This thirteenth shift in thinking since the Enlightenment is much like the air we breathe–so pervasive that we have a hard time even noticing it. To bring it into focus, last week I surveyed “the way things used to be” prior to the Enlightenment. This week I’ll begin comparing this with how things are after this fateful period of history, and how we are deeply influenced by the Enlightenment’s ideas about science, history, philosophy, ethics, and theology each and every day in our modern world.
The Way Things Are Now
To review last week’s post: prior to the Enlightenment, truth was truth and facts were facts, regardless of the area of knowledge–science, history, philosophy, ethics, or theology. But no more.
The area of knowledge that has enjoyed the greatest continuity before and after the Enlightenment is science. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was assumed that there are truths about the physical world that can be known by study. The Enlightenment continued to affirm this. But it went one step further.
Increasingly, science was seen not just as one way to know truth, but as the only or at least the best way to know truth. There were a number of reasons for this trend, which I’ve touched on elsewhere. These include the shift from the Aristotelian to the Baconian philosophy of science, and the rise of Scientism (the absolutizing of science above all other ways of knowing). I’ve discussed Scientism here, here, and here. For an excellent description and critique of Scientism, see J. P. Moreland’s recent Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.
Scientism, in turn, affects our understanding of all other areas of study. In history, both methods and results were called into question. Since science came to be understood as the paradigm of knowledge, other fields began to adhere to the assumption that truth can be determined only through “scientific” methodologies. As a result, all disciplines, including history, attempted to become more “scientific.” Whereas it was understood prior to the Enlightenment that different disciplines required different methods, now all disciplines must conform to methodologies more akin to science in order to validate their claims to knowledge.
For instance, consider how we evaluate the historicity of documents. Previously, it was widely acknowledged that writers in earlier periods of history did not place as much emphasis on chronological ordering of events to tell a story of what happened as we do today. They were more concerned with thematic emphasis than with chronological precision. This is how the writers of the four Gospels approached historical documentation, for example.
This historical methodology was called into doubt post-Enlightenment, for it wasn’t a “scientific” approach to the recording of historical events. As a result, because the four Gospels did not always record events as they occurred chronologically (the various authors arranged the events differently), it was concluded that they were not good historians–that their methodology was wrong and their statements cannot be considered historically reliable.
But this inference follows only if one accepts the Enlightenment understanding of science, and the methodology of science, as the only way to know truth. Under this assumption, the Gospels may be rejected as not historical and thus not true. (Of course, to be consistent, one would have to reject all historical records prior to the Enlightenment, which few if any are willing to do.) I’ve written in defense of the historicity of the Gospels here, showing why they are first-rate historical documents, contrary to the Enlightenment’s critique.
Not only have assumptions about the correct methods of historical study changed due to the Enlightenment, but so have assumptions concerning the results of historical study. Even with the shifting understanding of methodology, it was still assumed that, by using the “scientific method” in the study of history, one could find truth.
Yet as Enlightenment thinking matured and became more and more consistent, it eventually gave birth to Postmodernism. Though the name (“post-modernism”) tries to distance this movement from the modernism of the Enlightenment, when we look more closely at the Enlightenment and Modernist assumptions, we find that the Postmodernists are most consistently and fully living out the philosophical commitments of Modernity.
Postmodernism’s influence is seen in the gradual shift away from seeing the study of history as the quest for truths about the past. In its place has come an increasing emphasis on history as a means to exert power over others by asserting that a certain “narrative” is “true.” But because there is no such thing as truth (outside science), any claim to historical “truth” must really be a veiled power play. It must be motivated by one’s desire to impose his or her will on others who disagree. There are no facts, just interpretations of history. This muddled understanding of history underlies much of the political climate these days.
We can find similar shifts in other areas of knowledge. I’ll discuss these more in the coming weeks.
Until then, grace and peace.