Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Fish Out Of Water

Stanley Fish is not beloved of the science-oriented blogosphere.

He may not be all that beloved of the readers of his own blog in the New York Times if, as he reports, 95 percent of the reaction to his article on Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revolution was negative. Or maybe it was just those militant, boring atheists up to their old tricks.

In any event Fish is trying to mount a defense of religion against the assaults of rationalists by treading the well-worn path of arguing that it takes faith to believe in evidence, just as it does to believe in religion.

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn't) in the light of assumptions - there are authors or there aren't - that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

... [T]here is no such thing as "common observation" or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation's objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.

To be sure, there is a certain justice to this position and no less a personage than a certain 19th Century naturalist of some little repute agreed with the general proposition:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

The basic view of science, which has been called by the lovely, but not necessarily accurate, appellation, "The Ionian Enchantment," is that the world is intelligible to human beings. The foundational requirement of this view is that the universe is consistent. If all is chaos, we cannot hope to understand what goes on around us. Both the Greek philosophers and the Israelite goatherds knew that the first act of creation had to be to end chaos and to bring form and regularity to the void.

In our daily lives, each of us constantly applies what is called "methodological naturalism." The only exceptions are a few mystics (who have a lot of help from their families and friends) or people who we call "insane." A quick example should suffice: If strolling across a country lane we should see a car approaching from a quarter mile away, most of us will continue strolling, unconcerned that the car will be suddenly upon us before we can complete our crossing. If, while navigating a busy street, we spy a bus 25 feet away heading at us at a good clip, few will stop to contemplate if past experience is a reliable guide of the bus' future behavior. Instead, the common response is to run like hell (suggesting one possible interpretation of the biblical phrase "the quick and the dead").

It's true that this all-but-universally-shared induction about the consistent regularity of the universe does suffer from Hume's Problem of Induction. But its very ubiquity -- seemingly instinctive and subconscious -- argues for its value to us in negotiating our lives. On the other hand, the view of theists (here meaning those believing in a God actively intervening in the workings of the world) has to justify the purported exceptions to this strongest of our inductions.

If the world is mostly consistent, then the view that the world is intelligible to us is more likely true than not; the Ionian Enchantment is the better bet; and the onus is on those who would urge us to place our money on the long shot.

Fish will have to do better than to simply remind us that there may be another horse running.


Update: There is a much more knowledgeable and erudite discussion of Fish's piece going on at Brian Leiter's place.

Update II: Russell Blackford and Massimo Pigliucci have joined in.

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