With this article, I’m hoping to start a conversation with readers here at SNS. The dialog I’m interested in engaging centers on a question — can one be both a naturalist and postmodernist?
I believe thinking about and answering this question can help us better understand our naturalism and our spiritual naturalist leanings.
Living in a “Post” World
We live in what can be described as a post-age. By this, I mean we live in a period of human history characterized by many intellectual posts — post-Christian, post-liberal, post-secular, post-modern, and so on. And of course, there are critics of such claims and often the defenders of the posts aren’t always clear concerning exactly what we’ve moved beyond and not always crystal clear as to the specific contours of their post understanding.
Perhaps of all the “posts,” postmodernism is the most prevalent, appearing as a significant influence in various disciplines, social theories, and even political discussions. Therefore, considering how these posts shape our cultural and social world and also considering the significant roles postmodernism and naturalism play in our contemporary worldview, the question arises — can one be both a naturalist and a postmodernist?
Different Epistemological Views
Naturalism and postmodernism are rich, complex philosophical systems, each consisting of various styles and types. Both systems of thought, while being more than epistemological theories, are particularly rooted in, and understood by, their epistemological claims and understandings.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies human knowing and knowledge. When we discuss issues of truth, knowledge, and how we know things, we are speaking in terms of epistemology. It would be an understatement to note that most forms of naturalism and most forms of postmodernism operate from quite different epistemological foundations and premises.
The Basic Epistemology of Naturalism
Adherents of most forms of naturalism subscribe to a high view of science and a general foundationalist, correspondence understanding of truth.
Foundationalism is an epistemological theory that argues that reliable knowledge must rest upon justified beliefs or some secure foundation of certainty such as a conclusion inferred from a basis of sound premises.
Correspondence theories of truth generally claim that truth is a property of propositions and judgments about the world. More specifically, that truth is the adequate correspondence of our propositions and judgments of reality in relation to how reality is in itself.
Foundationalism and correspondence theories of truth tend to go hand in hand with versions of realism — a set of arguments that the material world exists and does so independently of the human mind.
Science and scientific method operates according to the above epistemological tendencies. Most naturalists are realists, believing that science makes true statements — that correspond to an objective, independently existing, real world.
And most naturalists, including most spiritual naturalists, have come to naturalism because they are convinced of the validity of these epistemological ideas and ways of investigating and understanding ourselves and our world.
The Basic Epistemology of Postmodernism
Postmodernism is a mid-20th century development and in general, a reaction to the overemphasis on reason that emerged from the Enlightenment and is seen as constituting modern thinking.
Adherents of postmodernism typically do not affirm a foundationalist or correspondence view of truth. Instead, they speak of knowledge as being tradition-laden and rely on coherence theories of truth.
Denying the possibility of any pure foundationalism, most postmodernists point to human knowledge being grounded in intellectual and/or cultural traditions, or systems of thought and meaning.
Many postmodernists further argue that since our knowledge is largely tradition constituted, it therefore separates us from objective reality by the impenetrable and necessary barriers of language, traditions, and culture. We can’t fully know reality in itself.
Instead, human knowledge grows when disputes take place within and between rival traditions of thought relying on inherited ideas, presuppositions, types of arguments, and shared understandings and approaches.
Even though there is no definitive way for one tradition to logically refute another, opposing views can dispute each others’ internal coherence, resolution of imaginative dilemmas and epistemic crises, and achieve fruitful results.
The insight into the role of traditions and systems in human knowledge leads easily to also adopting a coherence theory of truth that understands the veracity of propositions as consisting in their coherence with other sets of propositions. There is some sense of correspondence of our propositions to reality, but they always remain tenuous. Much of postmodernist analysis, is, therefore, concerned with the deconstruction of thought systems, intellectual and cultural traditions, and metanarratives.
Postmodernism and Science
The postmodern perspective on science frequently references the work of Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn argued that science was not so much a disinterested search for objective knowledge nor an independent, non-partisan exploration of truth governed by a specific ethos.
According to Kuhn, science forms traditions, and progress within science happens by the accumulation of accepted facts and theories, interrupted by revolutionary paradigm shifts.
Postmodern critics of science take the next step and assert that traditions are the creation of subjective humans. Given this reality, the sciences, as traditions, are not purely objective sets of facts, but also reflect the vested interests of their participants.
A postmodernist approach to science, therefore, remains slightly skeptical of science, since scientific inquiry is not a value or interest-free pursuit of truth that is independent of local cultural constraints but also is driven or inspired by hidden ideological, moral, or personal motivations.
Postmodernism also is concerned with the tendency of science to overstep its proper boundaries by wading into normative issues and value judgments. Many refer to this tendency as scientism — the belief that empirical science guided by the scientific method provides a superior account of the world and human affairs to the exclusion of other perspectives.
For the postmodernist, science can provide facts relevant to human action, but it cannot dictate any action. Postmodernism, therefore, asks for debate about science’s role in culture, social life, politics, and even spirituality.
Postmodernism has also influenced religion and spirituality. According to postmodernism, while there isn’t universal religious or ethical truth, religious traditions and spiritual practice have value.
Postmodernism tends to understand religion and spirituality as traditions that help us interpret the world. Religion and spirituality are, therefore, a way of finding meaning in our lives, while postmodern spirituality is the application of and living out of the wisdom contained within a particular religious tradition or such traditions in general.
The role of a religious tradition — its metaphors, symbols, rituals, and narratives — helps convey insights that exist beyond the human ability to grasp fully, but which are still mediated only through and within a specific tradition.
Still, from a postmodernist perspective, religion and spirituality reintroduce enchantment and meaning into the Enlightenment worldview and can do so while remaining faithful to findings of science, rightly understood.
So, given the above, what do you think? Does postmodernism have value? Are some or all of its ideas true? If so, how does this affect naturalism and specifically spiritual naturalism?
I encourage you to dig deeper and reflect on these ideas while wrestling with the question: Can one be both a spiritual naturalist and a postmodernist?
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author, therefore, necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.