I recently encountered a definition of postmodernism in a lecture by James Voelz, a Lutheran seminary professor. He first defines modernism as the assertion of the following premises:
- Primacy of reason
- Pure objectivity
- Comprehensive explanation
- Continuous progress
Postmodernism, then, is defined as the negation of each point:
- Reason is not primary–intuition, feelings, or traditions are also valid
- Pure objectivity is not possible–individual viewpoints are important
- Comprehensive explanation is not possible–multiple differing explanations are necessary
- Progress is not continuous–sometimes things get worse
He traces the origins of postmodernism to the development of quantum theory–specifically, the two-slit experiment, which leads to the paradoxes of light as waves or particles; electrons as particles or probability wave functions; and events as occurring differently depending on whether or how they are observed. I think that is a little simplistic, because it suggests that people are so stupid that they construct their personal lives and entire cultures around the conclusions of theoretical physics; whereas I would say that the opposite is more likely. On the other hand, there is definitely a tendency for people to regard scientific conclusions as personally meaningful revelations. Regardless of the causal relations, the physics theories provide convenient illustrations of the principles.
What I derive from this categorization is a critique of contemporary culture. In science, there is an unavoidable divide now between a so-called Newtonian or classical view and a quantum or relativistic view. Culture has a similar divide, as does religion. This is nothing new for religion, actually, but it seems like a contemporary problem to the ignorant ones who despise history and tradition, and derive their philosophy of life from popular science.
The classical view is still promoted as Science, the heir to the position of cultural judgment once occupied by Religion. This definition of Science is puerile modernism, with the advocates of objective, hegemonic, progressive Reason assailing the whiny, pre-modern illogic of the Bible-bangers. Meanwhile, said targets of the Reason Fairy’s darts respond by defending beliefs that soothe the anxieties of the afflicted, by calling for teaching multiple viewpoints, and by prophesying the decline of society.
The relativistic view is promoted as New Age Philosophy, the realm of Taoistic physics, ESP, magic crystals, healing magnets, queer theory, Gaian environmentalism, chakras, women’s studies, Ramtha, LGBTQIA advocacy, evolutionary psychology, and Burning Man. It claims to overturn all authorities and provide the individual with direct access to the secret forces of the universe. It has a special stream of vitriol aimed at the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon church, Puritanism, the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, and any institution promoting “traditional” values. It is opposed by ossified pseudo-religious corporations such as the RCC, the LDS, and the Republican National Committee, on the grounds that it defies reason, objectivity, economic progress, and perfect justice.
Obviously, both dichotomies are fictitious, if only to the extent that the advocates of the various positions claim to be presenting true accounts of the state of the world. Science is not monolithically rational and deterministic in the classical sense, nor is it about to usher in the Age of Aquarius. There are serious debates within science on the rationality of methods and conclusions; whether any universal truths can actually be inferred by surveying massive datasets or by studying minutely idiosyncratic anomalies; and whether accumulated knowledge actually enables a closer approximation to truth. These are huge problems, but the typical pop-sci fan sees only a tiny slice of it and then goes out and rants arrogantly about the universal truths that they believe they have special access to.
The same issues have been thrashed out in religious and philosophical debates for as far back as we have written records (notably well before the codification of a “scientific method” that would be acceptable today!), and yet the contemporary representatives of religious wisdom seem to be unaware sometimes that they are fighting the same old battles. Perhaps naïvely, I expect them to be aware of their history and not make unsupported categorical statements about how Darwin (or Elvis, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Stalin, Hitler, Sartre, Kinsey, Keynes, Dawkins, or Obama) caused sin to enter the world and then forced good people to be bad. I am truly appalled at their stupidity, but only because I expect better of them. As to philosophical wisdom, I could hardly believe that it is anything more than a cultural construct; yet, I also expect its exponents to have the same sense of irony that I do.
Scientists, at least, can plead deliberate ignorance [of the false dichotomy] on the principle that a present theory contains all incremental improvements accumulated in past empirical investigations, and therefore they have no need of history, much less any inquiry into how or why investigations are conducted. Academic philosophy and institutionalized religion make the same claim; disingenuously, I think, because they are misusing their prerogatives. Reactionary, non-institutionalized, fundamentalist religion cannot make the same claim; and so, for them to act justified in their ignorance is offensive to me. Nor can philosophy in its retrospective or critical forms advance a valid claim in ignorance of historical methods and the reasons for them.
Simply based on my presentation of these issues as a false dichotomy of order and chaos, I know that I position myself as a postmodernist. A modernist asserts a single, objective, universal truth that any enlightened person can discover; a postmodernist asserts the same thing, but says that after you find it, try again, because you probably made a mistake somewhere. That sounds kind of zen, and kind of inductive, and kind of intuitive, and kind of existentialist, rather than being positivist and clear-cut. I wish I could have clarity without self-examination; it’s probably symptomatic of an anxiety disorder to constantly revise and qualify oneself after asserting a claim of truth. But it is my own neurosis, not someone else’s imposition, and that’s all that matters.