Viranga Perera

Postdoc at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab


I am neither a historian nor a philosopher but I find both subjects quite interesting. History is fascinating due to the human stories of the past that led to our society. Philosophy is intellectually stimulating since many questions that began in philosophy, such as Earth’s origin, have now been answered by physics, astronomy, and geology. Being curious about these subjects, postmodernism peaked my interest since it is a fundamental concept in the humanities. To learn more about it, I read Postmodernism for Historians by Callum G. Brown. I strongly object to certain parts of the book, such as his listing of metanarratives (“the metanarratives of ‘the power of reason,’ ‘scientific method,’ ‘white racial superiority,’ and the 'virtue of rational religion.’”). That listing makes the scientific method (and in turn science) seem sinister. Overall, however, I think the author presents postmodernism in a way that is understandable to a layperson.

Postmodernism can be quite involved; however, one of the basic tenets is that there is no objective reality. Postmodernists claim that “truth” is a human construct that is dependent on culture and that it is not fundamental. In history, for example, that there is no objective reality makes sense to a certain degree. Was it the right decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II? We can talk about the facts. We can debate the decision. However, we should admit that event in human history will continue to be plagued with sadness, regret, and confusion. Could George Washington have been King of the United States had certain events transpired a little differently in the late 1700s? This is the type of claim that fits well into the postmodernist idea that there cannot be a “truth.” To know the “truth” in this case would mean we have the capability of reading George Washington’s mind and being able to fully characterize the minds of early American citizens. We can read what George Washington wrote. We can read what those close to him have written about him. However, none of those would truly represent a complex historical character let alone any ordinary human being.

I take no issue with postmodernism being applied to history or other related fields of knowledge. However, I do take issue when it is inappropriately applied to the physical sciences where objective reality is not only axiomatic but can be inferred through empirical evidence. The observable universe, which includes everything in our society, is solely a combination of mass and energy. Even complex beings like humans are governed by merely the laws of physics. So far physics has given us the equations that completely describe all electromagnetic phenomena (Maxwell’s Equations), that describe atomic phenomena (Standard Model), and that describes gravity at large scales (General Relativity). It is amazing not only for the fact that we humans have discovered these equations but also for the fact that they apply everywhere and through all of time in the universe. This notion, that the laws of physics apply to the whole universe, is suggestive of there being an objective reality sans Homo sapiens sapiens. The universe is after all about 13,700,000,000 years old, while the human species is about 2,500,000 years old. We know that the laws of physics are the same because we see evidence that light, for instance, behaves the same way on Earth as it does in the Andromeda galaxy even though that galaxy is 2.5 million light-years or 14,700,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from us.

I was prompted to write this blog post after seeing the news about the paper titled, “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System” by Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown in the Astronomical Journal. I could figuratively hear some people saying, “See, science cannot say anything definitely! First, there were nine planets, then eight, and now nine again.” Actually, the word “planet” has an interesting history, which includes the fact that the Earth was not initially considered a planet. Initially there were seven planets (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). It was believed that these planets orbited the Earth (Uranus and Neptune were too faint at the time to be seen without a telescope). There are a few things to take note. First, science as we know it today did not arrive until Galileo Galilei. The idea that the Earth was at the center with seven planets orbiting it was emplaced mostly due to cultural notions (e.g. the circle being the “perfect” shape) and due to the lack of interest in detailed observations of natural phenomenon (e.g. Aristotle did not bother to conduct a single experiment). Second, Batygin and Brown, in their paper, did not claim that the Earth is orbiting a golden elephant that is holding up a pot of gold coins nor did they claim that from now on when you drop a football it will travel in a skyward direction. The scientific process has led to certain truths about how the universe works and we are in the process of learning more. The Solar System is a very, very big place. Light, traveling at a constant 670,600,000 miles per hour, takes a little over 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth and would take about 1 year for light to travel from the Sun to the edge of our Solar System. Due to the size of the solar system, it is reasonable that there might be other planets far off in the distance. If there are 9, 8, 7, 27, or 981 planets, “science” is not being ineffective and wavery. This brings me to my last point. Science is a process. A process that is iterative but nevertheless grounded in reason and empirical evidence. The scientific process moves our knowledge about the universe in a certain direction that can seem turbulent at times but is actually converging onto a truth when science as a whole is considered since the time of Galileo. Do we have the complete truth? No, but we are working on it!

What I have written is my opinion. However, if you are going to claim that there are no objective truths and are going to apply postmodernist ideas to the physical sciences I do have a few thoughts for you. Next time your WiFi at home drops out, feel free to claim that the radio signal dropped out due to the lack of understanding by “science.” On the other hand, if your WiFi signal seems to drop out every time you use your microwave, you could just move your router to some place away from your microwave since they use similar radio frequencies but for different purposes. While you are at it, you might want to also turn off the electronic device that you are reading this on. Without a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics, that device could not work and would not exist. Please avoid using your car since setting gasoline on fire can have unforeseeable results. Make sure not to fly on airplanes since, really, who actually understands why measly air can hold up 100,000 pounds of metal and toiletries. Since now you are probably bored out of your mind, please turn off the lights and try to think about all the experiences that were brought to you by knowing, objectively, reality.