Philosophers William Craig and J. P. Moreland on Postmodernism and Criticisms

In their large Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2003), respected philosophers William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland offer several insights into the philosophical worldview of postmodernism. 

Craig and Moreland are clear concerning their view of postmodernism. They argue that postmodernism is inconsistent with a Christian worldview that they are seeking to defend. Although we have examined postmodernism and modernism elsewhere from a secular perspective and from the vantage point of religion studies, it is also helpful to receive insights from theists like Craig and Moreland on the matter.

A first point Craig and Moreland raise is that postmodernism entails a reaction to metaphysical realism. What is metaphysical realism? This a perceptive that includes a commitment to the following three points:

(1) the existence of a theory-independent or language-independent reality
(2) the notion that there is one way the world really is and
(3) the notion that the basic laws of logic (identity, noncontradiction, excluded middle) apply to reality.

Postmodernism, however, is an anti-realist position that rejects the aforementioned realist commitments. To the contrary of realism, postmodernist proponents claim that reality is a social construction. Language creates reality and what is real for one linguistic group may be unreal for another. The laws of logic, moreover, are merely Western constructs and are not universally applicable. Some postmodernists are neo-Kantian postmodernists, meaning that they do accept there is an external reality, a thing-in-itself. However, they believe there is no way for us to get to reality.

Second, postmodernism entails a rejection of the commonsensical correspondence theory of truth. Many postmodernists have a relative view of truth, which means that truth is conditioned historically and socially relative to a linguistic community that shares the same narrative. This rejects objective truth endorsed by the correspondence theory. There is therefore no such thing, for a postmodernist, as objective truth. Postmodernists also reject dichotomous thinking, which is when one groups phenomena into pairs and claim one is superior to the other; for example: real/unreal, true/false, rational/irrational, right/wrong, virtue/vice, good/bad, and beautiful/ugly. Postmodernists view dichotomies as relative to groups holding a shared language, narrative, and culture.

Third, postmodernists reject any transcultural and universal standards (i.e. laws of logic or principles of inductive inference) for determining whether or not a belief is true or false, rational or irrational, good or bad. Further, rationality is undermined because no-one ever approached questions without bias. This means that objectivity is impossible and there is no natural view. Any observations, beliefs, and narratives embraced concerning reality are theory-laden. Here “knowledge” is a construction of one’s social and linguistic structures. This makes knowledge unjustified.

Fourth, there is anti-essentialism in postmodernist thinking. According to Craig and Moreland, essentialism means that “some things have essential and accidental properties.” This means that a certain thing has essential properties that without them it would cease to exist. Craig and Moreland provide the following examples: being human is essential to Socrates, being H2O is essential to water, being omnipotent is essential to God, etc. Moreover, an accidental property is one such that a thing can lose it and still exist. For instance, being five feet tall is accidental to Socrates. Postmodernists reject all of this. According to them, no distinction in reality between essential and accidental properties exist. Instead, this division is relative to a person’s interests, values, and classificatory purposes. The division is thus a social construction that will not be uniform throughout social groups, 

“For example, if a group’s definition of birds includes having a beak, then, assuming for the purpose of illustration that everything that has a beak has feathers, having a feather is an essential property of birds. If the group defines birds so as to include bats, having a feather is an accidental property. Thus what is essential to birds is not a reflection of reality; it is a construction relative to a group’s linguistic practices.”

Postmodernists are adamant in their rejection of metanarratives. The term metanarrative normally refers to “competing conceptual schemes or worldviews”, and teachings claiming to be true or rational. More often, it refers to “broad, general worldviews that have come to be accepted by large groups of people, such as Buddhism, atheism, Christianity and so forth.” In their rejection of metanarratives, postmodernists argue that there is no way to decide which among competing worldviews is true. No one worldview is true for everyone.

Further, language, such as a literary text, does not have an authorial meaning accessible to interpreters/readers. According to Craig and Moreland,

“Thus the author is in no privileged position to interpret his own work. In fact, the meaning of a text is created by and resides in the community of readers who share an interpretation of the text. Thus there is no such thing as a book of Romans. Rather, there is a Lutheran, Catholic and Marxist book of Romans.”

For postmodernists, there is also no thinking without language. Thinking is a linguistic behavior in which people exhibit the correct public know-how in their use of words according to the linguistic practices of one’s social group. There is, postmodernists believe, a “wall” between people and the world constituted by one’s linguistic categories and practices. Language is distorting and one is incapable of getting outside his language to talk about the world and the way the world is. The external world is just a construction. 

Further, postmodernists reject the referential use of language. Craig and Moreland explain,

“Consider the sentence “The dog is in the yard.” According to the referential use of language, the term dog functions, among other things, to refer to an entity—a specific dog—in the language-independent world.”

Although people use language this way to refer to reality all the time, postmodernists reject this and claim that linguistic units (i.e. words) refer to other words. For example, “dog is not a term that refers to a real object; rather, it is a term that is socially related to other terms such as “man’s best friend,” “the pet that guards our house” and so forth.”

Lastly, the self is a construction of language as there is no unified, substantial ego. What we consider the “self” is a bundle of social roles, such as being a mother, wife, student, etc. These roles are fashioned by the linguistic practices associated with them. 

Criticisms of Postmodernism

Several brief critiques can be offered concerning these various perspectives embraced by postmodernists.

First, critics are quick to point out that many of these claims are self-refuting. If reality is merely a social construction, then postmodernism is also just a social construction. Postmodernists reject dichotomous thinking, yet they embrace such thinking because many of them believe their philosophical perspective to be superior to non-postmodernist views, such as those who embrace the correspondence theory of truth, objective reality, metanarratives, etc. Postmodernists oppose metanarratives, but in the process accept and promote the metanarrative that all metanarratives should be rejected. Postmodernists reject transcultural and universal standards (i.e. laws of logic or principles of inductive inference) for determining whether a belief is true or false, rational or irrational, good or bad. But postmodernists hold that their beliefs are true, good, and rational. If a belief is not true, then it is false; if it is not good, then it is bad; if it is not rational, then it is irrational. The claim that we cannot be rational because of bias must also apply to the postmodernist. Because the postmodernist is biased, we cannot trust that he has the true perspective about reality. If language does not have an authorial meaning accessible to interpreters/readers, then this must also go for postmodernists. But, inconsistently, postmodernists engage in a broad use of language. They present their many views and ideas through language and they author books they expect readers to take seriously. Because many of the central claims of postmodernism are contradictory it becomes difficult, argues the critic, to take it seriously as a worldview. Craig and Moreland sum up this criticism,

“Put simply, postmodernism is self-refuting. Postmodernists appear to claim that their own assertions about the modern era, about how language and consciousness work and so forth are true and rational, they write literary texts and protest when people misinterpret the authorial intent in their own writings, they purport to give us the real essence of what language is and how it works, and they employ the dichotomy between modernism and postmodernism while claiming superiority for the latter. In these and other ways postmodernism seems to be self-refuting.”

Some postmodernists deny that their claims and writings are true or rational, which would indeed save them from self-refutation. But this is also problematic as it becomes very clear upon inspection that the postmodernists expect their writing to be taken seriously as if their claims are true and rational. Furthermore, Craig and Moreland argue that people can indeed be objective and rational, contrary to what postmodernists suggest. They also argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with being biased,

“As a first step towards a response to this claim, we need to draw a distinction between psychological and rational objectivity. Psychological objectivity is the absence of bias, a lack of commitment either way on a topic. Do people ever have psychological objectivity? Yes, they do, typically, in areas in which they have no interest or about which they have not thought deeply. Note carefully two things about psychological objectivity. For one thing, it is not necessarily a virtue. It is if one has not thought deeply about an issue and has no convictions regarding it. But as one develops thoughtful, intelligent convictions about a topic, it would be wrong to remain unbiased, that is, uncommitted regarding it. Otherwise, what role would study and evidence play in the development of one’s approach to life? Should one remain unbiased that cancer is a disease, that rape is wrong, that the New Testament was written in the first century, that there is design in the universe, if one has discovered good reasons for each belief? No, one should not.”

Rational objectivity, moreover, is the ability to discern the difference between good and bad reasons for holding a belief. Bias, however, does not prevent a person’s ability to assess the reasons for beliefs. Although bias might make things more complicated, it does not make providing good reasons for a belief impossible. As Craig and Moreland say: “If bias made rational objectivity impossible, then no teacher— atheist, Christian or whatever—could responsibly teach any view the teacher believed on any subject! Nor could the teacher teach opposing viewpoints, because he or she would be biased against them!”

Of course, if true, then this must also go for the postmodernist. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If bias makes it impossible to assess rationality and reasons for a belief, then the postmodernist must too be unable to access rationality and the reasons for a belief. If so, then nobody is obligated to accept postmodernism on rational grounds.

Craig and Moreland do not believe postmodernism is all bad. They do see some value in it,

“Does all this mean that there are no advantages to be gained from postmodernism? No, postmodernists are right to warn us of the dangers of using language to gain power over others, to recommend the importance of story and narrative, and to warn against the historical excesses of scientism and reductionism that grew out of an abuse of modernist ideas.”

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