About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Nonsense and non sequitur in Stanley Fish, part deux
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Fish begins the second part of his diatribe against “the three atheists” (maybe that's why Dennett has been left out: the phrase wouldn't be quite as catchy with a fourth character, you know, like in “the three tenors”) by invoking an argument from authority – one of several logical fallacies he manages to be trapped by within the space of a couple of pages. He says that for every scientist like Dawkins who is convinced that there is no supernatural, another one just can't see the universe without a guiding force. The champion of scientific religionism that Fish chooses is none other than Francis Collins, well known for his contribution to the human genome project, and author of “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Except, of course, that Collins does no such thing, as both he and Fish simply resort to the old and trite argument from (their personal) ignorance, another logical fallacy. You see, since Fish and Collins just cannot understand how morality and altruism came to be naturally, it must have been through the action of the supernatural. This is precisely the same “logic” at the foundations of intelligent design “theory”: if, say, Michel Behe or Bill Dembski cannot figure out how natural selection produced the bacterial flagellum, it just can't be done, end of discussion.
Back to morality. To begin with, Plato showed 24 centuries ago (in one of his dialogs, the Euthyphro) that gods cannot be logically invoked to justify the existence of moral systems. As Socrates aptly puts it in his exchange with the title character, one has two choices (known as Euthyphro's dilemma in philosophy): either something is moral because the gods say it is, or the gods have no choice but to follow an independent source of morality (as in “God cannot do evil”). In the first case, morality becomes arbitrary and just a matter of might makes right; in the second case, the gods are at best an intermediary between us and the moral law, which means that we can cut off the middle god, so to speak, and still be moral.
Second, as Fish recognizes, science has in fact begun to provide us with an understanding of the origin of morality. Evolutionary biologists have explored, both empirically and mathematically, the foundations of animal (not just human) morality, and have arrived at the conclusion that it depends on two fundamental causes: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Kin selection is the universal biological phenomenon that leads to caring for one's offspring and close relatives (because they carry our genes), while reciprocal altruism is the idea that, if the animal lives in groups, the best social strategy to adopt is what is often referred to as “conditional tit-for-tat”: I am going to be good to you, assuming you don't club me on the head, and in the long run we all win. I am not suggesting that the complex phenomenon of human morality is exhausted by these two principles, but as Sober & Wilson and de Waal have convincingly shown, these two elements provide the necessary building blocks for a naturalistic understanding of morality. Fish would do well to read both of these books before sputtering any more nonsense on this topic.
Moreover, neuroscience has also made great strides toward understanding how morality works in the human brain, something that Fish also acknowledges but readily dismisses (probably without having read a single paper in that burgeoning field of research). Fish characterizes the cognitive neuroscience of moral cognition as “a real mouthful,” which of course is not an argument at all, but simply an indirect ad hominem attack (yet another logical fallacy). He seems totally unaware of studies showing that moral decision making requires a balance between parts of the brain that are involved in rational thinking and parts that relate to emotions, and that whenever that balance is broken (by accident or disease) we get horribly fascinating glimpses into how we think morally (or fail to do so). Of course, this doesn't prove that morality didn't come from God (just like nobody can conclusively prove that there are no unicorns), but it does show that morality is a biological function like many others, a product of a physical brain working under certain conditions, exactly in line with the predictions of evolutionary biology and cognitive science.
This is where Fish has to take the ultimate, and most damning, step in his “argument.” He has to reduce science to just another faith in order to salvage the “reasonableness” of religious belief. He says “remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought [that Dawkins et al. endorse] and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities.” Indeed, just like removing Einstein's theory of relativity from the claim that matter and energy are equivalent turns the phrase into an unsubstantiated alchemist or New Age slogan. Fish goes on: “as members of a different faith community [religion and science] – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere.” But science relies on assumptions, not faith, and these assumptions are of such a broad type that most normal human beings also accept them in order to conduct a productive life. For example, science does assume realism, the philosophical conception that the physical world is not an illusion, it's really out there. This assumption is not testable within the frame of science, but this isn't the big deal that Fish thinks it is: every religious person makes exactly the same assumption every time s/he gets up in the morning and goes through chores, work, play, and family activities. To compare this to the sort of faith that is required to believe in a big guy in the sky is, as Dawkins would put it, an intellectual travesty.
So, contrary to Fish's statement, God and natural selection are not at all on the same level: there is not a shred of empirical evidence in favor of the existence of the first one (and quite a few philosophical reasons to reject the idea), while natural selection can be measured in the field by every graduate student in biology (one of mine is doing it right now). There are thousands of peer reviewed papers on measurements of natural selection, it is most assuredly not a metaphysical concept!
The fact that a columnist for the New York Times – certainly one of the most intellectually sophisticated papers in the US – can get away with two articles of the nature that Fish has managed to produce is, unfortunately, a reflection of the incredibly poor state of intellectual discourse about religion in our society. The “three atheists,” no, the four atheists (Dennett, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens, and in fact several more in recent times) are to be commended for at least attempting to boost such level a notch or two above medieval Scholasticism. Unfortunately, it looks like we have a long way to go to achieve even that modest goal.