At The Bayview Review you are going to find all sorts of arguments for particular conclusions; reasons to think that some view of the world is wrong. But isn’t this whole endeavor misguided? After all, don’t we now live in a postmodern society that no longer values arguments and specifically rejects the idea that we can get beyond our interpretation of, or language about, the world around us? In short, no this is not a misguided project because we do not, in fact, live in a postmodern society.
It may be helpful to first talk a bit about what I mean by the term ‘postmodern’. This term has been used in so many ways that it has started to lose any real significance. In a similar way I think this is what is happening with the term ‘missional’. It’s now used so loosely that it’s incapable of distinguishing those that embrace the label from those that reject it. Because it’s now no longer a useful modifier I think it would be best if everyone just stopped using it, but I don’t think that is necessary when it comes to ‘postmodern’. ‘Postmodern’ is a term that picks out a genuine historical movement that can be characterized by a set of distinguishing factors and it is the historical idea of ‘postmodern’ that I want to focus on here.
Historically, postmoderns have been much more than just postModern. They have, in fact, been antiModern. They rejected the idea that we can ascertain objective knowledge of the world around us, that when we say some claim is true we mean that the details of the claim correspond to the way the world really is. Instead, we can only say that something is true because we take it to be true – we simply talk with one another as if if it were true. While the Moderns (to speak as if they all believed the same thing – they clearly did not) thought we could know the real world and our talk of that world could adequately represent it, postmoderns deny this. Instead, they tend to maintain that, “Language does not represent reality, it constitutes reality” (Brad Kallenberg, Ethics as Grammar, 234).
Much can be said about this (and for a start I recommend this by my colleague in the Philosophy Department at Tyndale University College – and fellow Bayview Review writer – Richard Davis), but for now what is important is that this radical idea that how we talk about things constitutes the way they are extends beyond morality and religion to even the sciences. It is the postmodern rejection of science as the be-all and end-all of acquiring truth that makes it clear we do not live in a postmodern society. If anything, we live in a hyper-modern society.
Rampant within our society today is an extreme commitment to the idea that science is the only way to acquire truth about the world – something postmoderns explicitly reject. There is a tendency to relegate religious and moral truths to the individual perspective, and nothing more, but that isn’t a postmodern tendency – it’s a Modern one. A recent example demonstrates how prevalent this commitment to science is. It may even suggest that we’re now more committed to science than even those wretched Moderns were.
About two months ago an article was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics advocating the moral permissibility of post birth abortion because “the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.” In response to this there has been a wave of criticism of the authors’ argument, and of the pro-choice position in general. Such criticism is good and should be encouraged, but that so many people were shocked by this article is surprising. This very same idea was first advocated by Michael Tooley in his article, “Abortion and Infanticide” that nearly 40 years ago. For nearly 40 years philosophers have been aware of, and debating, this very same idea without any attention from the media or society in general at all. Why is that?
The reason no one has cared about the philosophical argument for infanticide is because it’s just that, a philosophical argument. But once the same idea is published in a journal of Medical ethics then people take notice. As soon as the same idea takes on the guise of a scientific argument, that’s when people care. Pastors run into this problem all the time when a family learns there’s a significant chance a child will be born with significant birth defects. The family doctor’s advice will often take precedence over the pastor’s because the former deals in science – where truth really lies – whereas the pastor deals in theology – where it’s all really just make believe. (A less weighty example can be readily found by watching late-night infomercials. How many times have you seen some person peddling pots and pans in a white lab coat? Make people think your claims are scientific and they’re ready to fork over the cash.)
What we need today, instead of a misguided embrace of postmodernism, is to train people to recognize that science is not the gate-keeper of truth. But, contrary to what postmodernism has historically advocated, it’s not because there is no truth. It’s because truth can be obtained in non-scientific methods. When we do theology and theorize about ethics we aren’t simply reporting our interpretation of the world. We’re making claims that our interpretation of the world maps on to the way the world really is. If it doesn’t, then we’re wrong and need to adjust our beliefs accordingly. But if it does, then those that disagree with us need to do the same.
Please feel free to email any comments or questions about this post to Comments@TheBayviewReview.com.
Stephen Adams, “Killing Babies No Different From Abortion, Experts Say,” The Telegraph.
Michael Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1972), 37-65.