Response to “Can One Be Both A Naturalist and Postmodern?”

(Today’s article is by guest writer Jon Cleland. There is a short bio below.)

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:

  1. An objective reality exists, which we can improve our understanding of.
  2. Descriptions of this reality (both scientific explanations and historical accounts) can be closer to or farther from the truth.
  3. Reason, logic, science and technology can make the world a better place.
  4. Reason and logic are accessible and applicable to everyone.
  5. Etc.

By comparison, postmodernism is the rejection of these. Specifically, according to postmodernism:

  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.
  5. Etc.

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 objective reality to approximate anyway), and that there has been no improvement of our understanding of our world from our distant Ancestors to us.

Similarly, from a postmodernist view, one cannot even claim that naturalism is true, nor that our universe is even 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).   

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 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, using it to attack science, and so our “post truth” world today is not a surprise.  Those trying to fool people to get money, power, and/or sex (which include politicians, industry, conservative religion, woo peddlers, and more) often need to discredit science to succeed – and so they increasingly use postmodernism to attack science.  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-vaxxer’s arguments are based on postmodernist thinking.  

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 saw boats coming with ballots from North Korea, etc.  

“I’ve seen lot’s of cold days around here, climate change must be a Chinese hoax”…  and so on.

Under postmodernism, no one can disagree with any of these claims, because everyone has their own truth, and their “truth” is just as valid as actual evidence.

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 obscurantism 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 only 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 postmodernism often erases 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.

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Bio:
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a Naturalistic Pagan, scientist, father, UU, and science educator.  Jon grew up and lives in Michigan (Turtle Island), and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the Great Story of our Universe.  Jon launched the Naturalistic Paganism website (at naturalpagan.org) in 2004, and then the Naturalistic Pagan yahoo group.   He has written in Godless Paganism, A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, UU publications including Faithful Practices & Faith of UU Pagans, Everyday Ways to Feed Your Spirit and more, and is the current managing editor at HP (his column there is Starstuff, Contemplating).  With 20 years of scientific work supporting the growth of solar power, his work today in the Detroit auto industry advances electric cars.  He holds ten patents, has authored over five dozen internal scientific papers and over a dozen peer-reviewed papers for scientific journals, including the journal Nature.  He has also taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at the university level, and has a  YouTube Channel.  His motivation in all of this is to help build a better world out of love for future generations, in gratitude for the existence his Ancestors have given him.

7 thoughts on “Response to “Can One Be Both A Naturalist and Postmodern?””

  1. Jon, I don’t think your description of postmodernism is wrong, so much as truncated. The hegemony of ‘science’ as our golden pathway to truth and reality is itself a metanarrative that also takes place within a socio-cultural context. Recognizing this simple fact of reality does not invalidate it. But it does stand to caution us about making claims about everyone else’s metanarrative that we are unwilling or constitutionally unable to apply to ourselves. The postmodern perspective only encourages to recognize and fully digest that we are all, ALL of us, living WITHIN the bubble and striving imaginatively to describe reality ‘as if’ from outside that bubble. Furthermore, it encourages us to apply the epistemological ‘golden rule,’ that whatever criticisms we make of other worldviews we first and foremost apply to our own worldview. If we could truly recognize and grasp the fundamental implications of this situation, we can still pursue scientific discovery, but will be much more humble about it, become much more critical about the ethics of scientific investigation, more able to recognize what a ‘mixed blessing’ our pursuit of science has been and much less prone to assume that only that which can be pursued through ‘science’ is worthwhile or even ‘real.’ (I am not imputing these views to you personally, but I do think that these are arguably the composite assumptions of the scientific community as a whole.)

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  2. Thanks for writing this, Jon. I have been reflecting on this topic since Gregory introduced it a few weeks ago. My question is not whether Naturalism and Postmodernism are contradictory, but about the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. Is there a demonstrably accessible objective reality apart from our unique subjective apprehension of it?

    You and I agree that the best way for us both to avoid contracting COVID19 is to get vaccinated. Nevertheless, our physical and psychological experiences of the vaccine will be unique. These unique experiences produce our unique positive and negative reactions on a spectrum. These unique reactions may actually lead us to different conclusions. “Was the juice worth the squeeze?” The universe has room for differing conclusions.

    Whatever else they may be, appeals to “objective reality” are also intellectual shortcuts that help us control our subjective experience of uncertainty. Coping strategies for living in relationship with existential void. The question remains how can we practice evolutionarily adaptive subjectivity in a life-affirming, rather than life limiting-ways?

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  3. Since you malign science (which can be broadly defined as using evidence, reason, and community discussion) as a way to find likely objective truths, what do you propose as a better way to find likely objective truths?

    Also, I fully agree with your “epistomological golden rule”. In fact, a main goal of science is to be most critical of one’s own ideas, in recognition of the fact that we easily fool ourselves. I hope we both recognize that this has been, and still is, a major part of science in the first place.
    -Jon

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  4. A quote from the preface to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things:

    “In France at least, the history of science and thought gives pride of place to mathematics, cosmology, and physics – noble sciences, rigorous sciences, sciences of the necessary, all close to philosophy: one can observe in their history the almost uninterrupted emergence of truth and pure reason.”

    This sure doesn’t sound like a statement from someone who denies objective truth, reality or our ability access these.

    The fact is that the major postmodern thinkers have little to say about sciences based on mathematics. Their primary concern is culture and in particular language and the problems of representing reality in the medium of language – certainly a legitimate concern. To the extent that any science, particularly the social sciences, is presented through verbal language, the postmodern critique is relevant to them. But that critique is well thought out and needs to be properly weighed, not ignored.

    I would suggest to Dr. Cleland that he actually read the post-moderns before venturing the type of misinformed screed he presents here.

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