Here we are, living in the “post-truth” era. Every day, the internet inundates us with alternative facts, fake news, doctored film footage, and bizarro anti-science conspiracies. No one seems to agree on what’s really real anymore. How did we, supposedly the most technologically and scientifically advanced civilization in history, get to this point? There are a lot of answers to that question, some of which, I’m sure, must involve fairly potent narcotics. But one of the most useful and informative answers has a lot to do with the social dimensions of cognition. Specifically, it has to do with how people create and then agree on social realities, or what some people call “social constructions.” In turn, the question of social construction drives straight to the heart of the so-called “science wars” – the conflict between postmodernism and science advocates – and evokes the fraught question of how religion relates to these mutual rivals.
This essay won’t invoke your righteous anger at postmodernism, scientism, religion, or any other contemporary bogeyman. I only want to look at how our relationship to “truth” has changed over the past few decades, and to think about what that shift might imply. A lot of people, such as philosopher, public atheist, and Santa Claus impersonator Daniel Dennett, blame our post-truth era on “postmodernism.” Are these critics right? In many ways, I think they are indeed onto something. But I also think that postmodernists have some credible points to make, and science advocates should take seriously what their arguments might imply for real, actual small-s science, as well as for the ideology of scientific progress (big-S Science™). Meanwhile, I think religion, scientism, and postmodernism are tangled in a tensely bound, three-way relationship of shared and opposing convictions and values. I think it’ll be illuminating to explore that triangle.