313 Postmodernism, Scientism

When I first encountered “postmodernism” several decades ago I wondered at the sheer irrationality of the term itself.  After all, The Oxford English Dictionary defines “modern” as “being at this time; now existing; of or pertaining to this present and recent times.”  By definition, then, nothing can be post-modern!  It is, in fact, oxymoronic—self-contradictory.  So I was gratified, recently reading Alexander Solshentisyn’s 1993 essay, “Playing Upon the Strings of Emptiness” (crafted when he was awarded the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature), to find him sharing my view.  “Whatever the meaning intended for this term,” he wrote, “its lexical makeup involves an incongruity:  the seeming claim that a person can think and experience after the period in which he is destined to live.”   Importantly:  “For a post-modernist, the world does not possess values that have reality.  He even has an expression for this:  ‘the world as text,’ as something secondary, as the text of an author’s work, wherein the primary object of interest is the author himself in his relationship to the work, his own introspection.”  

Yet, amazingly enough, throughout the past century growing numbers of people embraced the position Solshentisyn opposed and embraced the motto propounded in Luigi Pirandello’s 1916 play:  Right You Are If You Think You Are.  In their own inner worlds postmodernists fantasize—or “construct” their own reality”—even to the extent of self-selecting their sex!  New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio recently defended this, allowing residents to rewrite their birth certificates, choosing any of three sexual categories.  “New Yorkers,” he said, “should be free to tell there government who they are.”  Now boys insisting they are girls join female wrestling team and easily win matches.  In all bizarre behaviors we see postmodernism triumphant!  George Orwell, writing 1984, envisioned such a time as ours, when:  “All words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink.”   He prophetically skewered the twin pillars of Postmodernism:  epistemological skepticism and ethical relativism.  What Orwell called “oldthink” (objective reason), postmodernists reject and claim to transcend.  

To understand this phenomenon, I commend Explaining Postmodernism:  Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault  (New York:  Ockham’s Razor Publishing, Kindle, c. 2011) by Stephen R. C. Hicks.  Primarily, he thinks:  “Postmodernism is the end result of the Counter-Enlightenment attack on reason” (#913).  So to understand it we need to review two centuries of intellectual history, beginning with Immanuel Kant, a philosopher often touted as the personification of the Enlightenment and its dedication to reason, yet who was deeply anti-rational inasmuch as he “asserted that the most important fact about reason is that it is clueless about reality” (#940).  Kant thought we can observe and link together phenomena, but essences—any inner noumena—must remain forever unknowable.   We can describe and manipulate the material world, but the “objects that science explores exist ‘only in our brain,’ so we can never come to know the world outside it” (#1075).  Thus Kant discarded the Enlightenment’s understanding of reason, holding “that the mind is not a response mechanism but a constitutive mechanism.  He held that the mind— and not reality— sets the terms for knowledge.  And he held that reality conforms to reason, not vice versa.  In the history of philosophy, Kant marks a fundamental shift from objectivity as the standard to subjectivity as the standard” (#1143).  “‘I had to deny knowledge,’ wrote Kant in the Preface to the first Critique, ‘in order to make room for faith.’”  Setting forth his “first hypothesis about the origins of postmodernism,” Hicks says: “Postmodernism is the first ruthlessly consistent statement of the consequences of rejecting reason, those consequences being necessary given the history of epistemology since Kant” (#1976).  

Subsequent to Kant, various 19th century philosophers (e.g. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) and theologians worked out the implications of his position.  In particular there transpired a profound shift in Lutheran theology inspired by F.D.E. Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant Liberalism who declared:  “‘The essence of religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  I repudiated rational thought in favour of a theology of feeling’” (#1410).  Soon thereafter Soren Kierkegaard “gave irrationality an activist twist” and profoundly influenced (with his “Christian Existentialism”) 20th century theologians such as Karl Barth.  “‘Faith,’” wrote Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, “‘requires the crucifixion of reason’”; so he proceeded to crucify reason and glorify the irrational” (#2164).  Equally Kantian is the atheistic version of Existentialism was set forth by Martin Heidegger, who effectively jettisoned reason and logic “to make room for emotion.”   Heidegger rejected “the entire Western tradition of philosophy . . . based as it is on the law of non-contradiction and the subject/object distinction” and propounded a despairing version of metaphysical nihilism (#1670).  He “is unquestionably the leading twentieth-century philosopher for the postmodernists” (#1518).  

In addition to Kant’s philosophical idealism one must understand the importance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s socialistic political ideology.  Though postmodernism is certainly a philosophical persuasion, it is equally a political position, leading to Hicks’ “second hypothesis about postmodernism:  Postmodernism is the academic far Left’s epistemological strategy for responding to the crisis caused by the failures of socialism in theory and in practice” (#2153).  Since the French Revolution in 1789, socialism (or progressivism) had become a Rousseau-inspired religion for many.   “Rousseau’s writings were the Bible of the Jacobin leaders of the French Revolution, absorbed by many of the hopeful Russian revolutionaries of the late nineteenth century, and influential upon the more agrarian socialists of the twentieth century in China and Cambodia” (#2204).  Rousseau routinely elevated feeling over reason and determined to follow his “inner light;” he also celebrated the supremacy of simplicity (i.e. the “Noble Savage) over the artificiality of civilization and its consequent corruptions.  

Yet the 20th century’s sorry record of socialist revolutions and regimes effectively refuted its ideology, whereas the much-derided capitalist system had, in fact, made life much better for millions of people.  Marx’s oft-celebrated motto—“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”—lost its allure in prospering societies wherein virtually all material needs had been satisfied!  So Leftists abruptly stopped talking about “needs” and declared themselves committed to “equality.”  Capitalism had failed, not to satisfy basic needs, but to give everyone equal shares of everything.  Rather than seeking to rectify economic injustices, Socialists promoted “multiculturalism” and crusaded to eliminate racial and sexual inequities.  In addition, Marxist activists embraced environmentalism, which promoted “the radical moral equality of all species” as a movement capable of discrediting capitalism.

In their desire to destroy distinctions and abolish hierarchies, Leftists reveal their deeply nihilistic perspectives.  Indeed:  “Nihilism is close to the surface in the postmodern intellectual movement in a historically unprecedented way.  In the modern world, Left-wing thought has been one of the major breeding grounds for destruction and nihilism.  From the Reign of Terror to Lenin and Stalin, to Mao and Pol Pot, to the upsurge of terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, the far Left has exhibited repeatedly a willingness to use violence to achieve political ends and exhibited extreme frustration and rage when it has failed.  The Left has also included many fellow-travelers from the same political and psychological universe, but without political power at their disposal” (#4125).  As Nietzsche, one of the architects of postmodernism, said, in Daybreak:  “When some men fail to accomplish what they desire to do they exclaim angrily, ‘May the whole world perish!” 

Consequently, some of the most influential postmodernists, awash in despair at the failure of their socialist faith, seem happy to envision the abolition of man.  Michel Foucault, for example,  “speaks almost longingly about the coming erasure of mankind:  Man is ‘an invention of recent date’ that will soon ‘be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.’  God is dead, wrote Hegel and Nietzsche.  Man too will be dead, Foucault hopes” (#4186).  Deconstructionists such as Foucault and Jacques Derrida seek to get behind or beneath the apparent meaning of language.  More deeply, following atheistic nihilism of Nietzsche, they deconstruct not only language but Reality itself!  Nothing can be said because, ultimately, nothing ontological is really There.   If there are objective “things” (and especially all eternal, substantial, non-material realities) around us—they are beyond knowing and thus unreal.  What’s real is simply what, at the moment, we consider real for us, whatever works for us.  So here we are:  men calling themselves women!

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Rivaling postmodernism for modern man’s allegiance is what’s frequently dubbed “scientism”— carefully examined by J.P. Moreland, a professor at Biola University and one of today’s best evangelical philosophers, in Scientism and Secularism:  Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway, Kindle Edition, c. 2018).  A quotation from Dallas Willard, another fine evangelical scholar, nicely sums up Moreland’s thesis:  “The idea that knowledge—and of course reality—is limited to the world of the natural sciences is the single most destructive idea on the stage of life today.”  Anticipating Willard’s concern, C.S. Lewis devoted a significant amount of his writings, beginning with his first Christian work, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), to a critique of Scientism.  During the Second World War, delivering some lectures published as The Abolition of Man, he warned that:   “The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man, goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists.”  In fact, he declared that:  “many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.” 

To introduce his case Moreland gives a bit of personal background.  Reared in a very nominal Christian home and church, he entered the University of Missouri determined to pursue a degree in science.  While there, however, he encountered Campus Crusade, had a life-changing conversion experience, and subsequently served as a Crusade staffer for a decade.   Subsequently, he continued his academic work and,  “during the process of my various studies . . . constantly bumped into something dark, hideous, and, I dare say, evil.  It was the philosophical notion of scientism, roughly the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality” (#240).

“At the very least,” its devotees declare, “this scientific knowledge is vastly superior to what we can know from any other discipline.  Ethics and religion may be acceptable, but only if they are understood to be inherently subjective and regarded as private matters of opinion.  According to scientism, the claim that ethical and religious conclusions can be just as factual as science, and therefore ought to be affirmed like scientific truths, may be a sign of bigotry and intolerance” (#275).  Inasmuch as the public schools and universities embrace and promote it, scientism has become rather like the air we breathe—something so pervasive we hardly notice it.  Sadly, few of us consider “what it does to a culture and to the church.  It puts Christian claims outside of the ‘plausibility structure’ (what people generally consider reasonable and rational)” and makes it difficult for the Gospel to get a fair hearing (#365).  On the defensive, many Christians have left and “reasonable and rational” realm to scientists and embraced various versions of “blind faith.” 

Representing such scientism, Robert B. Reich, a Harvard professor and Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, recently declared:  “‘The greatest conflict of the 21st century . . . will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma.’  Reich understands that ideas matter, and he hopes that scientism destroys our confidence in Christianity” (#482).  Indeed, Reich is a sterling example of Moreland’s claim that “Scientism is a silent yet deadly killer of Christianity” (#3173).

Despite the self-assurance of folks such as Robert Reich, scientism is, rightly evaluated, irrational.  Bringing philosophical rigor to the discussion, Moreland builds a persuasive case showing “that strong scientism—the view that true knowledge is found only within science—is self-refuting.  It is self-referentially incoherent, meaning that it refutes or defeats itself” (#657).  To explain:  “when a statement is included in its own subject matter (i.e., when it refers to itself) but fails to satisfy its own standards of acceptability, it is self-refuting” (#667).  A self-refuting statement is necessarily false!  If you say “All sentences are exactly three words long,” or “I do not exist,” or “There are not truths,” you refute yourself.  You make no sense, so you’re speaking nonsense!  So too when you say “Truths can only be verified by the five senses or by science” you refute yourself you are stating something that cannot be so verified’” (#671).  

Given his background, Moreland fully understands the scientific world, and he knows its champions assume some utterly non-scientific positions.  For example, they assume there’s a world “out there” to be studied.  Physicists and chemists purport to weigh and measure actual things “independent of mind, language, or theory.”  Whether or not the know it, they are philosophical realists—assuming there’s a world that’s quite real apart from their own inner worlds.  They simply assume our senses and minds enable us to come to grips with and understand a real world.  Scientists further assume the natural world functions in accord with orderly laws (e.g. mathematics or logic or gravity or electromagnetic fields)—constants underlying the changing world of sense perceptions.  Inasmuch as they celebrate “peer review” to establish scientific truth, practicing scientists necessarily believe in “objective truth.”  What’s done in one experiment can be replicated in another—thus what’s discerned is not simply something within the head of the researcher.   “Not only is objective truth a presupposition of science (for most advocates of scientism), but its reality presupposes a certain understanding of truth, namely, the correspondence theory of truth” (#853).  Importantly, Moreland says:  “The conclusions of science cannot be stronger than their presuppositions.  There are many things that science presupposes.  But science itself cannot justify those presuppositions.  It needs philosophy to do that.  And therefore the philosophy of scientism—which is not itself science—ends up also being the enemy of science itself” (#962).

Inasmuch as science cannot advance any pretense of intellectual sovereignty, Moreland invites us to recognize the dignity and worth or other forms of knowing, including logic and math.  Both intellectual disciplines are known not by empirical processes but “by direct rational intuition or awareness, without appealing to sense experience to justify them”  (#1096).  We simply know them a priori or at first sight—prima facia.  The natural sciences, however, are limited to a posteriori reasoningdetermined by observation and calculation.  Thus mathematics and logic are not sciences!  They are, rather, important ways of thinking which are necessary for the sciences.  And then, perhaps most importantly, we know our own minds in ways inaccessible to empirical science.  My self-consciousness is as manifestly real as the earth and stars.  Knowing myself as I really am requires a non-material process, but it is absolutely essential to living as a human being.  To Moreland this is a critical issue, for:   “Simple introspection—combined with biblical, theological, and philosophical reflection—is the most rational and very best way to learn facts about the nonphysical nature of mental properties and mental/conscious states” (#1335). 

Importantly, consciousness “does not fit or is not at home in a naturalistic physical worldview.  As naturalist philosopher Colin McGinn admits, consciousness is one of the most mystifying features of the cosmos,” bordering “on sheer magic because there seems to be no naturalistic explanation for it:  How can mere matter originate consciousness?  How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness?  Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang; so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it?  A good question indeed!” (#2051).  This leads Moreland to stress the importance “substance dualism,” the position he takes regarding human nature as composed of both body and soul.  Consciousness is not, as many thinkers insist, merely an excretion of material activity within the brain.  It is, rather, a distinct a property of an immaterial soul. 

To persuasively refute scientism, Moreland holds, we need to reinstate the West’s traditional “first philosophy” and insist there are ways of knowing Reality apart from and superior to empirical science.  “The idea of first philosophy has been central to the discipline of philosophy since Plato, but with the advent of scientism in the mid-twentieth century (and the public’s general lack of exposure to philosophy in our educational system!), first philosophy has fallen into disfavor” (#1470).  Nevertheless, as Moreland shows in significant sections interacting with contemporary thinkers, a strong case can be made for both the “autonomy” and “authority” or philosophy.  There are, in fact, at least “five things” science cannot explain:   1) the origin of the universe; 2) the origin of the fundamental laws of nature; 3) the fine-tuning of the universe; 4) the origin of consciousness, and, 5) “the Existence of Moral, Rational, and Aesthetic Objective Laws and Intrinsically Valuable Properties.”  Examining each of these things elicits from Moreland many pages of skillful (and highly persuasive) argumentation.  He then makes helpful suggestions concerning the proper ways for Christians both embrace science without elevating it to scientism, with its methodological naturalistic presuppositions.  “After carefully considering its claims,” Moreland concludes “that it is not science, that it undermines science, that it encourages people to misuse science, and that because it is so widely believed, it ends up hurting Christians who buy into its deceptive lies” (#3167). 

Consider, for example the claim of Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, “that quantum physics has made the need for a creator and designer superfluous.”   Hawking thinks “the universe can ‘create itself,’ that is, it came into existence out of nothing.”  Though he was a first-rate scientist, however, Hawking was a poor philosopher!  To think clearly, “nothing” means precisely that—no-thing.  And something cannot, logically, come from nothing.  In fact, he assumed there is an eternal “quantum vacuum, which contains energy and is itself located in space.  The universe, according to them, comes into being spontaneously as a fluctuation of the energy in the vacuum.  This is hardly a case of the universe coming into being from nothing!” (#1740).  

So too “origin of life” researchers frequently fail to think rightly and are notoriously unable to even define the term.  Thus Antonio Lazcano admits:  “‘Life is like music; you can describe it but not define it.” (#1758)  Indicative of its mystery, there are some 100 definitions of “life”—all suggesting it’s non-material in important ways.   “Interestingly, many philosophers have provided new evidence for this argument by claiming, following biologists, that living things are constituted by information.  But apart from a few exceptions, many, perhaps most philosophers that work in this area have claimed that information is immaterial, more fundamental to reality than matter, and, given its nature, there can be no material explanation for the origin of (immaterial) information and, thus, for the origin of life” (#1778).

A lengthy endorsement of the book by Jeffrey Schwartz merits repeating:  “Scientism and Secularism should be mandatory reading for serious Christians who want to intelligently engage in the interface of philosophy and science.  Moreland elegantly guides the reader through concepts typically reserved for serious analytic philosophers and academics.  In doing so, he provides a desperately needed and highly accessible treatment of elite-level arguments that both seasoned philosophy veterans and enthusiastic amateurs will enjoy.  Moreland thus demonstrates a rare ability to distill complicated and abstract philosophical concepts into a framework for everybody to understand.” 

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