Uncertain Uncertainty

Postmodernism unravels

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online, April 4, 2002 8:30 a.m.

When Michael Frayn's award-winning play, Copenhagen, came out, it seemed too good to be true. Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who identified the "Uncertainty Principle" in quantum physics (in which full knowledge is under some circumstances impossible to attain) might or might not have tried to subvert Nazi Germany's nuclear-weapons program. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the most famous idea of modern physics, had become a cornerstone of postmodern thinking, in which the possibility of objective truth is denied; so it was very fitting to see a postmodern play in which even the moral principles of the Uncertainty Principle's creator are themselves uncertain.

Truth, however, turns out to be more stubborn than the postmodernists wish. New evidence has emerged that Heisenberg was not opposed to the Nazis. Moreover, new research suggests that much of what Heisenberg taught about physics may be wrong, and that reality is not so indefinite as the postmodernists want to believe.

Along with Heisenberg, the great founder of quantum mechanics was the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, was also a leading character in the play Copenhagen; Bohr died in 1962, Heisenberg in 1976. Recently revealed letters from Bohr's archive show that Heisenberg didn't sabotage the German nuclear effort at all, despite his post-war claims to have done so. According to one letter, which Bohr wrote after the war, but never sent to Heisenberg: "you…expressed your definite conviction that Germany would win and that it was therefore quite foolish for us to maintain the hope of a different outcome of the war and to be reticent as regards all German offers of cooperation…you spoke in a manner that could only give me the firm impression that, under your leadership, everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons…." According to Bohr, Heisenberg had a "certain conviction of a German victory and confidence in what it would bring."

Heisenberg's accommodating relationship with Nazism is hardly unique among the great thinkers of postmodernism. Martin Heidegger, the most influential philosopher of the 20th century and the founder of postmodernism, adored Nazism. He lavished praise on Hitler in Heidegger's inaugural speech as Rektorat at the University of Freiburg, explaining that the Fuhrer offered Germany the opportunity to reject modern industrial capitalism, and to recover its true, authentic culture.

Heidegger called human existence Dasein ("being-there"), meaning that existence was controlled by one's culture. Since an individual had no control over "thrown-ness" (geworfen— what culture he was born into), there is nothing fundamentally unique about an individual, nor is there anything which all humans have in common. This turned out to be a powerful philosophical foundation for Nazism: Individual Germans had no existence outside their German culture and, having no common traits with humanity, Germans should have no qualms about subjugating other people. National Socialism, Heidegger explained, was true Being.

Likewise reinforcing Nazism was Heidegger's insistence that authentic living was impossible unless one had rejected the hope of an immortal soul (and thus rejected the possibility of facing a Final Judgment), and instead grappled with inevitability of "Being-toward-Death."

Among Heidegger's admirers was literary critic Paul de Man, who collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation of Belgium, penning literary essays for a pro-Nazi newspaper in which he condemned Jews for their supposed vulgarity, and proposed deportation as a solution to the "Jewish problem." After the war, de Man moved to Yale, where he founded the "Yale School" of deconstructionist literary criticism; beginning at Yale, de Man's theories spread throughout American universities, thereby politicizing humanities and literature departments with radical anti-Westernism and anti-rationalism.

A litany of the stars of post-modernism is mostly a litany for admirers of some form of totalitarianism. Although the Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre participated in the French Underground during World War II, he defended Stalinism and Maoism, even the Cultural Revolution. Sartre wrote the introduction to Marxist psychiatrist Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth (published in 1961, but still enormously influential on campuses today). The book describes the Algerian anti-colonial war against France, and extols the purifying force of violence, especially racial terrorism of natives against the distinct "species" of whites and their native allies. Fanon inspired murderous racists and hatemongers around the world, including the Black Panthers.

The intellectual founder of the 1979 Iranian revolution was Ali Shariat, who studied at the Sorbonne, and liked Fanon and Sartre so much that he translated them into Farsi. Another deconstructionist disciple of Heidegger's, Michel Foucault, swooned that Ayatollah Khomeini was "a kind of mystic saint." Foucault welcomed the Ayatollah's "political spirituality" which would take Iran back to its natural roots, overthrowing the modernizing forces of global capitalism. In this regard, the Ayatollah's program for Iran was quite similar to Hitler's program for Germany.

Indeed, postmodernism has been the intellectual Axis of Evil of many mass killers. As Walter Newell writes in The Weekly Standard:

Just as Heidegger wanted the German people to return to a foggy, medieval, blood and soil collectivism purged of the corruptions of modernity, and just as Pol Pot [who, like Shariat, studied at the Sorbonne] wanted Cambodia to return to the Year Zero, so does Osama dream of returning his world to the imagined purity of seventh century Islam. And just as Fanon argued that revolution can never accomplish its goals through negotiation or peaceful reform, so does Osama regard terror as good in itself, a therapeutic act, quite apart from any concrete aim. The willingness to kill is proof of one's purity.

If you don't believe The Weekly Standard, try The Hindustan Times, which explains that "Osama bin Laden is not a medieval but a post-modern phenomenon."

The enmity between postmodernism and capitalism is not accidental. Capitalism believes that individuals are unique, and should be able to act in a free market to fulfill their unique desires. Rather than being prisoners of their culture, individuals are free to pursue their own dreams. Rather than seeking a reversion to the primitive, supposedly authentic past, capitalism looks forward to a dynamic, ever-changing future, in which authenticity is created by the individual, rather than imposed by an omnipotent Hitler or Khomeini.

What does all this have to do with Werner Heisenberg? The answer is that Heisenberg provided what was seen as the scientific foundation for postmodernism.

Architect Philip Johnson notes that a core value of postmodernism is "a loathing for 'bourgeois values' (a.k.a. truth, beauty, and goodness)." Yet, preferring Rigoberta Menchu (communist author of a fraudulent autobiography about her nonexistent "peasant" childhood in Guatemala) to Jane Austen (an advocate of truth, beauty, and goodness) is itself nothing more than a literary taste. Why should students be taught that a taste for totalitarian untruths is superior to a taste for literature founded on eternal values?

The dominant approach has been to attack language itself. Great emphasis is placed on the contingency of language, the difficulties of being sure what another person really means, the inseparability of any text from its cultural context, barriers to genuine communication, and so on. This is been the project of, most famously, Heidegger's disciple Jacques Derrida and, in a very different way, another disciple, German Marxist Jürgen Habermas.

For some people, though, undermining language is insufficient. A person can understand the contingency of knowledge and communication, and still come away believing in Western democracy, in rational science, and in eternal values. This is precisely what the great Protestant philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr did at the middle of the 20th century. Political thinkers who were influenced by Niebuhr, such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., confidently proclaimed that American democracy was morally superior to Stalinism. Similarly, James Madison's Federalist 37 explained how the limitations of human language created "unavoidable inaccuracy" in the communication of ideas. Yet Madison did not view this problem as proving that truth did not exist, or that preferring freedom to tyranny was merely an arbitrary taste.

Heisenberg's great contribution was to provide a scientific foundation for the attack on the very existence of truth, and hence on the existence of moral values. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle began with Heisenberg's experiments in subatomic physics. He found that you could know an electron's position, or you could know an electron's momentum, but you couldn't know both at the same time; by measuring one, you would change the other. Taken to a much broader level, because one is always part of the system that one is observing, it is impossible to know anything about the system with certainty.

Some extensions of the Uncertainty Principle can be thought provoking and benign. For example, in 1979, Gary Zukav and David Finkelstein authored The Dancing Wu Li Masters : An Overview of the New Physics, which used the Uncertainty Principle, as well as many other elements of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and other (then) cutting-edge physics to introduce the reader to Eastern mysticism.

But as Marxist sociology professor Stanley Aronowitz (City University of New York) has argued in his book Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society, Heisenberg's work also seems to legitimize the whole postmodern project. Because of physics' reputation as the most rigorous and neutral of all the sciences, the work of Heisenberg and his colleague Niels Bohr seem to supply the definitive proof for postmodernism's skepticism about truth and universal values. If, as Aronowitz and other postmodernists argue, Heisenberg showed that even science didn't have objective truth, then literature and the humanities certainly could not.

The modern academy's use of physics in the service of postmodernism was criticized in several books: The Flight from Science and Reason; A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science; and Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. This latter book so enraged the postmodern academy that an entire 1996 issue of the journal Social Text was devoted to attacking it. That special issue of Social Text, long a cutting-edge pomo journal, included a counter-essays by the journal's cofounder Stanley Aronowitz and other postmodernists. The concluding article was "Transgressing Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" by New York University physicist Alan D. Sokal.

Sokal began by affirming postmodern principles: "it has become increasingly apparent that physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Thus, "scientific 'knowledge,' far form being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it." Sokal went on to link various scientific or mathematical subjects (such as Paul Joseph Cohen's work on the mathematical Axiom of Choice) with social concepts with which they had no relation (such as radical feminism).

In most cases, Sokal simply asserted that the scientific theory supported the (always-leftist) social result for which was arguing. The meat of the article was an argument that quantum gravity (a genuine field of study, involving attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity) proved the case for "progressive" politics. Sokal concluded by urging that science, especially mathematics and physics, be conducted with the intent of supporting radical feminist and other "progressive" causes. He even argued that the value of pi was socially constructed.

A short while later, Sokal announced in the magazine Lingua Franca that the whole thing was a hoax. Although Sokal is Marxist who had worked with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, he objected to postmodernism's misuse of hard science. He wrote of that his essay was a parody of how postmodernism had combined 1930s physics, linguistics theory, and political correctness to produce an academic literature that meant absolutely nothing. The Bohr/Heisenberg denial of reality had reached its culmination; one could write articles using Bohr and Heisenberg to describe things having nothing to do with physics. And, like the subatomic world described by Bohr and Heisenberg, the article could be incomprehensible, lacking any fixed reality. Later, Sokal coedited a follow-up book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.

Aronowitz and the rest of the postmodernists were not acting contrary to the intentions of Heisenberg, who hoped that his theories of physics "will exert their influence upon the wider fields of the world of ideas [just as] the changes at the end of the Renaissance transformed the cultural life of the succeeding epochs." Max Born, another founder of quantum physics, wrote that "epistemological lessons" from physics could answer questions such as the relationship between capitalism and socialism. Niels Bohr was even more aggressive in promoting the Uncertainty Principle into a general statement of the nature of reality, and insisting that principles from quantum mechanics were not just interesting metaphors with which to discuss society, but scientific facts about human culture.

Yet it turns out that much of Heisenberg wrote (and hence, the scientific basis of postmodernism) may be losing its "privileged position" of indisputable scientific truth.

The physicist Carver Mead, of the California Institute of Technology, is the author of Collective Electrodynamics: Quantum Foundations of Electromagnetism(MIT Press, 2000) which suggests that much of what Bohr and Heisenberg claimed was wrong. (Bohr, by the way, was always anti-Nazi, was spirited out of Denmark in 1943 by the Danish resistance, and went on to collaborate with Einstein in the Manhattan Project.)

At a famous debate in Copenhagen, Albert Einstein uttered his famous line "God doesn't play dice with the universe" — as Einstein objected to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and to Bohr's vision of the randomness and incomprehensibility of reality.

Carver is attempting to topple Bohr/Heisenberg from their current roles as the ultimate geniuses of physics, just as previous intellectuals shattered the auras of authority and infallibility which once, wrongly, surrounded Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

According to Carver, Bohr beat Einstein in the Copenhagen debates, held in 1927 and 1930, simply through the force of Bohr's intimidating, dictatorial personality. What Bohr and Heisenberg pronounced as true for all time turns out simply to be the product of their limited understanding, Carver argues.

The conflicts that Bohr/Heisenberg claimed between their own quantum mechanics and Einstein's theories of relativity turn out to be resolvable into a single unified theory, says Carver. Carver argues that Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong in claiming that the laws of logic do not apply at the subatomic level, and also wrong in claiming that the subatomic world is fundamentally random.

Only time will tell if Mead's theories to reconceptualize quantum physics will gain wide acceptance. But the very existence of Mead's book suggests that Heisenberg and Bohr are just as subject to "contestation" as any other idea; the Bohr/Heisenberg view is not an unarguable scientific fact upon which to found a philosophy of human existence.

If Heisenberg and Bohr were wrong that quantum events (e.g., where an electron is) are fundamentally random, then the use of their theory to label traditional literature as politically incorrect may also be wrong:

The other postmodern defining notion: the end of narrative or overarching themes or missions or purposes. Nothing was as it seemed. We were all atoms that occasionally bumped randomly against each other.

Postmodernism's hostility to big narratives isn't just a function of particle physics, however. The underlying rationale is ideological, as explained by the newsletter of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists:

It is difficult, however, to imagine how one could be suspicious of meta-narratives without a de-centering of the West, since the most powerful narrative of the last 200 years has been the one that told the tale of the West's destiny. With this in mind then, I would suggest that it is more useful for Muslims to understand post-modernism as the de-centering of the West. . ..

The author goes on to describe the demonization of "Bin Laden's 'terrorism'" and the rejection of postmodernism as two forms of false consciousness which impede Muslim political action.

Yet the political consequence of the September 11 attacks is the recentering of the West (more precisely, the United States) more powerfully than ever before. The United States is indeed the world's hegemon, capable of toppling a regime on the other side of the world in a few weeks, while suffering very low casualties itself. Notwithstanding the objections of Syrian diplomats or Belgian Eurocrats, the United States and its simplisme can conquer at will, with little need for multilateral approval.

And literature? Well, destroy-American-society-first is still doing pretty well in university bookstores. Duke literature professor Michael Hardt has teamed up with Antonio Negri, an Italian terrorist and poet currently in prison for his role as a leader of the murderous Red Brigades. Negri later became good friends with Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Hardt and Negri have produced Empire, a 500-page combination of postmodernism, Marxism, and antiglobalism. It is one of the hottest university bestsellers in many a year.

But far more Americans have been reading Lord of the Rings, which retells "the tale of the West's destiny" to vindicate freedom and destroy evil.

The meta-narrative of the last several years — astride the best-seller list like a colossus — has been the Harry Potter series. Neither LOTR nor Potter is a direct Christian allegory, but both narratives are infused with The Greatest Story Ever Told. They promote the brotherhood of man, the capacity of an individual to change the world, the possibilities of hope rather than the limits of our current condition — and they pronounce that our actions are to be judged according to eternal moral standards. The heroes in LOTR and in Harry Potter are offered ultimate power, and they refuse it, because the power would be in the service of evil.

At the end of Harry Potter's book one, Harry confronts the Hitlerian Lord Voldemort and the Quislingish Professor Quirrel. Voldemort orders Harry to cooperate with him, and Quirrel claims: "There is no good and evil, only power." Harry refuses, risking his life.

Heisenberg was offered the same choice by Hitler. The newly revealed Bohr letters explain that Heisenberg's justification for building the A-bomb for the Nazis was that Heisenberg was certain they would win. Heisenberg obviously did not believe that it would be morally better to be killed by the SS than to help the Nazis build a weapon of mass destruction with which be used to murder millions of innocents. Heisenberg's collaborationist rationale fit precisely with the Hitler/Voldemort philosophy that power is the only reality. Indeed, "there is no truth, only power," summarizes Heisenberg's theory of physics and its application to moral philosophy.

We didn't really need J. K. Rowling or new discoveries in subatomic physics to remember that freedom is good and tyranny is evil. But we did need to recover our nation's moral compass.

A few years ago Americans were willing to listen to a president discuss the meaning of "is" as he were at a Modern Language Association meeting. September 11 showed us the face of pure evil. Our nation has seen the enemy plainly, and that vision may be the beginning of the end of postmodernism in America. It is no coincidence that the places in America which have been the most reluctant to call al Qaeda evil have been the places where postmodernism is strongest.

The rest of America has, happily, finally mustered the self-confidence to stand up to this form of radical nihilism.

We will continue to debate the nature of language and of the subatomic, and we will continue to tolerate and celebrate diverse cultures. We can do all of these things without teaching college students (including foreign students who may one day rule their homeland) that living as a serf under the tyranny of Wahhabis, Nazis, or Stalinists is more authentically human than living as a free American.

George Bush is our first post-postmodern president. He can't tell Heisenberg from Heidegger but, unlike them, he can tell right from wrong:

It is always and everywhere wrong to target and kill the innocent. It is always and everywhere wrong to be cruel and hateful, to enslave and oppress. It is always and everywhere right to be kind and just, to protect the lives of others, and to lay down your life for a friend.

Postmodernism is on its way to the ash heap of history.

Share this page:

| More

 

Kopel RSS feed Click the icon to get RSS/XML updates of this website, and of Dave's blog posts.

Follow Dave on Twitter.

Search Kopel website:

Make a donation to support Dave Kopel's work in defense of constitutional rights and public safety.
Donate Now!

Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @ i2i.org

Copyright © 2014