Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Coal Miners and Postmodern Truth

This horrible situation with the miners in West Virginia provides a crystal clear example of why Postmodernism is utterly false, and in fact, utterly destructive.  Let’s take a look at the belief that 12 of the 13 miners were found alive.

It was reported on all the newscasts last night.  At least twice on CNN people were asked for their source of the news.  Their answer? CNN.  The headlines in the papers today almost all read something like, “12 of 13 Miners Alive.”  It turns out that the sources most of the media used to confirm this belief were other media outlets.

It was clearly a meaningful belief.  The news anchor I saw last night was overjoyed for the family members and friends of the miners he had come to know in the last two days.  There was even talk of kissing the coal-stained faces of the survivors.  We can also guess with certainty that it was a deeply meaningful belief held by the family and friends of the miners.  It is even possible that they made significant decisions after they heard their relatives were alive.

In other words, the belief “12 of 13 miners are alive” was confirmed in a web-of-belief fashion, was held sincerely by an identifiable culture (at least two in this case), and was deeply meaningful to all of them.  The perfect example of a postmodern description of what makes a true belief.

Only one problem-it was false.

Postmodernism, for all its verbose wrangling in the vain attempt to be profound has no real tools for handling reality.  If this were not such a publicly verifiable event, the pomo response would be something like, “It was true for them.”  But that stock response is revealed here to be the horse hokey it is.  “True for them” almost literally makes no sense.  

Truth is gauged by correspondence to reality.  Just like the survival of miners in West Virginia, web-like confirmation, sincerity, and meaningfulness cannot make a belief true.

9 comments:

Steve said...

Very well said Phil! Happy New Year!

Bob Robinson said...

Oh boy!
My man Phil is back in the blog world after two weeks off.

And once again, Phil (with all due respect), you built what I think is a straw man and called it "postmodernism."

You define postmodernism as "web-like confirmation, sincerity, and meaningfulness." Is this really the definition of postmodern thought? I think it is more about (among other things),
(a) the awareness that language is limited in conveying truth,
(b) that the stories of individual communities should be held with incredulity because they are often created by those seeking or trying to keep power,
(c) that Reason is not the ultimate legitimator of truth, and

On all counts, the coal miner's story proves these to be accurate.
a) language was indeed limited in conveying truth, for the wrong words were conveyed as to who lived and who died,
(b) the initial story should have been held with incredulity because it was only being reported by those in power, and (sadly) everybody simply believed it because of that,
(c) Reason tells us that if the leading news channel in the nation reports something, if the governor of the state gives people the "thumbs-up," if a congresswoman goes on air and confirms the intial story, if hundreds of relatives and family members are jubilant, and if some families even received calls from mining officials, that this just must be "true."

From the way I understand postmodernism, it can teach us a lot about why things like this happen.

BTW, welcome back, friend!

Bethany said...

Very true. Great post.

Ah, yes. And welcome back.

Bethany said...

Whoa! I was on the wrong blog! Welcome back anyway...I just didn't know you were gone.

For some reason I thought I was at Transforming Sermons! lol

Phil Steiger said...

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words. It has been a couple of hectic weeks since the beginning of the Christmas season all the way through Quanza and early this year. My adventures included an early morning trip on Christmas Eve to the emergency room with my wife, Heather. (Everyone is fine.) I had hoped to reenter blogdom with something more approximating a whimper, but we don’t always get what we want.

Bob-It is good to hear from you.

In short posts, it might be hard to avoid straw men, and if I elucidate a bit, maybe I can. First, I intend to be describing capital “P” Postmodernism-something of a codified philosophical reaction to the world-rather than small “p” postmodernism-more of a popular level reaction to Postmodernism. The difference is significant.

The small “p” type tends to only see the surface presuppositions and premises of Postmodernism, and for whatever reasons, either fails to accept its conclusions or doesn’t want to accept its conclusions. For example, the characteristics you listed in your comment are like the premises of Postmodernism, and the conclusions that should naturally be accepted are things like: (1) No objective truth exists, or can be known, (2) all attempts at metanarratives are nothing but power plays, and (3) all language is a kind of a game and nothing more. What I would like to know is why so many in the Emergent movement are happy with accepting the premises you listed, but won’t admit to the conclusions Postmodernists themselves draw?

Second, when it comes to the role of reason in a scenario like this one, reason comes out unsoiled and Postmodern presuppositions fail. The truth of the matter was muddled by the language of the over-heard gossip (false language, to be stilted)-meaning that language really does convey meaning that either does or does not map onto reality. The only reason we know the gossip language was false is through the application of simple, every-day reason. (A faculty denied by Postmodernism.) If Postmodernism denies the usefulness of logic and reason, and logic is the only way we learned the truth about the miners, then this aspect of Postmodernism must be false.

Anonymous said...

Hi there--just quickly, Phil, re: the conclusions you mention--you know how I tend to find many Pm conclusions most grievous; however, it does not seem the ones you mention are *necessary* conclusions of the premises Bob listed, even if they are common ones. Certainly, the post and comments have been short enough that it hinders knowing that we've truly understood each other, but ;) ...holding in mind a caution about the difficulties of language as truth-conveyor does not *necessarily* entail believing that Reality does not exist or that we can never communicate effectively about Reality (or reality). We could conlude, for ex., that it just renders truth-conveying difficult, or, that language-based communication is limited but still has a place at the "table," etc.

Furthermore, a caution in our minds about narrative being a potential means of obtaining and maintaining power is crucial to critical thinking--and to empowerment, both individually and collectively! It does not necessarily entail believing that narrative construction is *only, ever* about power plays. ya know?? I mean, I could say, "Holy Spirit, help me to construct a narrative about this or that in my life that is in accord with your Truth, instead of one that serves to separate me from you by creating hubris," or whatever--i.e., understanding the potential problems with narratives can be a spur toward active co-construction of narratives with God.

Anyway, before I go writing a novel about narrative construction--a most critical and fascinating part of human functioning--I've got to stop and get to bed. ; )

Best,
Daria : )

Phil Steiger said...

Daria-It is always good to hear from you! (And I can see your curling index finger in my head ;))

I can certainly see the difference between what are common conclusions and necessary conclusions, so hopefully I can think through this a bit more.

First, I would say that the conclusions I listed are not just common among Postmodern thinkers, they are nearly ubiquitous, and they have given shape to the Postmodern debate for the last 30 or so years. If someone wants to accept the premises of Focault, Loytard, Derrida, Judith Butler and others and deny their conclusions, I think the burden of proof is upon them.

Secondly, addressing the language as power issue, as a Christian I need a good reason to accept that kind of premise and not believe that Christianity is the most grevious power broker on the planet. You rightly said that language can potentially be used as a power grab, and there I agree with you. So in the end, language as power may or may not apply to God's revelation to us.

But postmodernism in the evangelical church has yet to make a serious distinction bewteen something akin to Orwell's "1984" scenario and the Bible (I think you make the distinction, but I haven't seen them do it). I just don't think we can talk in terms of the Bible being a linguistic power play and then provide good reasons why everyone on earth should submit themselves to it.

Always a pleasure!

Bob Robinson said...

Hi Phil and Daria,

A few replies:
Phil said:
[If Postmodernism denies the usefulness of logic and reason, and logic is the only way we learned the truth about the miners, then this aspect of Postmodernism must be false.]]
This is a straw man--postmodernism does NOT deny the usefulnees of logic and reason, it simply denies the modernistic idea that reason is the final arbiter of truth. I have been contending that Modernity replaced God with Reason as the ultimate legitimator of what is true. But, as our discussions clearly exemplify, I am very fond of making reasonable arguments (as do other christian postmoderns).

Phil said,
[[the conclusions (of Postmodernism) that should naturally be accepted are things things like: (1) No objective truth exists, or can be known, (2) all attempts at metanarratives are nothing but power plays, and (3) all language is a kind of a game and nothing more.]]
Postmodernism does NOT say that objective truth does not exist, but that all statements about truth are necessarily subjective (that we cannot observe reality without bringing our subjectivity into the mix), and contentions that someone has arrived at "objective truth" must be held with incredulity. Postmodernity does indeed hold that all attempts at metanarratives are matters of language power plays...but I wonder why we Christians are so quick to deny this (since we hold to the depravity of humanity). As a Christian, I believe that all human attempts at meta-narratives are indeed power-play liguistic games (but that does not deny that God's metanarrative can rise above that).

Daria said,
[[holding in mind a caution about the difficulties of language as truth-conveyor does not *necessarily* entail believing that Reality does not exist or that we can never communicate effectively about Reality...caution in our minds about narrative being a potential means of obtaining and maintaining power is crucial to critical thinking]]
and then Phil said,
[[But postmodernism in the evangelical church has yet to make a serious distinction bewteen something akin to Orwell's "1984" scenario and the Bible (I think you make the distinction, but I haven't seen them do it). I just don't think we can talk in terms of the Bible being a linguistic power play and then provide good reasons why everyone on earth should submit themselves to it.]]

What Daria submits is along the lines of what many of the best postmodern thinkers in evangelicalism are indeed saying. Phil, if you make that kind of statement (that evangelical postmoderns are not answering these difficulties), it's appears that you have not read NT Wright or Brian Walsh on postmodernism. These are the brightest minds that would offer exactly what you are saying is not being offered.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.