Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself. That may sound like a bold or even hyperbolic claim, but the reality is that the cluster of ideas and values at the root of postmodernism have broken the bounds of academia and gained great cultural power in western society. The irrational and identitarian “symptoms” of postmodernism are easily recognizable and much criticized, but the ethos underlying them is not well understood. This is partly because postmodernists rarely explain themselves clearly and partly because of the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies of a way of thought which denies a stable reality or reliable knowledge to exist. However, there are consistent ideas at the root of postmodernism and understanding them is essential if we intend to counter them. They underlie the problems we see today in Social Justice Activism, undermine the credibility of the Left and threaten to return us to an irrational and tribal “pre-modern” culture.
Postmodernism, most simply, is an artistic and philosophical movement which began in France in the 1960s and produced bewildering art and even more bewildering “theory.” It drew on avant-garde and surrealist art and earlier philosophical ideas, particularly those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, for its anti-realism and rejection of the concept of the unified and coherent individual. It reacted against the liberal humanism of the modernist artistic and intellectual movements, which its proponents saw as naïvely universalizing a western, middle-class and male experience.
It rejected philosophy which valued ethics, reason and clarity with the same accusation. Structuralism, a movement which (often over-confidently) attempted to analyze human culture and psychology according to consistent structures of relationships, came under attack. Marxism, with its understanding of society through class and economic structures was regarded as equally rigid and simplistic. Above all, postmodernists attacked science and its goal of attaining objective knowledge about a reality which exists independently of human perceptions which they saw as merely another form of constructed ideology dominated by bourgeois, western assumptions. Decidedly left-wing, postmodernism had both a nihilistic and a revolutionary ethos which resonated with a post-war, post-empire zeitgeist in the West. As postmodernism continued to develop and diversify, its initially stronger nihilistic deconstructive phase became secondary (but still fundamental) to its revolutionary “identity politics” phase.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post on the importance of understanding logical fallacies, and in that post, I made the following claim, “anytime that an argument contains a fallacy, that argument must be rejected.” Much to my surprise, many people took issue with this and brought up the fallacy fallacy (that’s not a typo). Some of those comments were simply pointing out the existence of the fallacy fallacy (which I actually did in the aforementioned post as well), but many of them were arguing that I was wrong or at least on shaky ground because of the fallacy fallacy. For example, one person said, “of course simply pointing out that someone’s argument is a fallacy is a fallacy in and of itself,” another said that although I was not committing a fallacy fallacy I was, “flirting with encouraging individuals to commit ‘the fallacy fallacy’” (those are exact quotes…
Philosophical counseling (PC) is the idea that people may benefit from discussing their everyday problems or long-term goals within a framework offered by one or another philosophical approach. Although the term “philosophical counseling” has been in use only for a few decades, this is what (some) philosophers have been doing for literally millennia, from the ancient Stoics and Epicureans to modern Existentialists, from Buddhists to Confucians, both ancient and modern. It’s a philosophical genre that for good (according to some) and ill (according to others) has given us Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy and Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life.
Just when the Western world had absorbed the shock of a truck attack in Berlin in December that claimed 12 lives, it is reminded again of the dangers of “lone-wolf” attacks inspired by Islamic State (IS) that are almost impossible to guard against.
When a sole attacker drove randomly across London’s Westminster Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament – one of the most trafficked thoroughfares in the Western world – killing and maiming innocent bystanders, it served as a reminder, if that were required, that open, global cities are vulnerable to such attacks.
These are moments that serve as a reality check for those in authority who are striving to maintain a balance between oppressive policing and surveillance and a free society. This is enormously challenging in an environment in which strains of fanaticism have been let loose.
Regrettably, the London terrorist attack leading to five deaths, including the perpetrator and a policeman, will find its way into a racially tinged political discourse – and not in a way that will be particularly edifying.
But there is also no point in pretending that mayhem in the Middle East can be separated from what takes place on the streets of London or Brussels or Berlin or Nice, or in other places that become victims of continuing upheaval in a crescent that stretches from the Mediterranean to South Asia.
Now that the weapon of choice for lone-wolf terrorists seems to have become a vehicle to mow down people innocently going about their business, a policing task becomes even more difficult.
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, noted in a post for CNN that as long ago as 2010, al Qaeda’s Yemen branch had encouraged its recruits in the West to use vehicles as weapons.
A headline on its webzine, Inspire, had described vehicles as “the ultimate mowing nachine” – not to “mow grass, but mow down the enemies of Allah”. He wrote:
These attacks are hard to defend against in free societies where crowds will gather, as was the case for Bastille Day in Nice, or the Christmas market in Berlin … and now throngs of tourists and visitors that typically crowd the sidewalks around the Houses of Parliament.
The utter cynicism and brutality of these random low-tech attacks pose enormous challenges for security.
This latest episode will not be the last such vehicle attack with the possibility that something much worse might eventuate, including the detonation of a truck packed with explosives and shards of shrapnel. Open Western cities will always be vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.
The threat of IS-inspired terrorism is now embedded in Western societies. It is no good pretending it is not.
Since 2014, when IS proclaimed its caliphate, there have been more than 70 terrorist attacks “conducted or inspired” by its followers in 20 countries (not including Syria and Iraq), according to a running total kept by CNN.
If Syria and Iraq were added, such terrorist attacks would number in the hundreds.
In 2014, CNN lists seven terrorist incidents, including the stabbing of two Australian police officers in New South Wales. Six died and 12 were injured in 2014, in Belgium, Australia, Canada, the US and France.
That was the beginning.
By 2016, the numbers of casualties from IS-inspired terrorism had risen sharply across the Middle East and in Europe. This included the Brussels bombings at a metro station and an airport, in which 32 people died and 340 were injured.
It is not least of macabre coincidences that the London terrorist attack occurred on the first anniversary to the day of the Brussels bombings.
So far this year, there have been five major incidents. Most, if not all, are linked to IS.
London was the first such episode in continental Europe. The others occurred in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Out of all this, it is a depressing conclusion, but as IS in its strongholds in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria is further degraded, chances are it will step up its terrorist activities elsewhere.
In other words, risks to countries involved in the war against IS will rise as its fortunes in its so-called caliphate slide. IS is on the ropes in its Middle Eastern strongholds. This makes it more dangerous to Western interests.
In London, and among Britain’s allies, political leaders have hastened to express solidarity, but all would be aware that such ritualistic professions of support and concern will not provide a foolproof shield against the next Islamist-inspired terrorist attack.
Anew book is on my TBR: it’s called Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquityand it’s by historian Rebe Taylor. But as soon as I started reading it, I knew I wanted to read her first book, so I reserved that at the library… and lo! it was available the very next day. This promptness made me think I could read the book at my leisure and renew it if necessary, but no, *pout* somebody else wants it now and I’ve ended up having to dash through the last half of it because it’s due back tomorrow. So Unearthed, the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island is not going to get the review it deserves from me, because I now don’t have time to read it all.
(But actually what Unearthed really deserves is a proper review from a proper historian and there seems not to be one online, only an…
As you will know from reading this site, I have no love for Donald Trump. I fear he’s going to destroy America, and that this comes from his narcissism—his caring more about being loved and admired than about the welfare of America (or anyone but himself). But what I see now among the Left is playing right into his hands. While the “Nazi” trope should be used sparingly, it’s often applied willy-nilly by bloggers or people on Facebook to smear not only Trump, but his supporters.
Well, Trump is not a Nazi, nor are all his supporters racists, xenophobes, or misogynists. The worst comment that Hillary Clinton made during the election, I think, was this:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately…
It’s a well established fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. This is particularly the case when that lunch consists of deep fried chicken followed by a couple of glazed doughnuts and a Coke.
We love sweet and fatty foods (although, as Dan Dennett points out, we don’t desire them because they taste good, they taste good because we desire them). And even though they’re contributing to an epidemic of obesity today, it’s a damn good thing that we do love the sweets and the fats. Because had we not vigorously pursued such energy-rich sources of nutrition throughout our evolutionary past we may not have made it to the point where today’s obesity epidemic was even an option.
Simply put, an evolved taste for sweet and fatty stuffs – in the form of a strongly reinforcing sensation of pleasure in response to exposure to sweet and/or…
We take science seriously at The Conversation and we work hard at reporting it accurately. This series of five posts is adapted from an internal presentation on how to understand and edit science by Australian Science & Technology Editor, Tim Dean. We thought you would also find it useful.
The first four posts in this series covered the scientific method and practical tips on how to report it effectively. This post is more of a reflection on science and its origins. It’s not essential reading, but could be useful for those who want to situate their science reading or writing within a broader historical and conceptual context.
Fair warning: it’s going to get philosophical. That means you might find it frustratingly vague or complicated. If you find yourself getting infuriated at the inability to settle on clear definitions or provide clear answers to important questions, that’s a perfectly natural (and probably quite healthy) response.
These issues have been intensively debated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, without resolution. We’d likely have given up on them by now, except that these concepts have an unfortunate tendency to influence the way we actually do things, and thus retain some importance.
The foundations of science
Explaining what science is, and entertaining all the debates about how it does or should work, would take up an entire book (such as this one, which I highly recommend). Rather than tackling such issues head-on, this section will give a broad overview of what science is.
While it doesn’t get mentioned often outside of scientific circles, the fact is there is no one simple definition of science, and no single definitive method for conducting it.
However, virtually all conceptions of science lean on a couple of underlying philosophical ideas.
The first is a commitment to learning about the world through observation, or empiricism. This is in contrast to alternative approaches to knowledge, such as rationalism – the notion that we can derive knowledge about the world just by thinking about it hard enough – or revelation – that we can learn from intuition, insight, drug-induced hallucinations, or religious inspiration.
Another philosophical basis of science is a commitment to methodological naturalism, which is simply the idea that the best way to understand the natural world is to appeal to natural mechanisms, laws, causes or systems, rather than to supernatural forces, spirits, immaterial substances, invisible unicorns or other deities.
This is why scientists reject the claim that ideas like creationism or intelligent design fall within the purview of science. Because these ideas posit or imply supernatural forces, no matter how scientific they try to sound, they break methodological naturalism, so they aren’t science.
(As a side point, science doesn’t assume or imply the stronger claim of philosophical or ontological naturalism. This is the idea that only natural things exist – which usually means things that exist in spacetime – and that there are no supernatural entities at all.
This is a strictly philosophical rather than scientific claim, and one that is generally agreed to be beyond the ken of science to prove one way or the other. So, if cornered, most scientists would agree it’s possible that intangible unicorns might exist, but if they don’t exist in spacetime or causally interact with things that do, then they’re irrelevant to the practice of science and can be safely ignored. See Pierre Laplace’s apocryphal – but no less cheeky – response to Napoleon, who remarked that Laplace had produced a “huge book on the system of the world without once mentioning the author of the universe”, to which Laplace reputedly replied: “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”)
This is where we come to the role of truth in science: there isn’t any. At least in the absolute sense.
Instead, science produces facts about the world that are only held to be true with a certainty proportional to the amount of evidence in support of them. And that evidence can never give 100% certainty.
There are logical reasons for this to be the case, namely that empiricism is necessarily based on inductive rather than deductive logic.
Another way to put it is that no matter how certain we are of a particular theory, and no matter how much evidence we’ve accrued to support it, we must leave open the possibility that tomorrow we will make an observation that contradicts it. And if the observation proves to be reliable (a high bar, perhaps, but never infinitely high), then it trumps the theory, no matter how dearly it’s held.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume couched the sceptical chink in empiricism’s armour of certainty like this: all we know about the world comes from observation, and all observation is of things that have happened in the past. But no observation of things in the past can guarantee that things in the future will operate in the same way.
This is the “problem of induction”, and to this day there is no decisive counter to its scepticism. It doesn’t entirely undermine science, though. But it does give us reason to stop short of saying we know things about the world with absolute certainty.
The steady accumulation of evidence is one reason why many people believe that science is constantly and steadily progressing. However, in messy reality, science rarely progresses smoothly or steadily.
Rather, it often moves in fits and spurts. Sometimes a new discovery will not only change our best theories, it will change the way we ask questions about the world and formulate hypotheses to explain them.
Sometimes it means we can’t even integrate the old theories into the new ones. That’s what is often called a “paradigm shift” (another term to avoid when reporting science).
For instance, sometimes a new observation will come along that will cause us to throw out a lot of what we once thought we knew, like when the synthesis of urea, of all things, forced a rewrite of the contemporary understanding of what it means to be a living thing.
That’s progress of a sort, but it often involves throwing out a lot of old accepted facts, so it can also look regressive. In reality, it’s doing both. That’s just how science works.
That doesn’t mean it can only talk about things we can directly observe at the macroscopic scale. Science can talk with authority about the microscopic, like the Higgs boson, and the distant, like the collision of two black holes, because it can scaffold those observations on other observations at our scale.
But science also has limits when it comes to discussing other kinds of things for which there is no fact of the matter, such as like questions of subjective preference. It’s not a scientific fact that Led Zeppelin is the greatest band ever, although I still think it’s a fact.
There are similar limits when it comes to moral values. Science can describe the world in detail, but it cannot by itself determine what is good or bad (someone please tell Sam Harris – oh, theyhave). To do that, it needs an injection of values, and they come from elsewhere. Some say they come from us, or from something we worship (which many people would argue means they still come from us) or from some other mysterious non-natural source. Arguments over which source is the right one are philosophical, not scientific (although they can be informed by science).
Science is also arguably not our only tool for producing knowledge. There are other approaches, as exemplified by the various non-scientific academic disciplines, like history, sociology and economics (the “dismal science”), as well as other domains like art, literature and religion.
That said, to the extent that anyone makes an empirical claim – whether that be about the movement of heavenly bodies, the age of Earth, or how species change over time – science has proven to be our best tool to scrutinise that claim.
Treasurer Scott Morrison wants to use the May budget to ease growing community anxiety about housing affordability. Lots of ideas are being thrown about: the test for the Treasurer is to sort the good from the bad. Reports that the government was again considering using superannuation to help first homebuyers won’t inspire confidence.
It’s not the first time a policy like this has been floated within government. While these latest ideas to use super to help first homebuyers are marginally less bad than proposals from 2015, our research shows they still wouldn’t make much difference to housing affordability.
Politicians are understandably attracted to any policy that appears to help first homebuyers build a deposit. Unlike the various first homebuyers’ grants that cost billions each year, letting first homebuyers cash out their super would not hurt the budget bottom line – at least, not in the short term. But as we wrote in 2015, that change would push up house prices, leave many people with less to retire on, and cost taxpayers in the long run.
Having learned from that experience, the government has instead flagged two different ways to use super to help first homebuyers. Neither proposal would make the mistake of giving first homebuyers complete freedom to access to their super. But nor would they make much difference to housing affordability.
Using super tax breaks to help first homebuyers build their deposit would level the playing field between the tax treatment of the savings of first homebuyers and existing property owners.
First homebuyers’ savings typically sit in bank term deposits, where both the initial amount saved and any interest earned is taxed at full marginal rates of personal income tax. In contrast, the nest eggs of existing property owners are taxed very lightly. For owner occupiers, any capital gain is tax free. For investors, capital gains are taxed at a 50% discount, and they get the benefit of negative gearing.
But even if there’s some merit in allowing first homebuyers to use super tax breaks to save for a home, it’s unlikely to make much difference. Few people are likely to take advantage of the scheme. Households are reluctant to give up access to their savings, especially when they’re already saving 9.5% of their income via compulsory super.
In fact the proposal works out to be very similar to the former Rudd government’s First Home Saver Accounts, and is likely to be just as ineffective. First Home Saver Accounts provided similar financial incentives to help first homebuyers build a deposit. Treasury expected A$6.5 billion to be held in First Home Saver Accounts by 2012. Instead only A$500 million had been saved by 2014, when Joe Hockey abolished the scheme, citing a lack of take up.
A “shared equity” scheme for super funds
The Turnbull government is reportedly also considering a “shared equity scheme” where workers’ super funds would own a portion of the property investment, and money would presumably be returned to the super fund when the property was sold.
Details are scarce, but the proposal raises several questions.
First, would the super fund use only the super savings of the co-investor to help buy the home, or would they add capital from the broader super fund pool?
Second, how would the super fund generate a return on the investment? A super fund that invests in rental housing gets the benefit of a rental income stream. A super fund co-investing in owner-occupied housing would not. The super fund could take a disproportionate share of any capital gains to compensate, but that hardly seems attractive for the funds in a world where interest rates are already at record lows.
Third, why involve super funds in a shared equity scheme in the first place? Australia’s super sector is already notoriously inefficient – total super fund fees equate to more than 1% of Australia’s GDP each year. A shared-equity scheme would inevitably add to super funds’ administration costs.
If the federal government is serious about super funds investing in housing, it needs to encourage wholesale reform of state land taxes, which levy a higher rate of land tax the more investment property a person owns. This discourages institutional investors such as super funds from owning large numbers of residential properties, because they pay much higher rates of land tax on any given property than a mum-and-dad investor.
Focus on what matters
If Scott Morrison really wants to tackle housing affordability, he can no longer ignore those policies that would make the biggest difference. That means addressing both the demand and the supply side of housing markets.
On the demand side, that means reducing government subsidies for housing investment which have simply added fuel to the fire. Abolishing negative gearing and cutting the capital gains tax discount to 25% would save the budget about A$5.3 billion a year, and reduce house prices a little – we estimate they would be about 2% lower than otherwise.
The government should also include the value of the family home above some threshold – such as A$500,000 – in the Age Pension assets test. This would encourage senior Australians to downsize to more appropriate housing,
while helping improve the budget bottom line.
The federal government has little control over planning rules, which are administered by state and local governments. But it can provide incentives to those tiers of government, if it is looking to do something that would really improve home ownership.
While there are plenty of ideas to improve affordability, only a few will make a real difference, and these are politically hard. In the meantime, the latest thought bubbles about using super savings for housing might be less bad than in the past, but they would be just as ineffective.