Today there is much talk about how we live in a post-modern world. What does that mean? What does it mean to assert that we have moved from modernism to post-modernism? Has the nature of truth changed or just our view of it? What was the motivation for this change – whatever it is?
Let us define the terms. Modernism is the view that asserts that there are objective truths out there to be discovered. It maintains however that these objective truths are material truths that can be discovered by empirical scientific discovery.
Modernism, marked a change from what went before as it explicitly rejected the existence of spiritual or metaphysical truths; modernism was driven by the Enlightenment and the explosion of scientific discoveries that followed. In other words, that everything about our world, where we came from, art, love, hate and the morality that binds us could be discovered and broken down into material, empirical terms.
Before modernism the prevailing view was that our world had a material as well as a metaphysical or spiritual dimension. It was also held that we humans had a dual nature – a material physical body and a spiritual soul.  The traditional answer to why we have a drive to be good, to why we are exhilarated by great art, to why we dream of utopia, was that these concepts, which were grounded in a higher spiritual reality, touched our souls in an intangible way. Throughout much of the world it was believed that Christianity explained this higher reality.
The end goal to which modernism was travelling was to make sense of the world without metaphysics – without God. Modernism wanted to answer these questions about morality, art, love and human aspiration, without resorting to positing the existence of a Supreme Being. But modernism concerned with only examining the tangible proved not to be so good at explaining the intangible.
The end point of modernism in a philosophical sense was logical positivism, a philosophical movement that held that any statement that was not a logical tautology or that could not be empirically tested and verified was meaningless.  This left ethics, art, love out in the cold.
Post-modernism is a reaction to the failure of modernism to account for essential facets of humanity such as poetry, politics, love and morality. Since objective answers to these questions proved impossible to come by so there was a migration to a different paradigm of truth that was subjective. Post-modernism rejected of the dogma of objective empiricism and instead insisted that truth was based on community. The post-modern worldview asserts that our values about ethics, art, politics, love and hate evolved over time as humans evolved and formed societies.  Post-modernism is therefore another attempt to come up with satisfying answers to the essential human questions without the need to talk about metaphysics and spirituality. Its solution is that there is no objective truth and we haven’t discovered it because we’ve been looking for something that isn’t there. On this view all of our current values are the result of historical accident and could have been otherwise – they are contingent.
According to a post-modern view, truth is pragmatic, subjective and contingent. Truth is made not discovered. But this also means that truth changes over time. Nothing is absolute. Nothing is guaranteed.
The problem with post-modernity is that if truth is contingent and subjective, nothing has any meaning. If our concepts of truth are based on society they could change at any moment, and there is no basis for calling action something right or wrong, beautiful or hideous. Everyone is right and wrong at the same time.
So I don’t think that post-modernism provides meaningful answers. Many people insist that the prevalence of post-modernism is a death knell to belief in the spiritual and therefore to traditional Christianity. However, I think the opposite is true. The failure of modernism and the inherent contradictions at the heart of post-modernism show that attempts to reject a spiritual or metaphysical dimension to this world do not cut the mustard. Indeed, belief in spirituality among “non-religious people” is marked. 
Instead I think there are cosmic clues that alert us to the fact that there is more to the world than meets the physical eye – a spiritual as well as a material dimension to our world. Our desire to be good, our desire for utopia, our love of art, our wonder in the face of nature, our fear of the end are some of these clues. The modernist project to ground these clues in the physical world has come up empty, the post-modern attempt to ground them on society has not provided any answers to the big questions just denied there are such big questions to be answered.
What’s the upshot? First, new atheism is in trouble. Much of the current crop of new atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, are modernists. They answer questions about morality, love, society and art by reducing them to material terms. If modernity has been replaced by post-modernity, this approach has been widely rejected. Second, post-modernism doesn’t provide meaningful answers. If you want meaningful significant answers they must be objective. Searching for objective answers about morality, art and love inevitably leads to contemplation of the metaphysical or the spiritual. The surge in interest in spirituality provides evidence for this thesis. Human attempts to answer these questions in terms of science and society have failed. Maybe that’s because we had the answer all along.
1. Plato. Republic. Trans. Waterfield, Robin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; Descartes. Discourse on the Method and the Meditations. Trans. Sutcliffe, F.E. Penguin Books. Middlesex: 1971.
2. See, for example, Ayer, A.J. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1952.
3. See, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Ed., Robert Audi. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1995; 634-35; Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, Anscombe, G.E.M., Hacker, P.M.S. and Schulte, Joachim trans. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009; 99, Investigation #261; Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
4. See Hemmingway, Mollie Ziegler. “Look Who’s Irrational Now”. Wall Street Journal 19 Sep. 2008: W13. Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122178219865054585.html.