Thursday, August 17, 2006

My Worldview, And Welcome To It

From one of those online quiz sites:

You scored as Postmodernist. Postmodernism is the belief in complete open interpretation. You see the universe as a collection of information with varying ways of putting it together. There is no absolute truth for you; even the most hardened facts are open to interpretation. Meaning relies on context and even the language you use to describe things should be subject to analysis.



Cultural Creative














What is Your World View?
created with

Now understand that I don't have a huge problem with this result; I've considered myself a postmodernist from back before postmodernism was cool. My conversion to postmodernism dates back to discovering a copy of Walter Truett Anderson's "Reality Isn't What It Used To Be" in a public library during the summer of 1993.

The problem I have is that what the quiz describes as postmodernism isn't really postmodernism. It's constructivism. The idea that what's out there is only what we put out there, and that reality is as much an interpretive effort as a measuring stick held up to existence is a constructivist view, not strictly a postmodernist one. It's possible to be a postmodernist without being a constructivist, just as it's possible to be a Christian without being a Baptist.

Admittedly, there are aspects of constructivist thought that appeal to me. Again going to Anderson, his final paragraph finally sets out a description of constructivism, or at least the constructivist worldview:

The constructivist worldview is a story about stories, and it is also a story. It is a belief, and in some ways an arbitrary one. It presumes, without knowing how to prove it, that there is an objective cosmos that we can seek to understand, even though all our understanding is in some sense subjective. There are other stories, stories that there is no objective cosmos at all, or that it is what we create. And yet other stories will probably come along.

This is not 'crazy pomo zaniness'; it, at least to me, is a very common-sense way to approach the great question of existence. Sure, there's something out there. Yes, we can learn things about it, though everything we learn has some filters and biases associated with it. And, as a story about stories, the constructivist worldview is subject to all the same criticisms it applies to the stories it sees around it; any criticism of fundamentalist religion or hard-core science can, in some sense, also be levelled at the constructivist worldview itself; if it can't handle the same criticism, then it's on no better footing than the worldviews it's criticizing.

But postmodernism itself, at least according to Anderson, has a much lower threshhold of entry: to be a postmodernist, all you need is to have a belief about belief, or about how it is you choose to believe some things and not others.

In a premodern worldview, people are not taught beliefs. They are taught facts; things that are true about the world, about themselves. The transition to the modern world is facilitated by the understanding that different people with different 'facts' about the world aren't necessarily wrong; instead, we learn to have beliefs about the concepts of the world that don't jibe with those of our neighbors. The transition to the postmodern world comes when we realize that we don't have to simply accept the beliefs of our own culture; we can choose what to believe in, or to believe in nothing at all. (But, just as the old koan about choosing nothing still being a choice, believing in nothing is still a belief.)

Just as with any other organizing principle, postmodernism and constructivism have places where they are strong and where they are weak. Constructivism doesn't do a great job of explaining things like what distant stars are made of; radio astronomy does far better at this task. Yet there are still scientific questions that constructivism does help us understand better. For instance, how many planets are in our solar system?

At one time, it was thought that there were only six planets in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as those were the only planets that could be seen. Uranus, the seventh planet, was discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, using a powerful telescope. The next two planets were believed to exist far before they were 'discovered' with telescopes, because the effects of their gravity were noticable on the orbits of the other outer planets, particularly Uranus. Thus cued to the search, Neptune was located in 1846 by John Couch Adams, while Pluto was finally found by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

It will thus surprise some people that we've only had nine planets, officially, in our solar system for about seventy-five years. There was actually a longer period when we believed we had eight planets, and centuries when we believed we had six.

Now, of course, we're about to have twelve planets, not because of similar discoveries to those of the 18th through 20th centuries, but rather because of a redefinition of what a 'planet' is. The discussion was provoked by the discovery of a tenth planet, much as the previous three had been discovered, but what data could be learned of the nature of that potential tenth planet suggested that the definition of 'planet' was simply too vague - why would this new object, 2003UB213, be considered a planet while larger objects closer to the sun, such as the mega-asteroid Ceres, not be considered planets?

The IAU has thus proposed a planetary standard - any object large enough to be round due to the effect of its own gravity is a planet. Interestingly enough, one astronomer predicts that, if the IAU standard is adopted, we'll end up with at least 53 planets, since there are a number of appropriately large and round objects known to exist in the distant Kuiper Belt out beyond the orbit of Pluto, though the IAU standard currently only directly recognizes twelve objects: the existing nine planets, Ceres, 2003UB213, and Charon, the latter which would become the only object in the solar system to be both a planet and a moon.

This isn't really an argument about scientific facts - the facts are known to everyone involved. What it is is an argument (or perhaps merely a discussion) over what those facts mean; fundamentally, what scientifically objective facts are necessary in order for an object to be considered a 'planet'? This is precisely a postmodern, constructivist sort of question, as no matter what solution one proposes, there is no real objective standard to fall back on to comfort oneself that the decision is the 'true' one.

It is in precisely this sense that constructivists argue that truth is what the individual holds to be true, and is thus a matter of belief. It's possible to make a definition of 'planet' that would leave as few as four planets in the solar system ('a planet is something with the characteristics of Jupiter' - these are currently called 'Jovian planets') or, as noted above, a definition that allows for as many as 53 planets and counting. It's even possible to define planet in such a way that there are no actual planets to point to in the 'objective universe', much as we've already done with the definition of 'unicorn'. Yes, objects in space have observable attributes, but we only call them 'planets' because that's what we've agreed to call them. Arguing about the facts of the matter don't actually do anything to solve the problem, becuase unlike mass or luminosity, which have precise scientific and mathematical definitions, 'planet', at least before now, doesn't. What we're arguing isn't what the facts are, it's what they mean.

And of course, when arguing about what facts mean, you can't avoid being pulled into politics. It is in the realm of political 'truth' that postmodern and constructivist viewpoints are not only the most accurate, but ironically the most useful for practitioners. Political candidates and their handlers frequently make use of what Anderson called "the machinery of reality construction", and more and more frequently, the most interesting political stories of any given election cycle occur when that reality-construction machinery breaks down, allowing a candidate to show his or her 'real self'.

Whether you believe, for instance, that the Iraq War is just within reach of being won if we show a bit more patience and backbone, or that it's a disaster in the making that we need to escape at the first opportunity; whether you believe that terror attacks are the single greatest problem facing the civilized nations of the world, or that the War on Terror is as much a sideshow and disctracton from the real problems posed by global terrorism as the War on Drugs was a sideshow and distraction from the real problems posed by the global drug economy - whatever side you find yourself on, you can find 'facts' that support your belief. There are people out there, some professional, some amateur, engaged in the act of political reality-creation on a daily basis, and the political beliefs you hold are, to some degree, determined by the success in those stories at working their way into your personal worldview.

I'd argue, as Anderson does in his book, that these days its actually impossible to be anything but postmodern; the closest you can come to old-style modernism is to engage in an act of reification: that is, making something, such as a belief system or choice about one's lifestyle, then forgetting that the thing made was your own creation. Whether you join a fundamentalist faction of Christianity, or identify with those defenders of the Constitution who loudly seek to maintain 'the intent of the Founders', you're engaging in a bit of personal reality-creation - determining what your beliefs and opinions will be - and then forgetting your own role, instead ascribing near-miraculous powers to the writers of the Bible or the colonial aristocrats who crafted the Constitution as a replacement for the failed Articles of Confederation.

So if you want to call me a 'crazy pomo', I'll ask you which of us is crazier.

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