By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Postmodernism is hard to define precisely because, unlike modernism, it engages in nonlinear arguments that are hard to track if you are trained exclusively in linear thinking. Postmodernism resembles a collage, a hanging ornament with unique pieces that balance one another but may be completely different taken individually. Before explaining what I mean here, let me digress to borrow a form argument from William Placer for why the modern age has given way to the postmodern age.
Is the Modern Era Over?
Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:
“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (Placher 1989, 26)
For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:
“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (Placher 1989, 29)
If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.
For logicians, Placher (1989, 33) observes:
“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guaranteed to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.”
Placher (1989, 32) notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus, a mammal that lays eggs. While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:
“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice [of definition].” (Placer 1989. 34)
In conclusion, Placher (1989, 34) cites Wittgenstein observing:
“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.”
In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.
A Picture of Postmodernism from Mathematical Modelling
Placer basically argues that the foundations of science, the idea of objective truth, cannot be validated as a logical framework. Let me offer a logical argument for what he is arguing from my modeling background in economics.
The typical argument in economic modeling is metaphorical—the economy can, for example, be characterized in terms of aggregate demand where demand is divided into different components, like consumption, investment, and government spending. To perform a mental experiment, we might change government spending while holding consumption and investment constant. The effect on aggregate demand is accordingly limited to the effect of the change in government spending. The size of the effect will be determined by statistical estimates of past aggregate demand.
This type of modeling is referred to as a static equilibrium model because we make our forecasts based on only one changed variable at a time. This is a linear argument and quite familiar to economists trained in the modern period. What changed in the postmodern period was the idea of allowing all the variables to change simultaneously—the introduction of general equilibrium models. Mathematically, models could only be approximated, not statistically estimated in the prior sense.
The reason for this intractability arises because the historical experience likely does not offer observations on changes that might be expected in the future. In the 1980s, for example, we saw interest rates rise to levels never previously seen; the Great Recession likewise saw housing prices fall further than ever previously observed or even contemplated.
This hypothetical modeling complexity is precisely the same problem faced by postmodern society—too many cultural norms have been altered too quickly. With the traditional sources of personal stability—family, work, church, education, technology, attitudes about gender, authority, freedom—in motion, we observe high levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
In this context of instability, we hear professions in all callings imaginable telling stories about the more complex cultural system will evolve. The older process of imaging one change at a time simply does not work. The typical reactions that we observe are either to rely on our faith that God will guide us or to chase after the myriad of untested assumptions and stories that postmodern advertisers can offer (Sacks). The role of Christian apologetics is to make sense of the new environment and how the Christian message can lead us, our kids, and our neighbors back to God.
Placher, William C. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
The Surprising Role of Story Telling
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