POSTMODERNISM

(Talk for Charleston Unitarian adult group, March 12, 2000)

By James A. Haught

In WORLD magazine and other Unitarian Universalist writings, you may have noticed that UU leaders sometimes cite "postmodern" thought. This is a strong current in our denomination these days. I've done some reading about it - but I'm still not quite sure I grasp it accurately. I think it's chiefly a conflict between traditional scientific logic ("modernism") and a new type of relativistic, subjective, personal, emotional, "spiritual" thinking ("postmodernism").

Here's how I grasp the issue: During the Enlightenment, scientific discoveries by Isaac Newton and others began to explain nature and reality, displacing the old magical answers of religion. Thinkers latched onto this new scientific mind-set, and hailed the new day of reason and intelligence.

But by the 20th century, the clear scientific answers didn't seem so clear anymore. Einstein's relativity and quantum mechanics showed that reality isn't quite real, after all. If time slows down and space bends and dimensions compress, our tangible world must be partly an illusion. Physics discoveries in the heart of atoms made it seem that matter actually doesn't exist - it's just a balance of electrical charges among alleged "particles" that may only be waves. Nobody knows what they really are. One physicist called them "the dreams of which stuff is made."

Also, relativistic thinking spread rapidly in the social sciences. Scholars realized that a black American doesn't see the same reality as a white American - and that a woman doesn't see conditions in the way a man does - and the poor don't see life in the manner that the rich do - and gays see differently than "straights" - and Jews have a different assessment of "Christian" values, etc.

Hard science came to be looked upon as a cold legacy from white European males - which lacked the warm "spiritual" insights of women, blacks, etc. "A different way of knowing," some call it. Remember Blaise Pascal's famous remark: "The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know." This mentality has gained a powerful base in UU.

Enlightenment thinking was called modern. The new relativistic thinking is called postmodern. It says scientific facts aren't nearly as knowable as we think they are. There's some validity to this approach.

However, by disputing scientific facts, some postmodernists have become downright silly. They contradict the obvious reality around them. Blacks, teens, gays, women, Jews, etc., may see a different reality than us old white males - but if a black lesbian steps off the roof of a building, the law of gravity will apply, regardless. Hard science is real. If you drink cyanide, the laws of chemistry will produce a predictable result, even if you have a "spiritual" orientation.

In his book, Consilience, biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote:

"Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing. The philosophical postmodernists, a rebel crew milling beneath the black flag of anarchy, challenge the very foundations of science and traditional philosophy. Reality, they propose, is a state constructed by the mind, not perceived by it. In the most extravagant version of this constructivism, there is no 'real' reality, no objective truths external to mental activity."

We all know Rene Descartes' famous "cogito, ergo sum" - I think, therefore I am - which means that the only thing I can know with absolute certainty is that my mind exists, and is receiving sensory perceptions. The perceptions may be false, but there's no doubt that my conscious mind is receiving them. It's similar to Plato's example of a person who can see only shadows in a cave, but can't see the objects casting the shadows, and thus can't be sure what they are.

Well, every philosophy student goes through the "cogito, ergo sum" dilemma - and then reaches the sensible conclusion that, even if I can't know anything with certainty outside my mind, it's safe to bet that the external world is real, and other people are real, and nature is real - because they SEEM real. Consequently, science's exploration of that world must be trusted, as our only reliable source of knowledge.

Therefore, I come down on the side of science - against postmodernism, which pervades much of academia, and much of UU.