Friday, September 12, 2008

Alan Sokal skewers the relativists

Sometimes I spend good money on philosophy books. This is a lasting legacy of I having taught at Ateneo de Manila!

If the Catholic Knight puts the sword on the "tyranny of relativism", theoretical physicist, Alan Sokal skewers the relativists in his latest tome, "Beyond the Hoax: Science,Philosophy and Culture"

Sokal made history in 1996 when he sent a paper entitled "Transgressing the boundaries:Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity" to a respected journal "Social Text". The paper passed review and got published.

The problem is the paper was a spoof of gobbledygook proportions. Sokal wanted to expose the silliness of the academic Left and the social constructivists which he believed would be best served if their intellectual underpinnings had a dose of reason. In the so called science wars, the realist Sokal took to battle, postmodernists.

Nonetheless, I find Sokal's chapter on "Cognitive Relativism in the Philosophy of Science" interesting reading. Like Sokal, I only have one credit of Philosophy and my forays into the discipline is more of an intellectual hobby rather than anything else. But in Sokal I see a bit of convergence with the same kind of reasoning made by Pope Benedict XVI, a major foe of the relativists. (Both Sokal and Benedict believe that an objective truth exists) But that is where the similarity ends.

Sokal the positivist, believes that the factual basis of faith cannot be established. For example if two books of sacred scriptures from two differing faith traditions are really the Word of God, then we need to have evidence that one is really true and the other one is false. Obviously there isn't any logical solution to this problem.

So Sokal is in the same side as Richard Dawkins with the difference that Sokal has fewer logical inconsistencies than Dawkins (and less religious too! I consider Dawkins' scientism hard to support by reason alone. Scientism is Religion!).

The book is an academic read and not for leisure but worth the price. The PhP 1700 price tag may be a bit dear, but for a book on philosophy and science published by Oxford University Press (which is hard to come by in the bookstores), that price is reasonable considering it is a hardbound edition and printed on good, acid free bookpaper.

Alan Sokal (2008) Beyond the Hoax, Science,Philosophy and Culture, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 460 p.

is available from Fully Booked.

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