21st Century Context & Trends
Some of the postmodernism characteristics include:
a. ‘Subjectivity’ for the notion of TRUTH
A critical difference: Relativism versus Pluralism
c. Technology & science progress
d. Fast paced society
e. Media & Arts influence
Let’s take a look at the first one:
a. General view on the 21st century. The notion of TRUTH.
By its very nature, the postmodern worldview is difficult to define, and some would resist calling it such. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy, that is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. It rejects the certainties of modernism and approaches art, science, literature, and philosophy with a pessimistic, disillusioned outlook. Questioning the possibility of clear meaning or truth postmodernism is about discontinuity, suspicion of motive and an acceptance of logical incoherence.
The postmodern suspicion of any claim to meaning or truth has a dramatic effect on the status of the word in both written and spoken form. We all remember president Clinton’s now infamous statement “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.” This statement caused global shockwaves because one of the most powerful men in the world appeared to be questioning the very nature of language. Sadly, this example has not proved to be an aberration, but rather an example of the tendency of our age.
Our contemporaries have developed within a cultural context that suspects authority and rejects any meta-narrative (overarching or transcendent) view of the world, any large scale theory that seeks to make sense of the world. The French philosopher Lyotard argues that postmodernists have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are useful for understanding reality. Instead, humans have become alert to difference and diversity, so that postmodernism is characterized by a multitude of micro-narratives. Meaning is possible only within a particular context or community, and truth should not be understood as transcending these barriers of diversity.
In our view, this absence of absolute truth is the fundamental reason behind some of the biggest issues we nowadays face.
Further to the characteristics enounced above, Malcolm Muggeridge, a well known British journalist (who is credited, among others, with popularizing Mother Theresa) added a few other statements that, in his opinion, well describe our times. He said that this century seems to exalt:
Self over principle
Quick fix over long haul
Body over spirit
Cover-up over confession
Escapism over confrontation
Comfort over sacrifice
Feeling over commitment
Legality over justice
Power over meekness
Anger over forgiveness
Man over God
Or as Stephen Covey, in his bestseller book ‘The 8th habit’, puts it, we seem to live permanently under the threatening shadow of the 7 things that really have the potential to ultimately destroy us:
1) Politics without principles
2) Wealth without work
3) Pleasure without conscience
4) Knowledge without character
5) Science without humanity
6) Trade without morality
7) Worship without sacrifice
Some other contemporary personalities have also characterized this century as following:
• “The theory of rejecting theories.” Tony Cliff
• “It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism,” Al Gore
• “Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is.” – David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989
• “Weird for the sake of weird.” Moe Szyslak, The Simpsons
Relativism & Pluralism= the critical difference
a.1. why is the search for truth so difficult nowadays or the devastating subtle dangers behind relativism
The death of truth is a serious casualty of our time that defies comprehension. By denying absolutes and eradicating all points of reference by which we test veracity, our civilization has entered terra incognita on matters of the greatest importance even for survival.
Is there truth? Is it exclusive/absolute?
Truth as a category must exist even while one is denying its existence and must also afford the possibility of being known.
But there are a few postmodernist trends that stand firm as huge blocks in front of a real communication and exchange of ideas. One of them is that it is politically incorrect to justify your beliefs. People have heard it so many times that they don’t even dare to stand against this idea. Quite a very fine line, until you don’t have to justify your actions either, right? The sister trend generated from this -or the other way around- is the one enounced above that there is no absolute truth.
Nowadays there are people who believe there are no absolutes – no moral absolutes, no religious absolutes, no absolutes whatsoever. These people usually claim that all absolutists claims are arrogant, narrow-minded and unjust and should be condemned… Of course, when saying this, they totally disregard the fact that their own strong claim against absolutes is itself an absolutist claim – but this specific category of people doesn’t seem to care much about the inconsistency of its views.
In the past, people held to the idea that if 2 different views contradict one another, then one of them must be true and the other false (absolutism).
In the 21st century nevertheless, skepticism and cynicism have suddenly become the hallmarks of sophistication and the knowledge of who we are has been left to the domain of the uneducated or unscientific – since they are the only ones ‘naïve’ enough to believe that truth may be absolute.
This category of people usually responds by “who cares anyway?” or by “why one of us has to be right and the other wrong?” They are usually less interested whether their views are right or wrong, but rather seem to want to make sure that nobody attempts to point out whether they were right or not.
It is much nicer for them if we were all right…
At the first glance, this attitude may be confused with tolerance and niceness. I personally believe it is rather complacent in its ignorance, inconsistent with reality, but more than anything, dangerous.
The fact that, in our world, the search for truth is becoming, incredibly enough, „forbidden” is one of the most important, and by far, most disturbing obstacle to overcome in any human being quest of understanding the reality that surrounds us…
The 3 words that define our century – “pluralism”, “relativism” and “tolerance” – are the source of spectacular confusion in the current times.
While both pluralism and tolerance are at the same time facts and necessities, relativism seems to be a real opiate for the masses. From the start, it discourages any serious analysis, ideas comparison and discussion of the most important issues we face, and dampens the challenges of pluralism, making people literally ‚sleepwalk’ through the most important choices of their lives. Life’s most important questions are no longer significant, since they are matters not of truth, but only of private opinion and preference, and have no final consequence.
“What you believe is true for you, what I believe is true for me, all truth is relative, your beliefs and my beliefs are equal. Since there are multiple descriptions of reality, no one view can be true in an ultimate sense.” Relativism says that truth is rooted in the individual hearer/receiver/observer rather than the source/author/fact. It is subjective rather than objective. It says that truth is determined by whatever you want it to be, that all truths are the same, and all truths are equally valid.
This sounds tolerant, doesn’t it? The mistake here is in the gratuitous leap from toleration of differing opinions (and a legal right to hold such opinions) to the granting of equal veracity to contradictory truth claims. This is simply devastating to any honest search for truth and therefore to any quest of individual, and global, meaning.
a.2. ‘either us or the bus’ or first evidence that truth is absolute and exclusive
In logic everybody knows that the Law of Non-Contradiction states: “A thing cannot both be “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same relationship.” Therefore, something cannot be true and not true at the same time.
Like Augustine said, “all human beings by nature desire to know truth…” And even though being an informed truth-seeker during the post-modernist time is not cool anymore, one still – and definitely – should become such.
How could one attempt to demonstrate that truth is absolute and not relative?
Simply and firstly by using the most fundamental law of logic – and reality – which is this law of non-contradiction, a law applying irrespective of a person’s cultural and religious background.
The law simply states that despite the fact that there are many different religious viewpoints, they can not all be right, given that they affirm contradictory claims. Either one of them is true and the others are false, or all of them are false and something else is true.
As we well know, for our post-modernist age, this is an essential, though very often denied, law to grasp…
The main argument against this law is that it is a Western way of looking at reality – i.e. the „either/or” logic and that the Eastern (also New Age) way of viewing reality is the „both/and” one. People – secular ones included – go to great lengths to establish the „both/and” logic as a superior way by which to establish truth.
Only one simple question should be addressed to these people. Whatever their belief system is – the question is: “Are you saying that when studying your belief system we should either use the both/and logic or nothing else…?” Which will lead them to understand that the either/or logic does seem to emerge… And as a matter of fact, even in Eastern civilizations like India, people do look both ways before they cross the street as it’s either the bus or them…
(If you need another example from day to day life I suggest you go to the Immigration Officer when arriving in US and when asked where you were born, answer US, then Canada and then maybe… India or Romania :)… I recommend it as an effective way to see if the law of non-contradiction applies to reality.)
The big irony is that those people who exclude comparison actually use the either/or logic to prove the both/and. The more one tries to beat down the law of contradiction the more one gets beaten down by it.
The law of non contradiction is implicitly or explicitly implied by both East and West. And second it is ultimately not a test for truth but for falsehood (a statement may be non contradictory but nevertheless false…)
The moment you try to refute what I’m saying, you’re employing the law of non contradiction, implying that you’re right and I am wrong and even the Eastern mystic (or today’s many New Age adepts) cannot escape this over present law. (See more evidence below.)
a.3. pluralism– the critical difference with relativism
Pluralism, on the other hand, is a fact of life, a social fact. We live in a world where there is certainly a plurality of beliefs and worldviews all around us. In a pluralistic society, every individual has a right to his or her own beliefs; everyone has a right to their opinion. Everyone, in effect, has a right to be wrong… Neither the state nor any other entity has the right to coerce those beliefs. Our right to them is one of our foundational liberties. Which leads to the only real meaning of tolerance. Tolerance is living side by side with others who have real and deep differences with us, but living with respect and civility in our personal attitude, and in public policy. (Even better with love… love for all people, doesn’t matter their beliefs, people who are simply our equals).
So tolerance is not relativism and has no necessary relationship to relativism. Tolerance is a necessity and a highly positive contribution to the stability of the pluralistic global society we live in.
Pluralism is definitely not the same thing as relativism, the idea whether beliefs correspond to objective reality remaining fundamentally and exclusively a matter of personal responsibility.
Finally, relativism is a either a careless, unthinking mistake or an offense to rational thought, a deliberate philosophical „crime” that makes people confused and veins their efforts to find any significance for their lives and for the world around.
Tolerance is absolutely fundamental in our pluralistic world. We must always strive for it because it is rooted in respect for each human being.
Relativism, when confused with pluralism and tolerance, is an inherently misleading and unstable doctrine and is ultimately itself intolerant.
Still, the main problem with many people attitudes nowadays is that they confuse kindness and courtesy -that should always be given to people- with the ‚intellectually wanting’ relativistic trend of this century that doesn’t challenge anything anymore and stops analyzing and therefore even thinking all together.
a.4. more evidence that truth is absolute and exclusive
Before going deeper into this question we need to go through a procedural necessity if we are to be fair to the question. The 1st phase deals with the very method of how we arrive at the truth for any philosophy/belief system, and the 2nd examines whether truth can indeed be exclusive.
Initially, there were 3 tests to which any system or statement that made a claim to truth was subjected as a preliminary requirement. These were:
1. logical consistency
2. empirical adequacy
3. experiential relevance
There is however a potential shortcoming to this 3fold test addressed by Norman Geisler in his writings about epistemology (the branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge). He points out that it’s possible for some philosophical systems to meet these 3 tests and still be intrinsically false. For example, Hinduism’s presuppositions can meet the 3 tests as stated. But when the presuppositions are scrutinized by 2 other methods of truth testing they are found to be indefensible. One of the Hinduism presuppositions is that the material world, as we know it, is not distinct from the ultimate, impersonal reality, Brahman (the impersonal Supreme Being for Hindus). If we grant Hinduism that assumption, it meets the 3 tests for truth. On the other hand, if we can prove that assumption to be false, the edifice of pantheism collapses.
The 2 additional tests for truth that pantheism does not pass are the last 2 -the test of undeniability (test for truth) and unaffirmability (test for falsehood).
4. Undeniability- test for truth
5. Unaffirmability –test for falsehood
Take for instance the issue of my existence. While my own existence cannot be logically proven it is nevertheless existentially undeniable. That means I cannot deny my existence without affirming it at the same time. (The classic example “how do I know I exist?” addressed by a student to his professor. “Whom shall I say is asking?” – came the reply. Undeniability therefore is clearly a test for truth.)
Unaffirmability is a test for falsehood.
This basically means that just because something can be stated it does not necessarily follow that the statement is true. “I cannot speak a word of English” may be passionately stated but it can not be affirmed at the same time. For while saying it I’m actually speaking several words of English. Therefore my statement is false.
In Hinduism, one has to say in effect “God exists, but I don’t”. It is an unaffirmable position. And unaffirmability is a test for falsehood.
If the law of noncontradiction -that applies in the courtroom all over the globe- applies to reality and Hinduism is plagued by contradictions (as admitted even by some of its leading proponents) then Hinduism as a system is false. To this very day, Hinduism lives with a titanic struggle between its 2 poles of: theism -a belief in a personal deity, and monism- a belief in an impersonal, absolute reality.
Therefore, it firstly isn’t about whether the belief system you embrace -monotheistic, atheistic, pantheistic or otherwise- is exclusive or not. The real issue is whether your answers to the 4 basic questions of life about origin, meaning, morality and destiny within the context of your worldview meet the 5-tests of truth: logical consistency, empirical adequacy, experiential relevance, undeniability and unaffirmability.
The truths claims of any worldview/belief system -being it Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Atheism, New Age etc etc- must stand these 5 tests.
One of the most controversial and castigated assertions of the Christian faith is its exclusive claim to truth. Christianity is often scorned because modern learning mocks the very notion of truth as absolute. The Christian faith is often castigated because the contemporary mind set is infuriated by any claim to ideational elitism in a pluralistic society. How dare one idea be claimed as superior to another? After all, we are supposed to be a multicultural society: should not truth also come in different dresses?
Still, based on all the above, let me reiterate once again that the truth, by definition, will always be exclusive.
Jesus claimed such exclusivity. Had He not made such an assertion, He would have been unreasonably implying that truth is all-inclusive, which it cannot be.
a.5. more reasons why the search for truth becomes so difficult in our contemporary world
Further to the strong but intellectually wanting trend of relativism described above, the main obstacle in comparing ideologies in search for truth, there are also, obviously, the differences between the worldviews themselves that need to be overcome.
In short, these differences could be summarized as the following: for the Middle Eastern world of Islam the truth is “revealed”, for the Far Eastern world of Hinduism and Buddhism truth is “intuitive” for the Western world, truth is “reasoned” but for the secularized Western man his own happiness is paramount…
Considering the above, no wonder any debate -that is not governed by strong self control and peer love and respect- goes into a real nightmare… How does anyone reason against intuition, revelation and personal happiness, when each comes with proportionate passion and conviction…?
Still, since reason is at the basis of human progress as well as stands at the foundation of reality -and of human rules and justice being applied in courtroom- we also stand by the belief that any ideology, any statement made by any belief system should pass the 5 tests of truth -logical consistency, empirical adequacy, experiential relevance, undeniability, unaffirmability- in justifiable ways.
(With extracts mainly from “Can man live without God” by Ravi Zacharias)