Sunday, January 8, 2017

Three Cheers for Our Post-Factual Turn!


          One thing our post-factual age has made clear is that we do not live by the “facts” at all. No, we live rather by the stories that have and continue to shape our lives. We may not be aware of them. They seem to us to be just the way things are. The “facts” as we see them fit the contours these stories have already etched into our hearts, minds, and bodies. And it remains so until enough challenges to the truth and reality of those stories accumulate. Thomas Kuhn taught us that science progresses by following the accepted findings of the science of the time until enough “anomalies,” that is, experimental results that don’t accord with the accepted scientific findings, accumulate that make it impossible to accept the science of the times with intellectual honesty. And the paradigm of science changes taking on a new shape that becomes the reigning description of science until the next paradigm shift.

          Now that we no longer even pretend to live by “facts,” it will not be they that provoke a paradigm shift in our societal or individual ways of construing reality. Oh, at some point reality will impose itself in such a way that we will have to change or substantially modify our stories under its pressure. For instance, if climate change is true, generations not too far hence will be forced to accommodate how they understand the world under its crushing, even mortal press. Until then climate change remains a debating point for which “facts” can be marshalled for divergent points of view.

          A “modern” response, which most of us are still inclined to resort to in response to these kinds of issues, is to try and debate these “facts” and prove theirs and dispute the other side’s. As most of us know now, this approach seldom if ever accomplishes every much.

          Today, however, our post-factual turn might provoke us to a “post-modern” (if I may use the term) response. We might choose to hear the “facts” presented for a given perspective as thumbnail versions of longer stories that lie behind them rather than discrete, provable, “things” that either are or are not true. We might then respond by asking about what such “facts” mean to them, why they seem important, and what would we lose by coming to see things differently. We might then share the same things about why and how we see the world the way we do. Such an approach holds far more promise for building understanding and relationships through conversational story-telling than the so-called modern response.

          A couple of days ago I posted this on FB: If your worldview does not include the blessing and peaceful existence with all others, you should ask yourself why. You may need a new worldview. These are the kinds of questions we ought to hope to raise in our time. The post-factual turn has made this not only possible but almost inevitable. So lament the demise of the factual if we must, but let us also embrace the possibilities it opens for us. The most important voices in any culture are those of the story-tellers. Christians are God’s story-tellers and the impact of our witness will be measured by the paradigm shifts our story-telling provokes in both individuals and larger groupings in our culture.

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