Saturday, July 28, 2007

Naturalism vs. Postmodernism

I think the two most important worldviews opposing Christianity in our day and culture are naturalism and postmodernism. Both end up at the same place (at least, relative to the Christian understanding) with regard to morals (which is what I want to discuss in the next few days). This is somewhat ironic, however, in that these two worldviews are really quite different from one another, especially in their opposite epistemologies. So let me interact with that for a bit...

(Warning: I'm about to make some very simplistic and superficial statements about the origin of postmodern thinking. The actual case is much more complex. Nonetheless, I think there is validity to what I'm going to assert.)

Epistemology is a two-dollar word for the study of knowledge. When we discuss issues of truth, knowledge, and how we know things, we are talking epistemology. And materialism/naturalism and postmodernism begin with quite different epistemologies.

By and large, the naturalist has a very high view of science and of truth. Most naturalists are rational realists, believing that science makes statements that are true--that correspond to the real world 'out there.' Postmodernists do not affirm a correspondence view of truth, but suggest that our beliefs are separated from any reality 'out there' by impenetrable barriers of language and/or senses. (Some postmodernists used to claim that "There is no truth," but the self-refuting nature of that statement was all too obvious. Most now make more contorted--but, unfortunately, no less self-refuting--claims about their view.)

In a very real (though, as I've already admitted, simplistic) sense, postmodern epistemology is a reaction or defense against scientific truth claims. Here's how that works.

Science has enjoyed immense success in the past century, curing illnesses, eradicating some diseases, placing men on the moon, and generally increasing the quality of life and the understanding of our universe. In academia and in the minds of the many-headed, science is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Science is the best--if not the only--way of discovering truth and of knowing anything. In particular, the hard sciences (like physics and chemistry), with their rigid experimental design, repeatability, and predictive power, have the monopoly on truth. And this understanding is reflected (in academia, for example) in the amount of research dollars and grant money that flows into these disciplines.

This, of course, leaves professors in English, history, sociology, and such on the outside looking in (with what is known colloquially as "physics envy"). Unable to challenge the chemist on his own turf--discovering truth through scientific means--these professors in the humanities have taken a different tack--they have sought to discredit even the existence of truth. When the scientist says that only he has the methodology for discovering truth, the literature teacher responds, "Truth? What's that?"

So, whereas the naturalist has a very high view of truth and of our ability to discern truth, the postmodernist denies the existence of truth or our ability to discover it, or both. Tomorrow, I'll examine the ironically similar conclusions about morality to which these two different views arrive.

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