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?
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3 thoughts on “Can One Be Both a Naturalist and Postmodernist?”
Gregory, I see no reason that one cannot accept a naturalistic paradigm and be a postmodernist. Postmodernism is largely about cultural expression. While one might speak of an overriding postmodern world, that notion is so general as to be largely meaningless. More directly, there is postmodern architecture, postmodern novel, postmodern music, perhaps a postmodern philosophy, and a few other postmodernisms, but about the only thing that they all have in common is that they are all a reaction to modernism, which itself was partly a reaction to romanticism, which was largely a reaction to the failure of the enlightenment’s view of the world to do justice to the complexity of the human soul, which is to say, our inner life.
Within science itself, I think it is fairly well understood that science does not give us “reality,” it gives us mapping and models of that reality. These mappings and models are always a work in progress, never totally complete. The authority of science does not rest on it giving us “the truth,” but in the fact that these mappings and modeling are often incredibly accurate and useful.
The Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism, to my mind, each have produced much of great worth. They do not represent so much a progression, but an expansion of human thought, imagination, and the ability to express. Science has no such divisions and it does represent a progression (the arguments of those who have used Kuhn’s idea to suggest science doesn’t progress are too paltry to take seriously).
Thank you for bringing up this important and often invisible question. I agree that it’s very relevant today for religious naturalists like you and me, and in fact very relevant for practically anyone reading this blog.
I’ll not deny that one could be both a naturalist and postmodernist, but that’s a bit trivial, because we are talking about humans, who can compartmentalize practically anything. For instance, my mom was active in the Right to Life anti-healthcare movement, as well as being a supporter of Planned Parenthood. The question is whether or not naturalism and postmodernism are contradictory.
This is of course a huge topic, so each of the points below necessarily leaves out more examples and detail. However, a short summary of an evidence based, Enlightenment epistemology includes:
An objective reality exists, which we can improve our understanding of.
Descriptions of this reality (both scientific explanations and historical accounts) can be closer to or farther from the truth.
Reason, logic, science and technology can make the world a better place.
Reason and logic are accessible and applicable to everyone.
By comparison, postmodernism is the rejection of these. Specifically:
1. There is no objective reality. There are only “metanarratives” – stories used for oppression, none of which are objectively true.
2. Everyone has their own truth, and everyone’s truth is equally valid. Hence, one person’s truth cannot be “more true” than someone else’s truth.
3. Reason, logic, science and technology are simply tools of oppression, and hence can only make the world worse.
4. Evidence, reason and logic are only valid within traditions which accept them. In other traditions, they are not valid, and because no tradition is more true than anyone else’s, evidence, reason and logic are no better than “other ways of knowing”, such as gut feelings, personal experience, intuition, divine revelation, and opinion, in any subject.
As a religious naturalist, I see the evidence from science as very important in helping us build an increasingly accurate approximation of the real world, which we understand better than our distant Ancestors. Note that every part of that statement is rejected by postmodernism. From a postmodernist view, one cannot use evidence and logic because they are not valid, we can’t build a better approximation because the new one is no better than the old (and there isn’t an object reality to try to approximate anyway), and that our distant Ancestors were just as correct about our world.
Similarly, from a post modernist view, one cannot even claim that naturalism, nor our universe is real, because a flat earther’s, or a Heaven’s Gate UFO follower’s, or 9/11 truther’s view must be accepted as equally valid, because there is literally no reality and no objective truth, and everyone’s truth is equally valid. While a person could, as mentioned above, be both a postmodernist and a naturalist, the two concepts are contradictory.
If one thinks that postmodernism couldn’t possibly be staking out the position described above, or that I’ve made any of that up, simply read the writings of prominent postmodernists, as well as summaries which are widespread, such as this one from Encyclopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/topic/postmodernism-philosophy). – Jon Cleland Host
(Continued in Part II).
(This is Jon’s personal view and does is not an official view of the Naturalistic Paganism blog)
Further, and perhaps more importantly than heady epistemological philosophy, is the real world effect of postmodernism on our society and our planet. The envy of University humanities departments as STEM fields gained more attention in the 20th century is well described in C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture “The Two Cultures”. Philosophy departments, once the focus of the University, felt aggrieved and felt that their privilege was being encroached upon, and hence, unfortunately, some promoted postmodernism as their anti-science response. To be fair, postmodernism did help scientists see their cultural biases, and hence better follow the methods of science, with other benefits as well. Yes, personal experience is a valuable starting place for evidence (especially for minority voices). But postmodernism goes far beyond that, attacking the testing of claims and attacking the common evidence based ground of both science and democracy itself.
Those on the more extreme right and left have learned the lessons of postmodernism well over the past 50 years, and so our world today is not a surprise. Just the past few years have shown this again and again. A few examples:
I point out peer-reviewed studies and the medical consensus to anti-vaxxers, and the response is “Science is not the only way of knowing. My mom sense tells me that these vaccines are deadly poison, and they don’t work anyway – I’ve personally known several people who got covid despite being vaccinated.” I’ve lost track of how often anti-vaxxers are based in postmodernism.
We all heard Trump repeat the Big Lie that he won the 2020 election. Person after person said that their personal experience was that nearly everyone they knew voted for Trump, and that their friend boats coming with ballots from North Korea, etc. Under postmodernism, we can’t disagree – everyone has their own truth, and they are as equally valid as actual evidence.
“I’ve seen lot’s of cold days around here, climate change must be a Chinese hoax”… and so on.
Another way that postmodernism has degraded public discussion and attacked science has been through the promotion of obscurantism, which is using a mishmash of words made to sound like you have a point and to evoke an emotional response, but by not making any actual sense, making it hard to refute you. Trump is a master at this, but reading any postmodern writing shows that he didn’t invent it (and the Catholic church has been using it for centuries).
Other fallacies are common, including the straw man. One example of many is the depiction of Enlightenment ideas as purely cold, mechanistic, and dry – ignoring the enriching effect of Romanticism, which can be seen in the writings of many 19th century and later scientists up through today, including Charles Darwin, Von Humboldt, Julian Huxley, Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and many more.
Sadly, those who are hurt most by postmodernism are often those in minority communities. By teaching minorities that science is their enemy, a tool of white, European oppression (and is not any more likely to be correct than guesswork), they steer millions of talented minority people away from STEM careers, which are often a powerful road to security and greater influence. Postmodernism also teaches the racist idea that science is the unique invention and practice of white European men (calling it “White, Western Science”) – when of course the truth is that science is a feature of culture after culture over time, and today unites our diverse world of different genders, races, nationalities, ideologies and cultures in a collaborative hive mind spanning the world, thus erasing the many great minority scientists who could otherwise be powerful role models.
In closing, I’d like to point out that your own question – “Is postmodernism true?”, itself refutes postmodernism. By “true”, I think you mean “true for everyone” (objectively true) – because that’s the only way for “true” to mean much. Because postmodernism says that nothing is objectively true, postmodernism itself says that postmodernism isn’t true.
This only scratches the surface of this topic which is around us nearly every day. Like you, I hope for a wider discussion.
-Jon Cleland Host
(This is Jon’s personal view and does is not an official view of the Naturalistic Paganism blog)