and will die, or that time exists, which means that at some points in time we exist but also did not or will not or do not exist. Such speculation produces the same question that physicists, including Einstein, do, themselves, often ask: why is the universe amenable to human understanding?; why does the universe seem to conform so closely to mathematics? It is the same question as that of asking why does the universe/this universe exist? Hawking’s claim must depend on an infinity of multiverses, and infinity, by definition, is unattainable, or is a necessary fiction.

Physicists, definitely, and by necessity, are positivists; hence, they do claim that human beings can ultimately know everything. This constitutes their great and noble quest. Physics, the king of the sciences, approaches the issue from the point of view of that objective, putatively ultimate reality, searching for axioms ideally as simple as e=mc2, or, presumably, one or the Axiom for Everything. Philosophers, specifically continental or romantic philosophers, culminating for the time being (excuse the wording!) in Heidegger’s Being and Time, approach the issue from the point of view of us, of human consciousness, of we and our consciousness included in or as part of the totality of the universe we live in and seek to understand. Accordingly, in effect, both sides are headed in exactly the same direction. Physics seeks to solve or unify in one grand “theory of everything” the question. Philosophy seeks to explain in some ultimate fashion what being is and how and why it exists. Again, worth thinking about is the distinction between objective, external reality, on the one hand, and being, on the other.

Finally, to return to the ins and outs of the Sokal controversy – and, again, with admiration for his accomplishment with the hoax because it raised very important issues at the time – in 2009 an interview with Sokal by Julian Baggini appeared online. This might be the last interview Sokal gives on the subject (I emailed him a couple of times but got no response). In the interview Sokal clarified and confirmed that he was not delving into pure philosophical matters, but that, instead, his sole purpose was to jar the professional intellectual world – those in this world, social scientists and critical thinkers, in particular, who wrote about science – into not writing nonsense any longer. It is worth quoting him at some length, here.

“My original motivation had to do with epistemic relativism and what I saw as a rise in sloppily thought-out relativism, being the kind of unexamined zeitgeist of large areas of the American humanities and some parts of the social sciences… The debate I was trying to raise was much cruder. [I] give the example of the anthropologist and two theories of the origin of native American populations, one that they came from Asia, which is the archaeological consensus, the other the traditional native American creation myths… that their ancestors always lived in the Americas… [A]nd the anthropologists said, ‘Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. The Zuni world-view is just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is all about.’ So we go through and try and disentangle what [the anthropologist] means by ‘just as valid.’ There are certain interpretations of that which are unobjectionable but don’t say much, there are other versions that do say something significant which we think are grossly false. [I have] had long discussions with anthropologists who really refused to admit that a culture’s cosmology could be objectively true or false. Their beliefs about the origin of the universe, or the movements of the planets or whatever, could only be judged true or false relative to a culture. [And not] just questions of cosmology, questions of history. And [I] asked, ‘Does that mean that the fact that millions of native Americans died in the wake of the European invasion, is that not an objective fact, [but is] merely a belief that’s held to be true in some cultures?’ [I] never got a straightforward answer from them”.

As an anthropologist, I suspect Sokal may have misheard the anthropologists. Certainly I would never claim that in point of fact, denial of the European invasion of the Americas and the millions of dead indigenous that resulted, was not true. Having said this, to some degree in order to make a useful point not only iconoclasts throughout history but standard theoretical propositions exaggerate the arguments – in effect, at least partially construct the opposing view. Motivated by the threat of contamination of truth and objective reality, perpetrated in outraged defense of attacks he saw against the nature and intent of science, Sokal drove a nail into the coffin of postmodernism, cultural studies, lit crit, deconstruction, etc. It contributed to, or accelerated, a growing consensus even among social scientists and anthropologists that postmodernism had gone too far. Social commentators and social scientists, in general, replied to the question “Is everything a social construct?” with the short answer, “No”. A longer answer must acknowledge that there is no exact mirror to truth, and that even the hard scientist does construct her/his facsimile, but a continuing dialectic between theory and data takes place to make the reflection sharper and sharper.

Finally, even if “subjective” feelings and thoughts may well be, most of the time, far from reflective of reality, and, by the same token, the scientific method must be tested by the extreme test of falsifiability, it may be that any discussion of a history of science will be suspicious to hard scientists, whose credo is the objective, falsifiable knowledge enterprise. Even to call it an “enterprise” may raise hackles. And there still are many social scientists and theorists of social thought who wage the war against the “status quo” with its history that produced “sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism [and] capitalism”, as Weinberg wrote, characterizing the political agenda of the so-called relativists. In other words, there still are many among those Sokal was attacking who believe that there are events, agents, and processes in history that continue to distort any conclusion or assertion about the whole entity, whatever the supposedly neutral or objective scientist produces, for example, as a theory based on data. As I wrote in my previous article in Spike on the Frankfurt School, the Enlightenment, itself – the historical epoch considered to have provided the basis for modern science – is usefully subject to the kind of critical or reflexive analysis as Horkheimer and Adorno showed in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. As I also wrote in my article for Spike on the Frankfurt School, perhaps Marx’s materialist analyses of history and economics turn out not to be relative but to have objectively discernible results in, for example, the Bolshevik revolution, Mao, and Castro. Even if Marx as analyst of history has come up short in many ways, History, itself, is as real as quantum mechanics, and by and in it cause and effect can be observed, even if, like physical laws written by physicists, one can never be complete in one’s explanations of cause and effect.

Social Text is it still being published by Duke University Press. The very short Wikipedia entry describes it as “…[addressing] a wide range of social and cultural phenomena, covering questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment. Each issue covers subjects in the debates around feminism, Marxism, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, postmodernism, queer theory, and popular culture”. I believe Alan Sokal was the first, and the last, physicist contributor. Dr. Sokal still teaches, with joint appointments as professor at New York University and University College London.

Further Reading:


  1. “Continental philosophy” is usually contrasted with “analytic philosophy”. The former begins with Descartes, passes through the German idealists, is followed by Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard – with whose thinking the “turn” from epistemology to ontology took place – and continues in the 20th century with Husserl, founder of phenomenology, which, in turn, led to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger; offshoots are Gadamer and Ricoeur. Postmodern philosophers and thinkers such as Foucault and Baudrillard belong to the continental philosophical tradition, although their radical critique of what was defined as the modern – which ended with Sartre – and although a genuine impulse, both went too far along one path of thinking with its focus more or less completely on the subject or observer and diminished the external or Sartre’s in-itself. Analytic philosophy is rooted in the belief that logic and language alone can solve the deepest questions of epistemology, metaphysics, and the other subfields in philosophy. Analytic philosophy takes inspiration from the British empiricists and continues to Wittengenstein’s early writings and continuing with philosophers such as Austin and Quine.
  2. Note the predominance of French intellectuals. In 1997 Sokal and Jean Bricmont published a book first in France entitled Impostures Intellectuelles (Editions Odile Jacob, Paris) that purported to extend and clarify the issues raised by the parody in Social Text. In a later interview, Sokal charged “…gross abuse of terminology from the natural sciences in the writings both [sic] of French, American and British authors, but the French ones are the more prominent, they’re the big stars”.
  3. During my years as a graduate student in anthropology at Yale in the 1990s this was certainly the case.
  4. This is a sweeping assertion and should be supported by a very extended discourse. With limited space in Spike, I make the assertion anticipating objections and calls for explanation. Comment on the article and email me for further discussion. Fundamentally, my suggestion for a rapprochement between Sokal and his adversaries in the controversy revolves around the acknowledgment of the fully dialectical nature of the enterprise of building scientific knowledge, “fully” because discovery of reality and construction of knowledge of reality require both subject and object, observed and observer. Where what positivist science insists is a transparent correspondence between the two breaks down is where, or when, our representation in language or mathematical symbol of the real object turns out to be wrong – we only find this out because we have represented the real object in concrete and particular words of symbols. See the discussion of “pink flying elephants and moons of green cheese”.
  5. Time and meaning remain two concepts that need to be explored more thoroughly by physicists and existential philosophers; or philosophers should think of a way to articulate what these are in the most simple terms – taking from Heidegger, for example – to physicists, and physicists should do the same for pbhilosophers.
  6. Sokal’s web page very usefully provides links to most of the other interesting and important responses – slings and arrows mainly, but not only – by such as Derrida, but also by other hard scientists.
  8. Wittgenstein did not grasp the notion of the “hermeneutic circle”, by which the apparently inexplicable leap – actually an instantaneous dialectic – is made between data and theory, or between the part and the whole.
  9. “Infinite interiority” is only sensible in the existential perspective. Evolutionary psychology, a relatively new discipline, would tend to contradict this by revealing the development and functional dynamic of human psychology, including how this manifests in consciousness, as evolutionarily determined, in other words, at risk of oversimplification, revealing “human nature”.
  10. “Specific” vs “abstract” is a curious dichotomy. We cannot know the unique specific or particular except in theory or putatively; however, the existential perspective requires assumption of it because of the existential dialectic of for-itself constructing and “killing” by objectifying – taking out of History, time, and life – the in-itself for the sake of transcendence and continuance. Sartre says that consciousness and the for-itself forever flees being – because the for- itself can never be complete and continue to live; but, at the same time, the for-itself forever needs to objectify the other. This continual play between for-itself and in-itself is what constitutes human consciousness and the life of the individual person, as well as, as anthropology demonstrates, the group, of the society. The dichotomy between the particular and the abstract functions in the following manner: the for-itself must look for the particular – and either in “lived experience” takes not of it but non-reflexively or does not abstract it or does abstract it or generalize about it, “killing” it by delegating it to the general, and this latter Sartre characterizes as the “flight from being”.
  11. The term comes from Foucault.
  12. Instrumentalism avoids the realism/anti-realism debate, and may be better characterised as non-realism. Instrumentalism shifts the basis of evaluation away from whether or not phenomena observed actually exist, and towards an analysis of whether the results and evaluation fit with observed phenomena”. The point is that this concept must be discarded from the debate precisely because both science and existential philosophy require consideration of one reality, or of being.
  13. Physicists and cosmologists speak of the “arrow of time”. Even as time has been shown because of the effect of gravity to be variable, the clock never stops ticking and all objects or entities, therefore, would seem to have at least the unique characteristic of a time when they exist and when they do not. Only, theoretically, before the Big Bang that presumably created the universe, was there no time.
  14. Although philosophy also ends up with partial descriptions of universal or singular reality. In the strict sense, cogito ergo sum should be amended to cogito ergo cogitationes or even cogitationes ergo cogitationes because the experience of the thought or thoughts does not necessarily stipulate the existence of anything but the thought of thoughts.
  15. And this makes us realize, again, with regard to the specific or particular, or the unique, the dialectical pole, necessarily, logically, is the eternal or the infinite. Existentially, because we die, our consciousness is confronted by an infinity of possibilities, while we live.
  16. So long as societies continue to value the knowledge enterprise.
  17. As a non-physicist, I might ask, can this be equated in some way with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?

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5 Responses to The Sokal Hoax Fifteen Years Later: A Philosophical Reading of the Controversy

  1. Gabriel Stolzenberg says:

    Dear Joshua Reynolds,

    A few days ago, I came across your 2011 essay in Spike about Sokal’s alleged hoax of the obviously non-postmodernist journal Social Text. (I’ll prove the “obviously” if you like, on the assumption of innocent until proven guilty. I’ll also explain the “alleged” if you like. If I remember right, somewhere in your essay (I don’t want to hunt for it now) you mention in passing that I make certain claims about game changing (my term) blatant blunders in reading and reasoning by Sokal and Weinberg et al. Something like that. I don’t know if you meant this consciously, but I took it very badly.

    Claims are what Sokal et al do. I do proofs. Again, based on “innocent until proven guilty.” These blunders are blatant but only if you slow down and read skeptically and carefully. Nitpick. (It’s like looking through a microscope. Or a telescope.) This of course is just a claim and, if you like, I will give you examples. But
    they’re almost all at my Debunking website.

    In my view, these blunders (and the attitudes that produce them) are of the greatest significance for the Sokal affair. As I said, they are “game changing”—even a few (but enough to see patterns), because of what they reveal about those who make them.

    To summarize. What is important about the claims to which I believe you referred is that they come with proofs. By referring to them only as claims, the reader is encouraged to assume that I’m just bullshitting. Like Sokal and Weinberg. The proofs are all that count and I think you had an obligation to explain that they are what I offer. To be accepted or rejected on the basis of your own careful reading and reasoning.

    Gabriel Stolzenberg

    P.S. I see this (the behavior of Sokal, Weinberg and their fans) as a case of being incompetent
    at recognizing the limits of their competence. Aronowitz (I’m not a fan of his) was right. He obviously was not referring to Sokal’s talent in physics but to his incompetence in things he was talking about in the science wars. (E.g., expressions like ‘chaos,’ ‘border,’ ‘center,’ ‘complex number theory,’ ‘a non-commuting
    operator.’ After a dozen years, he still couldn’t get the last one right. And it would hard to find a more absurd reading than Sokal’s of Latour on Einstein’s popular account of relativity theory. I believe this is on my web site. And the question of how Weinberg could have made his embarrassing misreading of Harding might merit a master’s thesis.)

    Try reading Sokal et al closely and skeptically and then holding them responsible for what you find. E.g., what do you make of Sokal’s
    dismissal of Arkady Plotnitsky’s two possible readings of a (30 year old informal) remark of Derrida that Sokal insists, without any proof, is nonsense. He says the trouble is that Plotnitsky has TWO readings. And his admirers bought it! Did you happen to be one of them?

  2. gabriel stolzenberg says:

    [This is continuation of my previous post.]

    Meanwhile, to give you a glimpse of what I am talking about, let me give you a “one-line” proof that
    Sokal’s ST article was not a hoax, at least not in the sense that he meant it.

    Proof: It was obviously an opinion article of a common kind. The editors saw it as presenting to readers
    a physicist at a reputable university attempting to use what he took to be postmodernism to make sense
    of his discipline. Something like that. If parts were unintelligible, this told the readers something about
    Sokal, not the editors. In a case of this kind, accuracy and intelligibility are the responsibilities of the author.

    Aside: Two physicists volunteered that if Einstein had written it, it certainly should have been published
    because we are interested in everything that Einstein has to say, even if it is nonsense. Compare this
    with Sokal’s disingenuous insistence that it was only the content that counted, not the author. And the
    readers bought it.

    Aside: According to Sokal, I was qualified to referee the article (at least the physics and math). But if
    I had, I would probably have recommended it for publication. In my view much of it was an example of the kind
    of garbage some physicists are capable of writing, e.g., Weinberg, because they are willfully blind to
    the limits of their competence. (I don’t know if it’s still true but, among mathematicians, physicists used
    to have the reputation of being the worst math abusers. I’m a mathematician.)

  3. Jason Weaver says:

    Dear Gabriel, Spike is no longer regularly maintained which is why your comments were not immediately approved.

  4. gabriel stolzenberg says:

    Dear Jason Weaver,

    Thank you very much for your note.

    Gabriel Stolzenberg

  5. gabriel stolzenberg says:

    The World Turned Upside Down
    Debunking the Conventional Wisdom about the Sokal Affair

    For Sidney Coleman, physicist, neighbor, dear friend Gabriel Stolzenberg

    The irony of physicists policing mathematics abuse. In 1999, in a conversation with N. David Mermin, I mentioned that one of the great ironies of the Sokal affair was seeing physicists police math abuse when, among mathematicians, fairly or not, physicists used to have the reputation of being among the worst abusers. About a month later, I received a message from Mermin that began, “Remembering your remark about the attitudes of mathematicans toward physicists,…I thought you would enjoy this wonderful thing.” Here is the wonderful thing.
    When one arrives at the mathematical theories on which quantum mechanics is based, one realizes that the attitude of certain physicists in the handling of these theories truly borders on delirium…. One has to ask oneself what remains in the mind of a student who has absorbed this unbelievable accumulation of nonsense, real gibberish [bouillie pour les chats]! It would appear that today’s physicists are only at ease in the vague, the obscure, and the contradictory. (Jean Dieudonne)
    Is Dieudonne right? Did he consider the matter from the perspective of a physicist? Do some physicists knowingly commit mathematics abuse but don’t care because they believe that, for their discipline, mathematical rigor is over-rated and sometimes even counterproductive? I don’t know and I don’t much care. But I do know that nowhere in this “wonderful thing” does Dieudonne offer any evidence in support of his harangue, which is sufficient reason not to take it seriously without first inspecting the text from which it was liberated. In my view, this standard of “presumed innocent until proven guilty” applies everywhere, in particular to harangues by physicists and others about alleged mathematics and physics abuse by French intellectuals and others.
    Remember the Sokal affair? For me, it was mainly Alan Sokal, Steven Weinberg and their acolytes, the analytic philosophers, Paul Boghossian and Thomas Nagel, leveling humiliating accusations, which Nagel proudly called ‘hatchet jobs,’ at academics whom they labeled ‘postmodern relativist’ and demonizing ‘social constructivist’ practitioners of science studies for their allegedly ideologically motivated portrayals of science.1 But are these accusations justified? On an ordinary reading of the literature, what Sokal and the others say is so clear and compelling that, even though much of it consists of attempts to humiliate other people, few readers seem to have reread it slowly, closely and skeptically, as one would a legal document, before concluding that the accused had been proven guilty and the humiliation was deserved.

    The method of slow, skeptical reading. As it happens, I did read the literature this way. Think of it as nitpicking or reading as if under a microscope. But, initially, I was not trying to be fair. It was rather a consequence of my disgust at hearing Sokal on the radio quote a remark by Jacques Derrida, with which I was all too familiar,2 about the ancient idea of a center for a structure and then complain in a bullying tone, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” This left me extremely suspicious of anything else he or any of his admirers might say.3 So, beginning with my encounter with Sokal on the radio, during the next dozen years, I tested the validity of my suspicions, case by case, by means of very slow, skeptical readings of the literature—including texts in which Sokal et al employ a naïve realist epistemology to discredit social constructivism as a conceptual framework for science studies. In the end, at first surprisingly but later predictably, I found that nearly all the accusations and arguments I encountered were based on perverse readings and reasoning and, in some cases, like that of Derrida’s remark, on no reasoning at all. Innocent until proven guilty be damned.
    Caveat lector. No one should take my word for this. Any reader with sufficient patience, curiosity and discipline can judge for herself by employing the same kind of nitpicking that I did.4 She might begin by looking for cases in which Sokal et al display no interest in trying to understand someone else’s words, only in finding a way to interpret them so that only a fool or a faker could have said them. To debunk such a reading, it suffices to note that the possibility that there are other readings has been ignored. However, I found that, in such cases, it was often quite rewarding to go further and seek such readings, especially charitable ones. I believe that any reader who employs my method of reading Sokal et al and agrees with my conclusions will also agree that these hatchet jobs have no place in civilized discourse.

    Finally, those who read them uncritically and loved every word would do well to ask themselves how they were so easily and thoroughly duped. I believe that it is partly a matter of expectations. If you trust that Molly is an expert on a subject about which she now appears to be spouting nonsense, I believe that instead of immediately accepting it as such, you are more likely to assume that you simply don’t understand it. However, if she does not have such a reputation, and others who seem to know what they are talking about say that she is a serial faker, then you are likely to see this as further confirmation of it. We are all vulnerable. We can trust or be skeptical. But in these cases as in every case, justice for the accused requires that our initial stance toward the accusations be one of rigorous skepticism.
    In this article, I select ten passages from the literature, containing approximately twenty blatant abuses of reading and reasoning, each by either Sokal or Weinberg, some of them by both, from the great many that I have encountered in the literature. Because their epistemological blunders, some of which are remarkable, have received less attention than their hatchet jobs, I will err here in the other direction.
    To Be Continued

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