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Augustine’s Cup: Boundary Conditions and Relocating Science in a Post-postmodern World
Unformatted Document Text:  claims of radical relativists, who propose that the claims of various narrative communities are determined politically, but that otherwise have equivalent claim as descriptions or ways of understanding reality and shaping behavior. The sciences provide a method for making probabilistic judgments. Therefore, the scientific method presents, from this perspective, a fundamental challenge to those radical postmodern relativists (e.g., Lyotard) who argue for equal value of all “narratives” or ways of constructing the world. In an anthropologic sense, each narrative may be understood to have validity in describing how different communities of human beings attempt to create meaning and identify. Lyotard, for example, appears to argue that since nothing is absolutely knowable, any narrative may have equivalent claim on the truth. 17 The logic of such a position is flimsy indeed, based as it is on a criterion of absolute knowledge. If one accepts knowledge as consisting of an evolving and probabilistic set of propositions, based on rules of evidence and open to revision as new evidence is uncovered, then some assertions clearly become more probable than others. The radical relativist, at base, is arguing that only certainty is an acceptable basis for choosing one account of physical or social reality over another. If one is willing to accept evidence and probability as an alternative criterion, one needs a method for obtaining evidence and establishing probabilities. If one accepts success in explanation and prediction as support for the method, the use of probability and evidence based on such methods becomes a viable, though far from fully reliable, method of making such choices and distinctions. It is a distortion of postmodernism, of course, to represent it solely by radical relativists. A part of the postmodern critique that scientists may find unpleasant but not fundamentally objectionable is the argument that science has a mythological function in modern society. It is part of the narrative that justifies social institutions, relations, and

Authors: Slater, Michael.
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claims of radical relativists, who propose that the claims of various narrative communities
are determined politically, but that otherwise have equivalent claim as descriptions or ways
of understanding reality and shaping behavior.
The sciences provide a method for making probabilistic judgments. Therefore, the
scientific method presents, from this perspective, a fundamental challenge to those radical
postmodern relativists (e.g., Lyotard) who argue for equal value of all “narratives” or ways of
constructing the world. In an anthropologic sense, each narrative may be understood to
have validity in describing how different communities of human beings attempt to create
meaning and identify. Lyotard, for example, appears to argue that since nothing is absolutely
knowable, any narrative may have equivalent claim on the truth.
17
The logic of such a
position is flimsy indeed, based as it is on a criterion of absolute knowledge. If one accepts
knowledge as consisting of an evolving and probabilistic set of propositions, based on rules
of evidence and open to revision as new evidence is uncovered, then some assertions clearly
become more probable than others. The radical relativist, at base, is arguing that only
certainty is an acceptable basis for choosing one account of physical or social reality over
another. If one is willing to accept evidence and probability as an alternative criterion, one
needs a method for obtaining evidence and establishing probabilities. If one accepts success
in explanation and prediction as support for the method, the use of probability and evidence
based on such methods becomes a viable, though far from fully reliable, method of making
such choices and distinctions.
It is a distortion of postmodernism, of course, to represent it solely by radical
relativists. A part of the postmodern critique that scientists may find unpleasant but not
fundamentally objectionable is the argument that science has a mythological function in
modern society. It is part of the narrative that justifies social institutions, relations, and


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