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Monday, November 9, 2015

The Postmodern Mind and Progress

A colleague chided me the other day for citing progress in racial and class relations. How can you claim progress if you are a postmodern?

That stopped me. To say things are better (or worse) is to imply a norm or standard. But postmoderns, accepting biological evolution and the constructive characteristic of thinking, have dispensed with absolutes of all kinds. We have "historically criticized" the religious theologies of gods, angels, heavenly revelations, and bodiless souls. We have also "scientifically criticized" teleological and metaphysical theologies that identify God with Reason, Divine Spark, Ground of Being, Higher Power, Alpha/Omega Point, Universal Consciousness, or Cosmic Process. (This is not to say these ideas do not have metaphorical and poetic value.)

In short, we have, as Harari says in Sapiens (please read my previous blog), acknowledged the symbolic form of our world created through our art, science, history, and religion, all contexted and supported by an evolving myth or imaginative order adopted intersubjectively. In culture we have unified our stories, shared our beliefs, and built a fiction through which we can cooperate to adapt to and with our environment. So far we see diverse cultures operating in tribes, civilizations, and nations. Whether we can build a universal, yet developing culture or, more importantly, whether we want to still remains to be seen.

Would we be better off, happier, more fulfilled, more actualized, more human? Again that depends on our standards and norms. But these are not to be found in premodern theology or modern metaphysics, though they might be precursored in our art, stimulated in our religious traditions, accounted for in our history, and criticized through our science. The values and norms we live by and the myths we choose to support them are not "out there" in divine or natural laws or "in here" in immutable essences or natures, nor even in evolved structures of our existence and thinking (as I once held).

Because we have no absolutes in heaven or on earth, postmodernists are condemned as relativists without firm anchors and therefore responsible for the sorry state the world is in. If there are no firm values and norms that can be found in divine revelation or scientific reason, then we humans do not have the grounds on which to stand together. Skepticism and cynicism, conservative religionists and liberal humanists alike argue, are contradictory, self-defeating, and destructive of human nature and threatening to human existence.

Of course we counter that it is the illusion of absolutes whether expressed in theological or metaphysical terms through art, science, and religion that is creating the conflicts that result in cruelty and genocide. While we might cop to being skeptics and cynics (I'll deal with this later), we deny that we are relativists without values and norms. Instead of proclaiming that there are absolutes in heaven or in the mind or that all is relative and so everything is permitted, we proclaim all is relational, or at least we are. And it is through relationships, person to person, story to story, culture to culture that we may come to objective norms and values by which we choose to live and act with one another.

Next: a new self-critical, transcending, universal myth?
Next: the cynic and the skeptic?

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