What's wrong with postmodernism?

In a widely noted article published in 1993 and later expanded into a book, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that the boundaries of the world are no longer determined by geography or international law, but rather by religious and cultural traditions, ie, by beliefs and by the worldviews they entail. Taking a geopolitical approach to international affairs, Huntington foresaw "a clash of civilisations" involving the post-Christian West, the Islamic world and the Confucian East.

While this sweeping vision is not without relevance to the world we live in, it fails to account for the most important aspect of contemporary life in Western countries, which is that postmodernism is now mainstreamed -- it reigns as the new "conventional wisdom". In other words, the distinguishing feature of current Western culture is not so much its rejection of Christianity, however real it might seem, but its rejection of any truth claim. Postmodernism is characterised by a profound aversion to any notion of a universal or objective truth. It holds that all ideas are no more than human constructs, shaped by biology, ethnicity and society. Yet, it asserts at the same time that individual autonomy, environmentalism and the moral equivalency of all cultures are "fundamental" principles that cannot be negotiated, which points to some internal inconsistency or lack of intellectual rigor amongst postmodernist thinkers.

The cultural landscape of our times

A few years ago, American Demographics, a magazine focused on "emerging consumer trends", summarised a 1997 demographic study by noting that there has been "a comprehensive shift in values, worldviews, and ways of life" that now affects about one-fourth of American adults. The magazine described the latter as the "Cultural Creatives", noting that they subscribe to a new "trans-modernist" set of values such as "environmentalism, feminism, global issues, and spiritual searching", and are often involved in movements for social justice, civil rights, feminism and New Age spirituality. As postmodernists, they profoundly distrust anything that smacks of "moral absolutes". They "see nature as sacred" and value self-actualisation and spiritual growth. Their public philosophy is essentially a mix of egalitarianism (all differences are equal) and autonomy (freedom of the individual to choose as he wishes).

The study also stressed that this new worldview was emerging next to two already existing worldviews: a) "Traditionalism", generally represented by "country folks" holding on to "a nostalgic image of small towns and strong churches"; and b) "Modernism", represented mainly by "pragmatic people" focused on technological progress and economic success, and "less concerned with social and life issues". The study also argued that Traditionalists and Modernists were declining in number while the "Cultural Creatives" were generally younger than people in the other two groups and were growing in number. Since the publication of the study 11 years ago, the trends it foresaw have largely materialised so that we now find ourselves living in a world where the so-called "Cultural Creatives" have become the dominant cultural force, as illustrated by the recent "Global Warming/Climate Change" concern and increasing support for "same-sex marriage".

What this suggests is that, while there may or may not be a clash of civilisations in the years ahead, there is bound to be a clash between the traditional Judaeo-Christian worldview and the emerging postmodernist worldview. Indeed, it would seem that the groups behind these two views have been increasingly competing for support from the "centre" group that stands between them – the modernists.

While modernists characterise their opposition to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (ie, to the "Traditionalists") as a conflict between "faith" and "reason", postmodernists tend to characterise it rather as a conflict between "close-mindedness" and "open-mindedness". That is why, like modernists, they insist on a total separation of not only church and state, but also of faith and public life, and seek to privatise religion altogether, rendering moral judgements informed by the Judaeo-Christian tradition totally irrelevant to public moral issues. Alleging that their own worldview is the only one that can secure peaceful co-existence, they seek to make it the sole legitimate public philosophy.

Theirs is a distorted view of reality. And people adhering to the Judaeo-Christian tradition must show it to be so. Indeed, they must show that, not only is postmodernism rationally weak, but that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the only worldview solidly grounded in reason. Only thus will they win the hearts and minds of the "modernists".

In order to show that postmodernism’s claim to rationality is false – even a self-created myth – one must look at some of its basic presuppositions. More specifically, one must show that in asserting some of its views, postmodernism assumes certain ideas that are demonstrably wrong. Among these are: (a) its radical separation of person and body; (b) its understanding of reason as strictly instrumental; and (c) its denial of free choice.

Separation of person and body

Differences between postmodernism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition about life and death issues, such as abortion, euthanasia and suicide, revolve around the question of whether bodily life is instrumentally good (ie, merely a means to other ends, such as pleasure, personal achievement, etc.) or intrinsically good (the dignity of people is inherent to their being, it does not depend on their "quality" of life.)

Postmodernists argue that, outside religious belief, assumed to be entirely subjective, there is no objective reason to accept the notion that human life is intrinsically good. They then go on to assert that bodily life is merely instrumentally good. In making this assertion, however, they implicitly assume a dualism of the person and the body. They must assume that the human person consists of two separate realities, ie, a "person" and a body that, somehow, is less than "personal". As philosopher Robert P. George puts it, the postmodernist view of the person is that of an "intermittently conscious (genderless) subject, which regards its (male or female) body as a possession or instrument that unlike other property or tools is untransferable, though discardable by suicide."

In this view, "a living human body is not a person until it comes to be associated (somehow) with a mind or other centre of conscious self-awareness; and a living human body ceases to be a person not necessarily by dying, but at any point at which it loses this association, which may be long before death". This understanding is obviously in conformity with feminist and gay ideology.

This contradicts the Judaeo-Christian view, which holds that the body is part and parcel of the personal reality of a human being, ie, a dynamic unity of mind and body. Body and person, while conceptually distinct, are in fact inseparable. It is precisely that unity which makes respect for the body as imperative as that of the person. And it is that very unity which postmodernists deny when they assume, implicitly or explicitly, that the body lacks the dignity of personhood. On this denial rests their contention that there is no wrong in killing "pre-personal" or "post-personal" human beings (pre-born children, handicapped newborns, demented, comatose and other human "non-persons".)

The body-person dualism implicit in postmodernism is wrong, not only because it contradicts the Judaeo-Christian concept of unity of mind and body, but also because it contradicts our experience of ourselves in everyday life. We do not inhabit our body like a ghost in a machine. We are embodied persons. The wedge driven by postmodernists between the "self" and the "living body" is contrary to reason. The living body is not reducible to a complex of chemical and biological processes separate from the self. My body is an integral part of me and what is felt in the most private dimensions of the self may impact on the body. This is what happens, for example, when someone blushes. Conversely, a bodily shock may impact on my ability to think. The self and the living body are conceptually distinct but not ontologically separate.

It might also be noted in passing that earlier attempts at distinguishing between "living human beings" and "persons" have proven arbitrary. It was precisely on the basis of such a distinction that black slavery was upheld by the US Supreme Court prior to the Civil War (slaves were deemed to be "property, not persons") and that Canadian women were denied the right to be appointed to the Senate by Canadian courts until the 1930s. Postmodernists are repeating the errors of earlier generations with regard to the unborn and dying.

Reason as a purely instrumental faculty

Postmodernists generally assume that morality is about external constraints on appetite and passion. They presuppose that our ultimate motives are not objective but rooted in subjective, cultural or religious bias and have nothing to do with a disinterested search for truth. In other words, the role of reason is purely practical: it consists solely in showing how to go from A to B. It is useless in terms of helping us determine whether pursuing B is good or bad, or better than pursuing C or D. David Hume, the British philosopher of the 18th century and probably the most important "father" of modern philosophy, put it this way: "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and may never pretend to any office other than to serve and obey them".

This view implies that reason is impotent in helping us distinguish right from wrong. It cannot even legitimise respect for basic human rights. If reason is the "slave of passions" and guided by cultural values, how can we expect reason to moderate, let alone dominate, our passions? And how can we claim that people have rights that should limit the exercise of our passions? In a postmodernist world, moral rules are, at best, as arbitrary and changeable as sport rules. They can also be worse than that. If passion and culture are in control, then reason becomes a means of rationalising whatever our passion dictates.

The traditional Judaeo-Christian view, which is held not only by Jews and Christians, but all the world’s major religions and most pre-modern philosophies, is that the laws of morality are not invented rules but rather discovered principles, much like the laws of a science. They are based on human nature, which is essentially unchanging. And so the laws themselves are essentially unchanging.

Because the human person is a unity of body, mind and spirit, with powers such as reason and passions, and because it is our nature to love the good while also being tempted by evil (as G.K. Chesterton said, original sin is the one dogma that needs no demonstration as its effects can be seen every day in the news), we must cultivate virtues such as self-control, wisdom, courage and honesty. Judaeo-Christian morality follows the classical Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in arguing that reason must control passion, and in deriving principles of morality from unchanging human nature and its objective needs, rather than from the changing subjective feelings and desires. Unlike the Greek philosophers, it adds that reason cannot control passions without the help of grace. This is because, as a result of the fallen state of man, the will is weakened and the intellect is clouded and we have a proclivity to sin.

The denial of free choice

Another major flaw of postmodernist thinking is its implicit denial of free choice or free will. In order to choose freely, one must be able to understand and act upon reasons that cannot be reduced to desires or passions. Postmodernists deny the very possibility of such understanding and action by claiming that our choices are determined essentially by outside forces (economic, social or cultural) or by internal factors (desires, feelings). Thus, we don’t act freely: our actions are merely the end result of internal or external pressures that determine our behaviour. Our freedom to choose is not related to the goodness of the thing chosen – it is a "freedom of indifference", a freedom to choose among competing passions. In short, there is no such thing as free will, understood as the ability to choose the good simply because it is inherently good.

Denial of free will is rationally untenable. It is a self-defeating proposition. One cannot deny free choice without presupposing its possibility. To deny free choice is to claim that it is more rational to believe that there is no free choice than to believe the opposite. But to make such a claim, one must presuppose that there are norms of rationality that we can choose freely and to which we can freely conform our beliefs to. The mere fact of asserting that there is no free choice presupposes that people hearing the claim have reasons for accepting it. If not, the assertion itself is pointless.

The long and the short of this argument is that the denial of free choice presupposes the opposite of what is being denied. It is intrinsically inconsistent. The Judaeo-Christian tradition emphasises that, with the help of grace, human beings are capable of choosing between good and evil and that, while they sometimes allow passions to escape the control of reason, which is what sin is all about, they are capable of mastering their passions. Such a morality is often referred to as a morality of "natural law".

Thus, the major weaknesses in the postmodernist intellectual architecture are the denial of the unity of mind and body, the denial of the ability of reason to discern any truth and the denial of man’s ability to choose freely between good and evil. However, in confronting postmodernists on the basis of these points, one must remember that strictly intellectual arguments rarely lead to a change of mind. Attitudes are perhaps more important and it is therefore essential to address these points in an amicable way. It must also be remembered that, with a few exceptions, the media are clearly supportive of the postmodernist agenda and are not always welcoming to views that challenge it.

The problem for people who adhere to the Judaeo-Christian tradition and who want to rise to the challenge posed by postmodernists is where to start. Since political action is unlikely to succeed in a foreseeable future, action must be pursued in other forums, ie, academia, churches, local newspapers, parent-teachers groups, voluntary associations, etc. This is the only way to counter our slow slide into nihilism.

Richard Bastien is an Ottawa-based freelance writer and a member of the editorial board of Egards (www.egards.qc.ca)


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