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?