Postmodern thinkers reject the ideal of objectivity not only in art but also in science. The roots, once again, are in the philosophy of Hegel. If history was the progressive unfolding of the Absolute Mind, that implied that ideas themselves evolve—law, ethics, philosophy, theology.
Hegel taught that no idea is true in an absolute or timeless sense. What is regarded as true in one stage of history will give way to a “higher” truth at the next stage of the evolution of consciousness. This radical relativism is called historicism because it says there is nothing that stands outside the ever-changing historical process.
In order to make his claims, ironically, Hegel had to presume that he alone had the power to stand above history and see it objectively as it really is. In other words, he had to exempt his own views from the historicist categories that he applied to everyone else’s views—which renders his position self-contradictory.
Nevertheless, Hegel’s concept of cultural evolution—that each culture produces its own “truth”—had enormous influence. It is the origin of postmodernism. Postmodern thinkers decided that not even science uncovers timeless, universal truths. It is just another social construction.
As a result, to sustain the scientific enterprise today, we need to reach back in history ask how science arose in the first place. Most historians agree that the scientific outlook actually rests on fundamental concepts derived from a biblical view of nature.
Consider, for example, the idea of “laws” in nature. Today that idea is so familiar that we consider it common sense. But historians tell us that no other culture—East or West, ancient or modern—ever came up with the concept of laws in nature.
In most cultures, the intrinsic order of nature was thought to be inscrutable to the human mind. And when people do not believe there are rational laws behind natural phenomena, then they will not go looking for them—and science will not get off the ground.
The idea of rational laws in nature appeared for the first time in Europe during the Middle Ages, a period when its culture was thoroughly permeated with biblical assumptions. As historian A. R. Hall notes, the use of the word law in the context of natural events “would have been unintelligible in antiquity, whereas the Hebraic and Christian belief in a deity who was at once Creator and Lawgiver rendered it valid.”
In short, the early modern scientists were inspired by the conviction that natural laws were God’s rules giving the world its intelligible structure. That is the vision we need to recover. Otherwise the epistemological basis of science itself will remain at risk.
Over to comments.
(Exchange #1, “Why bother saving Leonardo?” is here.)
(Exchange #2, “What to do with materialism’s pile of culture?” is here.)
Next: (Exchange #4, How does this fact/value split affect the intelligent design controversy?)
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.