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Society & Reason

Postmodern Flames In Brazil

Marcos A. Raposo asks if postmodernism can survive science, and vice versa.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it ‘liquid modernity’. Although it is extremely multifaceted and complex, the postmodern condition can be described, in a nutshell, as disillusionment with the great overarching explanations of the world, including those provided by religion and science. Postmodernism can also be understood through its main symptoms, such as the multiplication of minor, transitory narratives, relativism (the inability to say that any of the narratives are truer or better than any of the others), and hyperreality (the substitution of reality by fiction).

In 2018, postmodernity lunged upon Brazilians in all its colors and intensities as the great destroyer of truths and facts. It was present in the fire of September 2nd that year, which destroyed our biggest natural history museum, the Museu Nacional, and the millions of facts and truths previously preserved therein. Nothing could be more symbolic than those flames. This destruction of a museum of facts also contrasted with the opening in Brazil two years earlier of a museum without objects, the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã), which was focused mainly on the exploration of narratives built with the help of digital images. In fact, a traditional museum with collections of artifacts, really is a museum of yesterday.

Here I want to argue that the destruction of museum collections, rather than representing a historic accident, is an almost inevitable consequence of the postmodern condition, but also that reversing this trend is of fundamental importance for preserving our identity as a species.

The Decline of Absolute Truth

The line of reasoning which led eventually to postmodernism perhaps began during the Enlightenment. Stimulated by the discoveries of Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Kepler, Galileo, but mainly by Newtonian physics, a widespread belief took hold that science would gradually unveil reality and finally reveal the truth of things. The positivist philosophers of the 19th century – particularly Auguste Comte – took this optimism about science to a whole new level. They believed, for example, that through full knowledge of the parts, we would dominate the whole. Know your cells well, and you can control your body. Know a human well enough, and you will know humanity. Use science well, and you will be able to build an impeccable ethical and moral system. Comte’s positivist ideas – and the secular ‘religion of humanity’ he founded – became popular in Brazil. Comtian ‘Temples of Humanity’ were founded in different parts of the country, and the motto which appears on Brazil’s flag, Ordem e Progresso, (Order and Progress) is derived from Comte’s writings. However, it did not take long for philosophy to impose compelling questions here: Could we really know what the world is like? Would our senses allow us to be sure about reality? Or will we be forever cursed by Plato’s cave of illusion?

Addressing these questions, Immanuel Kant showed us that facts only become facts within us, as part of a representation of the world constructed by our minds. Later we would discover that in addition to the filters of our senses, facts were also shaped by the knowledge and systems of values of those who perceived them. From this facts became increasingly seen as a human construction, subjective and distant from the original impression of being absolute and static entities. The old phrase “Against facts there are no arguments” lost more and more meaning. And the way you or I perceive the world is, and always will be, unique. As unique as a face.

Once facts and truths were deconstructed, positivist philosophers still nourished hopes that a moral system based on scientific knowledge could be built. But then came two world wars and two atom bombs. Science proved unable, alone, to erect any such ethical edifice.

Our truths and optimism were dripping through our fingers. It was up to the philosopher of science Karl Popper to seal the positivist coffin. According to him, hypotheses are scientific only if they are potentially falsifiable. But this meant that no scientific hypothesis could ever be considered an absolute truth. There would no longer be any proven scientific hypotheses. There are only tested and corroborated ones. All hypotheses are refutable, transitory and more a representation of reality than reality itself. The Socratic wisdom, "I only know that I know nothing", was, once and for all, incorporated into science.

Interestingly, science, which was once seen as frowning and arrogant, has become, perhaps, the most open of the systems of knowledge. As it came to see itself more as a translation of the world than a description of it, it was natural, even, to allow the simultaneous existence of competing explanatory models. Sometimes, more than one tool is needed in our relationship with reality. To use a classic Freudian parable, our models and theories are like a beacon at night, illuminating the sea for ships to sail safely. They illuminate what matters, while the rest remains floating around in the penumbra.

An interesting example rarely discussed outside of biology is that of species. Species are organisms grouped together based on certain conceptual criteria. But several different species concepts exist, each potentially resulting in different groupings. There are scientists who consider reproduction as being of primary importance for the definition of species – those animals that can healthily interbreed are of the same species; there are others who consider kinship relationships to be more important. Then there are those who regard morphological (physical) similarities and differences as paramount. There are those who believe that genetic distances between populations matter. Then there are those who simply obey their mentors – as in the case of my students. As a result, a postmodern scientist could live with various classifications from his zoological or botanical groups without considering any of the proposals necessarily wrong. On the contrary, this multiplication of small narratives is of great importance, as it provides the scholar with a wide repertoire of tools to understand the world. For each question he asks, he can use the model that suits him best.

It can be said that the search for the truth in postmodernity would be something like climbing to a mountain summit in order to view the landscape. In theory, each climber can climb the mountain by placing his hand and foot alternately in a combination of unique crevices, with infinite possibilities of choices. But since there is always someone who climbs the wall first, it will be she or he who will attach the bolts which will then be used by the other climbers. This does not however prevent other climbers from deciding to create other paths and attaching new bolts.

But that freedom presents some traps. Scientists who never say that they have the truth in their hands are not for everyone. Experienced real scientists, finding it difficult to live with multiple narratives and history, ended up exposing serious problems linked to this relative discomfort.

Fire at Museu Naciona
The museum, and its contents, and knowledge, going up in smoke
Fire at Museu Naciona © Felipe Milanez 2018 Creative Commons

More Nihilism & Negationism

Two of the most common undesirable effects related to the postmodern proliferation of narratives are nihilism and negationism.

In nihilism, the individual progressively loses touch with reality and, not knowing how to choose between the narratives on offer, comes to believe that nothing makes sense. This process is a strong ally of so-called ‘hyperreality’ – a kind of media-fuelled fantasy which leads to a life of illusions, fetishism and consumerism.

The concept of hyperreality was developed by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1923-2007). It is basically the idea that we expect reality to copy our media representations of it. The copy becomes more perfect in our eyes than the (real) reality, even without having the main attribute of being real. This attitude is pastiched in the film Her (2013), which dramatises the passion of Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) for an operating system which simulates a dedicated and attentive woman.

The swampy terrain of narratives also favors the emergence of so-called ‘negationism’, which can be defined as the denial of scientific narratives because of ignorance or mere convenience. There are those who simply ignore scientific knowledge; and those who, for political ends, manipulate it. This process results in aberrations, such as the spread of the belief that the Earth is flat, the denial of the Holocaust, or of global warming, or of the theory of evolution. More recently an intentionally misguided view of science resulted in the anti-vaccine movement and the denial of the pandemic. But the argument used by negationist politicians who claim that scientists act for political ends is remarkably interesting. A surreal inversion is established, where we believe dishonest scientists do politics, and honest politicians do science – a belief that is only possible in a dystopian and intentionally uninformed society.

However, the existence of multiple narratives does not necessarily imply this intellectual chaos. Where the citizen has the appropriate intellectual tools, having a range of possibilities for understanding the world can be good, as our metaphor of mountain-climbing indicated. The scientific community is perfectly capable of pointing out those narratives that are valid or invalid. It is also possible to distinguish among scientific theories those which constitute more robust hypotheses, verifiable or falsifiable. The main challenge ahead is the restoration of citizens’ trust in scientists, rather than in politicians.

Scientific narratives orbit reality, a source of evidence leading us to define what is close to the truth. This evidence – like the millions of pieces of evidence which burned in the National Museum fire – are fundamental pieces of our relationship with the Universe. In short, museum collections make our hypotheses about the world verifiable. Without these documents of history and our environments, there would be no guarantee that future generations will be able to distinguish between fiction and reality, or that they would have any more appreciation for dinosaurs, tigers and koalas than they do for dragons, elves, and pokemons.

After the fire at the National Museum, a dear friend came to me in distress to ask if the skull of ‘Luzia’ – the name given to the oldest human found in South America – had been copied before being burned by the fire. In spite of her relief to know that yes, that we could easily produce 3D copies of it, I felt a strong intellectual discomfort. In a way, in times of liquid modernity, artificial intelligence, and the explosion of narratives, these museums, and basic science itself, act as anchors which allow us to keep in touch with the real world. However, the hyper-real world – the one created by human manipulation and imposed by the consumerist society – does not necessarily want us to have this option. It is up to us to reflect on the importance of reality and to fight for the conservation of our historical truths.

© Marcos A. Raposo 2023

Marcos Raposo is Bird Curator at Museu Nacional/UFRJ specializing in bird taxonomy and philosophy of science.

• A version of this article was originally published in Portuguese at terapiapolitica.com.br/as-labaredas-pos-modernas-e-seu-antidoto/.

Translation: Ruy Válka (Museu Nacional, UFRJ)

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