Alan Sokal once wrote:

Fair enough: anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

From what I can read, this challenge is at least 20 years old. Has any so-called "postmodernist" argued anything against that claim? Or they gave up entirely the claim that "laws of physics are mere social conventions"?

I've read the claim. I've read the reasons of the critic, and lots of its originary papers. Please don't ask me to read a 20 pages article as being "the rebuttal". If you can't summarize it in the answer below, I'll assume it's only mumbo-jumbo.

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    Are you asking was there a rebuttal against Sokals claim, or whether Sokal was tilting at windmills, ie whether any serious philosopher had claimed the laws of physics are socially constructed? Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 5:38
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    Here's a basic point, units are socially constructed - a foot, a mile or a kilometre, this is why when physicists find naturally occurring dimensionless constants they get excited... Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 12:25
  • That is how Deleuze committed suicide. He was very sick and threw himself himself out his own third floor? window, in 1995.
    – Gordon
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 13:03
  • Has anyone ever shown that Sokal hasn't made a category error here? He appears to assume that his paper was published because reviewers read it and agreed with it. It seems equally likely that they didn't bother reading it and published anyway. In which case, there's no reason to believe anyone agrees with any of the claims.
    – Alex
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 13:23
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    "Postmodernists" did not argue that laws of physics are "mere" social conventions. Sokal was using a hyperbola to make a point about more moderate reaches, like "male bias" in hydrodynamics. Such silliness was dialed back somewhat since the Sokal hoax. However, even some scientific realists believe that science is value-laden and "reality" is in part socially constructed, see e.g. Putnam's Fact/Value Dichotomy or Searle's Construction of Social Reality.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 3:35

4 Answers 4


One of the major dysfunctions of the science wars in the '90s was that people were using terms to yell at each other — social construction, relativism, postmodernism, paradigm, theory, science, fact, truth, reality — with very little in the way of clear and generally accepted definitions, even among partisans on one side of the dispute. Ian Hacking wrote a nice book on this problem, and the Wikipedia entry on "social constructionism" gives a nice summary of the argument in this introductory chapter. For your question, here's an especially relevant passage:

According to Hacking, "social construction" claims are not always clear about exactly what isn't "inevitable", or exactly what "should be done away with." Consider a hypothetical claim that quarks are "socially constructed". On one reading, this means that quarks themselves are not "inevitable" or "determined by the nature of things." On another reading, this means that our idea (or conceptualization, or understanding) of quarks is not "inevitable" or "determined by the nature of things".

The first reading treats social construction claims as ontological claims, about what kinds of things exist and why. Ontological readings of "the laws of physics are social conventions" might infer that gravity does not exist at all (in other words, it's a fiction), or it exists but only because social systems decree that it exists (like money).

The second reading treats social construction claims as epistemological claims, about our knowledge of the world. These readings would emphasize social contingency in the development of our knowledge. For example, the idea of laws of nature comes out of Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam): the laws of nature are rules laid down by God, the ultimate law-giver. If Christian-European societies hadn't dominated scientific development over the last 300 years, then we might not understand physics in terms of laws of nature. Similarly, a number of professional philosophers of science today (none of whom remotely resemble Lyotard or Irigaray) argue that the metaphor of laws of nature is counterproductive and misleading, even in physics, and suggest alternative conceptual frameworks for scientific knowledge. This wouldn't mean that we wouldn't fall if we walked out of Sokal's apartment window if China had dominated scientific development rather than Europe, or if we understood physics in terms of causal powers rather than laws. But it would mean that we would represent the phenomena of falling differently.

Sokal's criticism is only relevant to ontological readings of social construction, not epistemological readings.

  • I think that the "dysfunctions" of science itself came from postmodernists calling "truth" what was largely known as "opinion". The result of that was an steady increase in scientific illiteracy ("why study and understand science? I have my own truth!"). Lots of texts describe those ontological claims in many subtle passages (i.e. "the rationality that creates and destroys the world" - Enrique Leff). Even if the author admit not being exactly the case, they do that in so obscure passages, that what really stick to the mind of students is the subtle, readable ontological parts.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:13
  • Someone might argue that Enrique Leff is not a "great philosopher". I agree, he is not. But like him there are hundreds, maybe thousands of "small philosophers" who are being pushed to the masses and turning them into thought cattle, ignorant of science, actually ignorant of almost everything, but believing they have real knowledge. This is the main dysfunction of science nowadays (not only in the 90s).
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:15
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    First, you asked how postmodernists have [or might] responded to Sokal's argument. I don't see how trends in scientific literacy are relevant to that particular exchange. Second, IIRC the trends in scientific literacy in the US and western Europe have been basically flat for 25 years. It's also implausible that many members of the general public have read Deleuze or Irigaray. Given those two points, it's hard to see how postmodernism has produced "an [sic] steady increase in scientific illiteracy."
    – Dan Hicks
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 18:33
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    @danhicks Interesting story that in America, postmodernism was first seized upon by the critical studies, literary studies etc people, it did not enter through philosophy depts. Then the Education depts who teach teachers got a hold of it and they started writing their stuff. The most bizarre, unclear stuff you can imagine got taught and written about and filtered out to the public. Postmodernism became the new novelty. So it made a bad situation worse in the way it entered America.
    – Gordon
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 19:28
  • @DanHicks 1) Like most here, you seem to ignore the problem with postmodernism. Even writing "very little in the way of clear and generally accepted definitions", you can't admit this was postmodernist's fault. They are the obscurantists here, not general scientists. So I disagreed, and told what's the problem, in my view, and its consequence - scientific illiteracy. 2) If scientific illiteracy is no problem, why so concern about it? Just Google for "scientific illiteracy". 3) The public don't need to read right from the source, the ideas get to them indirectly. And they've spread wide!
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 20:11

The SETI example is a good lens through which to view this question. The science of radio waves is not socially constructed but our ideas on communicating with aliens are. It's like the old adage, "When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Social constructionism is an interesting tool for dissecting ideas from the soft sciences but it fails to make my car go, or to power my laptop.


I would have no idea what postmodernists insist, in spite of living next door to one, as they write such impenetrable nonsense. See https://www.theawfulauthor.com/blog-1/2021/7/3/vive-la-diffrence

  • Mmm, there's a name for when people say stuff like in the link: "word salad." It means they are schizophrenic.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 16:44

This is not a good example. A better dilemma is this: Consider SETI (search for extra-terrestrial life). We're searching for radio waves in order to communicate with aliens. But, this assumes that sentient alien civilizations would discover electromagnetism and use it somewhat like we do. Well, the search did not yield results as yet. Why is that?

The easy answer in that radio technology is only useful during a short time through the life of a civilization. Another easy answer is that radio used by and advanced civilization would be encoded in a way which is hard to decipher.

But there's also a hard answer: that a civilization truly alien would not discover anything that we would be able to recognize. It's hard to imagine what science could look like if we took other directions (after all, we didn't take them...). But it just could be that reality is so complex that there is more than one way to do physics.

  • From what we see in the telescopes, Hydrogen and Helium are abundant all over the observable Universe. The shapes of the galaxies are only a few, among billions and billions of them. Where we can calculate, the laws of gravity and others are the same everywhere. So I don't know why most alien species wouldn't discover much of the same laws we did. Anyway, I don't see how you're answering the question.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:17
  • It's like trying to imagine what it would be like to talk another language, when all you know is English. One could say "but, please tell me, how do they say apples in your other language? It would have to be apples, wouldn't it? So there's only English". We're stuck with the things we know. It's hard to imagine what would happen if we took a different route.
    – mousomer
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 16:21
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    The problem with your "hard answer" is that it ignores what SETI is looking for. It's not looking for any sort of coherent message, it's merely looking for an anomalously strong radio wave. If an alien civilization makes use of high-powered radio, SETI can see it -- even if all they're doing is making a radar map of their solar system.
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 22:14
  • @Mark, take a look at setiathome.berkeley.edu (participation is recommended). They are trying to analyze radio signals already detected, to find recognizable patterns. Finding a radio source is not enough.
    – mousomer
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 11:39
  • There are only two forces that travel: gravity and electromagnetism. (The strong and weak forces only act within the nucleus.) Since gravity is too weak to be useful and too hard to manipulate, that leaves one force for, well, everything a being would want to do. It also causes molecules to form, so not stumbling across it is pretty well impossible. Reality is actually not complex: 4 forces, 3 particles, basically. 92 elements... That's all there is for practical purposes.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 16:36

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