How Fallabalistic Foundationalism and Theophanics saved the world (With apologies to the Irish)

Bill Honsberger

Updated 7/24/2016

This paper will initially attempt to cut short the incredible width and breadth of the project of going “Beyond Postmodernism”, and will give a modest proposal as to how one can have knowledge that is justified and a philosophy which has a proper balance of metaphysics and ethics, which themselves are justified in a warranted manner. I will attempt to show that Christian theology, reconstituted as “theophanics” and fallabalistic/modest foundationalism, in combination give a comprehensive approach to the question of resolving the postmodern dilemma.

In the 1980’s movie “War Games”, the story revolves around a boy who hacks his way into the defense network of the United States to play what he believes are computer games. Unknowingly, he sets into motion the defense network, where the “supercomputer” perceives the commands as an actual attack by the Soviet Union. As the story reaches its climax, the computer’s designer and the boy attempt to short-circuit the system before it launches a response to the Soviet “attack”. They do this by playing Tic-Tack-To with the computer and the computer responds by “learning” the futility of playing Tic-Tack-To. The computer then starts running all of its war game scenarios and then the moral of the story is made clear – the only way to win, is not to play.

In much the same way that Levinas did this, I want to argue that the best way out of the Post modern swamp, is never to swim in it. This does not mean that one does not engage postmodernism and its issues, but I hope to show in this paper that one can engage the concerns without buying the postmodern farm.

One of the fun and interesting things about a project like this is that the ground rules we establish by definition limit and shape the scope of the intended or desired results. The title of the class “Beyond Postmodernism” sets up a framework that can be summarized in the following way. Post modernity has ravaged the philosophical and general academic world. It has deconstructed all of the “giants” that had dominated the intellectual and aesthetic world, and having done that, it sits at the top of the academic hill, daring anyone to knock it off its perch. As we listened to several attempts to find our way out of the dilemma, I was struck by the enormity of both what we were saying and what it would take to actually pull this off. The enormity of the task is daunting indeed. The problem as discussed needs to be trimmed down. In actuality, Postmodernism has not and most likely will not rule the world in general or the academic world in particular. If one takes the APA as an illustration, most estimates lie in the range of 70-80% of the professional philosophers are not in fact postmodern by disposition. It would probably be similar in British universities. In as much as postmodernism is usually seen as hostile to religion/theology, it is quite clear that the majority of the worlds population takes seriously their religions, with all their accompanying meta-narratives and meta-ethical systems, which would militate against the influence of postmodernism. This is not to say that it has not had an impact, but rather to limit its framework to a much more modest influence. Outside of continental philosophical and humanities bastions, such as many French, German and United States universities, and of course the entire audience of MTV, postmodernism has had a limited reach. This does not diminish its effects on those who have received it with open arms, but it does simplify our class goal.

As the class sat judging each attempt to get out of the swamp, it was clear that there was a of criteria for what would constitute a valid move out. The people in the class who are sympathetic to postmodernism don’t seem to have any desire to move along, and the opponents don’t have a set criterion either. One could say that the class fits the Pomo paradigm, in that each tribal representative in the class is or would be resistant to any of the other paradigms achieving Meta status. If one thinks that meta-narratives are inherently evil or problematic, then it is unclear how one could convince them otherwise, especially since certain pomo themes seem to be “given” instead of argued. Colonialism is evil, tolerance is demanded and all must be included. But this is all problematic within the Pomo framework, as these claims have the status of meta-ethical claims, but not the religious or philosophic narratives to support them. These claims then have an emotional appeal to them, but it seems that they are merely operating on borrowed capital and should not have some epistemic privilege as one tries to determine a way out of Postmodernism.

Certain things are needed for a holistic approach to the issue. This does not mean that everyone will be happy with the criterion as established, but a potential meta-narrative must at least have some basic properties. First the potential candidate must have a basis in reality. It must “touch the ground” as it were. Most people, with the exception of a few particular strands of philosophies, think that they have knowledge from their perceptions and other basic “tools”, such as memory, rationality, and so on. Any candidate for Meta status which denies what seems so self-evidently true is never going to be taken seriously. If one were to claim that my computer is actually a pink cow, which only appears to the unenlightened eye as a computer, then most people will not take the candidate as a real option. More detail on this later. As unpopular among Pomo thinkers as it is, most people operate out of a correspondence view of truth. The cat is on the rug if and only if the cat is on the rug. Generally, people don’t seem to see the “wisdom” and “deeper nuances” of the attack on propositional truths, especially when the attacks seem to be given propositionally! A Madonna video several years ago illustrates the confusion here. With the screen full of dervishes whirling around, Madonna intones softly the words “words have no meanings – especially sentences”. One does not need years of training to see the problem here.

A second criterion is that of non-contradiction or internal coherence. Any candidate that is inconsistent in major ways within its own structure is going to be problematic for anyone to take seriously. If ones religion says to love the neighbor and eat the neighbor at the same time and with the same respect, then the candidate seems to be a non-starter. Unfortunately for many within the multicultural world the notion of cognitive dissonance is not seen as problematic anymore. For some thinkers, the holding of mutually exclusive thoughts is worn as a badge of honor, as an example of a “higher” or “deeper” truth. Others say that they are tired of the same old “western” logic of either/or and prefer the wisdom of the alleged “eastern” logic of both/and. But as one former Hindu writer puts it “even Hindus (speaking of Advaitists who deny the reality of the perceived world) look both ways before they cross the street! As much as people try to deny the rules of logic, they are bound by them. To deny the law of contradiction is just to illustrate it. The laws of logic do seem to be part of the “furniture” of the mind, in a Kantian sort of way.

A third criterion will be that of existential viability. By this I mean that a candidate must be livable and livable in such a way that gives value to the world and to its inhabitants. This can be quite controversial depending on how it is framed, but it seems evident that most people desire a framework, be it philosophical, political, religious or whatever, that values them and values the “creation”. One can always find counter-factuals on these claims, but it still seems to be self-evidently true. One of the observable strengths of the old meta-narratives was their ability to give, within the framework of the believers therein, a comprehensive meaning and value to life. Starting then from that point, it seems logical to point out that this is something that is deeply desired by people, hence the numerical “success” of the larger religions of the world, etc. One who argues that value in life can come through torturing others or beating the poor then become problematic. This can also extend to environmental concerns. Despoiling the earth, even on the anthropomorphic view, is problematic as it is a threat to the well-being of all. Another point within this criterion would be that of consistency or “rubber meets the roadness”. Too many points of view ask a person to sacrifice what they know to be true or false about this world, in favor of a “higher” or “more ultimate” level of reality, where the rules of this world don’t apply, rationally, physically and morally. Some narrative contenders ask their followers to act like this world is true, but deny that it is by insisting that this world is an illusion, dream, etc. The true world is “non-dual”, but of course we live in this dualistic one and for some reason not clear to the unenlightened majority of its inhabitants, the dualistic worlds rules must be followed, even though it is the unreal world. This type of narrative forces one into immediate cognitive dissonance to the point of intellectual hypocrisy with each breath.

There may be other valid criterion from which one could make a well-reasoned judgment as to which narrative should be considered worthy of being a meta-narrative. For the purposes of this paper, the criterion will be limited for the sake of expediency.

Does fallabalistic or modest foundationalism meets the first criteria? While foundationalism takes many lumps, deserved or not, from postmodern circles, its simple tenets are the basis that most people use and have found useful. Philosopher Robert Audi describes how knowledge is grounded in the following way:

“Each kind of belief is grounded in the source from which it arises. Our examples illustrate at least three important kinds of grounding. Consider my belief that there is a blue spruce before me. It is causally grounded in my experience of seeing the spruce because that experience produces the belief. It is justificationally grounded in that experience because the experience, or at least some element in the experience, justifies my holding the belief. And it is epistemically grounded in the experience because in virtue of that experience my belief constitutes knowledge that there is a blue spruce before me.” (Audi, Robert. 1988. Belief, Justification and Knowledge. Wadsworth Publishing Co. Belmont, WA p.5)

Notice that his definition includes seeing, experiences and knowledge, all woven in between and through and around each other. This is just a complicated way of saying what most people ordinary understand truth to be. If one sees a tree in front of then, then they are justified in saying and thinking that they have knowledge that there is a tree in front of them. This doesn’t seem controversial to most people, but as Wittgenstein points out repeatedly, nothing is so simple that some philosopher can’t muck it up. Now the point that many Pomo critics have made against the correspondence view is that this knowledge that was just exemplified has been described as “certain”. This certainty is seen as problematic in that it ruled out possibilities. Perhaps the tree is an illusion or hallucination. Perhaps it is only a dream. Perhaps it is merely a power grab by imperialistic left brained patriarchal Neanderthals who seek to colonize the world of peace loving plant life. Whatever possibility one chooses here, the Pomo critics insist that this certainty is rife with problems and therefore it is sheer hubris to claim to have certain knowledge about the tree. Perhaps some versions of foundationalism have suffered from that very hubris. This is the reason my view is called modest foundationalism. What I mean by this is that one can have knowledge in the way described above, but this knowledge is open to defeasibility. This means that if other facts can undermine the knowledge of the tree, then one must adjust their view accordingly. They might find out later that the tree was in fact a façade and thus their view of what they saw must be reconsidered. But it would take more facts – observations, reasoned arguments, etc, not less, to cause an adjustment of what can consider warranted true belief.

This argument is important because even though the Pomo critics want to deny certainty, as illustrated earlier, they seem to act as if they have if all the time. Most Pomos use science as if it was based on real knowledge. They don’t react with surprise if their car starts in the morning. But knowledge must be grounded on something, whether observation or analytic reasoning or something else which is itself grounded in experience or rational assessment. Mere intuition or kindly feelings do not ground anything. Mystical experiences are beyond validation through regular channels and are very problematic as a basis for knowledge. All knowledge claims must be verifiable in some way in order to be considered as justified. There are many possible ways to justify a knowledge claim and each way has differing criterion. Under normal conditions, scientific claims for knowledge must be repeatable and observable. Even in science however there are “singularities”, such as the birth of stars, etc, which are not observed or repeated but are considered true events because of inference to the best possible explanation or some argument like that. This knowledge may again be undermined, but it will take better evidence and or better arguments to do this. Other types of knowledge claims have different criterion. For example, historical claims must be observed or deduced from data, by someone somewhere, but usually are not repeatable. The very nature of history itself precludes repeatability. Does this somehow undermine historical claims as knowledge? I think that there is very little doubt as to the historicity of Abraham Lincoln, (although as the crop of holocaust revisionists might make one pause). The reasons that people give for believing that Lincoln lived are because of eyewitness accounts, photographs, and personal effects that are ascribed to him by witnesses. Now it is possible that all of this was fraudulently packaged to make one think that Lincoln lived, but there would have to be evidence to make this kind of case. This distinguishes historical facts from scientific facts, but most people seem to consider both types of knowledge claims as worthy of the title “knowledge”.

It must be clear that in both the cases of science and history, that later facts have come out which have upended the previous knowledge claims. In these cases it was not mystical intuition or feelings, drug binges or visitors from the Pleiades which caused the majority of people to see the new knowledge claims as true as opposed to the previous claims. Science rejected the notion of a universe full of “ether” but this was the result of additional observational information, not a chakra reading at the psychic fair. Critics of the Bible had to revise at least part of their charges when evidence was found for the Assyrian empire, something which had been previously denied. So in this sense all claims for knowledge are defeasible, in that later evidence can overthrow the claim with a superior one.

This view of modest foundationalism also has the benefit of dealing with one of the Pomos serious complaints; that of arrogance derived from certainty. We can still claim certainty for the knowledge we have, but there is always the possibility that it can be undermined. We also base this knowledge on real experience and real rationality, thereby eliminating all dubious claims. On a side note, while the Pomo is correct in critiquing the arrogant modern who claims to have all knowledge, or most knowledge with the rest on the way (the confident naturalist line), it is just as arrogant to claim that you have no “truth” and no one else does either (the Caputo line). Isn’t that just another all-encompassing knowledge claim? How can one possible argue that they know that no one has certain knowledge? They must appeal to sense perception or to an a-priori commitment and neither one justifies this statement.

So we are left with experience and rationality as sources for truth, and without getting into tremendous detail over Kant’s analysis of these points, I would argue that Kant went too far to make room for Hume’s tirade against miracles. Hume contradicts his own potential allowances for evidence that he would consider as applicable for miracles. After giving his own criterion for what kind of evidence for miracles, Hume then denies the whole possibility of miracles based on “the very nature of the thing”, in other words, an a-priori commitment to naturalism. Hume’s argument sets the stage for the extreme version of empiricism which culminates in logical positivism two centuries later, which many Pomos and non – Pomos alike find so disagreeable and contradictory. Because of Kant’s overreaction to the supposed force of Hume’s argument, faith and evidence and/or faith and reason have become enemies in so many circles. Since I am rejecting Hume’s argument and Kant’s overreaction, I am positing that there is in fact a rational and empirical basis to the Christian faith. This is part of what I want to explore in the next section.

I want to focus the theology section on the area of incarnational theology which I will call theophanics. A theophany is an appearance of God in the world in different ways. The burning bush speaking to Moses in one example of this phenomenon. By focusing on theophanics I hope to clear away the problems that arise within the loss of the signifier/signified connection so central to the Pomo complaint. When Christians say that God has appeared in the world, we generally mean that he has spoken to the world. In this way you can argue that appearance by God equals spoken by God. The arche theme of the Hebrew Bible is that God has spoken to people from the very beginning. God “walked” in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. God “spoke” from heaven to Noah. God “spoke” to Moses through the bush, and spoke to Pharaoh through Moses and the miracles. God appeared and spoke to the Patriarchs and through and to the Prophets He spoke to Israel as a nation. To the three in the fiery furnace, God appeared as a man with them. To the wandering Hebrews, God appeared as the Shekinah cloud. There are many more illustrations but it is clear that the writers of the Hebrew Bible believed that God was in constant communication/appearances with His people. These are generally not reported as mystically private events, and were witnessed in some cases by thousands of people. When God spoke/appeared to the people, He was not lost in some theological maze of abstract metaphysics; rather He was fully present, in the phenomenon and in the speech. He was not removed from the signified, because the signifier was fully present in the signified. There was not a one to two step removed road map to the eternal reality, but rather the creator of the eternal reality was fully present in the present reality. The respect the Hebrews showed for their scriptures made this very clear. God himself was somehow present in these words. Not ontologically in some pantheistic sense, but somehow very present at all times. This is where Derrida and the other Pomo writers have been correct about onto-theological theology. The full presence of God has not been present in writings that seem so detached from the awe and power of the omnipresent creator. But the Hebrew poets and prophets spoke of God as if He was in their face, literally at times, and as someone you could have a relationship with, not as some ultra-transcendent clock-winder. The transcendent unknowable God was Aristotle’s “Prime Mover”, so removed from us that it did not even realize the world had been created. This “god” was so surrounded by its own cloud of thoughts, that the idea of relationship and communion with people was not even possible. But the God of the Hebrew Bible was alive, and active and present in the world, thought separate ontologically from the world. He was involved with creatures that were created for the very purpose of relationship with God.

The New Testament has this same picture, but it is now even more intense. The writer to the Hebrews says that God, who had formerly spoken to his people through the law and prophets, had now been fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. God had “tabernacled” with us. Emmanuel – God with us. Jesus says to his disciples that when they had seen him, they had seen the Father. When asked if he would desert Jesus, Peter responds “where would we go, you have the words of life”. Paul describes the scriptures as inspired or “God-breathed”. In other words they are out of and full of the very presence of God himself. God is present in “the very act of signification” itself. In this sense theophanics is not completely separated from faith and works but neither is it tied to either directly. The reality of the incarnation was the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in relationship with his creations. No distant sliding signifier here. No absence without a trace here. Rather again the full presence was imminent in the person of Jesus. God had condescended to look like us, to speak like us, to hurt like us. He shared our pains and sufferings and was fully present in each possible way. Yet he was also different. He did not fail like we do, did not strike out like we do, and so his ethical presence was also fully present in his person. In the incarnation we see lived what Levinas meant by a first philosophy of ethics. Jesus spent more time talking on how people should treat each other than on any other singular subject. And this ethic was not part of some dream world or illusory experience, but rather the same ethics that applied in the eternal reality, are to be applied in the present reality. No cognitive dissonance required to live as God would have you live.

Just as importantly, these ethical commitments are based on freedom and real choices. By this I mean that unlike many candidates for Meta status, Christian ethics are based on the very nature of God himself. They are not arbitrary for God nor are they above God, but rather “flow” from who He is. Part of this is shown in that God made us in his image and that image has a moral essence. This moral essence (conscience) obliges us to care for the other. Here we see to what Levinas is referring. But what Levinas does not talk about (at least in his philosophical writings that we have read) is why it is that we find it so easy not to care for the other, and that it seems to be the exception to the rule that we do. Levinas missed out on an important part – what happens when we fail to treat others as we know we are ethically bound to? The New Testament picture of the atonement of Jesus for our failures/sins is a key addition here.

It is crucial to note that for both the ancient Hebrews and for the New Testament Hebrews, that the presence of the Lord was manifested publicly and privately. Their argument was not some esoteric, ineffable, Gnostic mystical experience available only to the enlightened, but rather was public, made available to believer and non-believer alike. Here even if I grant Hume’s argument as given, I would say that the Christian faith stands up to his standards as given, and does so in the same way that any other historical claim can stand up to further scrutiny. Contra Hume – people do make the claim that people have risen from the dead (the Christian churches main claim is that Jesus did rise from the dead and that this report comes from eyewitness accounts from believers and non believers) and contra Kierkegaard – you can base your faith on a historical event and none of the events in the Bible involve contradictions (such as God becoming man, etc). God being both a (God) and non-a (non God) at the same time and with the same respect, would be a contradiction, but this is not the Christian story at all.

As said earlier in this paper, the best way to deal with the Pomo issue is not to have gone that route in the first place. But this does not mean I am not interested in dealing with the important issues that postmodernism has raised. One issue already covered is the hubris connected with “certainty”. As argued earlier, it strikes me that it is just as arrogant to claim that no one has knowledge or capital T truth, as it is to claim that one has all knowledge and that with certainty. The modest fallabalistic position sits in between the two extremes. It offers that there is truth which can be discovered and known, and that some knowledge can be had with certainty. It does not suffer from the arrogance of the extreme Pomo claim or the positivist one. The Christian faith does include the possibility of defeasibility as well. The apostle Paul says that if Jesus has not risen from the dead, then we (Christians) are fools and liars as well. So if someone can give credible evidence for the non-resurrection of Jesus, such as his bones, etc, then Christianity would crumple around it. More could be said on this but that is for another paper.

Another complaint made by postmodernism is that of the exclusion of the other. As typically framed, this usually means that people of color, woman and third world people have been excluded from the table of opportunity, respect and honor. They have not been included in the intellectual mix at the university level either. Derrida uses the margins around the text to illustrate that which is not said, which is left out, and uses that to show how the marginalized of society have also been left “unsaid”. As we showed earlier, Pomo somehow counts certain ethical concerns as givens and privileged. The idea that all points of view should be tolerated and included comes out of certain philosophical and or theological camps and therefore cannot be considered as a given without argument. If there are no Meta narratives then there are accordingly no Meta ethics. If one starts with the lack of absolutes, then it is impossible to see how concern for “others” should be privileged over abuse for “others”. All one can really say is that our tribe or community thinks we should be inclusive, but since our view is only one of many, then we have no right to assume that others must take that point of view. In fact we should honor that community’s right to abuse “others” as an equally valid point of view in our relativistic tribal world.

Now I see ethical concerns as a real issue, and the Pomo view undermines its own valid concerns. The only way to make the issue of “others” a serious issue is to make a Meta-ethic which is sufficiently grounded and therefore justified and one which holds each community/tribe and each individual responsible for the care for the “other”. I offer the Christian faith as an example of how this can be done. The ethic is grounded in the very nature of God himself. It is the very nature of God to be loving, and the Bible asserts that each person is themselves created in the very image of God. God holds each person responsible for how they treat others. In the Hebrew Bible there is special attention paid to the care for the “stranger in their midst”, for the widows and orphans. This theme is repeated numerous times in the New Testament as well. As each person is made in the image of God, then each person is worthy of respect and concern from all others.

In conclusion, this appeal to Christianity is open to many questions, rebuttals and these are all fun arguments for further papers and discussion, which I invite. We have tried to limit the scope of the problem, set criterion for what would qualify as a way out, and argued that the Christian faith meets that criterion. I have tried to take the Pomo concerns seriously, and hopefully have offered some sense of dealing with those issues in a fair way. Obviously many people will view Christianity as hopelessly pre-modern or worse yet, modern, and yet many others might and have seen this as a very viable option.