Semantics and the Need for Good Explanations

Semantics have long played a role in the culture wars. As we grapple with the implications of concentration camps, identity politics and postmodernism, we are in desperate need of a rational means of resolving conflicting ideologies, a way of settling the is before deciding on the ought. We need good explanations.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch makes the case for the pursuit of good explanations as the only means of enabling progress and moving past word games. Deutsch argues that—contrary to the assertions of empiricism that we derive our theories of how things work from sensory experience—we begin with conjectures and use experience to alter them as we go along: despite having never experienced flight, we developed good explanatory theories about flying and then flew, in that order. Part of what makes an explanation good is that it is hard to vary—our current explanation about the seasons is predicated on a number of factors—planet tilt, orbit, etc.—rather than, say, a mythological ancient god—who could be swapped for an infinite number of other divinities without changing the story—warming or cooling the planet. Good explanations have predictive power. We can expect the law of gravity to apply on both on Earth and Mars—which allowed us to land a rover on Mars, without ever having experienced Mars directly.

In Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s recent debate, Zizek challenged Peterson on his frequent use of the term postmodern neo-Marxism, which he claims is prevalent on the academic left. Zizek asked Peterson to name one person who exemplified this. Peterson could not. Instead, he responded that Marxism and postmodernism are connected by shared narratives of oppression. However, as Zizek pointed out, Foucault and other postmodernists developed their theories (i.e. their explanations) in express opposition to large overarching historical narratives like Marx’s. Essentially, Marx’s theory of capital and class struggle is about as far removed from postmodernism as it’s possible to get. As a critique of postmodernism, Marxism or leftist academia, Peterson’s approach is unclear at best and flat out wrong at worst. It tells us nothing about why narratives of oppression might be problematic and, therefore, why postmodernism is a bad explanation. Contrast this with Deutsch’s critique of postmodernism, deconstructionism and structuralism in Infinity. For Deutsch, postmodernism is a bad explanation of the world because of its own internal logic: “it is a narrative that resists rational criticism or improvement, precisely because it rejects all criticism as mere narrative.”

Offering explanations for our choices of terms in the battle of ideologies shapes our ability to make social and political progress. Deutsch applies Popper’s criterion, whereby the ideal political system makes it as easy as possible to detect and non-violently remove bad ideas and leaders, rather than try to install good ones. Deutsch’s and Popper’s approaches are defined by their availability to criticism—which postmodernism lacks.

Deutsch’s work on good explanations provides us with a filter through which to sift competing descriptions of what is, based on the availability and openness to criticism of explanations. We can argue over the meaning of human life, for example, by first developing hard-to-vary explanations of it, and then criticizing and refining those in order to better arrive at what assembly (or lack thereof) of constituent parts (brain function, heartbeat, consciousness, etc.) is pre-requisite and how different configurations will predict whether a fetus has begun living or not. By extension, we can also predict when a human life has been extinguished. Then and only then will we be able to proceed to the ought. The factual underpinnings (our explanations) must inform our moral judgments, but must also be understood as necessarily flawed and open to criticism.

This pursuit of good explanations need not lead to the temptation of infinite regress or the continuum fallacy. Explanations can be endlessly supported by infinitely regressive propositions that require their own explanations. Conversely, we face the paradoxical problem of trying to decide the exact point at which something is, say, objectively alive—just as we would if deciding whether someone were bald (i.e. deciding how many hairs would need to be added to a bald head before it could no longer be defined as bald). These problems should not stop us from attempting to formulate increasingly refined explanations for our reality: they simply indicate that we must continue to be critical of the ability of such explanations to better reflect reality and, accordingly, dictate how we should behave.

For the sake of making progress in our ideologies and their societal implications, we must demand of ourselves and one another an accounting for—and openness to criticism of—our explanations. Moving on from flawed explanations (or at least the erroneous parts of them) is the only way in which we will better grasp reality and what we should do with it. Peterson’s willingness to expose his explanations to criticism is to his credit and to everyone’s benefit—there may be flaws in Marx’s theories, but they do not explain postmodernism’s influence on academic thought nor does postmodernism’s failure reflect on Marx’s ideas about class struggle. But, without Peterson’s attempt to explain the connection between the two, we might have continued circulating the bad and pointless explanation about postmodern neo-Marxism. By exposing a bad explanation, we invite an attempt at a new, better one. And that, as Deutsch argues, is progress.

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  1. “Foucault and other postmodernists developed their theories (i.e. their explanations) in express opposition to large overarching historical narratives like Marx’s”
    It’s almost a commonplace at this point that Foucault did end up creating an overarching historical narrative. Surely the fact he failed in his goal and ended up with something not too dissimilar to Marxism, even if that wasn’t the intent, is relevant. I wish Peterson would reply something like this.

  2. “It tells us nothing about why narratives of oppression might be problematic and, therefore, why postmodernism is a bad explanation.”

    It seems to me that Dr. P is very clear why it is problematic. Firstly because it isn’t true, and secondly because it institutionalizes tribalism.

    1. Yes, but calling left-wing ideas you don’t agree with “Marxism” (if there is minimal relation to actual Marxism) is not much different than branding right-wing ideas that you don’t agree with “Nazism” or “fascism”. Name calling rarely advances any conversation.

      1. What a fascinating mess language is. We fight about the meaning of words and we sorta hafta because if we are not clear what we mean we can’t say anything. Yet, words are plastic, they have soft edges, and they change meanings. We overload them with innuendo and magic spells. Yeah, we could ‘brand’ postmodernism as Marxist, or we could just note that there are indeed similarities without getting emotional about it.

        It seems to me that Dr. P knows that there are difficulties will all of these terms, they are always vague and abstract, but he’s trying to convey a comparison. Marxism is based on the narrative that there is this eternal struggle between labor and capital and that they are as different as oil and water and that the former must destroy the latter utterly because the latter is eternally wicked. Postmodernism — or some other label, but what might be called ‘Victimism’, the religion of the SJWs, — simply takes that framework and changes the actors: Instead of ‘capital’ we have The Patriarchy, evil and oppressive, and we have The Victims: wimin, POC, LGBTQ++?!, Muslims. The eschatology is identical: at the End of Days, The Victims, united against Oppression, will smash The Patriarchy and we will enter paradise. Surely the comparison is apt?

        1. “Religion”, “eschatology”, “End Times”,…
          This suggests the superficial similarities between Marxism and Postmodernism are due to both following a much older template….

  3. Part of the problem is our linear approach to a cyclical reality. As mobile, intentional organisms, we experience reality as flashes of perception and cognition, then narrate our journeys to one another and build civilizations out of the collective knowledge. So the narrative form dominates and is the basis for all culture.
    Ye time is not so much the point of the present flowing past to future, as it is change turning future to past. tomorrow becomes yesterday, because the earth turns.
    The effect is that while process goes past to future, the patterns generated go future to past. Consciousness goes past to future, while thoughts go future to past.
    Yet we are stuck in this narrative paradigm, like geocentrics trying to explain how the sun moves from east to west.
    Time is an effect, like temperature, pressure, color, etc. We could use ideal gas laws to correlate volume with temperature and pressure, but no one calls them 5th and 6th dimensions of space, because they are only foundational to our emotions, bodily functions and environment, rather then the sequencing of thought. Basically the left, logical hemisphere of the brain is a clock, while the right, emotional, intuitive side is a thermostat.
    There is no physical dimension of time, because the past is consumed by the present, in order to inform it, aka, causality.
    Different clocks run at different rates, because they are separate actions. Think frequencies, or metabolism.
    Time is asymmetric, because the activity being measured is inertial. The earth turns one direction, not either. The relative order of a system, entropy, is not what is measured and is irrelevant.
    So basically this reality is a tapestry being woven of strands pulled from it, in infinite feedback loops. As such, thermodynamics better describes what is happening, than the cause and effect of time. The future cannot be predetermined, as there is only this physical present, in which all calculations and determinations occur.
    Reality is this dichotomy of energy radiating out, as form coalesces in. Think galaxies. As organisms, we have the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems, processing the energy driving us on, along with a central nervous system to sort through the information precipitating out, as well as referee the emotions and impulses bubbling up.
    Society is this dichotomy of energies, emotions, sects, identities, etc, bubbling up, as civil and cultural forms coalesce in. basically liberal and conservative, youth and age. Yet because we have this narrative focus, each side sees themselves on the path to a more wonderful future, while those going the other way must be total fools.
    Neither understanding the forces compelling this circularity are far greater than any human emotion or cultural model.
    Eventually we might develop a more reciprocal, cyclical paradigm, but the current model will have to irrevocably fail first.

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