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The Bottle

Peter Colbourne tells us a tale of lost philosophers.

Three philosophers of science – a positivist, a post-modernist and a relativist – were on their way to a conference aboard a small plane. Because their views were so radically at odds the three had been arguing incessantly throughout the flight. The positivist insisted not only that an objective reality existed, but that scientists could formulate and test theories that would, in time, explain all phenomena fully. The post-modernist, on the other hand, held that there were a multitude of explanations for every phenomenon, dependant on the context and the cultural milieu and methodologies utilized. He insisted that scientists could fully explain all phenomena through a range of narrative methodologies that, in time, would complete our understanding of humans as actors in a universe bounded by metaphor. Finally, the relativist argued that both were right – or indeed wrong, depending on the set of assumptions that underpinned their points of view… Unlike the other two, the relativist held the view that no scientific methodologies could explain all phenomena to the satisfaction of all: there could never be a ‘theory of everything’ which everyone would believe – either a unified positivist one or a multi-personal post-modernist one. The other two found this assertion completely unacceptable and often allied themselves against the relativist, whom they considered some sort of protagorean sophist.

About halfway through the journey, far out over the Pacific, the plane developed engine trouble and eventually ditched in the water. Fortunately, the three philosophers were able to swim to a nearby island.

A quick look round their refuge soon demonstrated that except for the three of them the island was deserted. Thoughts of survival soon surfaced, and each began to search around for anything that might be useful. There were palm trees and coconuts, and a pool of fresh water, so it seemed they would neither starve nor die of thirst. In time, other items were found: pieces of nylon rope cast off from a boat, which they could use to tie things together; driftwood with which they could build a fire; and an old bottle, crusted with barnacles, and still with its cork in place. With scientific curiosity they prised the cork out with a piece of coral. They jumped back in alarm when green smoke hissed out in a great cloud. To their amazement, as the smoke cleared they beheld a huge figure hovering over them in mid-air, brightly dressed in what appeared to be Arabian clothes. The apparition had its arms folded, and it glared fiercely down at them as a thunderous voice boomed over the sand: “About time too! Three hundred years stuck in a bottle is no fun! Come on, let’s get on with it. There’s three of you, so you have one wish each.” The genie pointed at the positivist: “You first.”

The positivist soon collected her wits. What a chance this was! She knew exactly what she wanted: “Oh genie of the bottle,” she started, and was encouraged when the figure nodded solemnly, “my wish is to be transported to a world in which positivist scientific principles have triumphed; a world in which everything has been explored and explained through the good old Newtonian paradigm; a world in which the null hypothesis…” The genie cut her off. “Yes, yes, I get it. So be it!” He clicked his fingers, and with a last triumphant look at her companions, the positivist was gone.

The genie pointed at the post-modernist. “Now you.”

The post-modernist stood up straight: “I wish to be transported to a world in which discursive methodologies have triumphed: where each individual voice has been allowed to speak so that all is explained and illuminated through the multiple perspectives embedded in the cultural milieu; where the dominant, Western male hegemony –” Again, the genie interrupted. “Yes, I get that too. So be it.” He clicked his fingers.

The relativist stood alone on the sand.

The genie frowned down at him: “I suppose you want to be transported to your own idea of a perfect world as well?”

The relativist smiled brightly. “Oh no. I think it would be quite dull without the other two around. I’d like them back here so we can continue our discussions, please.”

“So be it,” said the genie, and clicked his fingers.

© Dr Peter Colbourne 2012

Peter Colbourne is Quality Manager at the University of Tasmania. In his spare time he plays duets with his wonderful wife Kim.

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