Monday, January 10, 2011

A Friendly Critique of One Man's Grappling with Postmodernism

INTRODUCTION: Below are a few informal definitions from an atheist Facebook friend that is finding certain aspects of postmodernism appealing. He was asked by another Facebook friend to give some definitions of his take on postmodernism. I reproduce these below with my critical commentary in-between:
1) a philosophy that does not dehumanize people by calling people irrational because they come to different conclusions.
Two caveats need to be made in order to be fair in my criticism: (1) my atheist, postmodern friend is still thinking through the implications and varieties of postmodernism and is not yet well-developed in his views. Thus, the critiques I offer below only interact with those undeveloped, informal views he has presented in an informal environment. He may change his views or abandon postmodernism altogether, thus, the critiques below are based only upon his current, informal definitions. (2) Some of my critiques below depend upon what it means to "dehumanize" people.
Regardless of what "dehumanize" means to him, to "de-" anything to a person shows that my postmodern atheist friend assumes that there is a moral obligation for people not to mistreat others. Now for my friendly criticism:
  • As it stands, the statement above is self-defeating because it itself suggests that there is something wrong or irrational with calling people irrational if they come to different conclusions about that conclusion. I.e., Why are you "dehumanizing" me for "dehumanizing" postmoderns? Also, assuming we are evolved pond-scum and assuming that this is a universal moral obligation, where does such an obligation come from and why shouldn't I do it? However, I'll return to this last question below in fuller detail.
  • It is arbitrary since assuming we're all mere molecules in motion, I could just as easily say that we should dehumanize irrational people. In other words, we have a moral obligation to punish people for being irrational. After all, isn't that what bad grades, prison sentences, and traffic tickets are all about to a certain extent? This is just another example of how secularist morality is arbitrary.
  • If this includes people who critique the various forms and facets of post-modernism from a Biblical perspective, then it is also a straw man. Christians do not think that people lose their essential God-given humanness if they adopt a non-Christian philosophy or disagree with certain aspects of orthodox Christian doctrine. On the contrary, those who affirm Biblical authority realize that all people are God's image-bearers and as such they continue to reflect this essential humanness regardless of their philosophical beliefs and this reflection is the essential point of contact with the unbeliever (Romans 1:18-32).
My atheist friend goes on to say that postmodernism is:
2) a philosophy that understands that we are not going to get everyone to come to the same conclusions . . . .
  • Fair enough, but assuming the conjunction of naturalism with postmodernism, lets ask some deeper questions :
1. Assuming the conjunction of naturalism and postmoderism, why do people come to "conclusions" about anything in the first place? Why are people inherently rational whereas animals are inherently instinctual? Why does reasoning exist in the first place? This smacks of teleology, but in an attempt to avoid this obvious implication, our naturalist, postmodern friend may try to argue that it is instinctual for humans to engage in higher-order reasoning via the end-result of neo-Darwinian mechanisms whereas this is not so much the case with "other" animals since they took a different evolutionary pathway. But that skirts the issue, which again, is compacted together into these two questions: Why assume that rationality is normal for people and how do you know what is normative versus non-normative rational behavior given the conjunction of postmodernism and naturalism?

2. Assuming the conjunction of naturalism and postmoderism, why should people come to "conclusions" about anything in the first place? It seems to me that assuming the aforementioned combination, all you are left with are statistical averages. Statistical averages don't necessarily tell us what we ought to do, they only tell us what is the case. As the skeptic David Hume beautifully demonstrated, you can't get an ought from an is. Why assume the need to be rational or ought to do so when no ultimate standards of truth exist in the first place to distinguish between rationality and irrationality? Why should we come to conclusions about anything and why should we expect that we should make conclusions about anything? Using words like "conclusion" assumes that there are fixed principles for determining correct reasoning from incorrect reasoning (i.e., laws of logic like the law of identity, law of non-contradiction, and the law of excluded middle) by which one can come to logical conclusions. But if multiple logical systems exist that are mutually exclusive and contradictory yet supposedly equally valid since no ultimate capital-"T" truth exists, how do you get ultimate "conclusions" to anything (including the conclusion that there is "no ultimate conclusion") since there is no overarching logical meta-narrative exists by which we can judge between competing and sometimes contradictory systems of logic? So, not only do we have the problem of the "why" question, but now we have the problem of the how question. Why should we seek to be rational when, according to the conjunction of postmodernism and naturalism, there is no ultimate criterion to determine rationality from irrationality? How can any type of rationality be possible in a system like that? The only consistent answer a postmodern naturalist can give is that there is no one system for determining "rationality" but that many different "rationalities" exist and that people reason from their different assumed and relative starting points to competing and contradictory conclusions about the nature, scope, and limits of reality. However, that still assumes that there are fixed, non-relative laws that determine correct reasoning from incorrect reasoning. Thus, it is self-defeating to say that there are no fixed, transcendent, immutable laws of logic since the very language that the postmodern uses to deny those laws uses those laws.

3. How can people be rational and responsible if they are merely stimulus-response mechanisms? In other words, rationality presupposes that a person had the ability to choose between two competing conditions and then use their cognitive faculties to reason to the most rational conclusion. Many non-Christians with conservative moral and social values informed by Western culture have expressed outrage with rulings from certain court cases. They wonder what sort of reasoning could have been used to result in such "unfair" decisions when "common sense" should have dictated otherwise.

But assuming postmodernism, "common sense" is only common when there is a commonality of thought between people. The Judeo-Christian foundations of Western countries have been seriously eroded, leaving behind a plethora of differing, mutually exclusive beliefs. This has resulted in the "culture wars" in the United States as well as the religious tension occurring with the Islamization of Europe. However, one common theme that is being taught to all who are subjected to public education in the west is this: the theory of evolution. How does their "creation story" story affect the reasoning processes that have lead to the changes in Western culture?

A recent online article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, by evolutionist A.R. Cashmore, argued that the justice system is flawed because it assumes people have the ability to rationally deliberate and make a choice between two opposing actions, something he argues doesn’t exist at all if people are merely the products of time, chance, and natural processes. He wrote,

"In Anglo-American law, for a person to be found guilty of a crime, he must be aware of his wrongdoing at the time of the crime—he must display mens rea: that is, the mind must be guilty. In certain circumstances, a defendant can be found not guilty by reason of insanity.” []

He then gives an example where such a defense was not successful;

“. . . the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was found guilty . . . for the death of seventeen young men from 1978 to 1991. Dahmer was a necrophiliac, performing gross sexual acts on the dead bodies, as well as performing frontal lobotomies and boiling their skulls in acid.” [Ibid.]
“The rationale for the guilty verdict was that it was claimed that he knew what he was doing was wrong, as evidenced by the fact that he lied to the police about his activities. I raise this case to illustrate two points: First, the legal system assumes a capacity for individuals not only to distinguish between right and wrong, but to act according to those distinctions—that is, an integral component of the legal system is a belief in free will. Furthermore, the legal system assumes that it is possible to distinguish those individuals who have this capacity of free will from those who lack it.” [Ibid.]

However, according to Cashmore,

“The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.” [Ibid.]

What is his and other like minded people’s conclusion?

“As noted by Lady Barbara Wootton, the British criminologist, ‘If mental health and ill health cannot be defined in objective scientific terms that are free of subjective moral judgments, it follows that we have no reliable criterion by which to distinguish the sick from the healthy mind. The road is then wide open . . . to dispense with the concept of responsibility altogether.’” [Ibid.]

In this atheistic evolutionary worldview, serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer was not responsible for his actions. He simply reacted the way he did because he was biochemically determined to do so. It wasn’t right or wrong, good or evil, it just was. Consider what Dahmer himself said about the effects of one's belief about origins has upon one's behavior,

“If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s—what’s the point of—of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought, anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing . . .” [Dahmer, J., in an interview with Stone Phillips on Dateline NBC, Nov. 29, 1994; See also here @ 2:25ff and 5:18ff:]

So, despite Cashmore’s claims that free moral agency is a myth, Dahmer stated he actually thought through his actions and logically decided on a course of action based on those beliefs. Not only do beliefs have consequences, but if one tries to be consistent (read = rational) with the starting assumptions of postmodernism and naturalism, the logical end result will be nihilism and hedonism. Regarding biochemical determinism, Cashmore admits,

“Darwin was aware of the implications of his theories concerning evolution in reference to free will as indicated in these notes: 'This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything. Nor ought one to blame others.'” []

This view has several supporters. Consider this statement from atheist professor William Provine,

“Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear . . . There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either." [Provine, W. (prof., Cornell University), Origins Research, Vol. 16:1/2 (1994), p. 9.]

So according to atheistic evolutionists who have thought through the implications of their "creation" story, our actions are simply the result of a biochemically determined stimulus-response mechanism that we are not responsible for, and this outlook has deep roots back to Darwin himself. But perhaps this view is not simply a rational outlook based solely on the "facts". Aldous Huxley said,

“I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do . . ." [Huxley, A., Ends and Means, London: Chatto & Windus, pp. 270 ff, 1937.]

Huxley clearly understood that the only way for existence to have inherent meaning was to believe in a Creator-God, but he didn’t want that to be true because he knew that with a Creator comes standards of right and wrong. So, Huxley willfully chose to suppress the idea of a Creator because it conflicted with his sinful desires. But how could he have chosen anything if he didn't have free moral agency?

After all, Cashmore said,

“A belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs. Indeed, I would argue that free will makes ‘logical sense,’ as long as one has the luxury of the ‘causal magic’ of religion. Neither religious beliefs, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world.” []

So according to his own beliefs, Cashmore and his fellow atheists have no choice but to be atheists! Every decision he thinks he has made thinking atheism to be a rational, logical worldview is really nothing but biochemical predestination. As I said in my debate with the UNCG Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics in September 2010, if naturalism is true, then we are simply like two different soft drinks fizzing at different rates based upon our chemical composition; one person is "fizzing" Christian theism, the other is "fizzing" atheism. There is no true rationality or responsibility behind what we are doing, we are just dancing to the tune of our DNA.

The modern day champion of new atheism, Richard Dawkins agrees that there is no ultimate purpose to anything.

"Humans have always wondered about the meaning of life . . . life has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of DNA . . . life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." [Dawkins, R., River out of Eden, Chapter 4.]
Given such a view of reality and human existence, it is impossible to ground moral responsibility and rationality, for we are simply biochemical machines dancing to the tune of our DNA.

Internet atheist P.Z. Myers put it this way:

“First, there is no moral law: the universe is a nasty, heartless place where most things wouldn’t mind killing you if you let them. No one is compelled to be nice; you or anyone could go on a murder spree, and all that is stopping you is your self-interest …

“There is nothing ‘out there’ that imposes morality on you, other than local, temporary conditions, a lot of social enculturation, and probably a bit of genetic hardwiring that you’ve inherited from ancestors who lived under similar conditions." [Myers, P.Z. (University of Minnesota–Morris professor), “Morality Doesn’t Equal God”, Pharyngula, August 24, 2009.]

All of these people believe the same ‘creation’ story: atheistic evolution. Even though they have no rational foundation for being rational or responsible, the image of God still pokes out in that (1) they defy the conclusions of their own philosophy by assuming that they can and should be intellectually consistent in some way even if it means consistency in their unbelief; namely, that they all believe there is no such thing as an absolute moral law, and (2) they still hold on to the idea that objective "truth" exists and is knowable. If they didn't believe this, they wouldn't argue the way they do.

Let's go back to our atheist naturalist postmodern friend's informal definitions:
3) [postmodernism is] a philosophy that has proper respect for how our language constructs our realities. . . . in the sense that by even by describing something we are limiting ourselves on what we can know of that thing. [bold mine for emphasis - DSS]
Again, this is self-refuting because if consistent, it ends up in form of linguistic solipsism where no statement about reality actually comports with reality, including any postmodern statements about reality. The idea that we can't really know anything is self-defeating. How does one know that proposition unless he can know something about reality?
4) [postmodernism is] a philosophy that is aware of who our culture and society works to construct our values and how we perceive the world, and a philosophy that rejects an objective "right" perspective to perceive it. [bold mine for emphasis - DSS]
Is the statement in bold itself true? If this is the claim, then postmodernism self-destructs because it cuts its own legs right out from under itself. It says on the one hand that there is no one true way to correctly perceive the world yet it claims to have the truth about how to correctly perceive the world!
5) [postmodernism is] a philosophy that does not however take the view that because there is no objective "right" ways that does not mean we must accept all ways as equally valued. All that statement really means is that we accept and are comfortable with and more willing to deal with the complexity in which we exist in the world. Instead of the positivist point of view that too often just naturalizes their cultural perspective as the objective right way without justification. Postmodernism succeeds in replacing the language of "objective" and "right" with "useful."
Again, this is self-defeating. To criticize the logical positivists because they arbitrarily asserted their views as objectively true without justification is hypocrisy since the postmodernist does the same thing when he asserts without justification that the correct way to perceive the world is to understand that there is no correct way to perceive the world. Also, is it absolutely, objectively, "right" or the "correct way to perceive the world" to say that we need to replace objectivity in language with mere utility? But postmodernism denies that there is one "right" way to perceive the world, thus this statement is self-refuting.

6) again drawing on Michael Lackey . . . postmodernism is the ultimate humanist philosophy. It square puts the human at the center of our knowledge construction and empowers us to change our world in ways others cannot.
I had a very wise and godly man tell me once, "If you reject God at the start of your thinking, you'll not only lose man but you'll lose the world too; but if you start with God, you'll redeem man and He'll also throw in the world for free." Michael Lackey is right. Postmodernism is the ultimate humanist philosophy. After all, when Satan tempted Eve in the garden the first question he asked her was "Did God really say . . .?" Postmodernism as defined by my atheist friend leaves us with no objective truth, meaning, morals, beauty, nor do we have any proper frame of reference by which to make sense out of reality. The only consistent thing is to embrace with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength a dark, cold, nihilism. But because of common grace, most people will not do this, however, some have. Such is the consistent fruit of a godless philosophy.

IN CONCLUSION, the above should sufficiently deal with my friend's understanding of postmodernism. However, he hasn't gone far enough in constructing his autonomous, humanistic philosophy. Recall what one atheist that goes by the nick "Azrienoch" said in an article from his now defunct blog:

Atheists, scientists, philosophers, and other thinking persons that spawn from the second kind of post-modern tradition: I am calling you out. This is your fault. It is this lack of rigor, effort, and sincerity of atheists, scientists, philosophers, and other thinking persons today that has created the monster of Christian presuppositionalism in non-academic philosophy. But mind you, it won’t be non-academic for long.

I’ve seen you fight presuppositionalism with every reasonable bone in your body. But as long as you continue to claim that there is truth, they will win. They have the upper hand against you in using the deconstructive techniques of the first kind of post-modernism. And as long as you insist that there is truth, they can just take you at your own word. Watching you collide with the presuppositionalists is like watching a mother fight with her own child; you want to beat them as hard as you can, but at the same time, you want pieces of them to survive the fight because their truth is your own.

I’ve read paper upon paper on how to defeat a presuppositionalist in debate, and each time I see one of those methods used, I’ve also seen them fail. So listen closely, because I’m about to tell you how to beat them: cut their feet off. Of course, you will only be able to do this by admitting and remembering that you also have no feet. Show them there is no logos and no truth, and they too will have nothing to stand on. This mutated child you’ve given us will die.

But this is a self-sacrificial mission. Your own flawed philosophy, based off of your hopes and desires instead of your honesty and rigor, will die too. That is the tradeoff. If you decide not to, and go about fighting them your way, you only lend them the time and practice to get stronger. []

Here’s what Azrienoch is saying: If you want to get rid of Christianity and construct a human philosophy that doesn't depend upon God at all, stop saying that any truth exists whatsoever to argue for in the first place and stop assuming that truth exists by even arguing for and defending the very humanistic philosophy that undermines it in the first place. To argue and debate assumes that truth is objective and knowable; but as our postmodern atheist friend has argued, there is no truth, so why debate?

Azrienoch did the Christian community a great service when he wrote that blog article back in 2006. While atheism is wicked, I truly appreciated Azrienoch's logical rigor and consistency. His analysis only confirms what I've been saying for years, which goes something like this: If you are logically consistent and want to have a worldview that can ground rationality and provide an indubitable moral basis to be rational, then there is only one worldview that you can adhere to in the end: Biblical Christianity.

"Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe." (1 Corinthians 1:20-21 NAU)


  1. "His analysis only confirms what I've been saying for years, which goes something like this: If you are logically consistent and want to have a worldview that can ground rationality and provide an indubitable moral basis to be rational, then there is only one worldview that you can adhere to in the end: Biblical Christianity."

    Not only that, but unless postmodern unbelievers repent, they'll experience eternal damnation.

  2. Not directly related to the article but I could only chuckle sadly when Rob Bell's Mars Hill gathering had to admit that their attempt to do something new/postmodern ended up birthing a church gathering much like anyone else's.

    The above is not a comment of support for the theology that Rob teaches, just a comment on how this attempt to escape modernity leads only to some sort of expression of hyper modernity.

    David Wells analysis in Above all Earthly Powers remains for me one of the best works to read.

    The story of my trying to warn my denomination to not go down the Brian McLaren road remains an intersting exercise in trying to get a discussion going with many who did not want to listen.

  3. Hi Grev,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that Well's book is one of the best. I remember you mentioning in another post about your denomination going "emergent" in some ways. I hate to hear that, and I hope you weren't left too "scarred" by it.

  4. Randal Rauser: "And so finally my conclusion. We can’t even provide a meaningful definition for what “the worldview of Biblical Christianity” is, so it seems a bit overreaching to say this is the only rational worldview. Sadly, the author of Triablogue appears to be doing nothing more than providing empty rhetorical bluster to perpetuate the delusion that only he, and those who agree with him, are rational."

    I don't really understand the "friendly fire" coming from Randal Rauser towards pastor Dusman.

  5. Stop oppressing me with your metanarratives man. All roads lead to god. Well, except those that are hateful and yours. You have to feel the love...we are the world...down with haters...we hate haters...makes sense,right dude? Ok, well back down the rabbit hole...