Postmodernism; forget about it

by Brian 7. May 2010 01:03

Here’s a great true story by apologist Ravi Zacharias: I remember lecturing at Ohio State University, one of the largest universities in this country. I was minutes away from beginning my lecture, and my host was driving me past a new building called the Wexner Center for the Performing Arts. He said, “This is America’s first postmodern building.” I was startled for a moment and I said, “What is a postmodern building?” He said, “Well, the architect said he designed this building with no design in mind. When the architect was asked, “Why?” he said; “If life itself is capricious, why should our buildings have any design and any meaning?” So he has pillars with no purpose. He has stairways going nowhere...” I said, “So his argument was, if life has no purpose and design, why should our buildings have any design?” He said, “That is correct.” I said, “Did he do the same with the foundation?”

Postmodernism is one of those faddish words which when expounded sounds interesting on the surface but is conflicted and inconsistent at its core. We rarely hear mention of it in secular outlets, but it is a common topic in Christian media and in our churches. The Christian is told we live in a “postmodern culture,” and I for one used to believe this. I say “used to” because for the most part, it’s not true.

What is postmodernism? Put simply, it is the period after modernism. It typically manifests as a rejection of enlightenment thinking and epistemological realism. The postmodernist claims no one has a privileged perspective on reality. Even if there is objective truth, we don't have a good grasp of it. Of course theists recognize God's privileged position of knowing in an absolute and objective way. Yet that may have little impact on the postmodern attitude: favoring dialog over monologue; personal-belief over doctrine and the rejection of classifications and generalizations. The secular postmodern perspective encourages us to keep belief to ourselves. Facts of course are okay to share.

There is good reason to reject the strict rationalism of modernity. Belief in some cases is warranted even though it is not empirically verifiable or passes the criteria of the evidentialist. So in a way, we can appreciate the postmodern perspective even if it throws the baby out with the bathwater. But I'm not sure it matters much; American culture is predominately modern, not postmodern. If it were not for the airtime it receives in the institutional church, I doubt you would hear much about postmodernism. It is true we face epistemological-relativism in our culture, but in my opinion, this is a symptom of other causes – primarily the value-fact dichotomy permeating western worldview. When we consider America as a secular nation, it is not just a matter of separating the religious life from political life. In America, we tend to separate our faith from all other aspects of our lives. The world of values and the world of facts are treated as distinct realms, like two stories in a house as Francis Schaeffer described. The following lists depict the contemporary dichotomy in our culture:

Bottom Floor

Top Floor

Rational

Non-rational

Science

Religion

Facts

Values

Monday thru Saturday

Sunday

Business

Church

Objective

Subjective

Non-relative

Relative

 

So when we think of the postmodern building, we immediately recognize how ridiculous a random and capricious foundation is even if some think the stairways are clever. Americans often apply the same selectivity to epistemological relativism. Very few people act like postmodernists when it comes to business, facts and the products of Science. But start talking about top-floor matters and all of sudden you hear statements like “all truth is relative” and “your truth works for you but not for me,” etc. But this attitude is not because we have moved beyond modernity. In fact we are likely becoming more modern as scientism grows and the bottom floor swallows up more and more of our spheres of interest. If you assemble a panel consisting of a scientist, Hollywood starlet and a pastor; which one will the American public attribute the most credibility to on nearly every issue (even top-floor issues?) It usually won’t be the pastor. Many think the scientist is in a privileged position – and this is not postmodernism, it’s modernism.

Postmodernism isn't nearly the concern modernism and the fact-value dichotomy appear to be. The institutional church is not helping matters either. Those churches continuing an anti-intellectual tradition will further drive the wedge between fact and value, separating the two stories. By ministering as postmodernists (more interested in experience than truth) it will firmly encamp itself in the top story. As the bottom floor grows under scientism, the top floor and Christian truth claims will become less relevant.

I believe as Christians we should move towards freethinking premodernism! As premodernists; we have an integrated worldview of facts and values, all on the same floor. We recognize a rational God who has revealed himself in Creation (Psalm 19, Rom 1:20) has not left us without a witness. Our reasoning faculties are designed by God to obtain true belief where positions of knowing vary - some being privileged. We appreciate the limits of rationality while not being anti-intellectual. Good science and true faith lead to knowledge about the same reality, the same world. As epistemological realists we recognize truth and reality are independent of our opinions and can be revealed and discovered. As freethinkers, we work through the challenges of a meaningful worldview and adopt a minimalist doctrine of faith. This leaves room for growth (Phil 2:12-13, Mat 7:7) and maximizes our evangelistic opportunities in a world that has greatly separated the two floors.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

by Brian 15. March 2010 16:35

Have you run across one of these lovely little gems on the back of someone’s car? The first time I saw one I asked: “What the heck is it?” But my question quickly changed to: “What sort of insult is this on the Christian worldview?” (It’s obviously meant to resemble the Ichthus.) So I looked it up and sure enough it is one of the atheist’s new parodies on religion. It originated in response to the Intelligent Design (ID) movement as a substitute to an ambiguous unspecified creator. Since ID focuses on design-detection instead of the attributes of the designer, why couldn’t the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) be an acceptable proxy? If teachers can invoke God as the unspecified Designer; why not the FSM? So goes the joke. In recent debates between theists and atheists I’ve noticed the FSM has been re-tasked. The argument goes something like this: “I do not need to present a case for the nonexistence of invisible pink unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster; therefore I do not need to present a case for the nonexistence of God.”

Let’s first deal with the intelligent design case since it’s relatively trivial to put to bed. ID focuses on the methodology of design-detection and not the designer. Dembski’s Design Inference (DI) is a mathematical filter to determine chance, necessity or design causation from its effects. I’ve read his works and as an engineer the filter makes sense to me and I just don’t see the controversy. ID may have their work cut out for them in showing how the DI filter is applicable to biology, but the idea design can be detected without knowledge of the designer’s attributes is straightforward. Many ID proponents are theists, so when asked to go off topic and speculate about the designer of the universe or complex cellular machinery, they look to God. Some teachers conflate ID with Creation Science giving the Darwinist an opening to draw attention away from the real debate. Can a design inference be drawn in biology or in cosmology? That’s what the ID community is trying to answer. When the Darwinist’s arguments are lacking, they turn to a somewhat humorous red herring.

In regards to the atheist-theist debate I believe the FSM is more interesting. Here the atheist argument is more likely to sound reasonable at face value. If a follower of the Greek gods were to demand I present a case for the nonexistence of Zeus, I might initially dismiss it on similar grounds. Why should I have to make a case for the nonexistence of such an entity? Now I could easily make a case against entities such as invisible pink unicorns and the flying spaghetti monster. We simply know these to be fictional characters. I could also make a case against Zeus, though requiring more effort than the FSM. It is an entirely different matter regarding God as atheists have tried for centuries and failed to make a lasting case for nonexistence. This has led them to philosophical positions like atheism as a default and silly arguments involving fictional entities.

If you were to ask the average atheist if he or she believed in the existence of the ajolote – a mysterious creature found under Mexico City that can regenerate most of its body parts; do you suppose he or she would say: “No way such a thing exists and I don’t need to make a case for its nonexistence any more than I have to prove the nonexistence of the flying spaghetti monster.” I doubt it. They would rather most likely ask: “What is an ajolote?” This sort of inquiry does not take place with the FSM because we know immediately it’s a fictional entity. If an atheist concludes the nonexistence of the ajolote after a case is made for its existence, one would expect his or her conclusion to be based on some sort of rational argument – not an a priori rejection because one need not disprove unicorns or ajolotes. Such an opting-out of the debate leads to ignorance. However unlike the ajolote, assuming incorrectly about God is far more significant.

 

A Test for Unguided versus Guided Mechanisms

by Brian 30. January 2010 21:22

Darwinists falsely accuse Intelligent Design (ID) theorists of promoting non-science. ID proponents have shown certain evolutionary theories lack the hallmarks of a good scientific theory (i.e. verifiability, falsifiability.) They ask how large-scale change in complex specified information can be shown in a lab if by definition the material mechanisms require small change over vast time periods. Darwinists point to the fossil record and put their science on par with forensics. Yet interestingly, design theorists appeal to forensics as well, yet somehow this is unacceptable science. It seems to me the methodologies for testing the opposing views need improvement. I propose a possible candidate for testing unguided and guided (designed) mechanisms. As an electrical and software engineer, this test would have to be adapted by experts in the field. But essentially, the test would require cataloging functions and associated schemas into two categories:

1.       Independently arising function employing different schemas: examples catalogued in this category support the unguided view

2.       Design-reuse function employing comparable schemas: examples catalogued in this category support the guided view

A conclusion drawn from the results would be inductive. If one category received far more examples cataloged than the other, one could reasonably assume the associated view was the better explanation. The terms used in this test are as follows:

1.       Complex Function: biological systems requiring input and producing beneficial output for the survival of the organism. Optimal candidates would be more complex than mere building blocks (e.g. individual proteins) and less so than large-scale systems (e.g. an eye)

2.       Difference in Complex Function: a methodology would have to be developed to quantify function so they could be compared and identified as “minimally different.” For example, comparing the human eye with the eye of an eagle would show sufficiently large differences in function (size, acuity, articulation, spectral response, etc.) to rule out as functions with minimal difference.

3.       Schema: this refers to the information originating a function (e.g. sequence of genetic information)

4.       Difference in Schema: difference in the information originating a function. Here again, a methodology would have to be developed to quantify this.

5.       Common Ancestor: for the sake of this analysis; this would be the current scientific genealogy of organisms employing functions under test. In other words, one would suspend any sort of spontaneous creation assumption and instead assume something akin to the neo-Darwinian account.

 

Cases catalogued here would support the unguided view. The assumption: Unguided mechanisms should lead to the origination of novel schemas for minimally-different complex function. Since natural selection is blind to engineering best-practices, one should expect to find random mutation producing varying results for minimally-different complex functions. Now, some may argue there are yet-to-be discovered affinities and constraints within the material universe limiting the gambit of possible schemas. Two things can be said here:

1.       These affinities and constraints have not been discovered and one should not appeal to future scientific discovery.

2.       If found, the metaphysical implication smacks of purpose (telos), and would likely harmonize better with a guided view anyway 

 

Cases catalogued here would support the guided view. The assumption: Guided mechanisms should lead to the reuse of novel schemas for minimally-different complex function. From the perspective of the proponent of the guided view: The lack of schema reuse in comparable function ought to indicate poor design skill or showiness on the account of a designer. Of course the Designer reserves the right to be showy! But, it seems reasonable to grant the unguided view the benefit of the doubt here. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely, random mutation should lead to the same or very similar complex schema in independently arising function. Natural Selection cares nothing about schema, only function.

Of course as I noted, a test like this would not be definitive but could be part of a cumulative case for a particular view. And, having very little expertise in this field I cannot tell you if this test has been tried and if so, what the results might be. I hope someone out there reading this might shed some light.

 

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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