Usually I’m very suspicious of the sensibility that assumes that the truth is most likely to be found halfway between two propositions. Most of the time this stance is associated with an anti-left liberalism that, while it can be rather progressive, nonetheless defines socialism or anarchism as necessarily irrational and therefore “extreme” or dogmatic. However, usually does not mean always. One dynamic where something roughly conceived as “the middle” seems to me the position that gets us closest to reality is the intellectual conflict that often plays out between materialism (in the scientific, not historical sense) and postmodernism. The somewhat funky path my personal intellectual biography took me on placed me in a position to appreciate how often each of these predilections could use a sprinkle or two of the other.
When I used to be active in what members somewhat awkwardly refer to as “the atheist community,” my training as a historian and someone interested in the social sciences in general provided me with a perspective not terribly common in those circles. Many a time I sat with my hand raised, impatiently hoping to intervene in the direction of the conversation with a reminder that ideas are not received or created in a vacuum and just because Isaac Newton was right about gravity does not mean that all critiques of the Enlightenment are driven by a wild eyed anti-science bias.
At the same time, my sense is that I am more interested in science, of pretty much all branches save maybe chemistry, than your average humanities PhD. In particular, no field inspires more sublimity for me than physical anthropology, a reverence connected largely to my love for animals and sense of the differences between us and them being, contrary to popular assumptions, rather slight indeed. Consequently, while I hardly gravitate towards essentialist notions of either gender or human nature in general, I do believe that the best work of historians and other social scientists should keep in mind the relevance of the organic basis, and therefore material commonality, of all human beings.
There is no reason for these two sources of knowledge to be contradictory. The conflict between proponents of each is often based in misunderstanding or, as with the famous Sokal Hoax, straight up caricature. Nonetheless, politics are nothing but priorities, so those who identify as skeptics or indulge in scientism and those who embrace postmodernism do end up clashing more often than not, as their ideology of choice usually reflects political projects inflected with sympathies and biases they may or may not be aware of but are rarely exactly the same as each other. Consequently, some scholarship apparently disconnected from anyone’s lived reality gets written and consequently, Michael Shermer says super stupid stuff like “science is apolitical.”
But to my eyes, there is no conflict; and contrary to my opening thoughts, my position, I suppose, is not so much that in-between these two positions we usually find the truth but rather, that they are entirely compatible. Here’s why: according to materialism, there is nothing else other than matter or, natural phenomena, if you will – there are things we certainly don’t understand, but that just means we do not understand the natural dynamics behind them. So, no souls, no God, no greater plan, no spirit of love or goodness: in short, no moral order to the universe. And if that’s the case, then it is up to animal consciousness to determine the values we embrace. A moral truth, in this sense, is always a decision, a construction – and this claim, I think it’s fair to say, rests at the heart of postmodernism. Most commonly, such truths are decisions people inherit from an organic and collective process, passed down socially rather than determined individually. However, maybe there is no better definition of an intellectual than someone who has thought critically about values and made some conscious decisions about them and therefore has made, as Nietzsche might describe it, a personal commitment.
Consistent with postmodernism, this means there is no final standard with which to argue with; if someone doesn’t value egalitarianism or, the reduction of suffering, for example, and you can’t find a shared value with which to convince them of their value, well you’re fucked, at least as far as they go. So you do have to own it, and come to terms with the reality that ultimately, there is nothing “else” out there stamping your vision with supernatural validation. This is also the problem (among many) with attempts by some, such as the absolutely vile Sam Harris, to construct a “scientific” basis for ethics, as he wrongly assumes that all human beings value the reduction of suffering as their primary value or, can be made to by sheer reason.
This is a difficult knot for some; surely if only everyone understood love, or science, or how ideology works, etc, we would all be free to find the true ethical standard floating around out there somewhere in the Platonic ectoplasm. For some, the idea that this is not so may always be troubling; but for others, myself included, it can be empowering. It means that it is up to us – best to go ahead and declare our values, shamelessly and without having to justify ourselves to those who, ultimately, we recognize as committed to drastically different projects. After all, if enough people join us, we can create a human and humane world rooted in justice, equality, and chilling on the beach.
 Not that Nietzsche would find most modern “moralities” – including scientism, Christianity, and socialism – at all sufficiently detached from the larger hegemonic framework, but a teacher of mine once described Nietzsche’s challenge to his readers as daring them to take 100 percent responsibility for their own ethics, relying on no outside authority to validate them or provide enforcement, and that seemed spot on, to me.