Sunday, September 13, 2009

What Comes After Post-Modernism? (The History of Epistemology! - Part 1)

In this series, we explore epistemology, or “How do we know what we know?” I think such a question is as relevant as ever, especially given our culture’s fairly recent leanings toward postmodernism – the belief that traditional norms should be abandoned in favor of abstractness. Josh McDowell defines postmodernism as “a worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.” In other words, a postmodernist would claim that truth is a variable, and that it is relative to each individual who attempts to discover it. In the postmodern world, there is the potential for more than one truth.

Is truth relative, or is it an absolute? And does it matter? Read on…
Epistemology sounds scary – like it might hurt you. It’s a word that might make you want to hit the “Back” button on your browser and go read something else. Don’t. To keep you on the hook (because I think this series is going to be fun and meaningful), let me ask – what is truth to you? Do you believe it is the same for you as for everyone, or do you think it varies between people and changes over time as society matures?

I cannot tell you how many books I’ve read, classes I’ve attended, and conversations I have had where I was encouraged to be open-minded about things that I felt strongly about. Concerning topics that I feel a strong sense of right and wrong (abortion, baptism, the existence of God), I do not want to compromise or water down what I believe to be the truth. To me, the existence of God (and who He is) is not a relative concept. I may not know everything that I need to know about God or His character, but I am past the point of wondering whether or not He exists. He does - and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this point is going to deeply regret that they didn’t make the connection. My statements about what I believe to be absolute tend to be short and to-the-point (some would say rude and close-minded), but it is precisely because I believe them to be absolute that I insist on them. You wouldn’t jump off a thousand-foot cliff just because the person next to you doesn’t believe in gravity. You wouldn’t do it even if they agreed to jump with you. You would not suspend your absolute belief in the concept of gravity when your life is at stake…

Epistemology deals with the ideas of truth and knowledge – what is truth, what can I claim to be true knowledge, and specifically, how do I know this knowledge is truth? For the vast majority of people, when I ask “Do you believe that two plus two is equal to four?” they answer “Yes” because they know this statement to be true. They do not sit down each time they are asked and count on their fingers to be sure. They just know the answer, because they have seen the evidence in the past, and they recall that it is truth. It does not have to be rediscovered every time. Epistemology deals more with the knowing of truth, rather than its calculation or derivation.

The history of epistemology, and the various beliefs encountered along the way, are what this series is about. It began with the Greek philosophers, who assumed certain basic human beliefs to be true without really questioning where these beliefs came from. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Age of Enlightenment began and philosophers started to question how we really know what we know. This period was dominated by the thinking that reason alone was enough to justify power and “rightness”. God’s presence and authority were still given a great deal of consideration during this phase.

That began to change with the period of Modernism in the late nineteenth century, when people began to trust more in the scientific process and technology to determine what truth really is. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is a good example. It was during this period that philosophers began to wholly reject the idea of a divine Creator in their belief systems. Instead, the idea of man being able to save himself through learning and applying what he learned began to take shape (not that this idea didn’t occur before this time, but it became the primary philosophical way of thinking at this point).

Finally, in the 1960’s, mankind rushed into the next phase of philosophical thinking – Postmodernism. This period has been dominated by the abstract thinking that absolute truth cannot be known. Instead, philosophers (and religious leaders, and government officials, and many, many others) believe that the concept of truth is a variable – it is different for everyone. “We make our own truth” or “We discover our brand of truth as we live life” are familiar sayings. In essence, this chapter of epistemology says that “we can’t really know that what we know is absolutely right”. That can be a pretty frustrating argument to have with someone.

One thought occurs to me – what would the next phase of thinking encompass? As mankind has sped along the philosophical trail these last few hundred years, departing from centuries-old belief systems, he continues to accelerate into more arcane arguments than the last, until eventually there will be no regard for truth or morals or any real sense of right and wrong. What do you call the thing that follows Postmodernism?

This series will explore each of these phases and the history and thinking of the people who dominated the thinking in each – from Socrates to Plato, Rene DesCartes to John Locke, Kant to Hegel, Darwin, Nietzche and Marx. Through these, I hope to compare each phase with the “original” author of philosophy – Jesus Christ.

Next in the series...

1 comment:

Joshua said...

No Machievelli?

I kid, I kid.