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.