The constant charge asserted against postmodernity is that it makes truth relative. Is it just “your” truth and “my” truth? Is there anything that has to be true for both of us, regardless what we think about it? There are some postmodernists who have actually encouraged these types of charges in their overzealous attempts to destroy any assertion (whether by scientists or religious folk) that only ONE way of viewing things can be true. Caputo addresses this charge:
“Playing it too loose with truth is called relativism—a point that we will want to keep in mind throughout. Relativism means there is no Truth, just a lot of competing truths, depending upon your language, culture, gender, religion, needs, tastes, etc., and one is as good as another. Who can say what is true? Who has the authority to pronounce on that? So the critics of postmodernism fear the worst: relativism, skepticism, nihilism, flat out anarchy.”
And again, Caputo links much of this to the very fact of our existence today in how mobile we are. Every time we board a train, plane, or automobile and wherever we arrive—we find difference not universality. The one thing we can all agree upon is that there is much we do not agree upon.
“If someone invokes the power of Reason nowadays, postmodernists wrinkle their brows and ask, ‘Whose reason? Which rationality?’ If someone says ‘we think’, postmodernists ask ‘we who?’”
Caputo then notes that while modernists are charged with absolutism, postmodernists are charged with relativism. Again, a dichotomy, a division, a distinction, a wall. The point here is to navigate between both. Both are ditches we need to avoid. The rocks of each will destroy any boat.
“In what follows I hope to dodge both of these bullets, each of which I regard as dead ends. I will argue that absolutism is a kind of intellectual blackmail, while relativism, which is widely mistaken to be the postmodern theory of truth, in in fact a failure to come up with a theory. Relativism renders us unable to say that anything is wrong, but absolutism confuses us with God…I will defend the plurivocity, ambiguity and non-programmability of truth while also defending the right to say that some things are not just different, they’re wrong.”
Caputo then makes it clear he recognizes the good things the Enlightenment brought us, the way it helped us think differently about the church and state, about civil liberties, and science. He is not anti-Enlightenment. However:
“But I do think the old Enlightenment has done all the good it is going to do and we now need a new one, not an anti-Enlightenment but a new Enlightenment…the idea is not to put out the light of the Enlightenment but to put out a new, revised edition by complicating its Pure Light with shadows, shades, greys, black holes and other unexpected nuances and complications…there is no such thing as Reason (as it was understood by the Enlightenment at least), but there are good reasons and bad ones.”
Caputo then tells the story about Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81). Lessing said that if God were to hold out truth in his right hand and the search for truth in his left, and asked Lessing to choose, Lessing said he would choose the left hand. His thought was that absolute truth was meant for God alone, while his own place was to search, to always be on the move toward truth. The point is that whether the ideal is God or Science, we attribute to each a God-like view from above that sees all, knows all, and is where we go for some sense of absolute truth or the final word on something.
But we are not God. And Science is not God.