BreakPoint: Navigating Between Postmodernism and Scientism

Christianity Avoids Two Worldview Hazards

On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a science professor stand up against postmodernism. On the other hand, people who live in glass houses . . ..

Back in June, I told you about unpleasantries at Evergreen State College in Washington which involved, among other things, students destroying school property with baseball bats.

The source of their ire, besides their dangerous ideology and bad manners, was biology professor Bret Weinstein’s refusal to participate in a “day of absence” in which white students and faculty were expected to “leave campus during lectures on racism and privilege.”

For his trouble, Weinstein, a self-described “progressive,” and his wife, Heather Heying, became pariahs and in September, resigned their positions at the school.

But they didn’t go quietly. In addition to collecting $500,000 from the school, Heying recently wrote a scathing critique of what might be called the “postmodern left” in the Wall Street Journal.

Heying correctly notes that what’s going on at places like Evergreen is a revolution that “seeks to eradicate individuals and ideas that are considered unsavory.” I couldn’t agree more.

“[T]his revolution,” she continues, “is an attack on Enlightenment values: reason, inquiry and dissent. Extremists on the left are going after science… Because science seeks truth, and truth isn’t always convenient.”

On the other hand, “Postmodernism, and specifically its offspring, critical race theory,” she continues, “have abandoned rigor and replaced it with ‘lived experience’ as the primary source of knowledge. Little credence is given to the idea of objective reality.” Again, true enough.

In contrast, she continues, while science understands “that observation can never be perfectly objective,” she claims it “provides the ultimate tool kit with which to distinguish signal from noise—and from bias.”

She closes her article by saying “Science creates space for the free exchange of ideas, for discovery, for progress. What has postmodernism done for you lately?”

Now again, I say I strongly agree with her critique of postmodernism. Postmodernism is a snake eating its own tail. It is self-contradictory. It invokes ideas such as justice, fairness, and tolerance while at the same time denying that there are any universal values, largely because there is no way to discern those values. All that’s left is a vast ocean of subjectivity where power determines what’s true and what is not.

But what Heying fails to acknowledge in her critique is that the “postmodern mood” was a reaction to the failures of the Enlightenment project that Heying lionizes.

Her phrase “ultimate tool kit” contains more than a whiff of scientism, the claim that “natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth.” Her talk of “ideas,” “discovery,” and “progress” is selective, and, frankly self-serving.

In her telling, “science” deserves the credit for all the good stuff and no blame for any of the bad. Science can’t be blamed for eugenics, weapons of mass destruction or social Darwinism, but it should be praised for vaccines, indoor plumbing and going to the moon.

This special pleading is why I have a love-hate relationship with what folks call postmodernism. For all of the contradictions, deficiencies, and self-anointed justice elitists that it has given us, it critiques scientism’s unwarranted claims to objectivity and superiority. Albeit without the proper theological concept, it acknowledges that human reason is fallen. Unfortunately, it treats human feeling as if they’re not.

Look, as postmodernist Richard Rorty once observed, “only a God with equal measures of truth, justice, and love” is the solid foundation for true knowledge. Unfortunately, Rorty dismissed that God a priori.

But anyone who seeks truth would be wise to start with God instead. It’s the only way to avoid the rocky shoals of treating the scientific method as the “ultimate tool kit” and the deadly postmodern whirlpool of radical subjectivity.

 

Navigating Between Postmodernism and Scientism: Christianity Avoids Two Worldview Hazards

As John states, seeking truth starts with seeking God, and that’s a practice all believers can agree is necessary.  For further study on the unwarranted claims of postmodernism and scientism, check out the resources linked below.

 

Resources

First, They Came for the Biologists
  • Heather Heying | Wall Street Journal | October 2, 2017
The Folly of Scientism
  • Austin L. Hughes | The New Atlantis | Fall 2012
Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism
  • Douglas R. Groothuis | InterVarsity Press | May 2000
The Magician's Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society
  • John G. West, Phillip E. Johnson. | Discovery Institute | September 2012

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  • Zarm

    Indeed, if science constituted the whole domain of truth, then I would have to ask… where is science is justice? What’s scientific about equal pay for women? What’s scientific about protecting minorities? What’s scientific about basic human rights?

    Science is a wonderful field, a privilege of mortal man to discover the wonders of God’s creation. But it’s also an inert object. A method for testing, for theorizing, for discovering… but without the agency to recommend action, determine morality, promote behavior. Its value shouldn’t be dismissed- but it can never represent the totality of what we can live in, because there are vast swaths of life that it is simply incapable of touching on. It may be able to tell me what I’m constructed of down to the molecule, but it does not- and by nature cannot- tell me a single thing about how I should behave. That’s the fatal flaw of scientism that is universally recognizable, even to those not prepared to believe in God; the conceptual failure that prevents the concept from being a viable model even to the most atheistic of societies.

    As for postmodernism, I know little; but it seems the critiques to that worldview have already been well-handled. 🙂

    • Scott

      Well said Zarm!.. Science can answer many questions with the biggest exception being the why.

      This article points to the self-contradicting nature of both ideological positions as well as their incompatibility with each other. I find it interesting when people pick and choose ideas from both these two philosophies to form their own brand of ideology, then fail to see that the premise behind each contradicts the other. This exposes what we (humankind) refuse to admit… that we simply do not have the capacity to be all knowing, in control, without flaw or defect… or in other words, like God. What did the serpent say to Eve? : – )

      • gladys1071

        “This exposes what we (humankind) refuse to admit… that we simply do not have the capacity to be all knowing, in control, without flaw or defect… or in other words, like God. What did the serpent say to Eve? ”

        This is so very true. We cannot possibly grasp the mind of God and his ways, we need to be reminded of our smallness sometimes.

        • Scott

          Yes gladys1071! From dust I come, to dust I return, clinging to the blood of Christ like a dying man to his final breath.

    • Jason Taylor

      Actually what prevents science from being a viable model for societies stops even closer to home. Running a society in a scientific way is simply impractical-because humans are not scientific and even scientists are not scientific all the time. Remember in ”Piece of the Action” where Spock said, “It seems that logic does not apply here”? That was an absurd thing to say for two reasons. One is that taking account of others illogic is logical. Another is that it wasn’t in fact illogical; the gangsters were following the logic of tribal politics which is perfectly decipherable.

      Another example is Britain. Is integrating absurd games of dress-up into the state as if the island was one big SCA scientific? Not really. It is however statesmanlike as it makes people less likely to search for identity in rabble rousing. But statecraft and science are different crafts, and have different goals and criteria.

      In other words the reason you cannot have a scientifically constructed society is not just because science cannot tell truth outside areas verifiable by controlled experiment. The reason is that humans do not want to be scientifically constructed, cannot be, and resist it in the way a knotty tree resists being chopped. Or to put it another way humanity is even more complex then ecology and yet scientists never cease telling us what harm can come from trying to control nature.