Friday, November 22, 2013

‘Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe if It’s Not True’ (Book Review)

I’d like to begin saying that philosophy has never been my strength, which is unfortunate because one encounters it constantly when studying any and all of the arts and sciences. That makes a book like Stephen McAndrew’s Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe if It’s Not True (2012) a little tiresome to read and even more difficult to comment on. However, I was motivated by curiosity. Christian critiques of moral relativism have been made by countless preachers, authors, and laymen. Even filmmaker Brian Godawa made a short film Cruel Logic in an attempt to illustrate the inconsistencies of postmodernist thinking. I bought McAndrew’s book thinking that maybe this corporate lawyer and blogger had something unique to add to the discussion, but was sorely disappointed.

In Why It Doesn’t Matter, the author sets out to provide a foundation for reintroducing God into the arena of philosophical debate via the discussion on human rights. Starting off, McAndrew faults unbelievers for their inconsistency in rejecting the idea of universal standards when applied to their personal beliefs while simultaneously appealing to universal standards when condemning torture, genocide, and the like. This tactic is not new, and I’ve always felt a bit weak. The problem is non-believers’ appeal to some universal standard without citing a source for it, not their apparent inconsistency in applying that universal standard. Few of us are extremist Bill Gothardites, waiting for God to tell us which is the morally correct carpet color to choose, but does that make us inconsistent? Not really. We assume that there are non-moral realms over which our personal preferences reign supreme, and moral realms in which things are non-negotiable. I can attest that it is extremely frustrating to have a conversation with anyone – Christian or not – who categorizes things even slightly differently from me. However, arguing where to draw the line is an entirely different discussion that whether or not one even exists. I don’t think that McAndrew shows any understanding of the difference.

Another thing that bothered me was the glaring deficiency of sources. McAndrew tells us that he wants to examine the inconsistences between post-modernism and the idea of universal human rights. Unfortunately, Why It Doesn’t Matter lacks an in-depth analysis of the post-modern movement, failing to even mention the names of powerhouses* like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard. Yes, McAndrew does briefly discuss Richard Rorty; but his main target seems to be Ludwig Wittgenstein, a sort of father of logical positivism, with some additional comments on existentialist/modernist Jean-Paul Sartre. If I were sure of my own understanding of philosophy, I’d say that McAndrew (with all his reverence for Plato) has set out to challenge “modern era” philosophy in general for its anti-theistic stance rather than post-modernism specifically, as he claims.

To sum up, Why It Doesn’t Matter gives off the stench of an average undergraduate term paper, albeit somewhat longer. The thesis was unoriginal, and the sources minimal. I’m hard-pressed to call the book serious scholarship when McAndrew constantly resorts to the pitiful reductio ad Hitlerum and makes endless references to George Orwell’s 1984. And as if to prove he could do worse, McAndrew winds down his book with a chapter on art, arguing that beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder but intrinsic to the work. This claim leaves me uneasy. It is entirely due to my “social conditioning” that I find medieval paintings lacking depth, Eastern microtonal music a bit grating on the ears, and Shakespeare’s language rather old fashioned. However, I don
t doubt that others find these unquestioningly beautiful. It might have been McAndrew’s intent to disprove the validity of post-modernism; but with a finale like that, it should be quite clear to the reader why it rose in the first place.

* Yes, that was an attempt at irony.

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