Post-Modern Fragmentation
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Post-Modern Fragmentation

Professional futurologists generally limit their predictions to relatively specific, and short term trends, such as ageing of the population, impact of biotechnology, or "cocooning". Until recently, the wider picture was discussed by academics who got their inspiration from the theories proposed by philosophers and ideologues, such as Marx, Marcuse or Hegel. However, the failure of such theories to produce good predictions has brought about a remarkable change in the intellectual climate. Academics have become aware of the deep uncertainty and complexity of present-day society. Many of them have concluded that it is inherently futile to try and build universal theories, which would explain everything. They have lost their belief in progress, in the idea that evolution advances in a single and unambiguous direction. The rather fuzzy cluster of ideas that accompany this movement is called "postmodernism".

Postmodernism defines itself in contrast to modernism. Originally, the term comes from architecture, where modern architecture denotes the familiar glass, steel and concrete buildings with their straight, rectangular, geometric shapes. This led in the 1960's to a reaction by younger architects, who included different decorative elements inspired by earlier periods in their design. This eclectic mixture of styles was called "postmodern architecture". From there the term "postmodern" quickly spread to art, where it denoted a departure from the radicalism and abstraction of the old avant-garde, replacing them by a fusion of different popular and traditional elements, like Warhol's Pop Art or rock music incorporating African and oriental motives. The most important impact of postmodernism was in philosophy, where it was heralded as a new stage in the history of ideas.

In history, the start of "modernity" is usually taken to be the 18th century period of Enlightenment. During that period, a belief in rationality, progress and science spread through the intellectual establishment, preparing the grounds for the industrial revolution. According to the ideology of modernity, rational thought is the key to discovering the truth about the world and ourself. Such true knowledge will emancipate all individuals, freeing them from the shackles of ignorance, superstition and dogmatism. Since there is only one true picture of the world (see reflection-correspondence theory), there can be only one way to progress: by gradually filling in more and more elements of this picture. The more elements are known, the better science will be able to predict and control nature, and the more the individual will be liberated from the vagaries of fate. Such a simple, deterministic view of historical progress does not fit in well with the complexity and confusion of the 20th century. Atrocities like Hiroshima or the Holocaust paint a very different picture of the effects of scientific advances. Where is the progress in killing thousands of people in a few minutes? Does it mean killing more people in less time? Questions like these have brought postmodern thinkers to reject the project of modernity and its belief in rationality and progress. They argue that the idea that there is one true representation of the world leads to intolerance and even violence, since it implies the suppression of everyone who disagrees with this picture. Too often, the supposedly superior Western world view has been used to justify the oppression of women, non Western cultures, and colonized peoples.

Instead, the postmodernists see knowledge as a set of perspectives, where different people have different views, without anyone being "right" or "wrong" (this relativity of knowledge can in part be motivated by epistemological constructivism). When considering culture, they see a plurality of views, concepts, theories, styles, movements, which are competing, supporting each other or simply existing side-by-side, without any of them being better or worse than the others. They emphasize fragmentations, discontinuities and chaos, rather than the order, coherence and simplicity characterizing the modernist philosophy.

When we look at the development of science, the movement towards fragmentation is unmistakable. As more and more concepts, theories and models are developed it becomes impossible for any one scientist to keep informed about all of them. Researchers are forced to focus on smaller and smaller domains, becoming ever more specialized. This makes it more and more difficult for scientists from different domains to communicate. Even when they use the same words, such as "time" or "space" the meanings of these terms will be different in different theories (e.g. classical mechanics and relativity theory). Thomas Kuhn introduced the term "incommensurability" for this impossibility to translate the ideas of one theory into the concepts of another one.

The growing number of incommensurable theories negates the belief in scientific progress as the gradual completion of a true picture of the world. If such a picture would exist, the different theories would function as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, fitting together and gradually filling more and more of the empty space until the complete picture emerges. But incommensurable theories simply don't fit. They look like fragments, but they cannot be integrated into a whole. It is as if you are trying to reconstruct an ancient clay pot by puzzling together shards that in fact belong to half a dozen different pots. The more science grows, the more fragments are created, and the more difficult it becomes to build a unified picture, even within the same discipline.

The same fragmentation can be seen in culture at large. Because of the media and the increased possibilities for travel, people come into contact with a much larger array of cultures, religions, ideologies, styles and fashions. The present ideal of pluralism means the peaceful co-existence of different cultures. But since no culture perfectly fits the complexity of present society, people will tend to pick out those pieces they find personally most appealing. For example, a person may combine Christian church services with Buddhist meditation techniques and a view of the universe inspired by the Big Bang theory. The growing trends towards pluralism and multiculturalism are reinforced by secularization: people are less and less dependent for their values and beliefs on traditional churches. Though religious feelings as such don't necessarily diminish, the authority of religious leaders and religious institutions continues to decrease. Few catholics still take the views of the Pope on contraception or sex outside marriage seriously. They rather follow those guidelines they feel like following and ignore the rest.

It is as if society presents us with a supermarket full of the most diverse ideas, beliefs, attitudes, codes, guidelines and rules of behavior. We just go shopping along the racks, picking one thing here, another one there, until the cart is full. The things we bring home may each look quite attractive, but they have little in common, and certainly don't make any coherent whole. The supermarket of culture may provide many thrills, but it does not leave us with a feeling of satisfaction. In the end, we don't know what we should believe or not.

According to postmodern thinkers, it has to be that way. They reject the idea that there could exist an integrated world view. There are no basic principles or foundations on which to build an encompassing picture of the universe. There is no universal language that would allow scientists from different disciplines to discuss their achievements and reach consensus. There is no unique story, telling us how the world and the different things, plants, animals and people in it were created, and how humanity is progressing from primitive tribes to an advanced technological society. Postmodernity has been defined as "the end of the great narratives". Neither the accounts of the Book Genesis, nor the ancient Greek or Indian myths about the origin of the world, nor the theories of the Big Bang and of evolution have any absolute value.

Though not everyone will agree with such radical conclusions, our present age undeniably shows fragmentation and an increasing awareness of the relativity of beliefs and values. This state of affairs defines the "postmodern condition". It contributes to the general anxiety, stress and confusion that many people nowadays experience. Principia Cybernetica's attempt to build a unified world view and system of values, which leaves place to integrate all the different ideas and approaches, while rejecting the idea that there can be one, true picture of the world, is one approach to remedy this problem.

Copyright© 1999 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Jul 22, 1999


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