Sunday, January 03, 2010
Over at Nirmukta, Vinod K. Wadhawan and Ajita Kamal have a must-read post that explains exactly what makes "biocentrism" nonsense. Biocentrism, according to Wikipedia, claims that "life creates the universe rather than the other way around."
I'm interested in biocentrism because on the surface it seems to make claims similar to social constructionism. Both assert that the universe is a human construction, a product of the interaction between mind and world.
However, biocentrism has a different messianic/eschatological trajectory than social constructionism. As I understand it, biocentrism promises heaven to its believers in the form of a holistic communion of science and supernaturalism.
Social constructionism is a radical form of skepticism. In its most extreme forms, it views science and supernaturalism on the same continuum - they're differing degrees of bullshit but not different in nature, as in one being objective and neutral and the other being subjective and ideological.
Fortunately, biocentrism and social constructionism can be successfully challenged in similar ways. The key is to distinguish experiential truth from objective reality. Experiential truths are subjective perceptions of pre-existing physical properties, as the experience of seeing color is the mind's "interpretation" of certain physical characteristics in light. Our vision, mind, and subjectivity don't create light but can (and do) arbitrarily attach cultural and social value to some general wavelengths.
The common mistake made by biocentrism and social constructionism is the naturalistic fallacy, which mistakes a representation of a phenomenon for a natural phenomenon. Our subjective experiences of color are not our minds creating light or its physical properties Biocentrism and social constructionism try to bring everything into the subjective, representational sphere.
Ironically, however, what both biocentrism and social constructionism seem to criticize is the opposite tendency: claiming that social, subjective things are natural. Social constructionist critiques of gender and race, for example, have rightly pointed out that often what are taken to be "natural" differences between people are based instead on cultural norms and the consensus of tradition. I think the idea of "marriage" is a decent enough example, although obviously imperfect. There's nothing natural about marriage, whether it be different-sex or same-sex.
Biocentrism seems to me an obvious scheme to use a legitimate postmodern critique and convert it into feel-good prescriptions that can be packaged and sold to a public with low self-esteem and plenty of spare cash. Social constructionism has actual intellectual value for demystifying seemingly timeless and normal cultural categories. It errs only when it seeks to collapse the world into subjectivity.
With the help of Wadhawan and Kamal, I think we can make a rather provocative reformulation of the oft-repeated post-structuralist tenet, "There is nothing outside the text." When we maintain the difference between experience and physical reality, and try to be clear (insofar as we can) about when one is collapsing into the other, we see that there is nothing inside the text. There's no objective truth we can pull from the text because all we have is our interpretive experience of it, which is subjective and unique to the reader's time, place and cultural context.
Related: See also the comments posted on Pharyngula.