Truth Is a Strange Sort of Fiction: The Postmodern Turn—Part 4

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/2007

Postmodern Self-Destructs

[Author’s note: Most of what follows builds upon what was discussed in “Truth Is a Strange Sort of Fiction: Parts I—III” found in the last three issues of Solid Ground. To make the most out of what follows, it might be best to review those thoughts before you begin. Read part 3 here.]

A few years back I participated in a debate in which I had almost every reason to believe I would get crushed.

My opponent, Dr. Marv Meyer, had a Ph.D. in Early Christian Studies from Claremont and had authored a popular translation of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (the copy of Thomas in my own library was Dr. Meyer’s work). He was a fellow of the controversial Jesus Seminar, and was proficient in seven languages (English, Ancient Greek, Coptic, Latin, Hebrew, German, and French), with limited skills in Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Arabic. To top it off, he was not only erudite; he was genial, and gracious.

In short, Marv Meyer was a really smart, really likable guy—the hardest kind of opponent to debate. Plus, we were going head to head on his home turf, Chapman University.

I, on the other hand, had no Ph.D., no prestigious professional appointments, had not been on CNN, ABC, or made multiple appearances on the the History Channel (as he had), and spoke only English and just enough CaliMex to order a taco.

Even so, I had what I thought was an unbeatable advantage. I knew that Dr. Meyer, in spite of his impressive credentials and winsome style, could not win the debate, at least on rational grounds.

Here’s why. The topic of the debate was the postmodern view of knowledge. The debate was entitled “Is Truth True?” Does anything about this title strike you as odd? The conflict evident in the title itself was not only the undoing of Dr. Meyer that evening, but is also the reason the postmodern understanding of truth is doomed to failure.

Let me explain. Remember that in postmodernism (PM), there is no truth in the ordinary, natural sense of the word. “Truth” is either a story well constructed, a cultural narrative that works for a local community, or simply a synonym for “belief.”

What we think we know about the “outside” world is merely a reflection of our cultural language from the inside, the “story” we find ourselves trapped within. Therefore, all claims to know objective truth are false because each of us is imprisoned, incapable of seeing beyond the limits of his linguistic constructions.

But this way of understanding the world is deeply flawed. Postmodern views of truth and knowledge have a handful of afflictions, each of them lethal. No degree in philosophy is required to discover these problems. The blunders become quickly obvious on a moment's reflection. That’s why Marv Meyer didn’t have a chance.

Falling on Its Own Sword

The first problem is one ordinary folks readily see. A sophisticated refutation is not required because postmodernism defeats itself. Here’s what I mean.

Every statement is about something. For example, the sentence “Cats chase rats” is about cats. Sometimes statements include themselves in what they refer to. The statement “All English sentences are false” is about all English sentences, including itself.

In this last case, you can immediately see a predicament. The statement has within it the seeds of its own destruction. If all English sentences are false, then the English sentence declaring so must also be false, and if false, then easily—and appropriately—dismissed.

Self-destructive views like these are commonly called self-refuting statements. Because they cannot satisfy their own standard, they fall on their own sword, so to speak, and commit suicide. This is precisely what happens with the postmodern view of knowledge.

Postmodernists reject the notion of truth in any objective (correspondence) sense because they think language insulates us from reality. They write books and give lectures employing detailed, carefully constructed arguments meant to convince detractors that their conclusions are sound. They take great pains to persuade naysayers to take their views seriously. Why? Because they are convinced that PM offers an accurate description of the way things are.

How are we to take their assessment? It seems we have only two options. First, we can take the evaluation as its advocates intend (though they don’t quite put it in these words)—as an objectively true, trans-linguistic, trans-cultural explanation of how knowledge works. Simply put, we can agree with them that they got it right.

But this is precisely what we are not allowed to do given PM. No one can escape the linguistic trap, not even postmodernists.

The only alternative left is to apply the deliverances of postmodernism to postmodernism itself. In that case, PM is reduced to nothing more than a linguistic construction.

But this renders the postmodern view trivial, a regional, parochial perspective that has no more claim to universal legitimacy than any other view. It can simply be ignored by any of us not interested in playing that particular language game.

The postmodern view is doomed in either case.

It’s True there Is No Truth

There is a simple, straightforward way of putting this problem. When the postmodernist claims there is no truth, an obvious question comes to mind: “Is that true?” In other words, is the claim that there is no truth itself a true statement, or is it false? If false, then false. If alleged true, then false again.

There is no easy way out of this predicament, though some exit strategies have been tried. For one, postmodernists who have heard this line before simply dismiss it. To them it’s sophomoric, a word trick.

They cannot get off that easily, though, because there is no verbal sleight of hand here. This is not a trivial objection. It’s an appeal for intellectual honesty and integrity.

Presumably, postmodernists want others to take their view seriously. They want us to believe them when they argue there are no descriptions of reality anyone can be confident of, that an accurate understanding of “how things really are” is forever beyond our reach.

But the moment one does, he runs headlong into an immovable obstacle. If one takes seriously the claim that there are no reliable statements of fact, then the postmodernist’s assessment itself should not be trusted. Her view of truth and knowledge is a reliable insight only if it’s gained outside the confines of language. Yet she offers it while, by her own admission, she is captive inside the linguistic constructions she says blind us all.

It’s as if she were saying, “You and I are both blind,” and then adds, “Now let me tell you what the world really looks like.”

Implicitly, postmodernists think they have beaten the language game, at least in this instance. But if they can escape the trap, why can’t anyone else? This kind of problem has been around for a while. C.S. Lewis gets to the heart of it:

In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you...their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you...their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it.... Are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some?...

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology.... They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.1

Postmodernists are shackled by a clear contradiction that no amount of dismissive hand waving will dispel. This fact became painfully obvious in my debate with Marv Meyer. I defended the resolve “Objective truth exists and can be known,” while Dr. Meyer took the opposing side.

I want you to notice something about formal disputes like these. To debate, Dr. Meyer must argue against one view and in favor of another. This argument takes a very particular form: The view he opposes (mine) is false; the view he promotes (his) is true.

True to type, this is precisely what happened. With grace and considerable skill, the professor pointed out the failings—and dangers—of my own perspective. Aristotle, it turns out, was wrong; Derrida was right. Mr. Koukl is mistaken; Marv Meyer is correct.

Do you see the problem here? Dr. Meyer marshaled an array of facts, truth, and knowledge for the purpose of persuading his audience that facts, truth, and knowledge were all sophisticated fictions.

In the course of the debate I pointed this out to the audience. I mentioned that Dr. Meyer was forced by the nature of debate itself to make use of the very thing he was denying in the debate, dooming his effort to failure from the outset. Indeed, merely by showing up, Dr. Meyer had implicitly affirmed the resolve I was defending, effectively conceding the debate to me from the beginning.

I further pointed out to the audience that every vote cast for Dr. Meyer as the winner of the debate meant the voter had been persuaded that Dr. Meyer’s view was (objectively) true and mine was (objectively) false. Therefore, every vote for my opponent was really a vote for me.

The audience laughed, but the point wasn’t lost on them. When the final tally came in, the good professor got only one vote (apparently someone wasn't listening). This wasn’t because I was clever. It was because the view he was defending was obviously false, a fact that couldn’t be missed once the problem was carefully pointed out.

In the final analysis, the postmodernist claims to know what she claims cannot be known: what’s really going on with the world. She says, “There is no way the world actually is,” then adds, “and that’s the way the world actually is.”

This view, taken seriously, is essentially telling us not to take it seriously. As one wag put it: “When you find someone who tells you there is no truth, he’s telling you not to believe him, so don’t.”

Talking Like a Modernist?

Postmodernists have a second response to the charge their view is self-contradictory and therefore false. “You’re just talking like a modernist,” they say. “You’re trying to judge postmodernism by Enlightenment rules of logic. We don’t play that language game.”

Of course, this reply is not really an answer; it’s a dismissal, a dodge. It also misses a very important point: Concerns about contradiction and other rules of logic are not rooted in modernism at all. They are not arbitrary designs of Western minds anyone can opt out of, like how many jumps are allowed in a game of checkers. Their use goes back to the ancients who simply acknowledged them as inescapable features of reality.

There’s a reason for this. Some things are basic and indispensable to certain enterprises. If you want to communicate using language, for example, you’re pretty much going to have to use subjects and verbs to do so. That’s because the nature of communication entails principals (subjects) engaged in some sort of action (verbs).

Notice, that it doesn’t much matter what language one speaks, what culture one is from, or what period of history one lives in. Because moderns use subjects and predicates doesn’t mean this is distinctively modern to be rejected along with any of modernism’s vices, real or imagined. Ancients used them, too, because they were essential to communication. They were not accidental characteristics of some particular way of talking.

All linguistic communication works the same way because of how reality is structured. Subjects and verbs are essential to communication given the nature of communication itself.

In the same way, some things are basic and essential to discursive thought. The principles of reason are among them. They are brute facts of the world obvious to anyone willing to take time to reflect on them.

Even those who do not know the term “law of non-contradiction” certainly know the concept. No one taught them this; they picked it up through contact with reality. Because God made each of us with the faculty to recognize these features of the world, we subconsciously employ the principle—and frequently recognize violations of it—regardless of our native language or culture. Indeed, anyone attempting to refute the laws of reason must employ them in the process.

It follows, then, that self-contradictory views are necessarily false no matter when one lives (modern or ancient), or where one lives (East or West). There is no getting around this, and no amount of postmodern wishful thinking will change it.

Some may say they are comfortable with contradiction, but this is unconvincing. If they were really comfortable with contradiction, they wouldn’t find fault with modernism, which is postmodernism’s contradiction in many ways.

When someone appeals to rules of reason, he’s not talking like a modernist; he’s talking like a human being. Alleged “alternate logics” are really nothing more than fantasy, and when they’re taken too seriously they’re called insanity.

We Do Know Things

Postmodern views of truth and knowledge have a second fatal flaw. We actually do know objective truth, in many instances. This is amazingly simple to demonstrate.

A few months ago I was in Washington, D.C., a complex city laid out by its designer like a square wheel with broken spokes, creating an angular maze that is a navigational nightmare.

We consistently arrived at our various destinations, however, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Arlington National Cemetery, the D.C. zoo, and an occasional Starbucks. We made it back safely to our hotel every evening, rarely getting off track. How did we do that? We found our way using a remarkable little invention called a map.

Did you ever think about what takes place when you use a map? Maps give us a representation of reality that we initially believe is accurate, that is, we hold their information to be true in the objective (correspondence) sense. There is a simple way to test to see if that belief is correct. We find our current location on the map, plot a course, and move out. If our beliefs are true, we get where we intend to go. If not, we’ll learn that soon enough.

Notice that perfection is not required in this enterprise. Sometimes we get it wrong, but even then we know we’re wrong because of new, accurate information that shows us our error.

This little exercise repeats itself thousands of times a day, every day of our lives in the countless details we encounter as we navigate in our world.

Our beliefs about reality are like that map. We are constantly testing our beliefs to see if they are true, that is, if they match up with the world. We lay them on top of what we think is reality and then look for a fit. We pay attention to our awareness of our environment. We form beliefs. We then test those beliefs against the world. When they match up, we know our beliefs are true. We drive and then arrive.

Every time we use a map, or take medicine, or drive on the freeway, or navigate from the bedroom to the bathroom in the middle of the night, we prove postmodernism false. Virtually everything we do successfully relies on getting some of our beliefs about the world right. If we couldn’t consistently know objective truth, we’d be dead in a day.

Truth, a Strange Sort of Fiction?

Jesus said He came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). He condemned spiritual leaders who withheld the “key of knowledge,” thereby hindering others from entering the Kingdom (Luke 11:52). Therefore, truth and knowledge are essential to Christianity.

Yet postmodernism denies the kind of truth and knowledge Jesus and his followers spoke about. In PM, “truth” is just a fiction—a strange sort of fiction, but fiction nonetheless.

This puts Postmodernism on a crash course with Christianity. In fact, it has already collided. PM is a philosophy that is not in accord with Christ, which makes it surprising that so many in the church are enamored with it. That will be my focus in the next and final installment of this series in Solid Ground.

Putting Your Knowledge into Action

  • Learn to recognize the self-refuting views of postmodernism. Once you understand how PM’s claims about knowledge and truth “commit suicide,” you’ll be able to graciously point out this flaw to others.
  • Remember that postmodernists want us to take their view seriously. Remind them of that when they claim there is no truth (i.e., there are no reliable statements of fact). Taking them seriously means applying their own view to their own claims, which ultimately sinks their ship.
  • Understand that the rules of logic are not inventions of modernism or the Enlightenment. They are necessary tools every human being uses to navigate the map of life in every era by every culture.
  • Don’t let questions about language or disputes about how we know things distract from the most important fact: We actually do know many things about reality. Otherwise, we would not survive a single day.