Thursday, May 29, 2008

Postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy claims that we never see reality as it actually is. The reason for this is because in order to see something we have to think about it. Supposedly, we think in “language.” Language is arbitrarily constructed by society, and contains all the biases of that society. And so anything we think about is molded by the biases of our culture, and thus we never see reality as it actually is.

Just to be clear, I think there’s a small kernel of truth to this, but mostly a lot of hooey.


-Dave said...

I'd agree that we interpret everything we experience (which is what I take as "language" - less a series of words than a framework for interpretation), so I am rather sympathetic to this view. (I would not, however, say that there is no objective reality... and since I accept that it exists, I would not say we can "never" perceive it. I would, however, say that it is probably very rare).

I'd stretch it to include thoughts on particle physics and the nature of matter, or the behavior of light. The way things "actually" work is both the same and different from how we perceive it - physical touch is on an atomic level just electromagnetic repulsion. But which is reality as it actually is? If we see two magnets, one "hovering" above the other because of this same force and call that "not touching" but call it touching when the same thing happens at a much smaller scale, then is it "touching" now?

-Dave said...

Time delayed wit: You might say that right now, we see that objective reality dimly, as in a mirror.

Kenny said...

I agree there are insights expressed in postmodernism that are true and even important, such as the ones you point out, that we're always interpreting and should recognize that fact.

But, I think, when you say that we can sometimes perceive objective reality, that deflates the entirety of of the postmodern thought.

PM claims that there is NEVER an objective place or moment from which you can judge all the rest of reality. So, even granting rare objective moments, I think, is to repudiate PM thought generally because from those rare moments, you could objectively judge the rest of reality.

I think there's an intermediate question of "how well do we understand reality?" And there I agree with the idea that we see it 'through a mirror dimly.' We're finite and biased and sinful, and that definitely affects our ability to interpret reality. But there's a big difference between seeing through a mirror dimly, and seeing through a mirror 'nothing,' or nothing but a reflection of myself, which, I think, is what PM claims.

Ben said...

So postmodernism, in its pure and extreme form, goes too far and thus becomes nonsense. I think that's true, but to dwell on that insight misses the larger point: what can we learn from postmodernists?

A postmodernist would tend to point out the hidden biases (created by our finite capacity and sinfulness) that cloud our vaunted objective thinking. That's useful in helping us not be too cocksure of ourselves. So we can use that, even if we believe there IS an objective reality which has been revealed to us by God.

In contrast, a modernist would point out where we assert things without proof. Sometimes, we should accept things on faith, but we should recognize when we are doing so and be as equipped as possible to give a logical defense of our faith. A modernist helps with that.

All in all, I think it's a much better use of our intellectual energy to see what we can learn from various philospophies and/or denominations than to point out what's wrong with them. Or maybe it's better to put it this way: We should point out what's wrong with them, but we shouldn't stop there. We should then see what kernels of wisdom (tested against Scripture, of course) we can glean from them.

Kenny said...

I sort of agree with you, Ben. If there’s some wisdom to be gained from postmodernism, then that’s good (honestly, I’m not too impressed with PM’s supposed insights – was Derrida really the first person to know that context mattered?).

But I think it’s pretty important in this instance to point out the error of postmodernism 1) because if PM is right that we don’t have access to objective reality then a parade of horribles very logically and predictably ensues (from Nietzche to Nazis), and 2) because people, Christians (the Emergent Church), are buying into this stuff and I’m not sure they know what they’re doing (again, hear the foreboding music foreshadowing the parade of horribles).

In case you’re wondering what parade of horribles I mean, I’ll tell you. If the Emergent Church really buys into PM philosophy, it will end up like much of mainline Protestantism, mired in heresy and doctrinal compromise. For example, one prominent EC teacher is claiming that substitutionary atonement is “cosmic child abuse.” If a nation buys into PM, then people’s willingness to believe in objective moral facts (such as ‘slavery and killing are bad’) is weakened, and they become perfectly ripe to be dominated by someone with the ‘Will to Power.’

Ben said...

And how, exactly, did the Nazis believe there is no objective truth? They seemed to believe pretty clearly that their "truth" was right. And they were very willing to kill for that "truth."

I'll grant you the danger of heresy, just like 19th and 20th century theologians who bought too much into modernist criticisms of Christianity also fell into doctrinal error.

But I very much doubt that it's a lack of a belief in objective moral facts that leads people to kill or hold people in slavery. It's sin nature. And sin nature can always rationalize a wrong act and make it seem moral in the mind of the wrongdoer. "He deserved it." "I'm actually improving these people's welfare by enslaving them." No amount of philosophical beliefs about objective right and wrong can change the pervasive power of sin. Only the very power of the Holy Spirit can do that.

Ben said...

Also, as in all things not politics, I basically agree with Dave and think he put it better than me.

Ben said...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I find connecting the transition from modernist faith in rationalism to the postmodernist skepticism of everything.....connecting that transition to the moral decline of society seems a stretch to me. I'd argue that society is always in a sorry state as long as sin holds sway over the human heart.

Also, I should be working right now or going home. Not commenting 3 times in a row on your blog. So....later, dude.

kennyching said...

The relationship between Nietzsche's philosophy and Nazism is well documented, but, basically I think the gist of it is that there was a belief that objective meaning was gone (God is dead), and all that was left was people's will and desire for power, which helped people accept a German nationalism that allowed the rise of Hitler.

Actions result from ideas. The idea that the poor are lazy and just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is an idea that leads to practical law and policy. The idea that blacks were sub-human helped justify the American slave trade. As a man thinks in his heart, so he is. So, your argument that people don't kill and enslave based on ideas is just completely and badly wrong.

Only the Holy Spirit can bring about saving knowledge of God. That does not mean we shouldn't push for better or truer ideas. Saying that only the Holy Spirit can oppose pervasive sin, and therefore we shouldn't worry about philosophy, would be like saying only the Holy Spirit can oppose sin, so we shouldn't use law to oppose criminals or civil law to protect people.

I'm not connecting the transition from modernism to postmodernism to the decline of society. I'm connecting postmodernism with a particular set of bad results.

Also, I'm saying nothing more than C.S. Lewis said in 'The Abolition of Man,' if you're looking for someone to more credibly explain this all.

-Dave said...

I think, though I could be mistaken, that Ben was not arguing that "...people don't kill and enslave based on ideas," but "... I very much doubt that it's a lack of a belief in objective moral facts that leads people to kill or hold people in slavery." That is, he is arguing that the root cause of slavery is not a lack of belief in objective moral facts.

Ben's argument is easy to support, as even into the 1960s, modern bible-believing folks believed that it was objectively true that God made black men lower than white men. That God created them to be servants.

It was not for want of a belief in objective thought that they held these opinions, but rather that what they held as objectively true was profoundly twisted and wrong. What they held to be objective was in fact devilishly subjective.

Kenny said...

I’m not saying belief in objective fact is the only thing needed for human flourishing. However, I am saying loss of a belief in objective fact is a very dangerous slippery slope. Belief in objective fact is necessary but not sufficient for human flourishing.

And I’m not disagreeing that sin is the root cause the evils of our world. However, I think Ben basically said that beating up on PM philosophy was not very useful if one is concerned about the evils of the world, and to the extent that’s the argument, that’s what I’m disagreeing with.

The situation described by Ben and Dave, when one believes something is objectively true but which is actually evil and false, grows out of an error of Modernism (a too-strong belief in an individual’s ability to be objective). Most good commentators on the subject say that PM has useful criticisms of Modernism, but that we must also be delivered from PM.

-Dave said...

Refusing all belief in anything objective is a slippery slope? Yes. And so is trusting too strongly in our own ability to clearly discern what the objective reality is.

The mirror is dark and dim, dented, hammered, polished metal - giving us a form, an idea, but hardly sufficient for microscopic surgery.

I'm pretty sure we all agree on that. To the extent that we need to be on guard against error or heresy, I think we need to resist the lies of over-confident objectivism as well as pure subjectivism. Both are false, and are paths for the sinfulness of man to express itself.

I think the only difference in opinion we might have is in how often these glimpses of objective reality are available to us, and our ability to accurately distinguish them from the ordinary subjective.

In the same way that God's ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts - so far are we removed from clear perception of objective truth, in my thinking. "As the heavens are higher than the earth" is a pretty wide gap... and so I think that while we may individually be accurately measured as nearer or further from the truth, for anyone to actually wholly attain it is most unlikely, if not impossible.

Kenny said...

How often or rarely we see objective truth is a really good question. What’s important to see is that PM completely abandons that question by answering “never.” And whether you say we see objective truth rarely or whether you think we see it often, either way, if you think we see it at all, you repudiate PM.

This next piece is a somewhat different discussion. The way I see “through a mirror dimly” or “my ways are higher than your ways” is that what is being referenced is special knowledge from God of either Scripture (what cessasionists believe about 1 Cor. 13) or Jesus or the ways of grace. I completely agree that no one can fully know God or the ways of grace without special revelation. But I think there is general revelation which opens a substantial window to objective truth to all people.

In Romans 1, Paul says “ The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”

To me, this says there is quite a lot of objective truth available to people, which is not to say they know objective reality in its entirety.

Also, I find this passage relevant to why PM (and Modernism) should be strongly opposed: because God has given people knowledge of himself, but men in their wickedness suppress it. PM and Modernism, as you say Dave, both give people tools for suppressing the truth about God.

-Dave said...

1) Objective Truth Exists
2) The full extent of it is, literally, a God-eye view - unachievable to man.
3) God has nevertheless revealed concrete truths about himself through nature, through scripture, and through his Son.

The question is to what extent we are able to:
1) Identify truth as truth
2) Identify when our judgements about #1 are accurace.

We can make errors of believing something to be true when it is not, and not believing something to be true when it is (losely, Type I and Type II errors in statistics, though I can't recall which is which). The Modernist falls more often into the first error, and the Postmodernist into the second.

I admit, I have been thinking of objective truth in a much larger scale, but I think the same sort of problem applies at smaller scales. Even if we see some part of objective truth: "You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself" the difficulty comes in taking that objective truth and applying it to other situations.

We can see the command as objective, readily obtainable truth. But what does it mean for how I ought to treat a beggar on the side of the road? Is it more conforming to this truth to give a man money, or to refuse it on the grounds that you would be enabling him?

I think we can strive for answers to these applications, but we ought to be very humble in how we approach it, and aware that we might get the answer wrong.

-Dave said...

Bah. Forgive the poor spelling above. I am prone to think faster than I can type, and sometimes my fingers don't quite catch up.

Ben said...

Are we agreeing? Are we disagreeing? I've kind of lost track.

It's almost becoming a cliche on this blog....But, thank you, Dave, for saying what I wanted to say only better. (And for saving me the time getting distracted from my work.)

My contribution to this discussion is as follows: I'm less interested in speaking abstractly about the nature of truth and our pereception of it (though that does interest me!) than in the specific truths we perceive. Number 1, most important objective truth that we must perceive and that has been revealed to us: the Gospel. (As revealed in Scriptures and summarized very well in the Nicene Creed.) That's the power of God for the salvation of humanity (to paraphrase Romans 1). The rest is just details.

Well, that's overstating it. The rest has different truths of varying degrees of importance. But what's most important is that we recognize the revealed truth of the Gospel. Certainly, to the extent postmodernism cannot recognize that truth, it's wrong. And a postmodernist version of Christianity that denies that truth is heresy.

Outside of the Gospel, which we should proclaim boldly, we should all approach things with a good dose of humility. That doesn't mean we can't be right about extra-Gospel truths. I'm not advocating a rudderless relativism, which pure PM would create. (Kenny's right about that.) But we should be humble and keenly aware of our limited perception and subjectivity...willing to listen to others, if not to accept what they say as correct.

And that's the kernel of wisdom I glean and adapt from postmodernism. I happen to think it's a pretty good kernel.

Kenny said...

I think we’re agreeing. You guys should be happy that when I say someone reminds me of you, he turns out to agree with you in everything (except politics).

Jesus was described as being full of grace and truth. I guess what I’m taking from all of this is that it’s absolutely crucial to cling to both of these characteristics.

-Dave said...

I think we're agreeing, too. "Rudderless Relativism." That's atypically admirable alliteration, alright.

While it's strange to have someone so similar slant so solidly the opposite way in politics, I know that with a few different presuppositions that I hold about life, I can see myself being a pinko socialist like Ben. But I'm objective enough to know that my assumptions are sound ;-)

Is it strange to rag on someone I've never met before? Isn't that what the Internet was created for?