Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives. – Jean-François Lyotard
The postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose. –Christopher Hitchens
Of the millions of children who graduate from school each year, quite a few go to college and university to become professionals in various fields. Of these, some become scientists who discover new things about the universe, some become technologists and inventors, some artists, writers and musicians, and some turn out to be philosophers. Philosophers reflect on a variety of topics. Not all are content with just interpreting, what previous thinkers had said. Some try to think of something altogether new.
In the second half of the twentieth century a number of these thinkers propagated the idea that whatever past generations have been believing in was wrong. The new thesis was that worldviews developed by our predecessors ranged from muddled thinking to being dead wrong. Since the most recent successful worldviews related to religion, art, music, literature, science, and technology, the bases of every one of these had to be shown to be mistaken: grievous errors which the wisdom of the past simply failed to recognize.
So there emerged radically new movements in art, architecture, music, and literature which are reckoned as postmodernist: they came after modernism was acclaimed as the best that had happened in human civilization. The incentive in these instances has generally been the urge to create something entirely different from what past masters had done with great success.
Since we are concerned with philosophy let us consider some elements of postmodern thinking. One can detect at least two incentives for postmodernism in this regard.
The first was the increasing success, incomprehensibility, and hegemony of physics (and science more generally). It became well-nigh impossible for philosophers to penetrate into the esoteric jargon of physics with its psi-functions, double-slit experiment, Schroedinger’s cat, tunnel effect, cosmological constant, etc. Faced with this challenge the best that they could do was to erect epistemological frameworks from which the logical basis of modern science would be shown to be untenable, incomplete, mistaken, and inadequate; and that scientific truths are invariably subject to change. Their truths have at best temporary
So anti-science philosophers began to question the notion of objective facts and gloat over the demise of long-held scientific truths: For example, the two-fluid theory of heat gave way to the kinetic theory, the photon erased the wave theory of light, the ether idea was demolished, Newton’s gravitation was replaced by Einstein’s space-time kinks. Recalling these gave a breath of relief to the deriders of science.
Whether or not they understood why or how changes occur in science’s worldviews, these philosophers were happy to know that the knowledge proclaimed by science is, after all, not unshakable. So arose the postmodern philosophers of science whose aim was to dethrone science from its epistemic pedestal. They were quite successful in demonstrating that objective truths are no more than human centered truths; that scientific claims can never be verified, only falsified; that there occur periodic paradigm shifts in scientific theories; and that we can never reach the absolute truth any more than absolute zero on the temperature scale. All these limitations, in addition to the fact that science cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong, or beauty from ugliness. And it has not explained what is consciousness, not created life.
It was annoying for postmodernists to see successful applications of the unreliable knowledge that constitutes science: telephones, televisions, airplanes, computers, and so on. Nevertheless, the proclamation of the limitations of scientific knowledge in sophisticated language brings great satisfaction to those who hold discourse beyond the citadels of technical science as well as to those who are craving for a return of ancient worldviews.
The second provocation for postmodernism is the marginalization of cultures victimized by Western intrusions and European colonialism. Enlightened thinkers recognized this moral flaw and began to see that the presumed superiority of Western culture arose from its military strength and imperialistic arrogance. Moreover, postmodernists realized that if there was Plato’s Dialogues in ancient Greece, there were Upanishadic dialogues in ancient India, that Buddha and Confucius were no less significant personages than Abraham and Jesus, that long before Berkeley there was Shankara, and so on. So the idea of the centrality of Judeo-Christianity was gradually removed.
From all this it followed that there was no such thing as absolute truth, absolute morality, higher levels of civilization, or the best form of government. So another running refrain in postmodernism is that everything, yes, everything, is like rest and motion in Einstein’s world: only relative. Here they ran into some uncomfortable predicaments: If there is no good and bad, how do we evaluate His Holiness and Hitler, MLK and the KKK, Mandela and Mao, Dictatorship and Democracy, the injunction to love thy number and that to kill the unbeliever? Is the flat-earth fantasy the same as the rotund globe view?
Postmodernism has left us with some thought-provoking terms like deconstruction of texts (Jacques Derrida) which says that in themselves texts carry no meaning: it is all a question of how they are interpreted. It refers to the grand themes of history such as the Enlightenment, Marxism, modernism, as meta-narratives that are not to be trusted. It recommends that books that do not advocate full equality are to be discarded. Yet, they tend to be liberal rather than conservative in the context of social and global issues.
Most of all, postmodernists challenge modern science’s claim to truth, some even questioning European Enlightenment as having universal relevance. They argue that science is a socially constructed collection of propositions for the benefit and exploitative purposes of the hegemonic West: this is a helpful image for non-Western cultures that are otherwise at a loss when they confront the arsenal of Western science and technology. It gives equal respect and value to all cultures: in this it is a loud voice of multiculturalism. It shows the emptiness in suppositions that Western Caucasian culture is unique and better than all other cultures. Though similar ethnocentric superstitions have been (still are) prevalent in many other creative cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Indic, Islamic), millions of people in non-Western cultures applaud this postmodern self-appraisal of Western culture.
The devaluation of science and rationality, however cleverly argued, is a great disservice of postmodernism to civilization. However questionable scientific epistemology may be, modern science has been gradually freeing the human mind of a thousand superstitions and untenable worldviews and values. It has revealed to humankind the grandeur and splendor of myriad unrecognized facets of the physical universe, enhanced creature comforts and saved millions from starvation and disease. Given all this, postmodernist anti-science chatter, however stimulating it may be to ivory-tower scholastics, ill-serves the vast majority of humankind by drawing them away from Science. After all it is largely due to science that reason-based empirical knowledge is respected more universally than ever before, many superstitions have become mindsets of the past, and religious bigotry has been mitigated in cultures where science has taken deep roots. So while we may acknowledge some of the insights of postmodern philosophers about relative values, interpreting texts, and multiculturalism we cannot ignore that some of postmodernist anti-science propaganda has not been helpful for humanity.