Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Alan Sokal on French theory and Science

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A discussion that followed the publication of “A Proposal for Developing Quantum Computing in Software” at


It would be useful to read Alan Sokal’s “Beyond The Hoax. Science, Philosophy and Culture”, OUP 2008.
Also Alan Sokal’s and Jean Bricmont’s “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science”, Picador 1999.

by Edgar at 4 August, 08:36 PM


Edgar’s helpful and restrained comment above has provided you with some critically important reading material. Make sure you take advantage.

Ill take a more direct approach. You are talking complete nonsense, abusing mathematics and physics to float yourselves in a bubble of intellectualism which would be burst the moment you encountered a professional in these fields, and embarrassing the art of dance.Even your title, the first words of this mess, are (not even) wrong. Id estimate that a good freshman student of physics or maths would see right through this tragic babble.

Have an honest go at the crackpot index:

by Dan at 26 August, 10:29 PM


Ah yes, rely on so-called “French theory” so-called authority Alan Sokal to provide you with an excuse to not read Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, and Virilio. That’s very bright. Ignore the intellectual contribution of an entire nation. The one that co-invented democracy.

There seems to be a great divide – a wall – between proponents and detractors of “French theory.” That is unfortunate, and we hope that that can change. We would ultimately be interested in meeting halfway in the middle (synthesizing the strengths of both positions).

I (Alan) have read Sokal and Bricmont’s book. Theirs is one point of view. Thank you, Edgar, for presenting me with the opportunity to publish for the first time anywhere what is wrong with their book:

I will make four points:

(1) Sokal’s hoax was very funny. Its strength was that it was a literary strategy (taking a page from the playbook of that very same interdisciplinarity and “literary turn” – science and literature – that he was ostensibly attacking); the strength did not come from his hardcore physics.

(2) Sokal and Bricmont are defending the existing paradigms of science. They dismiss a priori (and without even being aware that they are dismissing it) the possibility that there could take place a “paradigm shift” in science (Thomas Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”), and important keys to this scientific progress could be found in “French theory.” They measure something using the measuring rod of existing science. But the body of knowledge which they measure might be further advanced than their measuring rod. Since they are so dead set on hating it, of course they won’t come anywhere near to understanding its rational innovations.

(3) Sokal and Bricmont (like almost everyone) seem to only have a “techie” understanding of quantum physics, not a philosophical understanding. The story of quantum physics has barely begun. Philosophical understanding will precede the paradigm shift.

(4) Sokal and Bricmont don’t say anything (I don’t think they say even one word) about computer science, which is what we are talking about. Computer science is probably the most exemplary science of our time. So what kind of “science experts” are they if they just ignore computer science? And existing computer science is based on 17th century philosophy and scientific method (Descartes, Bacon, Newton, half of Leibniz). I think that’s absolutely incontrovertible. So there are three centuries of intellectual history ideas waiting to be implemented into a new computer science.

Dan, you try to insult us using the word “babble.” One of the most important meanings of that word is the inability or unwillingness of people from different traditions to understand each other, as in “The Tower of Babel.” It would be better, in our view, to try to cross this divide – Mr. Gorbachev, teach down this wall! – rather than to try to insult the Other.

Dan, you write:

>> Even your title, the first words of this mess, are (not even) wrong.

Dan, this is a very French and deconstructionist sentence. Roland Barthes would sure be proud of you. I congratulate you for the (unconscious) influence that poetic and paradoxical styles of writing have had on you.

But, Dan, as an American pragmatist thinker, it’s very difficult for me to follow your nonsensical claim that there is something wrong with our title. Quantum computing is an established field that many computer scientist researchers are engaged in. So what’s the problem? It’s a highly speculative field with no clear answers yet. So what’s the problem? The majority of the researchers are drawing up game plans to try to make it happen in hardware. A minority of them are drawing up game plans to try to make it happen in software. So what’s the problem?

by Alan N. Shapiro at 25 September, 12:13 PM


Dan’s authoritarian language (“Make sure you take advantage”) and poor writing mark him as the classic Internet “troll.” The writing he relies on to the challenge the main article is a humor page. Not a very funny one, consisting of many variations of the same point (enthusiastic claims for an idea can be used to measure the idea’s worth). Possibly it gives those who enjoy it a gym bully-like laugh at all the crackpots. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for argument. As Dan would say, make sure you ignore it.

by Tom Moody at 30 September, 01:26 PM


Oops, speaking of trolling: “The writing he relies on to the challenge…” should read “The writing he relies on to challenge…”

by Tom Moody at 10 October, 07:52 PM

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