by J. P. Moreland

For at least two reasons, Christians must keep in touch with the intellectual currents of the day. For one thing, ideological trends have an impact on the world of ideas in general and on the structure and content of reading material in books and articles in particular. Apprised of those trends, one can be more discerning while reading (2 Cor. 10:3-5). In this way, for example, one can sustain a Christian worldview while doing homework for courses at secular colleges that are hardly designed to help the student think carefully as a Christian!

Further, ideological trends contain ideas that shape our emotions, desires and behaviors, so we need to be very careful what ideas we absorb; otherwise, our emotional life and behavior will be harmed.1 Currently, postmodernism is an ideological trend Christians would do well to understand. With this in mind, I shall offer a précis of postmodern thought and point out one devastating flaw that it has. But, first, we have to get clear on a fundamental concept relevant to evaluating postmodernism, namely, the concept of truth.


The Concept of Truth

Is there a biblical view of truth?2 The answer is no and yes. No, there is no peculiarly Christian theory of truth used only in the Bible and not elsewhere. Yes, properly interpreted, the Bible implicitly and explicitly teaches a particular theory of truth.

The Old and New Testament terms for truth are, respectively, emet and alethia. The meaning of these terms and, more generally, a biblical conception of truth are broad and multifaceted: fidelity, moral rectitude, being real, being genuine, faithfulness, having veracity, being complete. Two aspects of the biblical conception of truth appear to be primary: faithfulness and conformity to fact. The latter appears to involve a correspondence theory of truth (see below). Arguably, the former may presuppose a correspondence theory. Thus, faithfulness may be understood as a person’s actions corresponding to the person’s assertions or promises, and a similar point could be made about genuineness, moral rectitude and so forth.

There are hundreds of passages that explicitly ascribe truth to propositions in a correspondence sense. Thus, God says “I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isa. 45:19). Also, there are numerous passages that explicitly contrast true propositions with falsehoods. Repeatedly, the Old Testament warns against false prophets whose words do not correspond to reality (for example Deut. 18:22: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken”), and the ninth commandment warns against bearing false testimony, that is, testimony that fails to correspond to what actually happened (Exod. 20:16).

What is the Correspondence Theory of Truth?
In its simplest form, the correspondence theory of truth says that a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to reality, when what it asserts to be the case is the case. More generally, truth obtains when a truth bearer stands in an appropriate correspondence relation to a truth maker:

Truth Bearer→Correspondence Relation→Truth Maker

First, what is a truth bearer? What kind of thing can bear truth? The thing that is either true or false is not a sentence, but a proposition. A proposition is the content of a sentence. For example, “It is raining” and “Es regnet” are two different sentences that express the same proposition. A sentence is a sense perceptible string of markings (such as the consonants and vowels on this page) or sounds (such as those made speaking, in normal conversation) formed according to a set of syntactical rules; it is a grammatically well-formed string of spoken or written sounds or marks. A sentence can rightfully be called true only if its content is true, only if it expresses a true proposition.

What about truth makers? What is it that makes a proposition true? The best answer is: facts. A fact is some real state of affairs in the world, a way the world actually is. For example, grass’s being green, an electron’s having a negative charge and God’s being all-loving are all facts. Consider the proposition Mark has black hair. This proposition is true just in case a specific fact (namely, Mark’s having black hair) actually obtains in the real world. A state of affairs “makes” the propositional content of a statement true only if that state of affairs actually is the way the proposition represents it to be. If a proposition represents Mark’s having black hair, then Mark’s actually having black hair makes that proposition true. If, however, a proposition represents Mark’s having blonde or blue hair, then Mark’s actually having black hair makes that proposition false. Suppose Sally says, “Mark has black hair.” It is important to note that Mark’s having black hair makes the content of Sally’s statement true even if Sally is blind and cannot tell whether or not it is true. In fact, Mark’s having black hair makes it true even if Sally does not believe it, even if she thinks she was lying when she said that Mark’s hair was black. Reality makes propositions true or false. A proposition is not made true by someone’s thinking or expressing it, and it is not made true by our ability to determine that it is true. Put differently, evidence allows us tell if a proposition is true or false, but reality (the way the world is) is what makes a proposition true or false.

Our study of truth bearers has already taken us into the topic of the correspondence relation. Correspondence is a two-placed relation between a proposition and a relevant fact (see the diagram above). A two-placed relation is one that requires two things before it can hold. For example, “larger than” is a two placed relation. If we have a desk and a book, and if the desk is bigger than, larger than, the book, the “larger than” relation holds between the desk and the book. “Next to” is also a two-placed relation; if we have a car and a house, and the car is to the side of, next to, the house, the “next to” relation holds between the car and the house. Similarly, the correspondence relation holds between two things—a proposition and a relevant fact—just in case the proposition matches, conforms to, corresponds with the fact. If we have the proposition Mark has black hair, then, if Mark’s hair is actually black, the correspondence relation holds between the proposition and Mark’s having black hair.

Why Believe the Correspondence Theory?

Why believe the correspondence theory? What reasons can be given for accepting the correspondence theory of truth? Two main arguments have been advanced for the correspondence theory, one descriptive and one dialectical.

The descriptive argument focuses on a careful description and presentation of specific cases to see what can be learned from them about truth. As an example, consider the case of Joe and Frank. While in his office, Joe receives a call from the university bookstore saying that a specific book he had ordered—Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul—has arrived and is waiting for him. At this point, a new mental state occurs in Joe’s mind—namely, the thought that Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul is in the bookstore.

Now Joe, being aware of the content of the thought, becomes aware of two things closely related to it: the nature of the thought’s object (Swinburne’s book being in the bookstore) and certain steps that would help him determine the truth of the thought. For example, Joe knows that swimming in the Pacific Ocean would not help him determine the truth of the thought. Rather, he knows that he must take a series of steps that will bring him to a specific building and look in certain places for Swinburne’s book in the university bookstore.

So Joe starts out for the bookstore, all the while being guided by the proposition Swinburne’s book on the soul is in the bookstore. Along the way, his friend Frank joins him, though Joe does not tell Frank where he is going or why. They arrive at the store and both see Swinburne’s book there. At that moment, Joe and Frank simultaneously have the same experience—the experience of seeing Swinburne’s book The Evolution of the Soul. But Joe has a second experience not possessed by Frank. Joe experiences that the thought he had in his office matched, corresponded with, an actual state of affairs. He is able to compare his thought with its object and “see,” be directly aware, that the thought was true. In this case, Joe actually experiences the correspondence relation itself and truth itself becomes an object of his awareness.

As in this scenario, the descriptive argument for the correspondence theory of truth makes its case ostensively, by pointing to instances of the correspondence relationship in our everyday lives.

The dialectical argument asserts that those who advance alternative theories of truth or who simply reject the correspondence theory actually presuppose it in their own assertions, especially when they present arguments for their views or defend them against critics. Sometimes this argument is stated in the form of a dilemma: Those who reject the correspondence theory either take their own utterances to be true in the correspondence sense or they do not. If they take their utterances to be true in the correspondence sense, then those utterances are self-defeating—they run into the same problems as the English sentence “I can’t say anything in English.” If, on the other hand, they don’t take their utterances to be true, then there is no reason to accept them, because to accept them is, after all, to accept them as true.

The dialectical argument shows that those who reject the correspondence theory of truth (either directly or indirectly) rely on the correspondence relationship to do so.

Why Does This Matter?
We have looked at the correspondence theory of truth. Truth is when things really are the way one thinks them to be. We have also examined two reasons for accepting the correspondence theory of truth. But does any of this discussion really matter? You bet it does. According to the correspondence theory, truth is what puts us in contact with reality—not just physical, material aspects of reality, but spiritual and moral as well. And reality can be a pretty brutal thing. One philosopher said that reality is what you bump up against when your beliefs are false! Why, then, does truth matter? Because ideas have consequences and false ideas generally have bad consequences. Truth should be the rails on which we all live our lives. Because truth puts us in touch with reality, it removes us from a self-serving, destructive fantasy world of our own creation, and it leads to a life of wellbeing and flourishing. Truth, in other words, is prerequisite both to accountability and success. Sometimes the truth hurts, but in the end, it is the only way to navigate reality.

 

The Postmodern Worldview

Now that we have a grasp on the notion of truth and why it is important, we turn to the question of postmodernism.

Postmodernism generally characterized Postmodernism is a loose coalition of diverse thought in several different disciplines, so it is hard to describe postmodernism in a way that captures this diversity fairly. Still, we can provide a fairly accurate characterization of postmodernism in general, since its friends and foes understand it well enough to debate its strengths and weaknesses.3

There are two ways to understand the word “postmodernism.” The first is, simply, chronological. Postmodernism refers to a period of thought that follows, and is a reaction to the period called modernity—the period of European thought that developed out of the Renaissance (14th-17th century) and flourished in the Enlightenment (17th-19th century). Of course, this can be simplistic: the thinkers in the modern period were far from monolithic. Different modernist thinkers have elements in their thought that are more at home in postmodernism than they are in the so-called modern era, and other aspects of “modernity” are very much at home in a Christian worldview (for example, the objectivity of truth, value and knowledge). Nevertheless, setting historical accuracy aside, the chronological notion of postmodernism depicts it as an era that began after and, in some sense, replaces modernity.

But the word “postmodernism” more commonly refers to a philosophical approach. It is associated with thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Francois Lyotard, and is primarily a reinterpretation of what knowledge is and what counts as knowledge. More broadly, postmodernism represents a form of cultural relativism about such things as truth, reality, reason, value, linguistic meaning, the “self” and other notions. On a postmodernist view, there is no such thing as objective truth, reality, value, reason and so forth. All these are social constructions, creations of linguistic practices and, as such, are relative not to individuals (as is often mistakenly supposed), but to social groups that share a narrative.4

Six Traits of Postmodernism

In the previous section, I explained the correspondence theory of truth, saying that truth occurs when a proposition stands in an appropriate correspondence relation to reality. Postmodernists reject the correspondence theory of truth. Some of them refuse to talk about truth at all. Others redefine it, saying that a belief is true by virtue of its coherence with other beliefs, or saying that whether or not a belief “works” is what makes it true or false. The important thing is that the postmodernist does not define truth in relation to reality; rather, for the postmodernist, truth is relative to a community or culture that shares a narrative. Thus the doctrine of reincarnation (for instance) can be true for the Buddhist but false for the atheist, and evolutionary theory can be true for the atheist but false for the Christian. The “true for you but not for me” vocabulary popular on college campuses reveals a postmodern rejection of the correspondence theory of truth.

Closely related to the postmodernists’ rejection of the correspondence theory of truth is their rejection of objective reality. Postmodernists reject the existence of a world independent of human thought, human language and human theories. They reject the idea that there’s one way the world (or any part of it) actually is, independent of our beliefs about it. For example, there is no such thing as real gender: Being male, female or homosexual has whatever meaning a culture or community assigns to it, so there is no such thing as maleness or femaleness that transcends culture. Likewise, there is no such thing as an objectively existing God. Whether God exists or whatever he, she, it or they are is totally relative to different groups and their narratives.

Third, postmodernists reject the idea that there are universal, trans-cultural standards for determining the epistemological status of a belief5—for determining whether a belief is true or false, rational or irrational, good or bad. According to the postmodernist, if one asks (for instance) whether or not people should believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no universally correct answer. The answer depends on cultures and their narratives. For one culture, the answer is yes; the belief that Jesus Christ resurrected is good, rational and true. For a culture with a different narrative, however, the answer is no; belief in the resurrection of Christ is false, irrational, or bad for some other reason.  According to the postmodernist, it is impossible to say that any single belief should be held by all people in all cultures.

Closely related to this, postmodernists also reject the existence of any trans-cultural standard for determining the value of something. For example, according to some narratives, men deserve better treatment than women. But are cultures that don’t treat women as well as men wrong? According to the postmodernist, not in any objective, universal or trans-cultural sense. Cultures that don’t value women are only wrong relative to cultures with different narratives than theirs.

Fifth, postmodernists reject the idea that any text, sentence, utterance or sign can have an objective, fixed meaning. Traditionally, it has been held that the meaning of any text, sentence, etc., is determined and fixed by its author’s intentions.6 According to postmodernists, however, the author of a text or utterance has no privileged position from which to interpret her own text or utterance. She may have intended her text to mean one thing, but her intentions have no bearing one what the text actually means. Rather, the meaning of a text, according to postmodernists, is determined by a community of readers who share an interpretation. Thus Paul’s intentions are irrelevant to the meaning of the book of Romans. In fact, there is no book of Romans. Rather, there’s a Lutheran book of Romans, a Catholic book of Romans, a Marxist book of Romans, and so on—but no book of Romans in itself.

Finally, postmodernists reject the existence of any unified, objectively real “self.” For the postmodernist, the self is a construction of language. It is a bundle of social roles, such as being a student, a son, a brother, a basketball player, and these roles are created by the linguistic habits associated with them. Because language is social and not individual, there are no individual selves. Selves are social and only exist relative to the cultures they find themselves in.7

Is Postmodernism True?

My purpose in this article has been to provide a précis of postmodernism; it has not been to provide a philosophical critique of it. Still, I cannot resist offering one criticism. Put simply, postmodernism is self-refuting.

A claim like “I do not exist” is self-refuting in that it makes itself false—by making the claim “I do not exist,” I demonstrate that I do, after all, exist. Postmodernists appear to claim that their own assertions about the modern era, about how language and consciousness work, etc., are objectively true and objectively rational, and they write literary texts and protest when different groups misinterpret the meanings of their writings. But this amounts to saying things like “it’s objectively true that there’s no objective truth,” “it’s objectively rational to believe that rationality can’t be objective,” “my text really means that there’s no such thing as real meaning,” which can be asserted no more coherently than “I do not exist.” In these and other ways postmodernism seems to be self-refuting.

Sometimes postmodernists respond by denying that they take their own assertions and writing to be true, rational, objectively meaningful, and so forth. If these claims are correct, then they would, indeed, save postmodernism from self-refutation. But this response must be rejected. When one actually reads carefully postmodernist writings, it is very hard to avoid the impression that they do, indeed, present themselves as true, rational and so on. In this sense, when on the defensive a postmodernist may deny that his or her writings exhibit these features, but an examination of those writings seems to undermine those denials.

J.P. Moreland is Professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including (with William Lane Craig) Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (InterVarsity).This article is adapted from Dr. Moreland’s earlier articles “What Is Truth and Why Does it Matter?” and “Postmodernism and the Christian Life – Part 1” both of which appeared on the Boundless Webzine (www.boundless.org). Used by permission.

Notes

1 Racism is an ideology with obvious harmful consequences as is atheistic evolution which, by teaching that we  are all purposeless animals, encourages a disregard for virtue in favor of a survival of the fittest mentality.

2For more on this, see J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), chapter six.

3For a helpful introduction to postmodernism, see Joseph Natoli, A Primer to Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

 4A “narrative” is similar to a worldview. Roughly, a narrative is a perspective such as Marxism, atheism or Christianity, which is embedded in a group or culture’s social and linguistic practices. Calling such a perspective a “narrative,” however, emphasizes that one is not concerned with its truth. Rather, one is merely interested in whether it is “meaningful” or “relevant.”

5 Epistemology is the study of knowledge and is primarily concerned with good vs. bad manners of believing. A theory, idea or sentence is epistemological if it tells us what sorts of things we should believe and what sorts of things we should not believe. Words like “rational” and “irrational,” “justified” and “unjustified,” “warranted” and “unwarranted,” signify the epistemological status of a belief.

 6For a succinct defense of the view that the meaning of a text is found in the author’s intent, see Walt Russell, “The Hazards of Reading on the Battlefield,” Boundless Webzine (www.boundless.org/features/ a0000825.html).

7For a fuller exposition of these characteristics and others, see Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.


Copyright © 2004 J.P. Moreland. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.