Science and Postmodern Criticism

Researchers in the natural sciences today often experience a conflicting sense of awe and bewilderment. One easily senses the astonishing advances in medical science and technology in the post–World War II era. On the other hand are signs of crisis of faith in science. Folk or “natural” therapies compete with scientifically tested methods of health care. This apparent retreat to pseudoscience reflects uneasiness commonly voiced that science is an impersonal and technocentric “paradigm.” Rising popular sentiment seems to be that other ways of knowing and conceptualizing the body are equally valid—even preferable.

More incredulous to scientists is the cynical view in which science is often cast among colleagues in the social sciences and humanities. Natural sciences have become a significant target in so-called culture wars: the conflict between Enlightenment-inspired rationalism and humanism, and its postmodern critics.

Postmodern polemics provide some scientists with little more than a good laugh.1 But some of these criticisms point to a legitimate need to differentiate the methods of science from the inadequate, reductionistic ideological framework in which science is too often conceptualized. Postmodernism is a disastrous ideological replacement, pointing to the need for a broader approach to the relationship of science to culture.


While scientific method offers a measure of objectivity against the extravagances of ideologically driven interpretation, a basic philosophical reductionism can be easily recognized. Consider these remarks from a widely used university biology textbook:

Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomenon are its by-products.2

This text states explicitly an implicitly held belief that the scientific enterprise necessarily rests on a naturalistic, or materialistic, worldview. That is, science as a discipline necessitates the epistemological and metaphysical assumptions termed scientism. The linkage of science and worldview is a key point of departure for the postmodern critics. Postmodernists argue that scientism rests on an incoherent epistemological foundation (view of knowledge), leading to an inadequate metanarrative (all-embracing view of reality), resulting in ethnocentric marginalization of other voices.

Empirical method is the cornerstone of scientific inquiry, where theories are weighed against the evidence available to the senses. As a foundationalist epistemology, it is an all-embracing theory prescribing the nature and limitations of all possible knowledge. During the first half of the century, the logical positivists attempted to reduce all rationally meaningful discourse to the “verification principle,” making science the sole and final arbiter of truth. A. J. Ayer stated:

[N]o statement which refers to a “reality” transcending the limits of all possible sense-experience can possibly have any literal significance; from which it must follow that the labors of those who have striven to describe such a reality have all been devoted to the production of nonsense.3

In grounding “cognitively meaningful” language in empirical verification, any rational talk of moral values, intrinsic human dignity, and so forth, is strictly off limits. Values may have certain “emotive meaning” or social utility, but are scripted out of meaningful intellectual assessment. In this way, epistemological foundation becomes exclusive metanarrative. And there is always a latent danger in this metanarrative, because it excludes any objective moral basis to distinguish what science can do from what it should do. Consequently, as a product of Western culture, postmodern critics view science and the technologies it produces as tools of European cultural hegemony.

Of course, the problem with empiricist reductionism is obvious apart from postmodern criticisms. If propositions are cognitively meaningful if and only if they are subject to possible empirical verification, then the proposition, “a proposition is cognitively meaningful if and only if it is subject to empirical verification” becomes meaningless, too, since there is no possible sense experience that could verify such a claim. It turns out that the verification principle is a strictly an a priori idea—and a self-defeating one at that.

While the verification principle has been largely discredited in recent decades, the same reductionist assumptions are also evident in pragmatic views of science. Noted philosopher of science Nicholas Rescher comments on pragmatism’s tenet of the “ultimate completeness” of scientific knowledge:

[A]ll truth regarding the world will be realized by science in the theoretical long run . . . its comprehensiveness, nay, potential omniscience, [implies] that no general truths about the world are in principle beyond its ken… 4

More recently, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s consilience theory, attempting to fuse social values with natural science, offers the same basic reductionism:

If the empiricist worldview is correct, ought is just shorthand for one kind of factual statement, a word that denotes what society first chose (or was coerced) to do, and then codified. The naturalistic fallacy is thereby reduced to the naturalistic problem. The solution of the problem is not difficult: ought is the product of a material process. The solution points the way to an objective grasp of the origin of ethics.5

Wilson’s sociobiology purges moral language of its normativity, making morality a function of genetics. “Ought” reduces to genetically encoded human behaviors involved in survival and adaptation. Postmodern theorists point out the danger in science as metanarrative—from misogynist Virginia and Michigan sterilization laws in the early decades of this century to Hitler’s eugenics program.

The implications of scientism to human nature have changed little since Baron d’Holbach’s 1770 work, The System of Nature, in which he argued that natural science alone provides exhaustive knowledge of all aspects of human experience. Echoes of d’Holbach are evident in recent comments of Robert Haynes, president of the Sixteenth International Congress of Genetics:

For three thousand years at least, a majority of people have considered that human beings were special, were magic. It’s the Judeo-Christian view of man. What the ability to manipulate genes should indicate to people is the very deep extent to which we are biological machines. The traditional view is built on the foundation that life is sacred. . . . Well, not anymore. It’s no longer possible to live by the idea that there is something special, unique, even sacred about living organisms.6

Postmodern critique of scientism goes well beyond mere rejection of its epistemological foundation and metanarrative. Postmodernism is incredulous to all metanarrative because it rejects any form of epistemological foundationalism. Any attempt to ground knowledge claims in self-evident or rationally objective first principles is dismissed. Two lines of argument attempt to reveal the basic problems with foundationalism as it relates to scientific theories.

Reality and social construction

Since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,7 substantial attention has been given to the relationship between the objective methods of science and the subjective dimension of scientists as interpreters of data. One of Kuhn’s most helpful insights is that no one assesses data in an ideological or cultural vacuum.8 Consequently, science often reflects prevailing social ideology, and has been uncritically used in the service of obviously unscientific, i.e., philosophical causes. Darwin’s The Origin of Species, for example, is replete with language that describes natural phenomena in terms of nineteenth-century humanist optimism. His frequent use of teleological terms such as “useful,” “purpose,” “the good of each being,” “profitable,” “beneficial,” “advantageous,“ “success,” “welfare,” “perfection,” and “scale of nature,”9 occasioned the following observation from his contemporary Karl Marx:

It is remarkable that Darwin recognizes among brutes and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, “inventions,” and Malthusian “struggle of existence.”10

Postmodernist critique centers on the relationship between social context and scientific theorizing. They hold that no one can access reality from a culturally neutral context. It is not possible to remove scientists from their social and ideological biases. Consequently, researchers interpret data selectively, based on their own social location. Theories turn out to be an extension of the socially constructed consciousness of the researcher and the research community. Consequently, all theory is socially grounded interpretation rather than transculturally objective truths—foundationalism is at best a pretense, really little more than covert political posturing.

Postmodernists are interested in the rhetorical power of language as it relates to scientific theorizing. Words are inherently tools of persuasion and power. For this reason, there is always occasion for a subversive reading of science to reveal a political subtext. Once the subtext is revealed, the marginalization of the scientific metanarrative can be exposed.

Language, according to postmodern theorists, is largely metaphorical. A term is understood in terms of “totems,”11 or associations with other, usually unrelated but value-laden terms. For example, the Newtonian vision of reality governed by immutable laws of physics has been called the “clockwork universe.” The machine metaphor, borrowed from the industrial revolution, became the descriptive framework for reality. In a more subtle way, there are “technototems” that transfer the social consciousness of the scientist onto the research field. By discovering these technototems, postmodern critiques of natural science show the inherent social power relations in the scientific enterprise. These power relations manifest themselves in scientific discourse and are canonized as scientific knowledge. Ultimately, postmodernists claim, they are tools of power to justify the privileged status of one group at the expense of the powerless. David Hess points out that

controversies in cell biology often appear first as intellectual debates but can be unpacked to show that they are transferrable into structures of race and gender difference. Totemic relationships are not naturally given; they are constructed through the actions of one social group on another. Those actions are not innocent of power.12

Hess points to several examples of technototemism in biology. For instance, in the 1930s, the African American biologist Ernest Just argued in favor of the primacy of cytoplasm over nucleus in organism development. Postmodern analysts have argued that Just’s support for the role of cytoplasm had social implications centering on power relations.13 Hess suggests that structures of the cell can be viewed as a metaphor for society as a whole. The nucleus represents the elite and powerful and the cytoplasm, the marginalized masses without power. Just’s attention to the importance of the margins, the cytoplasm, rather than the nucleus, correspond to relationships between the center and the margins in American society. Just was, in effect, critiquing the political biology of the cell—from his African American context of marginalization and racism.

Because knowledge is mediated through the socially located consciousness of the researcher, science will always be subject to an open-ended process of politically motivated paradigms. Reality, as it turns out, is an ongoing social construction where “truth” is always political. Many postmodern analysts view the loss of objective foundation as an opportunity to create new social constructions of reality based on their cultural location.14

Epistemological nihilism

Linguistic theory is crucial to the postmodern rejection of foundationalism and metanarrative. According to postmodernists, human thought is mediated through language—we think and communicate linguistically. Since no one can conceptualize reality outside his or her own language system, postmodernists hold that everyone lives in the “prison-house of language.”15 The rules of language, syntax and semantics, establish the rules of rational thought.

There is an inner logic to language in which a word, or signifier, is defined in terms of other signifiers, which are in turn defined by still other signifiers. Since linguistic symbols relate to the system of language, not to an objective reality (the signified) all conceptualizations of data are simply “linguistic convention.”16 This effectively reduces all meaning to “language games.” To privilege one linguistic construction of reality over another is beyond all rational justification since no linguistic convention is finally more “objective” than any other. Science must take its place at the table with all other social constructions of reality. Postmodern theorist Jerome Bruner asserts,

The moment one abandons the idea that “the world” is there once for all and immutable, and substitutes for it the idea that what we take as the world is itself no more or less than a stipulation couched in a symbol system, then the shape of the discipline alters radically. And we are, at least in a position to deal with the myriad forms that reality can take—including realities created by story, as well as those created by science.17

So in the end, postmodernism leaves no room for rational objectivity, and consequently, no possibility of foundationalism of any kind. Intellectual life reduces to power and rhetorical posturing.


Linguistic constructivism

Critically engaging postmodernism must begin with its fundamental assumptions about the relationship of language to human thought. Are we, as they assert, condemned to the prison house of linguistic construction? Both logical and empirical grounds exist to reject this fatalistic view. First, and most obviously, the postmodern analysis of language is itself rooted in language. Thus, on its own terms, it reduces to nothing more than a language game. But if an analysis makes no claim to being objectively true, there exists no rationally compelling grounds to accept it.

Second, the fact that words are used to conceptualize and express thought does not mean that thinking is reducible to linguistics. Developmental psychology offers a helpful understanding of the relationship of thought to language. Carolyn Mervis’s research indicates that

[t]he world of the infant is a world of coherent, sharply delineated objects and events, to which she relates powerfully, though in an undifferentiated way, in the modes of perception, cognition, and emotion. . . . At the one-word level, the words learned most readily are those that refer to objects and events already well established in pre-linguistic intentionality. The word becomes attached as additional property, a kind of “handle” to the already existing prototype in term of which the object . . . has been conceptualized. The fact that these words refer to things already known explains the startling rapidity of the growth of the child’s vocabulary.18

The postmodern view of language and cognition is really inconsistent with these findings. Language is used as a tool to express thought, as a medium of communication, not the origin and controlling factor in human thought.

Social construction of theory

Postmodernists are, in part, correct in what they affirm about the role of ideology in intellectual theorizing. There can be little question that unscientific ideological elements have had an effect on science just as with all other disciplines. Postmodern critique is a helpful reminder of just how subjective people are. Sometimes the fusion of ideology and science has been disastrous, as in the case of social Darwinism. It also seems true in the history of science that researchers may select and interpret data based on philosophical commitment.19 But identifying science with scientism undermines the realistic, appropriate parameters of scientific authority.

The history of natural science demonstrates that postmodern critics are wrong in their view that science per se is inherently political. Researchers ascribing to widely divergent ideologies come to the same conclusions about an ever-growing body of scientific knowledge. It is in the application of this knowledge to public policy that we have most to fear from political ideologues.

Finally, there is an ironic relationship between scientific reductionism and postmodernism that too few have brought into the discussion. As we have seen, science as a worldview strips human life of intrinsic value and provides no basis for objective standards of justice. But postmodernism arrives at the same point. Since all knowledge claims reduce to logically arbitrary social constructions, then truths about human nature and human dignity are also social constructions. Postmodern theorist Kenneth Gergen notes,

With the spread of postmodern consciousness, we see the demise of personal definition, reason, authority. . . . All intrinsic properties of the human being, along with moral worth and personal commitment, are lost from view.20

What is the cost of this “demise of personal definition” and “moral worth”? David Hirsch raises the dilemma: “Purveyors of postmodern ideologies must consider whether it is possible to diminish human beings in theory, without, at the same time, making individual human lives worthless in the real world.”21 Postmodernists recognize the potential cost of their antihumanistic denial of objective human value. Gergen concedes:

Postmodernism has often been viewed as morally bankrupt because it fails to profess any fundamental values or principles. More forcefully put, postmodernism fails to offer arguments against Nazism or any other forms of cultural tyranny.22

But Gergen’s point is grossly understated. In point of fact, there are dangerous historical and conceptual connections between postmodern antihumanism and fascism.23 In his sobering and timely essay, “Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism,”24 George Stein states,

German philosophic romanticism was a xenophobic . . . reaction against the idea of“man” as a species. Rather,“men” participated in life or had their being through a unique natural and cultural identity. Folkism was established as both a philosophical ideology and as a political movement.25

For folkism, human value and human rights were associated with cultural identity just as it is for contemporary postmodernism. There simply are no inalienable rights, because there is no universal human essence. Individualism was also illusory for folkism in much the same way it is for contemporary postmodernists. Again citing Stein:

Man is a social species. Individualism is an illusion . . . each individual is subordinate to the social body of which he is a member.26

Individuals possess value only as they take their place in culture. This raises two questions. First, what is “culture”? Second, what does it mean to have a place in culture? Early fascists found the question of culture easy enough to define: Aryan folkism. And in the post–World War I era when Germany was searching for some way to regroup, folkism provided the rallying point. As to what it meant to have a place in folkish society, that was another matter. Stein points out,

[w]ithout human essentialism, folkish standards came to define normative humanity at the exclusion of other races, and even many within the race. [German social darwinist Ernst] Haeckel and others were thus willing to argue that we must assign a totally different value to their lives.27

Ideology alone could not accomplish the folkish ideal of the pure German Aryan state. But what if folkish romanticism and Aryan superiority were scientifically true? This was the claim of the German social Darwinists and the basis for the Nazi eugenics program. It was a scientific application of what postmodernists today call social constructivism. Social undesirables—those who did not fit the folkish ideal—were considered genetically inferior. As such they had a responsibility to subordinate their lives to the good of the state. As Haeckel stated,

[h]undreds of thousands of incurables—lunatics, lepers, people with cancer—are artificially kept alive without the slightest profit to themselves or the general body.27

The suggestion here is not that postmodernists are all fascists (though some were), but that far from incredulity to metanarrative, postmodern reductionistic assumptions actually justify tyranny. If there is no possibility of rational objectivity, then discourse and theorizing must reduce to a raw exercise of the “will to power.”

In this brief reflection on scientism and its postmodern critics, it appears that neither view is rationally coherent, neither adequate. Both contribute important elements to our understanding of ourselves and our world, but like a twin-sized sheet on a king-sized bed, something is left uncovered. I would suggest that the theological tradition provides the missing piece: an objective basis for human dignity, human rights, and moral values. Within this framework, science can find its fullest expression as tool of human good.


  1. Sokal AD. Transgressing the boundaries: toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Soc Text 14; 1996: 217–252. See also Boghossian P. What the Sokal hoax ought to teach us. Times Literary Supplement. 13 December 1996: 14–15.
  2. Levine JS, Miller, KR. Biology Discovering Life. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath; 1994; italics added.
  3. Ayer, AJ. Language, Truth and Logic. New York, NY: Dover Publications; 1952: 34, 161.
  4. Rescher N. Peirce’s Philosophy of Science. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press; 1978: 20. Note that the first principle of Peirce’s pragmatism offers a substantive contribution to the philosophy of science and avoids the extravagances of the second.
  5. Wilson EO. The biological basis of morality. Atlantic Monthly. April 1998: 53–70.
  6. Cited in Kimbrell A. The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco; 1993: 233–234.
  7. Kuhn T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 1962.
  8. Kuhn has been rightly criticized for overstating the role of culturally constructed paradigms on the progress of science. See Scheffler I. Science and Subjectivity. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing; 1982: 126–138.
  9. Kass L. Toward a More Natural Science. New York: Free Press; 1985: 265 gives an extensive list of ideology-laden language that has shaped the conceptualization of Darwin’s observations, and in turn, the cultural perception of evolution.
  10. Cited in Sahlins M. Evolution and Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press; 1976: 53.
  11. Hess D. Science and Technology in a Multicultural World: The Cultural Politics of Facts and Artifacts. New York, NY: Columbia University Press; 1995: 22.
  12. Ibid., 22–23.
  13. Sapp J. Beyond the Gene: Cytoplasmic Inheritance and the Struggle for Authority in Genetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1991.
  14. Rosenau PM. Postmodernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1992 terms the politically engaged postmodern critics “affirmative postmodernists” because social construction always carries the promise of fashioning new constructions of reality.
  15. Jameson F. The Prison House of Language. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1972.
  16. Eagleton T. Literary Theory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press; 1983: 105.
  17. Bruner J. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1986.
  18. Mervis C. On the existence of prelinguistic categories: a case study. Infant Behavior and Development 1985; 8. Cited in McIntosh D. Language, self, and lifeworld in Habermas’s theory of communicative action. Theory Soc 1994; 23: 22.
  19. Denton M. Darwinism: A Theory in Crisis. London: Burnett; 1985 provides some helpful illustrations of this point.
  20. Gergen K. The Saturated Self. New York: Basic Books; 1991: 228–229.
  21. Hirsch D. The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz. Hanover, NH: Brown University Press; 1991: 165.
  22. Gergen. The Saturated Self, 231.
  23. Veith, GE. Today’s Fascism. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Press; 1993.
  24. Stein G. Biological science and the roots of Nazism. Am Sci. 1988; 76: 50–58.
  25. Ibid., 53
  26. Ibid., 56
  27. Ibid., 55
  28. Cited in ibid., 54