Stanley Fish misunderstands science; makes it a faith equivalent to religion

Isn’t it time for Stanley Fish to hang it up as a writer of an “Opinionator” column at The New York Times? Whatever his erstwhile merits as a scholar of literature (and I’m sure there were some, though I can’t name them offhand), they’ve disappeared in the welter of curmudgeonly verbiage he dispenses at the Times.  He’s the Andy Rooney of postmodernism, except, unlike Rooney, what he has to say is always dumb.

In his latest piece, “Citing chapter and verse: which scripture is the right one?“, his beef is one with which we’re familiar: because we can’t justify the method of scientific inquiry by a priori logic, it is no more valid than methods of religious inquiry.

He begins by pretending he had a “gotcha” moment with Richard Dawkins, who, on the MSNBC show with Chris Hayes, made some statement that one could “actually cite chapter and verse” for some study of global warming published in 2008.  Just like those morons who hopped on Dawkins for saying “Oh God” when he had trouble remembering the full title of Darwin’s Origin, Fish leaps on “chapter and verse”:

With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.

The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had already made: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.

And here comes that dumb old argument, as if Fish had discovered it for the first time:

The argument is circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma. To be sure, those who stand with Dawkins and Pinker could also add that they believe in the chapter and verse of scientific inquiry for good reasons, and that would be true. But the reasons undergirding that belief are not independent of it.

Fish’s big mistake: the reasons undergirding that belief are not that we can engage in a lot of philosophical pilpul to justify using reason and evidence to find out stuff about the universe. Rather, the reasons are that it works: we actually can understand the universe using reason and evidence, and we know that because that method has helped us build computers and airplanes, go to the moon, cure diseases, improve crops, and so on.  All of us agree on these results.  We simply don’t need a philosophical justification, and I scorn philosophers who equate religion and science because we don’t produce one.  Religion doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of reality. Indeed, they can’t even demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that a deity exists at all!  The unanimity around evidence that antibiotics curse infections, that the earth goes around the sun, and that water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is not matched by any unamity of the faithful about what kind of deity there is, what he/she/it is like, or how he/she/it operates.  In what way has religion, which indeed aims to give us “understanding” has really produced any understanding? Fish goes on:

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Yes, but we get results that all sane people agree on, and that actually help us get further results that help us solve problems and figure out why things are they way they are. Note how weaselly Fish is here by using the word “act of faith” to apply to both science and religion.  Yes, it was originally an act of faith to assume that there was an external reality that could be comprehended by naturalistic processes, but it is no longer an act of faith: it is an act of confidence.  Our original “faith” has been justified by its results, and we no longer have “faith” in science the way people have “faith” in religion: we do not believe in the absence of evidence.  Moreover, our confidence is always tempered with doubt and a desire to go further, while in religion one surrenders oneself completely (at least, that’s what theologians like John Haught urge) in the complete absence of evidence.

Vary the assumptions (and it is impossible to not have any), begin by assuming a creating and sustaining God, and the force of quite other reasons will seem obvious and inescapable. As John Locke said in his Letter on Toleration, “Every church is orthodox to itself,” and every orthodoxy brings with it reasons, honored authorities, sacred texts and unassailable methods of verification.

It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it.

Well, Professor Fish, since science and religion rest on equally unjustifiable premises, do you operate on that conclusion?  When you get sick, do you go to a doctor or to a shaman or faith healer?  When you want to fly to one of your many conferences to preen in front of your colleagues, do you take an airplane or do you simply flap your arms and hope that faith teleports you there.  Are you typing on a computer?  Are you aware of the many ways that science works for you, and that that work is based on a succession of studies that trusted in reason and observation?  Are you aware that those sick people who put their lives in the hands of Jesus or Allah or Yahweh do not get better?

Fish’s column is all a way to diss science, and he sounds like a theologian when he does so.  Bah! Science isn’t epistemically grounded any better than is religion!  If I were to pschoanalyze Fish, I’d see him as intensely jealous of the progress of science compared to that in either religion or literary criticism (which goes nowhere) and, being so, tries to drag down science to the level of faith. It’s pretty clear here:

But the desire of classical liberals to think of themselves as above the fray, as facilitating inquiry rather than steering it in a favored direction, makes them unable to be content with just saying, You guys are wrong, we’re right, and we’re not going to listen to you or give you an even break. Instead they labor mightily to ground their judgments in impersonal standards and impartial procedures (there are none) so that they can pronounce their excommunications with clean hands and pure — non-partisan, and non-tribal — hearts.

Who the hell cares?  Science works, and only philosophers with too much time on their hands worry about justifying naturalism a priori. By its fruits shall ye know it.  I suspect that Fish, like all sane people, would prefer to live in a world in which science had developed but religion never did rather than a world in which the opposite obtained.

Perhaps some readers can enlighten me why we should really be deeply concerned about the lack of a priori philosophical grounding for scientific methods of inquiry.  Should we simply stop doing science until the philosophers discover how we can ground it?

121 Comments

  1. stevezara
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    “Perhaps some readers can enlighten me why we should really be deeply concerned about the lack of a priori philosophical grounding for scientific methods of inquiry. Should we simply stop doing science until the philosophers discover how we can ground it?”

    The way some philosophers and theologians describe things, one would imagine that every day, before putting on their lab coats, scientists have to put one hand on a copy of The Origin of Species and recite an oath to Naturalism.

    Such people have always got things backwards – science succeeds because it works, we don’t use science because of some particular philosophical approach to reality.

    I doubt such critics of science would hesitate to demand the use of reason and science in their defence if they found themselves prosecuted for a crime that they were innocent of.

    • lamacher
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      Faith based on evidence is one thing; faith based on revelation is entirely another – in fact, it is nothing.

      • Posted March 31, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Confidence founded on objective (empirically intersubjectively demonstrable) evidence is one mighty powerful thing which despite being fallible has an astonishingly successful historical track record for producing reliable knowledge of the physical world; “faith” based on [alleged] revelation is indeed another thing entirely, having NO historical track record for producing ANYthing that is demonstrably reliable.

        • derekw
          Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          One empirical test of faith-based revelation would be a proof of prophecy however the ‘verification’ often is the issue.

          • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

            ‘Er ya go!

            Except I’d say “…however the ‘verification’ has always been the fatal issue,” and then rest my case.

    • Tulse
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      Science indeed succeeds because it works, and it is reasonable to ask why that is the case. And that question is a matter for the philosophy of science.

      Believe it or not, most philosophers of science are strong proponents of science itself. There are relatively few who ascribe to po-mo sensibilities.

      • Dan L.
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Even the pomo ones are often pretty pro-science. Despite the fact that his postmodern arguments about the nature of science piss a lot of people off, Thomas Kuhn pretty frequently noted that science was the most effective means for discovering information about the world.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        Indeed: and the answer can be now regarded as a practical a priori (with the details filled in).

  2. Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    It always amuses me when someone on the internet writes how we don’t have good reason for favoring science as a way of knowing. They write that on the internet. Tapping the words into their computer, knowing they can read the same day anywhere in the world.

    • Jeremy Nel
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Indeed. That’s the hypocrisy in the “all intellectual positions are just faith positions” argument. I wonder whether Fish actually believes what he says. Surely not? If science is just as unjustified as the most egregious faith positions, does Fish then accept that the earth is flat, that the earth is round, that milk makes people fly, and it doesn’t, that he is a total idiot, that lightning is caused by babies farting in Japan, etc., etc..

      Skepticism about the very foundations of rationality is a dishonest method of muddying the waters that the British philosopher Stephen Law calls “going nuclear”, since it makes all argument useless. All positions become equally unjustifiable. He writes, “Indeed, those who employ this [argument] are usually quite content to rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument. It’s only when the tide of rationality turns against them that they reach for the nuclear button… Going nuclear is, in truth, almost always a ploy. Those who use it don’t usually believe what they’re saying about reason. They say it only to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape.”

      (Quotes from Believing Bullshit – an outstanding little book for dismantling anti-reason arguments.)

  3. Frank
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    The contrast between science and religion in terms of which one WORKS, I am fond of this 1890 quote from Ingersoll, who is largely forgotten as a pioneer of rational thinking:

    We have already compared the benefits of theology and science. When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins — they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day. Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of to-day — of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago.
    These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars — neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience — and for them all, man is indebted to man.
    Robert Green Ingersoll, God in the Constitution (1890)

    • lamacher
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Amen!!

    • ivo
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Beautiful! (And true.)

      • Smith Powell
        Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for that wonderful quote.

    • Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      And how much more true 122 years later?

      /@

  4. CJ
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I’m so tired of this shit. The Robert Wright’s of the world need to get off their high horse. The Stanley Fish types are liars, and they deserve nothing but ridicule and contempt.

  5. Cruella deVille
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    And Fish is LYING when he says that “The question [of which “scripture” to believe] did not arise in the discussion on Hayes’ show.

    It came up TWICE, and both times Richard answered that science has earned its reliability time and time again because it has demonstrated the efficacy of its method and results. Yes, we should be skeptical, but science has history of epistemological reliability, whereas religion has absolutely none.

    I’m ashamed–as always–to be in the same discipline with that pompous ass Fish.

  6. Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    “the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.”
    Sadly not according to this American Sociological Association item Sam Harris just tweeted

    http://www.asanet.org/press/conservatives_trust_has_fallen.cfm

    Fish is out of water and starting to pong. His argument sounds to me like it is about language. We all know that religion has nothing BUT ‘faith’, and ‘faith’ is empty of content – it is just a space that people fill with whatever crap they are acculturated to, in the absence of any understanding of the world based on accumulated knowledge, observation and experimentation.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Fish out of water…I see what you did there. Nice.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

        Perhaps a tad(pole) too obvious!

  7. DrBrydon
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Just more of the postmodernist project to relativize all epistimologies so that one can be free to ignore the one with the results one doesn’t like, and choose one that is nicer.

  8. Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I think there are two main objections to your position, which I and others have mentioned before. (As always, I’ll try to limit myself to this longer comment, but only a few responses per day, and only up to the thread depth limit.)

    (1) Tu quoque: The religionist will say, “Who cares about justifying religion? We know it works. We’ve saved souls all over the world, we’ve glorified God, we’ve made people’s relationships with God stronger, we’ve even revealed important truths about the existence and nature of God, which we’ve ‘verified’ with more religious experience or the Bible. [My favored religion] works.” They will claim to “verify” their religious experience or text with more religious experience or text, the way you “verify” scientific observation with more scientific observation, and if they restrict their claims to non-empirical ones that don’t conflict with a lot of other religions (e.g. vague stuff about the existence of a spiritual world), what could you say to criticize them?

    (2) Instrumentalism vs. realism: If science is about constructing self-consistent systems that verify or confirm themselves (circularly), then we know science is successful, yes. If, in contrast, science is about discovering knowledge, then it’s not successful without philosophy, because if there are highly questionable undefended assumptions in a theory, it’s difficult to see how that theory constitutes knowledge, right?

    (Overall, epistemic justification itself seems to be a normative concept, and observation only detects descriptive facts, so it shouldn’t surprise us that science cannot by itself explain why it is justified.)

    So should we stop using science? I don’t think so, because I think there are good philosophical arguments for the methods of science being more trustworthy than the methods of religion, and good philosophical arguments for induction.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      My response:

      1. Religion doesn’t work for all people the way science does. Islam doesn’t work for Christians, and vice versa. Science works for everyone. Religion claims to find “truth,” but they can’t agree on a “truth” or about what God is like, so what is the “understanding” that has arisen. And their “verification” doesn’t survive further empirical tests or make verifiable predictions. Nor does prayer or faith-healing work. And they DO NOT restrict their claims to non-empirical ones that don’t conflict with other religions. So I’ve just dispelled the myth that religion works, at least in the sense of bringing us closer to the truth about God and the universe which is, after all, what it claims to do.

      2. The scientists can deal with the problems of their theories; we don’t need philosophers to do that. Where is the “circularity” in predicting that birds evolved from dinosaurs and then verifying that with independent evidence? Science has discovered plenty of knowledge without philosophy: one piece is that water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms. Another is that metabolism involves a series of steps known as the Krebs cycle. Is that not “knowledge”? And you’re telling me we need philosophy for this? I’m not convinced.

      Your last statement: that the methods of science are better than those of religion, makes the whole need for philosophical justification unnecessary.

      • Posted March 31, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Jerry,

        Thanks as always for your reply. I’ll say a bit more today.

        (1) The Christian will say, ‘I’ve verified by religious experience that the other religions are false.’ And they can keep trying to explain away inconsistencies with observation by saying (e.g.) that God is testing us, that scientists are biased, or whatever. At that point I think we need to bring in extra-empirical criteria for theory choice.

        (2) I’m agreeing with you that all of those things are knowledge. What I’m denying is that they can be knowledge without an underlying philosophical justification. Again, justifying observation by more observation is circular, right? We all think the skeptic about observation is wrong, but how exactly do we respond to them without philosophy?

        Compare a position we might call ‘counter-empiricism,’ according to which all observation is unreliable. Can’t one “support” that position just as well circularly as one can support empiricism circularly? (The good old track record argument works perfectly now in inverse: counter-empiricism is reliable because we seem to observe empiricism working, and since observation is unreliable, we know empiricism doesn’t work.)

        I’m suggesting that we know through philosophy that the methods of science are better than those of religion; if we didn’t have philosophical argumentation, both would be equally justified because both would be based on undefended or circular assumptions.

        • Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

          Sorry but I just had to respond: Tom, there’s no such thing as skepticism in science. For any discipline there are steps to eliminate bias and assumptions, and if any are left we “subtract” the biased data to a certain extent, perfect the methods then repeat the experiment over and over.The resulting theory is free enough of bias to consider it the best current observation until more precise tools of measurement come along. There is zero philosophy in that.

          • Egbert
            Posted March 31, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            “Tom, there’s no such thing as skepticism in science”

            Such a strange comment. Science is scientific scepticism.

            • Posted March 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

              Not sure to what you’re referring, but I can guarantee you you’ll never see “skepticism” listed as a method in a published study. Skepticism is an emotion / philosophy, not a discipline.

              • Egbert
                Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

                amelie, with the greatest respect, you’re talking nonsense.

                Science is a philosophy, otherwise known as natural philosophy. It’s a practical philosophy and methodology where scepticism is central to that methodology.

            • Posted March 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

              Egbert, can you point to a single dictionary that defines MODERN use of the word science as a philosophy? No. It is defined as a branch of knowledge and a systematic way of understanding the natural world.

              Science has not been considered a philosophy since the 1800s.

              Skepticism is a **feeling**. When scientists conduct a study, they must leave their emotions at the door and follow methods to eliminate bias.

              Thanx.

              • Egbert
                Posted March 31, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                amelie,

                Please stop making stuff up, it’s embarrassing.

            • Posted March 31, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

              You’re right, Egbert. We should be posting links and evidence instead of rambling on.

              http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science

              (Google this: the impossibility of skepticism, MIT).

              Your turn.

              • Posted March 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

                Amelie, maybe I am misunderstanding what you are trying to say, but Egbert is right. Skepticism (in the ordinary sense of the word) is the essence of science as you define it in your comment (“a systematic way of understanding the natural world”). This systematic way of understanding the world requires skepticism about one’s own and others’ beliefs regarding how nature works. As Feynmann famously said, science is an objective method to keep us from fooling ourselves.

              • Egbert
                Posted March 31, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

                amelie,

                You will find out that I am right, if you did a little research.

                Scepticism was actually a philosophy practiced as far back as ancient Greece. It was hugely influential on Descartes, who is a key figure in modern philosophy and it is the default position in the scientific method, as well as in courts of law and any serious scientific field.

                Also, natural philosophy is what science was known as before the word ‘science’ was used. It’s the same thing, just called something different. Science is actually a philosophy. It’s sometimes called philosophical naturalism or scientific scepticism.

                Hope that helps.

              • Posted April 1, 2012 at 1:58 am | Permalink

                @ Egbert : Science is sometime called natural philosophy (eg, at least in my day, Glasgow uni styled it’s science degrees that way). Philosophical naturalism is much broader than science, but is somewhat foundational to it (more strictly, it is methological naturalism that is foundational).

                But I concur with you – and Lou – on scepticism. Scepticism is more than a feeling (to quote Tom Scholz).

                /@

              • Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

                *its (stupid error)

              • Dominic
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

                @Lou “As Feynmann famously said, science is an objective method to keep us from fooling ourselves.” But fooling ourselves is what we do best!

                http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/oct/07/deceit-self-deception-robert-trivers

            • Posted March 31, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

              Egbert, sorry but your information is about 200 years out of date. Please have links with evidence next time you respond.

              • Egbert
                Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:00 am | Permalink

                amelie,

                This is my last response. I’ve tried my best to inform you as politely as possible, and I suggest you do your own research and think for yourself. It’s not my job to do your own research.

            • Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

              Egbert, hilarious. Go ahead and join the Creationists’ and denier’s corner, they also refuse simple copy and pastes of links to provide evidence. Because they know they’re wrong.

        • Scientismist
          Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          ..‘counter-empiricism,’ according to which all observation is unreliable.

          So, this is in contrast to a doctrine of ‘empiricism’ in which all observation is reliable? Sorry, but both seem to be straw men. What we have is observation that is useful, because it is (thanks to repeated observation) believed to be neither absolutely reliable nor unreliable, but rather only probably (or sufficiently) reliable.

          I (and I think most working scientists) figure that the confidence we have in observation is not philosophical, but experiential. Observation started (evolutionarily) with the taxis of the first mobile cells. Those cells that adopted the philosophy that observation can be depended upon to be wrong (unreliable) would not find that philosophy to be confirmed by observation. Rather, they would find themselves unable to make further observations because they would be dead.

          Those who are bothered by the “circularity” of empirical epistemology need to study some biology. It might help them shed their hang-ups about absolute knowledge. Knowledge, like living things, evolves, and is never absolute. Neither is it the survival of the fittest: it is only the sufficiently fit.

          • Kevin Alexander
            Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

            Thank you, Scientismist.
            You’ve done a better job than I could explaining what’s wrong with empiricism.
            If I see a leprechaun out of the corner of my eye*, do I start believing in them?

            *and I do occasionally.

            • Scientismist
              Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

              You’d better, if you see them often enough, and then they start talking to you, and showing you where to find their pot of gold.

              Now, what is it you think is “wrong with empiricism?” I missed it.

          • Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

            Scientismist,

            It looks as if you’re admitting that the empirical argument for empiricism is circular.

            The worry many people have about circular arguments is not that they don’t bestow “absolute” knowledge; it’s that they don’t give us any justification at all. One way we can see this is the argument for counter-empiricism:
            (1) Observation seems to support empiricism.
            (2′) Observation is generally unreliable.
            (3′) Therefore, we should accept counter-empiricism.

            It’s no more and no less circular than the empirical argument for empiricism, so I don’t know how (with observation alone) anyone could decide between them.

            Even if you have a theory about under what conditions circular arguments do confer justification–I take it you don’t think they always do–I would suspect that such a theory would be fundamentally philosophical.

            • Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

              The rationalistic components of science (which are just as important as the empiricist ones) are being ignored here …

        • Anthony Paul
          Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          I simply do not get your argument that, as I understand you, relying on observation to confirm that hypotheses derived from observation are true is the same thing as circular reasoning. Were the two sides (science and anti-science) limited to reasoning without access to experimentation and actual physical evidence such as what you can obtain through scientific observation, I think your argument would make sense to me. However, the science side does not rely solely on argument but points to actual evidence. I would have thought that actual evidence takes the argument to another level unless the anti-science side wants to deny all of what science would deem to be reality. (If we go that far, can’t we just assume Stanley Fish does not actually exist?) This reminds me of the baseball story where the reporter asks the famous pitcher if a curve ball really curves or if it’s just an optical illusion. The pitcher responds “Stand over there behind that tree and I’ll whomp you to death with an optical illusion.” Perhaps I just don’t understand your argument. (And your counter-empiricism example did not help me at all.)

          • Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

            Anthony,

            I admit that the counter-empiricism argument isn’t completely clear as stated.

            The question for the supporters of science is:

            Why should we trust observation?

            If the answer is something like, we have observed observation to be reliable, that sounds pretty circular. It’s appealing to observation to justify observation.

            To see this, compare asking the counter-empiricist why we should not trust observation. They would say that observation seems to support observation, but since observation is unreliable, we should conclude that observation is unreliable after all. Isn’t that precisely analogous to, ‘Observation seems to support observation, and since observation is reliable, we should conclude that observation is reliable after all’?

            We still haven’t figured out, non-circularly, why the premise ‘observation is reliable’ is more justified than ‘observation is unreliable.’ Observation supports both of those premises equally, as the counter-empiricism example shows. It just depends on whether you start with the premise that observation is reliable.

            This is one of the problems with the Track Record Argument for science or empiricism, which I elaborate on here.

            • Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

              They would say that observation seems to support observation, but since observation is unreliable, we should conclude that observation is unreliable after all.

              Actually, that doesn’t follow. Even an unreliable observation may – if just by chance alone – lead to a correct conclusion. After all, a stopped clock is still right twice a day.

              The real answer to your challenge, of course, is simply that we have little choice but to trust observation to some extent. It’s all we have.

              Also, I would challenge a counter-empiricist to put their money where their mouth is and go through a day ignoring all observation. I doubt there will be many takers.

        • mmp
          Posted March 31, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          @Tom wrote: “What I’m denying is that they can be knowledge without an underlying philosophical justification. Again, justifying observation by more observation is circular, right? We all think the skeptic about observation is wrong, but how exactly do we respond to them without philosophy?”

          If I understood correctly, Tom thinks that responding to skepticism about observation is something that we need to do in order to show that our observations can be reliable. But maybe we simply *can’t* present an a priori argument against skepticism concerning observation (and that’s okay since our ability of presenting justifications has to come to an end eventually). But not being able to show that observations are reliable via an a priori argument doesn’t imply skepticism about observation is correct. It simply means that the project of justifying observation’s reliability in an a priori fashion is doomed to fail. We should simply move on.

          I also have a problem with Tom’s comment about circularity. Circularity depends on your aimed audience. If someone is a skeptic about observation, the evidence for natural selection preseneted at WEIT is circular, but not for someone that accepts that observations are reliable. Since I personally think that skepticism about observation is an uninteresting problem, I don’t think that Jerry’s response to Tom is circular. That is, the charge that Jerry’s comments are circular would only take off if he sees himself as replying to the skeptic (concerning observation). But he’s clearly not engaged in this philosophical project.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted March 31, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            I agree that observation breaks circularity, either directly by showing us something not already discovered or indirectly by being assumed as an independent basis for empiricism.

            However, the problem isn’t circularity. The problem is that circularity, according to philosophy, is something not useful. Yet empirical circularity shows that it isn’t only useful, it is desirable. It is what complete testing of a theory is striving for.

            [And then science strives to add observation, fail theory, or come up with better, more parsimonious, or more general theory. But that is another story.]

          • Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

            mmp,

            Good points. I’ll respond briefly, and try to get to any other people’s responses tomorrow.

            (1) If we had some other really good reason to think observation was reliable, then maybe our inability to justify it a priori wouldn’t need to bother us. But we don’t, and I think it is possible to justify observation a priori, but that would take us pretty far afield. And doesn’t it seem contrary to at least the spirit of science to say, ‘we can’t justify this belief; therefore, we don’t need to’?

            (2) I agree that question-begging in general is relative to the audience. I would also argue that we should be concerned about observation, if we want real knowledge about the world instead of a system based on undefended assumptions. But I think that in a sense, Jerry is entering the debate about the reliability of observation, because he’s entering the debate about whether science is on a stronger epistemological footing than religion. We all seem to agree that it is, but understanding why it would be, I think, takes some non-negligible philosophical work.

            Imagine, once again, the religionist challenging the scientist’s trust in observation: ‘Oh, you don’t worry about justifying observation? Okay, I won’t worry about justifying religion.’ Is that the position the atheist wants to be in, in the debate?

            • Dominic
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:02 am | Permalink

              If what you are saying – forgive me if I don’t have this right (pea brained)- is that observation is not reliable & that scepticism is key (?), do you or anyone else live life as if that is the case? It is surely a question of degree – a little scepticism is valuable for we have to question the world else we would never have discovered new tings about it. However too much means you will be forever saying that nothing is definite or certain, & in the latter case why then bother asking any questions if you will never draw conclusions?

              • Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

                Dominic,

                I actually do think that many things are certain, and that skepticism is wrong. What I want to emphasize here is that empirical observation alone cannot explain why.

                In order to have genuine knowledge about the world, we need some sort of a priori or fundamentally philosophical explanation of why we should trust observation, and why empirical observation is more trustworthy than, say, religious experience.

            • mmp
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

              @Tom: thanks for replying.

              You mention that you think that’s possible to have an a priory justification of the reliability of observation. Just out of curiosity, do you have any suggestion of a paper/book that provides a convincing a priori justification for observation? I’m asking that just because I find it doubtful that there can be such a justification. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that I cannot change my mind :).

              Another point you make is that you don’t buy the implication: “we can’t justify this belief; therefore, we don’t need to”. I don’t know. I think that this implication is correct. Let me explain what I have in mind. Roughly speaking, Godel’s theorem shows that we cannot justify mathematics using first-order logic; therefore, we should give up the project of justifying math using first-order logic. This implication seems correct to me. Likewise, my point was something like this: “we can’t justify observation in an a priori way; therefore, we don’t need to”.

              About the circularity issue, I’m still not convinced. Jerry is concerned with the reliability of *certain* observations. Therefore, nothing precludes him from using other observations to ground another set of observations. There is no circularity here. Put another way, both religious and non-religious are not skeptics about observation. Both sides agree that observations can be reliable. So, it seems to me that bringing the debate about skepticism about observation is changing the subject (that is, the issue is not why science is better off than religion anymore).

              • Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                Jerry is concerned with the reliability of *certain* observations. Therefore, nothing precludes him from using other observations to ground another set of observations.

                I think there may be something more powerful than this: That the TRA really hinges on science using observations to make predictions that can be tested by further observations, and, moreover, observations that can be made by another, independent observer ignorant of the expected observations.

                Substitute “revelation” for “observation” – can religion do this?

                /@

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I’ll go to the science portrait, which interests me here:

      If, in contrast, science is about discovering knowledge, then it’s not successful without philosophy, because if there are highly questionable undefended assumptions in a theory, it’s difficult to see how that theory constitutes knowledge, right?

      – You are assuming that there are assumptions needed to go from “instrumentalism” to realism. But you haven’t shown us any.

      – As it happens, realism is built into all of mechanics. It is doubtful it would work otherwise. We need to decsribe the existence and properties of an objective reality to describe observation in physics. The prediction is that “constrained reaction follows on constrained action”, more precisely that a specific set of pathways of reactions follows on a specific set of pathways of actions.

      In classical mechanics that is described as the action-reaction principle of Newton’s third law, in quantum mechanics it is describes as the observation-observables principle of observation, and in relativity it is further constrained with the light cone principle of causal observable systems.

      epistemic justification

      Okay, that is philosophy. I explain in a previous comment below why we don’t need that, in fact why the perceived need would mean we were doing something erroneous.

      induction

      Science isn’t even faithfully described by that, we don’t use each and every data and more famously we don’t use their historical trends to form observation or laws.

      And it is easy to see why it is empirically wrong. Assuming a deviating enough observation always can happen, it would predict, assuming induction as a law, that induction to a law fails.

      In reality, statistics have no problem with such observations, say if they have sufficiently small statistical mass. However the induction principle is supposed to be the basis for statistics. Philosophy, hoist by its own petard.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        Torbjörn,

        Thanks for your comments. I’ll try to sort them into some main points.

        (1) There are two kinds of realism-instrumentalism debates: about ontology and about epistemology. I’m suggesting that realism about the epistemological side of science–the view that science is actually giving us knowledge about an objective reality–needs to have a non-circular answer to the question of why we should trust observation.

        If you’re suggesting science doesn’t need epistemic justification, then religionists will not be epistemically wrong to reject science. That’s not a position many scientists or atheists would want to take. Indeed, in my experience, if you ask them why one should not be a Christian, they’ll say one reason is that Christianity isn’t epistemically justified.

        (2) I’ve never encountered someone who thinks science doesn’t use induction. As an example, let’s take a major scientific theory, say, the more-or-less Darwinian theory of evolution. Doesn’t that induce that since many organisms were created by descent from similar organisms, all the rest of the present-day organisms are that way, too?

        Overall, I don’t yet understand why if the scientist says, ‘Science doesn’t need an overall justification,’ the religionist can’t say the same thing about religion.

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          “Induction” is often used in a sloppy sense to mean anything other than strict deduction. This is misleading, as there are several distinct other possibilities. Arguably, the most important scientific inference mechanism is something like “abduction” or “inference to the best explanation” (which are not necessarily synonymous).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Also, on induction I should add that one should be careful to adopt the nonfunctional and repugnant vestments of religion. “Metaphysics”, “epistomology”, “induction” et cetera is, AFAIK, from the beginning theological concepts that have been adopted by a larger crowd:

      “Metaphysics shows the latter alone to be analysable, and separates the subjective element, our apprehension, from the objective element, the perception of matter; not matter per se, but the perception of matter is the existence independent of the individuals thought. It cannot, however, be independent of thought. It must belong to some mind, and is therefore the property of the Divine Mind. There, he thinks, is an indestructible foundation for the a priori argument for the existence of God.”

      Enthusiastically adopted by the 19th century clergy fighting evolution, I think.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Metaphysics is the study of the most general features of reality; this can be science-aligned (as in the work of David Armstrong, Mario Bunge, etc.)

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Instrumentalism vs. realism: If science is about constructing self-consistent systems that verify or confirm themselves (circularly), then we know science is successful, yes. If, in contrast, science is about discovering knowledge, then it’s not successful without philosophy, because if there are highly questionable undefended assumptions in a theory, it’s difficult to see how that theory constitutes knowledge, right?

      1. Science is not a “self-consistent system that verifies itself circularly.” Science contains many different systems, some of which aren’t internally consistent in the first place; even those that are internally consistent are inconsistent with other systems or with evidence (more on evidence below). Science progresses by smoothing out these inconsistencies.
      2. You contrast “discovering knowledge” with your (incorrect) description of science. Why do you think there’s a contrast to be made? After I’ve read a book I know what that book says. I’ve learned something, even if it’s completely trivial – or even if the content of the book is false (I’ve still learned what the book says). Do I need a philosopher to help me make any of this happen? No, knowledge happens whether or not there’s a philosopher around to justify it. And in fact it works the exact same way that science does (with more confirmation bias and on a shorter time scale).
      3. You’re wrong about theories with “questionable undefended assumptions” not constituting knowledge. If such a theory makes successful predictions then that theory certainly does constitute knowledge. Knowledge of the predictions if nothing else, right? But we actually have a real-world example of this. See here. There’s a bit of a rumble going on in philosophy of physics because the less philosophically rigorous formulation of quantum field theory has apparently been the more productive scientific theory.

      By the way, one of the consequences of (1) is that scientific epistemology is not circular as you seem to be arguing. If all of science were one huge internally consistent theory as you seem to imply in your (2) it would be circular, but since it consists of many independent systems which are tested where the systems rub together this is not the case. For example, astronomy depends on observations by telescope; but the design of the telescope does not itself depend on astronomy (that would indeed be circular). Instead, the design of a telescope depends on optics. Demonstrating the principles of optics requires some observation theory or other — but not optics. If it did, that would be circular. But that’s not how science works. Etc, etc.

      Have you ever done the “trust exercise” where everyone gets in a circle, each facing the next person’s back and then everyone sits down at the same time? The whole circle supports its own weight, everyone sits in each other’s laps at once with no one sitting on the ground. You’re arguing in essence that there has to be SOMEONE sitting on the ground at the bottom but a little imagination might convince you otherwise.

  9. Egbert
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Fish seems to be basically calling everyone a hypocrite, by doing a bit of hucksterism.

    Equality and fairness does not apply from the realm of politics and liberalism to that of epistemology, and so that was a fishy piece of trickery. I don’t treat a piece of text the same as a person or a group, neither do I treat persons or groups as pieces of texts.

    If I condemn a religious person to being treated unequally or unfairly by the state, only then would I be a hypocritical liberal.

  10. Kevin Alexander
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    If your chapter and verse says that there is a teapot orbiting the other side of the sun and mine says there’s one in my kitchen then I win because I can prove it.

  11. Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    So, if a priori is an ignorant basis for your epistemology, why haven’t evolutionists evolved past to a better one in the last 1,000 years?

    I thought evolution was easy? For it to work, we should see several thousand new species every year.

    That’s right, my eyes are closed, you actually see all those new species ….

    Wayne
    PS. get ready for the peanut gallery to respond.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      ?

    • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      I thought evolution was easy? For it to work, we should see several thousand new species every year.

      You just demonstrated that for all its apparent simplicity, the basic ideas about evolution are probably not that easy for you.

      • Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Really?

        Natural selection removes 3 to 5 thousand species each year …. where are the replacements?

        They had to get here in the first place?

        Or, do you believe the a priori miracle of life creation and new species was just for a period of time?

        One million years? Or one day?

        Wayne

        • Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          I’m not sure if you’re joking or not Wayne, but evolution of one species to another takes thousands if not tens of thousands of years. Now, depending on degrees, you may see new subspecies announced in our lifetime, but that depends on the level of genetic variation upon which the standard is based.

          • Dominic
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:04 am | Permalink

            He won’t listen Amelie.

        • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
          Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Natural selection removes 3 to 5 thousand species each year.

          Citation needed.

          New species are created all the time, and this phenomenon has been observed even in the lab. As for in the wild, did you ever hear of drug resistant strains, for example? Our host here is, among other things, an expert on Drosophila (if I recall correctly), and speciation in that family has also been demonstrated in the lab.

          What you suggest: the sudden appearance of a large number of very different species from those existing in a small time frame (a year!): would probably be an argument against current theories of evolution, not for it.

          • Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            Simple, evolution is not.

            As for forced speciation? Doesn’t that require an intelligent life form?

            And as for the so-called drug resistant ‘species’ in the ‘wild’ aren’t most of those associated with AID’s patients. Guinea pigs turned loose on the wild?

            As for documentation? Where is yours? Fair play …. fair play.

            As for mine, mine was really easy if you understood speciation. But, you will find “Extinction” by Raup to handle the subject rather well.

            Now? Tell me why I am doing your research for you?

            Wayne

            • Kevin Alexander
              Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

              “As for forced speciation? Doesn’t that require an intelligent life form?”

              No. Much speciation is forced by the environment. The failure to do that is extinction.

              Wayne, if you want to misunderstand another book than the one you ‘researched’ try ‘On the Origin of Species’ by that Darwin fellow.

              • Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                I did …. funny thing.

                He wrote that God did it.
                ;)

                Ironic isn’t it.

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

                Where precisely does Darwin say that “God did it”? Please don’t quote that solitary addendum in later editions about the creator breathing life into one or a few forms.

              • Kevin Alexander
                Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                “He wrote that God did it”

                It would be ironic if that’s what he said.

                What he actually said was that he was ignorant of how it started. His theory only explained how it moved along.

            • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
              Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

              And as for the so-called drug resistant ‘species’ in the ‘wild’ aren’t most of those associated with AID’s patients.

              Nope. Drug resistance does not require AIDS. Drug resistant tuberculosis has emerged as a major threat recently, for example.

              As for forced speciation? Doesn’t that require an intelligent life form?

              Ah. “Forced” speciation. Did you notice that they were not doing artificial selection? What these experiments demonstrate is that contrary to the canard that “speciation has never been demonstrated”, speciation can be demonstrated even in the lab.

              As for mine, mine was really easy if you understood speciation. But, you will find “Extinction” by Raup to handle the subject rather well.

              No, I do not claim to be an expert on speciation (I don’t do my research on speciation, for example). Neither did I ask for a reference on speciation. I just pointed out that your idea that somehow current theories of evolution imply that thousands of species should be springing up every year is wrong, and so is your (implied) claim that speciation doesn’t occur at all.

              And since you don’t seem to be above a few off topic digs,

              why haven’t evolutionists evolved past to a better one in the last 1,000 years?

              In fact, we have. From the epistemology of “this book says this man rose from the dead so he must have risen from the dead.” to “If I have to believe this this man rose from the dead, I better have more evidence than a rag-tag collection of stories.”

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

                By the way, just to make things clear when I say “I don’t do my research on speciation, for example” what I mean is that speciation research is not my profession.

            • Dominic
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:15 am | Permalink

              No serious person who understands even a little about evolution denies the importance of extinction. I have read Raup’s book. There are different interpretations of the science because science is like that – open to evidence. As far as I am concerned natural selection means exactly what it says – the natural world does the selecting. Chance events are natural events, whether climate change or seismic activity etc. Of course as far as religious nutters are concerned there is no way that you can accept that there has been time for evolution to take place because their god is a LIAR who has made the earth seem old to fool gullible palaeontologists & geologists who know FAR more about it than you do.

              • Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                Oh Dominic,

                God did not lie. That is a cheap ad hominem.

                As for the age of the Earth. I do not know how old it is. I know that Cosmological Science points towards about 12.7 bya.

                I am comfortable with that if it is the age.

                Unlike most people in this discussion, I don’t need straw men to defend my position. When I don’t know, I will tell you so.

                It has been my experience that people who resort to ad hominems and often those who hate God were seriously hurt by someone in their childhood.

                I don’t know what happened to you. But, ‘Science’ is seldom more accurate than the Bible. As an intellectual, I began to notice it was a really well written book.

                “On the origin of species” and Raup’s book, “Extinction,” are well written. But, there are many more ‘Science’ books BADLY written.

                There are fewer ‘mistakes’ in the Bible, than there are in almost any modern text. And comparing typos in a 2,000 to 3,500 year old collection of books to a computer typeset document written by evolved geniuses should be PERFECT.

                We talk around the elephant in the room every day. But, the reality is Genesis recorded what modern Scientists are only NOW able to understand.

                IMHO.

                Then again, I actually am open to what I read.

                Even, and especially, Darwin.

                wayne

              • Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

                “comparing typos”? Riiiiight…

                /@

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Oh, how precious, a creationist commenting on science! And he calls the present scientists concerned about science being mislabeled as religion “the [heckling] peanut gallery”.

      There must be a serious LOLcat for this… Oh, hai!

  12. अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    The level of insight in Fish’s article seems below the par even for a high-school writing assignment.

    • Neil
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Insight isn’t Fish’s specialty. Obfuscation is.

  13. Jim
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    At the risk of being trivial, I did like the possibly Freudian slip of…

    “The unanimity around evidence that antibiotics curse infections”

    …O Infection, I doth Curse thee…. :-)

  14. Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Oh yeah, someone used this argument with me recently; specifically that religion “discovered” most scientific truth before actual scientists did. Idiotic; it was not religion that discovered anything, but rather people who discovered it and just happened to be religious because so many people were at the time. They’re conveniently ignoring the difference between a hypothesis vs a body of work.

    • eric
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Frankly, that’s even worse! The standard claim that science discovered the cure for the black plague makes religion seem bad at doing medicine. Which, honestly, is not that big a deal. But claiming that religion did all the heavy lifting in the discovery but then did nothing with it makes religion out to be pure evil.

  15. Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    The postmodern relativist wakes up, cooks a breakfast of pasteurized eggs, takes his dose of amoxicillin (he’s recovering from a streptococcus infection), converses via Skype with his family on the other side of the country, watches a news story about the International Space Station, and writes an article proposing that there’s really no good reason to rely on science over any other “way of knowing.”

    With a self-satisfied smirk, he submits the article to his editors via email.

    What hypocrisy.

  16. Scientismist
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Rather, the reasons are that it works: we actually can understand the universe using reason and evidence, and we know that because that method has helped us build computers and airplanes, go to the moon, cure diseases, improve crops, and so on. All of us agree on these results. We simply don’t need a philosophical justification, and I scorn philosophers who equate religion and science because we don’t produce one.

    A lab assistant for whom I had written a recommendation when he applied to grad school in material science wrote me a letter of thanks after his first semester, mentioning that in his first course he had learned, as he put it, more about the physical science of how a semiconductor works than you would ever want to know about your transistor radio (this was before the PC). Yes, we have “faith” that the radio (and the computer) work for good physical reasons, and we don’t need to think of those reasons and invoke them like a magic spell every time we read a post, to convince ourselves that we are not just halucinating that this technology actually connects us to other real people.

    For a working scientist, it is enough that we are 99.99..% certain that, if we wanted to take that material sciences course, we could understand that bit just as well as we understand what we work on daily. The non-scientist, I fear, thinks of it all as a form of magic, and that antibiotics really do “curse infections” (oops — Jerry’s typo, or Freudian slip?) in order to cure them. How can all of this “work” without the envigilation of some intelligent mind? If science “works”, it could only be because the scientists have built it up from fundamental (foundational) knowledge, attempting to mimic the cosmic mind that designed it all. When the public, as non-scientists, learn from the philosophers (or their clergyman) that scientists don’t even have a bullet-proof foundation for scientific induction, and that science is just built on what appears to be more probable, they see that as an admission that it is all just 50-50, flip of a coin, and a matter of which faith you want to follow.

    We really need more than just scorn for the philosophers who equate science and religion. We need to help non-scientists overcome this false vision the foundationalists have spun of science as a house of cards that needs a firm foundation in an untestable and unexamined faith. Jerry is right, science is is not an act of faith, but of (well-earned) confidence.

    Perhaps some readers can enlighten me why we should really be deeply concerned about the lack of a priori philosophical grounding for scientific methods of inquiry. Should we simply stop doing science until the philosophers discover how we can ground it?

    For me, the answer has always been in Bayesian reasoning. The “assumptions” that Fish thinks are foundational, are actually prior “beliefs” that are always possible to change — and indeed, must be allowed to change, if we are doing it right. Fish is right that it is impossible to proceed without a prior, but he is dead wrong about it being an unchangable assumption. Back when I was in grad school in the 60’s I “discovered” Bayesian reasoning for myself in puzzling over a genetics problem for which I thought the text had the wrong answer. Then, when I read Jaques Monod’s “Chance and Necessity,” it bothered me that he talked about “the postulate of objectivity,” the “assumption” (as he thought of it) that the universe was not conscious, and not out to fool us (as it seems religion would have it). I preferred to think of it as a working theory rather than as a firm postulate. Like Jerry, I say if someone shows me good evidence that a God has thought it all out and has a plan for us all, then I’ll modify my prior belief that the universe is material and naturalistic. Until then, that’s my working theory.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Bayesian reasoning seems to be a way of betting. Which is great if we can test it, it conforms with likelihoods now and then.

      So again I don’t think there is any “a priori” here. Working theory sounds about right.

      And I think it has shown it has good uses, in biology and cosmology for example. But if we put everything, all data, in the bayesian melting pot we would not be able to extract laws and their parameters. At that point it defaults to GIGO.

      Which, comes to think of it, is a law of sorts. Nuts! =D

      • Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        A working theory that is continuously validated by the fact that science works. But how would you falsify it?

        That science works doesn’t preclude any other way of knowing from working. But what is the evidence that validates this? (Or could?)

        /@

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          Science also teaches us (via psychology, for example) what processes work in us when we learn, inquire, and so on. This study is in its infancy, to be sure, but we can nevertheless confidently state that “paranormal” means of such are extremely (to say the least) unlikely.

          What is even more embryonic, because in part the pomo sociologists have largely ruined the field, is the study of what social processes also work well for knowledge acquisition. For example, it would be nice to how division of intellectual labour should be optimized, etc.

  17. Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Furthermore, what point are Fish and his Francophony Friends making? They are engaged only in trying to tear down science. If they think we can or should accomplish anything in this world, by what other means do they propose we do it? I don’t see how we could ever accomplish anything if we really were living in a Salvador Dali painting, as they seem to assert.

    Postmodernism is a childish philosophy. I think it’s a sort of “apotheosis” of 3 things:
    1) intellectual laziness
    2) naïve egalitarianism
    3) affinity for the perverse – in that, often, that which is counter-intuitive (or even counter-evidential) is automatically profound.

  18. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    That’s it. You are fully ready to write : Why religion isn’t true.

  19. Roz
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ve come to the conclusion that some people are intellectually deficient and unable to grasp the concepts necessary to debunk religious beliefs.

  20. Roz
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Also, while they need to be put in their place, we shouldn’t use hate speech against them any more than we would against special needs people.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      In the spirit of that
      , Roz, I wish you a nice day.

    • Posted March 31, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      You do mean to say that we shouldn’t use hate speech in general, correct?

      I don’t see any hate speech here. I see a lot of engagement with the ideas themselves, sometimes with reference to the holder of those ideas (i. e., Fish).

      • Roz
        Posted March 31, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        Don’t mind me, that was just my attempt at a joke falling flat. No, I haven’t seen any hate speech on this thread.

        Regarding Fish, I have a creationist family member who sees things the way Fish does; that faith in religion is just the same as belief in science, and it’s really down to what you choose to believe.

        I tried to illustrate the difference with an analogy; Imagine you have 2 separate jigsaw puzzles. One has 99% of the pieces, and the other has a jumble of pieces that all appear to be from different pictures. Imagine you’ve complete both puzzles. The first puzzle you can easily identify as the Grand Canyon, despite a few pieces being missing. The second puzzle looks like, well, cobbled together pieces from a bunch of different puzzles. If you look at it from a distance without inspecting too closely, it may look like something you can recognize, but you have to really use your imagination. Now, is it true that it requires the same faith to say both puzzles are the Grand Canyon?

        For me it’s a real puzzle as to why he feels the way he does (my family member) as he was indoctrinated into a fundie religion from infancy, just as I was, and yet we have such opposing views. So I’ve no idea whether it’s down to attitude or intellect.

        As for Fish, when I read what he said about Dawkins referring to ‘chapter and verse’… well that’s just plain ol’ dumb.

        P.s I love what you said about the post-modernist relativist..I’m going to use that

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps some readers can enlighten me why we should really be deeply concerned about the lack of a priori philosophical grounding for scientific methods of inquiry.

    Not at all, I would say that if we were to have been using assumptions “oe doin it rong”.

    It is true that when science started out people had to prop up both their expectations and their hypotheses with a lot of extraneous baggage. But as time went by these things, like familiar systems in biology, turned out to be unoptimized (faulty), unnecessary or simply temporary scaffolds.

    Nowadays The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood. (Oh noes! That article again!) That state was not acheived by any of the familiar philosophical descriptions of science, but by testing (which we now know how it works, since Fisher I believe) and by a finite process of elimination (which we are far less assured why and how it did work).

    A maxim for what happened is epithomized in a near enough correct form by the famous quote of a fictionalized empiricist: “You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” ” [“The Sign of the Four”; Arthur Conan Doyle.]

    So as in anything empirical we can not expect to find out how a system such as science works “a priori”.

    That we could was the mistaken belief of philosophers, because they could not come up with a better idea while still doing philosophy. And their massive failure in explaining science, even in faithfully enough describing it to be recognizable (say “inductionism”, pitiful), shows that it is all philosophistry.

    What we could do is, and I have been saying this before here so excuse me for the tedious repetition: to found a “science of science”. Statistical testing would be at its basis, measurement theory is useful to predict accuracy and precision, but we would really need work on how we Completely Understood The Physics of Everyday Life.

    What method wouldn’t be helped by understanding and possibly improving on how it works? Even if it looks as complex as biology? Biologists found out a theory for biology. Why would we expect science to be any different, seeing how the same elements and patterns keep coming back!?

  22. addicted4444
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Okay, the first rule of arguing like Stanley Fish does, is that if you want to argue that Science = Religion, you need to stop typing your argument on a computer, on the internet, but instead pray that your argument appears on these blogs/comments.

    Until you get that religion based method of getting your point across to work, your argument that Science = Religion has 0 merit.

  23. Sastra
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    “It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you.”

    Fish here is dealing with the question of where an individual decides to put his trust. Once you decide an authority is satisfactory by your standards (whatever your standards may be), then you (and people like you) may happily circle round and round confirming everything by the original authority — which, when you get right down to it, turns out to be — oh what a surprise — you.

    Science is instead a search for consensus, an attempt to discover common truths or approximations of truth through eliminating subjective bias as much as possible and using methods capable of convincing people who are not already convinced, not already in the tribe — and not already you. You replace “you” with a universal “we” — and then we proceed together.

    Fish is talking about private knowledge, the “truths” of the tribe; science will build up public knowledge, which extends beyond the individual and his or her tribe.

  24. tyrone slothrop
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Andy Rooney was a racist. Stanley Fish may be many things, but he is not a racist. I prefer Stanley Fish over the racist Rooney any day.

    • Daniel Lafave
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      Andy Rooney never acted as if he was a competent commentator on fields which he didn’t understand. Fish is a literary theorist who suffers from the delusion that he knows something about science and philosophy. He doesn’t. His enormous ego makes him exhibit the Dunning-Kruger Effect every time he puts pen to paper.

  25. Posted March 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    It’s amazing that people can make these arguments while using computers to do so. One cannot complain about the unreasonableness of science on the internet without using the fruits of scientific inquiry. If it was really no better, then don’t use it.

  26. Pray Hard
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Wingnuts live in fear. Science undermines their fragile beliefs and faith and they become more afraid. By attacking science and scientists, they attempt to ease their fear. But, the alleviation of their fear is very temporary and has to be fed by regular attacks on their “enemies”. They think that by getting more attention, challenging science/scientists, equivocation of science and religion, etc., that they will eventually become more “right” than their enemies and “win” and will, therefore, be more safe. They get that big dose of fear and self loathing every Sunday. It’s rather sad.

    • Roz
      Posted March 31, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      They so do live in fear, with a large dollop of guilt. That’s why it’s so damn liberating to learn the truth! All that emotional baggage – gone!

  27. Daniel Lafave
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know of any philosophers who think that science doesn’t lead to knowledge, or that scientists need to wait around to find out whether science is a successful epistemic enterprise. As you note, Fish is a literary theorist not a philosopher and his tremendous ego makes him feel confident commenting on many things he doesn’t understand. It’s a misconception of the goals of epistemology and philosophy of science to think that philosophers are looking for principles to ground science and justify it (a priori or otherwise). Science is a successful epistemic enterprise both before and after any epistemologists say anything about it. A bird is just as good at being a bird before and after an ornithologist says anything about the bird. As people who try to understand our world, I thought that people might want to better understand why science is a successful epistemic enterprise. Giving those accounts doesn’t justify science (since it already is!), but it might help us better understand why science makes epistemically justified claims and non-science (pseudoscience and religion) doesn’t.

  28. Posted March 31, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    @Lou, well, I know what you’re saying, but for example – let’s say I am testing my cat for feline leukemia. Maybe I hope he does not have the disease. Maybe I even believe that leukemia does not exist. None of that will change the blood test results. You see what I mean? If the assay test was done right, it will either be positive or negative. No matter how skeptical or “faithful” I am, that will not change the test results. Because it’s science. It only needs to be done right.

    • Posted April 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      Amelie, we are discussing different levels. Submitting to a blood test is not “doing science”. Developing the blood test in the first place is really doing science. And getting it right depends on being careful and skeptical about one’s own ideas about how to design blood tests.

      • Posted April 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        Lou, okay, let’s take one step back. Read this defenition of skeptical (and feel free to offer a different source if you don’t like this one).

        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/skeptical

        Now read this

        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/doubt

        Clearly this is wrong. Have you ever conducted a study? You don’t stand there filled with doubt. You do your homework, earn your degree, use your knowledge and as you said, proceed carefully. You do every step right.

        Doubt is an emotion. You don’t need to be filled with emotion to do proper science.

        Now, the other defenition is to question religion. Well, yeah, but hopefully you don’t stand there in the lab questioning religion while someone is paying you to develop a blood test. You should be finished with those issues before you accept a job as a scientist.

  29. Roz
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    After fully reading Fish’s article, I’ve decided I’m going to email him and ask him to hear my voice and give my beliefs a chance; that the surname Fish originated from a group of people with brains the size of fish.

  30. adam
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    “I suspect that Fish, like all sane people, would prefer to live in a world in which science had developed but religion never did rather than a world in which the opposite obtained.” (LOL.. actually both worlds could be equally miserable)

  31. couclar
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    As Lafave notes, Fish is not a philosopher but a literary theorist who came out of an English department. It’s a bit unhelpful to hear people confuse what Fish is doing with philosophy. There are many philosophers who contributed to science and are quite supportive of it. Do I have to mention that Descartes invented analytic geometry, Leibniz (with Newton) invented calculus, William of Ockham made Ockham’s razor, David Hume contributed to empiricism, Russell created modern mathematical logic and wrote many books in favor on science, Popper invented falsificationism, and Dennett writes on Darwin. This is not to mention the whole school of logical positivism (Ayer, Schlick, Carnap) who defended the verificationist view of knowledge and meaning and which seems to be the preferred view among members of this blog. There is a long tradition of philosophers who are supportive of science and trying to understand it better in the context of wider issues in society, and they should not be confused with others who are critics of science. Can’t we just all get along?

  32. Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’m not writing to defend Fish’s article, which is indefensible, and which you take down quite effectively. But I do want to raise an objection to an offhand comment, to wit, “the progress of science compared to that in either religion or literary criticism (which goes nowhere).” I’m a skeptic and a PhD student in English literature, and I feel compelled to take up the cudgel and defend my chosen discipline.

    First, literary criticism, and the humanities in general, are essential disciplines in discovering what it means to be human. We are not rational creatures—that humans are able to engage in rational thought at all is pretty amazing—and to fully understand humanity we have to engage with the irrational and the emotional as well as with the cognitive and the biological. The humanities and the natural sciences, when all is working well in the academy, complement one another. It is true that the methods used in the humanities will rarely result in a definitive answer to questions as is possible in the natural sciences. The degree of uncertainty and provisionality we must assign to our conclusions is greater, but we can still come to conclusions.

    And the discipline does progress. While it is true that English departments are one of the last bastions where Freudian theory is uncritically accepted, those that actually use Freud in such a manner are becoming older and fewer, and in a generation they will be gone. Ditto for Marxism. No one, except perhaps for a few grizzled professoribus emeritis, still hang on to notions of Marxian teleological historical progression. Marxist criticism has been boiled down to the idea that ideas of class and socio-economic structure are encoded into literature and can be teased out through careful analysis, and that Marx himself was an insightful critic of capitalism. To cite a specific example of how the field progresses, one of my courses this past year was on the neuroscience behind writing, how the brain processes language resulting in the author’s output on the written page. Another is a paper I heard delivered at last year’s Canada Chaucer conference which examined the influence that the lit crit interpretations of “The Canterbury Tales” influenced Richard Dawkins’s “The Ancestor’s Tale” and his structuring of that narrative of evolution. The mechanisms of evolution are a biological question, but how we comprehend and relate them are a literary and narrative one. My own dissertation is on Anglo-Saxon ideas of free will and agency. Of course I don’t expect to further modern empirical research into the topic, but those millenium-old ideas have influenced our current understanding of theory of the mind and understanding where our current ideas have come from is important.

    It is true that literary criticism and the humanities have a more difficult time in separating the wheat from the chaff. After all, we don’t have the advantage that the natural sciences do in dealing with objective truths. The subjective is much more slippery. But we do get there.

    And this is not to mention that one cannot understand “The Simpsons” without an intuitive grasp of literary theory, ideas that have become deeply embedded in how we view and process knowledge about our world. To laugh at Matt Groening means that you are engaging the tools of literary criticism, even if you don’t realize you’re doing it.

    • Callum James Hackett
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      I’m an undergraduate English medievalist at a top university, and I offer the contrary view – I’m shifting from literature to cognitive linguistics as soon as I start my masters, as I think the world of literary criticism is intellectually hollow.

      It’s interesting that the examples you cite of the field progressing are dependent on scientific understanding. Here, literary criticism progresses, but it achieves nothing of its own accord. I still find scientific and historical criticism fascinating, but the rest of English academics – philosophical, gender, or even stylistic studies, for example – are so obviously lacking in answers, so obviously just reflections of our contemporary biases and cultures, that I can’t understand why anyone would think it contributes anything to human knowledge.

  33. Callum James Hackett
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    As an unfortunate English student, I can tell you that Fish has only ever contributed drivel to literary criticism as well.

  34. Paul Riley
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure I follow Fish on all of this but if the question is one of what rational basis there is for deferring to scientific authority or concensus as a matter of principle, then I think he is essentially correct. Both scientists and non-scientists rely on scientific authority to a certain extent, due to the highly specialised nature of science, but that doesn’t mean one is obliged to accept every claim or theory simply because it has acquired scientific status. Scientists themselves are fond of pointing out that scientific ‘truth’ is ‘provisonal’, and while that often seems an unnecessarily modest way of putting things, the history of science provides pause for thought. In addition, the “It works” justification for both doing science and deferring to scientific authority is to a large extent implausible, as the pursuit of science transcends questions of pragmatics. Scientific theories can work quite well even when they aren’t true, it seems.

  35. dephlogisticated
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    The one thing people must understand about Fish, and his ilk, is the agenda he is trying to push. What he wants is to get everyone to believe that anything is possible, for any reason. If you can envision garden fairies existing, for whatever reason, then garden fairies can really exist. This is his way of getting around the scientific method, which keeps mucking up the creationists, IDers, theologians, etc.

    • Paul Riley
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:02 am | Permalink

      Fish and his “ilk”…the latest in physics and cosmology (for which there is admittedly varying degrees of empirical support)really does seem to suggest that virtually anything can happen or exist…quantum mechanics sanctions the highy improbable and seemingly impossible… and I wouldn’t bet against multiverse theory being compatible with or even mandating the existence of ‘garden fairies'(ie. minus the magical powers, I guess)…but I guess this sort of thing doesn’t make science any less interesting.

  36. Emily
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    It’s true that science doesn’t “need” philosophy in order to function. That’s not the same thing as saying that philosophy doesn’t have anything interesting to say about science.

    Likewise, evolution doesn’t “need” biology: but that doesn’t mean biology doesn’t have anything interesting to say about evolution.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] from WEIT. Jerry Coyne, discussing a “Opinionator” column at the New York Times by Stanley Fish, has this to say about science viz-a-viz philosophy and religion. the reasons undergirding [a] […]

  2. […] Why Evolution Is True: “Stanley Fish misunderstands science; makes it a faith equivalent to re… Fish’s big mistake: the reasons undergirding that belief are not that we can engage in a lot of philosophical pilpul to justify using reason and evidence to find out stuff about the universe. Rather, the reasons are that it works: we actually can understand the universe using reason and evidence, and we know that because that method has helped us build computers and airplanes, go to the moon, cure diseases, improve crops, and so on. All of us agree on these results. We simply don’t need a philosophical justification, and I scorn philosophers who equate religion and science because we don’t produce one. […]

  3. […] Jerry Coyne put up a post on his website the other day raking Stanley Fish (of the New York Times) over the coals for his shabby piece of work on quoting chapter and verse: “Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture is the Right One?” However, Jerry has been putting up posts so quickly that this one is in danger of being forgotten, and since I wanted to speak about Stanley Fish as well, I thought it wise to remind you of Jerry’s contribution to the demolition of The Opinionator, as Fish is rather grandiosely styled. It’s better to have good opinions, if you’re going to use that as a byline! […]

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