Bashing postmodernism is popular. But maybe it’s not all bad.
I have a theory about theories: Most beliefs, whether philosophical, political, religious, or otherwise, make at least some valid points. But most also take their good ideas too far.
Postmodernism is skeptical of all grand narratives, which they say typically serve the interests of the powerful. But then some postmodernists take things too far, claiming that because no ideology can capture the truth, there’s no such thing as objective truth.
Does anyone really believe that truth doesn’t exist? And isn’t that a truth claim, and so self-refuting?
Postmodernists might respond that you have your personal truth, so they’re not really saying that truth doesn’t exist.
It reminds me of the atheist perspective on meaning. Recently, I asked a Facebook philosophy forum if atheism leads to nihilism. The consensus was “no.” Fair enough. Nihilists believe in nothing. Not only does life have no inherent meaning, but the personal meaning you attach to your life is delusional.
Atheists have to concede that life has no inherent meaning, however, because there’s no God to provide this meaning. We’re here by accident, so we create our own meaning.
But if meaning is whatever you say it is, then meaning is a mushy concept that doesn’t really mean much. That’s not a bad thing, just something we have to be honest about.
Morality faces a similar challenge. If morality is behavior that evolution wired into our brains, whose purpose is survival of the individual by getting along well with others, then there are no moral absolutes.
But relativism doesn’t mean anything goes. No one believes that. Relativism just means there are no objective moral standards that can settle ethical disagreements.
This is turn means progress is relative to the individual, or group with shared values, but there’s no objective standard for humanity to progress toward. Different groups and different people will have different values and goals, so progress is limited to achievement of goals only within this or that belief system.
This implies, however, that advancing toward conservative goals is progressive (in the context of conservatism), just as furthering left-wing goals is progressive (in the context of the left). But I get the impression that self-styled progressives see their vision of progress in more absolute terms.
So, no, atheism isn’t nihilistic. But like postmodernism, atheism can’t avoid relativism—understood as the lack of inherent meaning or objective morality—and therefore the irrationality of believing in progress outside of an individual’s goals or the shared goals of several individuals (i.e. a society).
But although atheism and postmodernism are both relativistic, a key difference is that postmodernists are often as skeptical of science as they are of any metanarrative. Atheists, however, typically focus on science as the only real truth (though this only pertains to the functioning of the natural world).
And let’s be honest: No rational person buys into the claim that science is just another way of knowing. Would you fly in an airplane built by someone whose beliefs about aerodynamics came from a non-scientific way of knowing?
Science does not claim to capture absolute truth. Instead, science claims to have the best method for finding errors. And the explosion of technology over the past century speaks to the success of science’s error correction efforts.
But in my experience, a lot of atheists try to avoid acknowledging that aside from the laws of nature, relativism is a logical conclusion of not believing in God. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.