I think much of the confusion that is so readily apparent from many of the comments on this blog have to do with misunderstanding postmodernism. This is no doubt partly my fault. As in all philosophical discussions, language and meaning must be as precise as possible; otherwise, two people might think they are conversing when all they are really doing is talking past one another.
So I just want to put some issues to rest here, to bed. Let’s bury them never to see their ghosts rise again, shall we.
There are several types of postmodernism. Originally, it was a term used to talk about changes in art and even architecture. But for most, it is a philosophical term and speaks to changes that represent or define the conditions present in the time “after” the modern. This fact, alone, of course is worth a post or series of posts, but I don’t have the time to do that. There are a gazillion books out there now referencing the modern and postmodern, what it means or may mean, and how it relates to the world today. Most of the books also lay out a historical genealogy showing how and why we find ourselves in a “post”-modern world. It is also often referred to as the “Continental” view as opposed to the “Analytical” view. This relates to postmodernism’s birth in Europe, especially France.
For the purposes of this post however, I just want to point out that there are radical types or understandings of postmodernity and there are types and understandings that fit very well with some traditional understandings of Christianity, especially the ancient forms (Eastern Orthodox) set in place before the rise of modernity. Guess which type of postmodernist I am? Correct. There are some radical types of postmodernism that basically say there is no objective truth to the world, everything is an interpretation. KarlGiberson has a Ph.D. in physics. He gives us a good example of this here:
I have never understood the strong form of postmodernity that makes the strange claim that we can know nothing for certain. I once challenged a leading scholar of postmodernity who insisted that all scientific truth was constructed by the social activities of the scientific community rather than discovered, making every scientific claim relative. “Is the earth round?” I asked her, a professor at one of Boston’s leading universities. She hesitated for a rather long time without answering, and said something irrelevant. “Surely we can know the earth is round?” I persisted. “That claim isn’t constructed, is it?” I said, with growing impatience. “ Isn’t the claim that the earth is round a discovery about the way the world actually is?” I pressed her further, but still she would not admit that we can know that the earth is round. The conversation ended with me storming off in a most un-Christian manner, muttering to myself that I had just had a conversation with the biggest blockhead in New England.
I do not hold to this type of “strong” postmodernism. And this is the importance of understanding methodological naturalism. However, like Dr. Giberson also recognizes, when it comes time to theorize, connect dots, summarize, philosophize, and try to make sense of the physical world- we then are forming narratives of meaning, worldviews, faiths.
He goes on:
I understand that we are living in a postmodern age and have to accept a certain modesty in our claims about the way the world is. Modernity, built on the confidence that one could start with the incontestable facts of the world and build systems of explanation and meaning, has passed. It passed largely because the facts of the world weren’t always as incontestable as we had hoped, and because those facts were often so small that they couldn’t support anything worthwhile. That was an important lesson.
The postmodernist position I am speaking of has a critical component of humility. It knows that it is only an interpretation of the physical world (at the level of meaning); it is not a direct apprehension of everything without remainder. The conceit of modernity and what has come to be known as “scientism” was that it pretended to be this objective, neutral, and direct (correspondence) apprehension (which is where the control, the mapping, the domination of the physical world—along with any poor ignorant superstitious savages dumb enough to get in our way—came from) of the physical world, while everyone else believed in superstition and fairy tales. It’s a great view if one’s goal is to basically run the rest of the world over, while throwing in the rape of the physical world while you’re at it.
Well, after looking back at the epitome of the modern age, the 20th Century, and seeing a vast swath of the earth turned literally into a grave yard, people at every level began to doubt that “science” was always some objective and neutral force for only good—a savior. Especially given the way “science” was used by both the Nazis and the Soviet Union (and the U.S. too). The postmodern turn was to call the modern out and expose it as just another myth or metanarrative. And what made modernity so dangerous was this very notion of objectivity and neutrality, which made it arrogant and prideful. Of course, not everyone got the memo.
The type of postmodernism I hold to is one that stresses the critical role of metanarratives in forming how we interpret existence. But it presumes as well that “existence” is really out there. In that sense, I also hold to a form of something called critical realism.
Scientists who think about the nature of knowledge claims—and this includes me—almost all sign on to an idea known as critical realism. We believe there is a real world “out there” to be discovered through careful scientific investigation—not constructed from prejudice, duct tape and fog. We must not claim for our conclusions, however, more certainty than the evidence warrants. And we must not assume that our conclusions about the world are absolutely certain, even though they may be so probable that such an assumption would create no problems.
Clearly he is referencing something I keep noting over and over, which is the value and place of methodological naturalism. But he is careful not the make the mistake of the empiricist or the holder of scientism, which is to assume that methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism are either the same thing or that one has to lead to the other (whether by default or overtly). Ontological naturalism is an interpretation of the physical world—it is a view held by faith. It may be the true and correct belief, but it is not established empirically—it is held by faith as an interpretation of what the physical world means, because even “no meaning” is still a metaphysical/faith-claim.
He speaks again to the fact that we must always go beyond the surface level of empirical information:
The world as we are coming to understand it is far too complex to be understood by simply collecting facts, drawing conclusions and weaving the conclusions into an all-encompassing tapestry of illumination. Careful thought demands, of course, that we pay attention to the reasoning process and watch out for errors. But as we work our way from simple experiences to deep conclusions about the way the world is, we constantly find ourselves forced to go beyond mere generalizations from facts.
And it is here where the worldview/narrative/faith we bring to the collection of facts reveals how we “see” and understand the world. And let me just say this again as well: Worldview/narrative/faith encompasses reason, logic, and all the tools of reflection that anyone cares to name. At no point do any of us step outside our worldview and stand on a neutral objective pedestal or levitate off the ground and this includes our reasoning process. As long as we know this, it is the very thing that will keep us from just assuming we are right and everyone else wrong. And if anyone thinks he does levitate, then that is part of the problem. All of us “go beyond” at this point and we begin to tell a story of how all this fits together into a comprehensive matrix that tries to make sense of our world and our place in that world. Eric Reitan recently pointed this out in a post:
Even those who resist speculation beyond “what science tells us” have a hard time resisting their own version of such holistic storytelling, which is why “scientism” so often emerges among those who are doggedly committed not to believe in anything beyond what science tells us. Scientism is what happens, we might say, when those who consciously refuse to tell a holistic story end up telling one subconsciously: They weave together a narrative picture of the whole premised on the idea that there is nothing beyond what science gives to us, and hence postulating that the picture of “the whole” cannot include any postulates beyond the very delimited ones that arise in the scientist’s specialized form of storytelling.
And I think this is exactly what Burk does. In his attempt to tell us he is not telling a “holistic” story, he ends of doing it naively, which is what makes it so impervious to really “hearing” what the other is saying. Clearly however, it is something too easy for all of us to do.
Getting back to Dr. Giberson, he elaborates further:
Critical realists believe that the world is known through a spiraling discovery process where we continually circle the phenomena we are trying to understand, getting closer and closer as we understand it better, but never reaching absolute certainty. A gap always exists between the thing we want to understand and our very best theory of how that thing works. The gap can be small or large, but it never entirely vanishes.
Being postmodern (and a critical realist) is recognizing the importance of that “gap.” That “gap” is why our holistic summing up of the “facts” and the empirical evidence is always an interpretation. This is what should keep us humble and why doubt should always be the companion of our worldview no matter how much we think we are on the right track. It is also why it is ridiculous to say something like, “There is no evidence for God’s existence or that there is clear evidence for God’s existence.” Both statements beg the question. It is also why it is of no help to say something like, “I only go as far as the evidence and reason take me.” It too begs the question. We are all viewing and philosophizing about the same evidence. It is not that one person has the evidence and the other doesn’t or that only some of us go as far as the evidence takes us. It is that all of us are interpreting the evidence (which includes how far it can “take” us) through a worldview/narrative (the postmodern emphasis) all the while acknowledging that we are interpreting a world that is really objectively “out there” (critical realism).
And, again, Dr. Giberson is not speaking against every type of postmodernism, but a very specific type and such is not the type I hold, period. When he says that he’s never met a postmodern scientist, he is referring to this “hard” radical type of postmodernism. Please take note of this critical and significant difference.
So let’s just put some things to rest here, shall we. I do not claim that an assertion like “the earth is round” to be a matter of interpretation. I do not claim that all narratives are equal or all true. When I use the term “postmodern” I do not mean “nothing is true.” But it is clearly evident that many have read my posts with the erroneous assumption that I am the sort of postmodernist described by Dr. Giberson. I am not.
And to be charitable, I want Bernard to know that I do understand there are varieties of empiricism and that he does not fall into all of them especially the more extreme versions. Unfortunately, such ultimately does not take away from my critique. Still, it will help us both if we keep in mind the type, whether empiricism or postmodernism, the other is speaking of when they invoke it on their own behalf.
And before anyone jumps to the question (I can hear it coming), “Then how do you differentiate between worldviews?” –at least let what I’m saying soak in a little. Slow down. Because it is also possible that the rush to such a question is an indicator that the person’s greater desire is to know who is “right” and who is “wrong” and it maybe it should give the person pause and cause them to ponder their own worldview, one that clearly sort of partitions the world into such clear oppositions. One just might want to hold up there a little and ponder.
Finally, I am not going to waste any more time responding to the charges that I am saying something to the effect of what the hard postmodernist is saying. I am not. And if that is not clear by now, anyone making the charge isn’t really interested in conversation. And I don’t have time for that.
I do plan to post more in the future about evaluating worldviews/narratives, but for now, something to think about is: How have I been evaluating your own worldview? Because whether you agree I understand you very well or not, or even if you think I’ve evaluated it horribly, you still may be able to answer your own question to an extent.