Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What's to Like?

A couple of days ago I wrote that a particular column by Jonah Goldberg, "tends to make postmodernism seem arrantly bad. It's not, but lots of it is...."

My friend Jason wrote to inquire what it was about postmodernism that I thought congenial. Here's my reply:

You ask a good question, Jason: What is there to like about postmodernism? The answer is not much, but there are a couple of things. First, though, I agree with you that postmodernism is a dead end, but like everything (even communism!) it's not completely bad.

I think, for example, that the postmodern critique of the "Enlightenment project" is partly correct. Modernity adopted the Enlightenment view that the world could be objectively known through our reason and known with certainty. It holds that the scientific method is the only way to genuine knowledge. Modernity thus tended to diminish the role of faith and led to religious skepticism.

Postmodern thinkers reject the idea of "objective" knowledge and argue that what we "know" is largely conditioned by our historical, social, cultural, economic perspective. I think they're right about that. They're also skeptical of the power of human reason to yield certainty and also our ability to experience the world as it really is. It's much more open to faith and very skeptical of "scientism". I think they're at least partly correct about these things as well.

Finally, I think they're right that people are persuaded to change their minds more by story, testimony, music, art and film than they are by logical argumentation. In other words, people are more effectively reached through their hearts than through their heads. This has profound implications for evangelism, of course.

It could be objected that none of what I've said I agree with here is really new and that therefore it's a bit of a stretch to call these ideas "postmodern" as if they were recent discoveries. I agree. I tell my students that what is new about postmodernism is not good, and what is good is not new. Even so, these are frequently assumed to be elements of the postmodern mindset, and since I agree with them I have to say that I don't think that what is usually meant by "postmodernism" is entirely misguided.

The problem with postmodernism is not that it doesn't contain some good but rather that the good is far outweighed by its problematic consequences. For example, postmodernism leads, in my view, to epistemological, moral and metaphysical nihilism.

What I mean by that is this: Since postmodernism relativizes and subjectivizes truth then the idea of truth loses all meaning. Truth is whatever one, or the group with which one identifies, feels most strongly about. From this it's but a short step to the conclusion that there is no real truth, just feelings.

If this is so, then there's no real truth about morals and thus morality becomes subjectivized as well. What's right for you isn't necessarily right for me and nothing is right for everyone. It's all a matter of how we feel about things.

Further, if there's no objective truth, something which is true regardless of how anyone feels about it, then the claim that God exists is not objectively true. If we cannot say that God exists (except in our own personal world) we have no ground for meaning in our life. Life is just a series of pointless events and then we die.

Thus postmodernism leads to the conclusion that nothing has meaning, nothing has value, nothing matters. The consequences of this are far more corrosive to individual life and to our social well-being than the positive aspects of postmodernism mentioned above are beneficial to it.


Coin Flips

One of the cosmic parameters that scientists have determined must have an extremely precise value if the universe is going to exist at all is one called the dark energy density. This refers to an exotic form of energy that must be present in the universe but which is undetectable by direct observation. The value is fine tuned to one part in 10 to the 120th power and the odds against it having emerged by chance are, according to science writer Paul Davies, the same as the odds of getting 400 consecutive heads on a coin flip.

This is pretty stunning, especially when the necessary values of other parameters are taken into consideration. Davies is impressed by the sheer improbability of a universe so exquisitely precise having arisen by chance, but not wanting to explain how the astronomically improbable becomes actual by positing an intelligent creator that no one can detect, he instead posits a near infinite number of "pocket" universes that no one can detect. With so many universes existing, and assuming the universes would all be different (but why make that assumption?), the odds of one like ours appearing would improve to the point of an almost certainty.

This is called the multiverse hypothesis, and as we've noted before, this is an act of intellectual desperation, but let's play along. Assume there are a near infinite number of universes exhibiting a near infinite variety of physical constants, laws, and other states of affairs. If so, then any possible state of affairs would have to exist somewhere among them. The existence of a maximally great being is a possible state of affairs, therefore in at least one of our pocket universes it must be true to say that a maximally great being exists. But if a being is maximally great it must exist not just in one universe but in every universe, otherwise it's not maximally great. Thus if there are a near infinite number of universes there must exist a maximally great being (i.e. God) which created them all.

In other words, resorting to the multiverse hypothesis to escape the conclusion that our universe is intentionally designed is like trying to disprove the existence of gravity by tossing a ball into the air. One winds up demonstrating the very explanation one sought to avoid.