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, May 18, 2009

Is Stanley Fish smarter than Richard Dawkins?

I could write a book refuting the nonsense regularly expounded by New York Time’s columnist Stanley Fish. Oh, wait, I almost have written a book about it! I already commented on this blog regarding Stanley’s thoughts concerning academic freedom, deconstructionism, and the New Atheism (part 1 and part 2). I was going to leave Fish alone for a while, but today three friends independently sent me his latest column and asked me to write about it, so here we go, again...

Fish apparently was shocked by an almost unanimously negative response his readers had to a particularly sloppy, positive, review he published of Terry Eagleton’s “Faith, Reason and Revolution,” where Fish endorses Eagleton’s blabber about god having “managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women” (no, we are not told what alleged universal and absolute truths Eagleton and Fish are referring to).

Fish dismisses his critics by deploying a standard postmodern technique which, interestingly, has been widely used also by creationists in their fight against evidence-based science: you see, if there are differences between science and religion, Fish maintains, they cannot be found in the simple claim that religion is about faith and science is concerned with facts. This, in turn, is somehow the result of the conclusion that there is no such thing as a “fact” independent of a theory. Let’s consider Fish’s example, which — tellingly — comes from literary criticism, not science.

Stanley invites us to consider a debate among literary critics about the authorship of a given book. People may marshal several sources of “evidence” to the effect that, say, Richard III was written by one William Shakespeare. But such so-called evidence would simply not move a postmodernist like Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes, for whom the very idea of an author is nonsense. Postmodernists reject the assumptions on the basis of whether the evidence gathered by their esteemed colleagues can, in fact, be considered evidence, and conclude instead (in the words of Bathes), that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”

Besides the fact that I haven’t the foggiest idea of what on earth the quote by Bathes actually means, I would love to know whether Bathes and Foucault ever got royalty checks. I suspect they did, which means that at the least their tax accountants believed in the concept of authorship.

Now, let us give Fish his due before we fry him (metaphorically, of course) in his own juices. He is absolutely right that facts are not “a matter simply of opening up your baby blues and taking note of the evidence that presents itself,” and that “evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions.” Indeed, not only is this point universally appreciated by (non-postmodernist) philosophers of science, but it was made a century and a half ago by none other than Charles Darwin. In a letter to his friend Henry Fawcett, Darwin wrote: “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!” That, however, didn’t stop Darwin from thinking that his theory of evolution dealt with facts, and that it most certainly was not a matter of faith.

Was Darwin a fool who had not understood the Foucaultian implications of his own realization of the complex relationship between facts and theories? No, the problem lies with Fish’s cheap rhetorical trick: Stanley seems to think that once one has refuted the naive logical positivist view that human beings can adopt a purely objective viewpoint and grasp reality for what it actually is (a position that in philosophy has been abandoned since the 1950s, by the way), voilà, all knowledge has ultimately been shown to be a matter of faith.

This is an almost comical example of a well known logical fallacy known as the false dichotomy, very popular in politics (remember “you are either with us or against us”?), but which Fish should really know how to avoid. It is simply not true, as our friend cavalierly maintains, that “once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained.” And the reason this is not the case is that there are more than two options on the table.

True, facts don’t speak for themselves, and evidence is such only within a particular conceptual framework, which itself depends on certain assumptions. But the framework and the assumptions don’t need to be arbitrary. In science, they are not (contrary to postmodern literary criticism). Science and reason are not like edifices built on a foundation, whereby one only has to show that the foundation is shaky for the whole edifice to come down. Rather, scientific knowledge is more like a web (indeed, the most popular online database of scientific papers is appropriately called the “Web of Knowledge”). In a web, one can examine a particular thread (a “fact,” or even an assumption), even pull it away, while still using the rest of the web for support. Reassured of the reliability of the first thread, one can then move on to examine another area of the web, this time using the previously examined fact/assumption as part of the new support, and so on.

To put it in other words, the web of scientific knowledge is reliable (while not being either perfect or absolutely objective) because it works: one can keep examining facts, and even questioning assumptions, while still discovering new things about the world, making the web both more self-consistent and a better reflection of the way the world (presumably) really is. It is because of the reliability of science and technology that people like Foucault and Bathes (and, I assume, Fish) can count on their bank account getting fatter with every royalty check. No “faith” needed.

As always in the case of postmodernism, a perfectly reasonable and potentially interesting idea (the non-independence of facts and theories, which was not discovered by postmodernists) gets blown out of proportion to justify an insane conclusion (that science is the same as religion, or that reason and faith are on the same epistemological level), a conclusion that very likely the author himself does not believe. A famous quip by philosopher Bertrand Russell comes to mind: I wish that all philosophers who do not believe in the existence of walls would get into a car and drive straight into a wall (any would do) at a speed proportional to their skepticism concerning the existence of the wall itself. We would at least get rid of a lot of bad philosophers, or literary critics.

One more thing: I owe my readers an explanation for the title of this column. Apparently, some commentator was upset at Fish’s continuous bashing of Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists” (for whom, frankly, I don’t have much patience either, albeit for completely different reasons). Fish then couldn’t resist ending his column with this rather childish comment: “I refer you to a piece by syndicated columnist Paul Campos, which begins by asking, ‘Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?’” Oh Please, grow up, will you?


  1. Hmm....

    For what it's worth (probably very little), I think I prefer your commentary on items that extend the reach of knowledge better than refutations of items that attempt to truncate it. Not that the quality of the writing is any better or worse, but it's intrinsically more interesting to witness an exploration of new ground than to observe a round of the eternal game of whack-a-mole on the old, no matter how skillfully the mallet is wielded.

  2. Did you see Brian Leiter's post on this, and the comments? Jason Brennan offered a story of Fish in action:

    "Nicholas Shackel has a fun paper in Metaphilosophy called "The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology." Among other things, he describes the method of "Troll's Truisms." The idea is that postmodernists like to express radical claims about reality and rationality, but when pressed, retreat into trivial claims no one disagrees with. Shackel gives Fish as an example of someone who does this.

    I actually saw Fish perform this maneuver in person. A student group had him out here (to Brown) a few years ago. He spent 20 minutes saying that there is no objective reality, etc.--all the typical twaddle and poppycock. When some student criticized postmodernism, Fish berated the student, and then said that postmodernism is nothing more than the simple claim that all our beliefs are mediated by concepts. I was stunned."


    Ophelia Benson

  3. For those interested, this is the article mentioned by OB:


  4. Needless comments like "(for whom, frankly, I don’t have much patience either, albeit for completely different reasons)" set me back every time I see them in this blog. Over the past few years, Pigliucci has taken the stance towards the "new atheists" of someone who is just too refined to accept such 'brash' and 'scathing' criticism of religion.

  5. Joseph,

    sorry to set you back with the occasional parenthetical comment, hopefully you'll find enough interesting stuff here anyway.

    "Pigliucci has taken the stance towards the "new atheists" of someone who is just too refined to accept such 'brash' and 'scathing' criticism of religion"

    Couldn't have said it better myself... :)

  6. Massimo,

    I find tons of interesting stuff here. My entire point is that your criticisms of the "new atheists" seem to be mostly directed at their style. You have criticized some literal statements by Richard Dawkins, but I really don't think that those can account for all of the negative comments and the distancing ('I'm not like those unsophisticated Hitchens types, mind you...').

    This is coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't like it when atheists banter about how to best strategize in the conflict between religion and science (if they believe it exists). There are going to be some inarticulate know-nothings like Sam Harris, and there are going to be relatively sedate, bearded intellectuals like Daniel Dennett. These writers and speakers appeal to different groups and are going to contribute in their own manners. I think we should leave the strategizing to the religious, who are constantly struggling to find some intellectually respectable apology for their beliefs.

  7. Joseph,

    yes, concerted strategizing is best left to the religious right. However, I do have a right to disagree with the tone (Hitchens, Dawkins) and content (Dawkins, Harris) of the new atheist writings. I consider Dennett far above the rest of the group, by the way.

  8. Joseph said:
    "I find tons of interesting stuff here. My entire point is that your criticisms of the "new atheists" seem to be mostly directed at their style."

    Seems to me that the "style" of argumentation are legitimate grounds for criticism. And of course Massimo has criticized Dawkins and Hitchens on philosophical grounds as well i.e. they are naive.

  9. Massimo, Sheldon,

    Yes, of course Pigliucci has "right" to criticize them on their style. It's just banal, and skirts the border between relevance and irrelevance.

    Here's what I mean in the most precise sense. Pigliucci, in fact, agrees with the new atheists a lot. Not 75% here - I mean on the vast majority of issues. But he doesn't like their tone, and so he doesn't want to associate himself with them. So what does he do? He criticizes their tone, then criticizes a few non-central points of contention, and declares himself to not inhabit the same ideological plane as Dawkins et al.

    Pigliucci is, in the grand scheme of things, part of the atheist/secular humanist/bright/(insert neologism here) movement. He shouldn't try to overplay the differences between himself and his more abrasive counterparts.

  10. By that standard, hardline conservatives shouldn't criticize Ted Kaczynski, since he was very outspoken against liberalism.


  11. Perspicio, I don't quite think that follows by the same standard. . .

    As an atheist, I have nothing wrong with the "strategizing," since there are issues in our culture that do have a tendency to polarize groups into "sides" that have an stake in "winning," even if the members of each side change from issue to issue. I do have a problem when the talk of strategy and goals gets too close to the present, where it becomes almost utopian in nature.

    But on the main topic. . . It is sad to see Fish (or anyone) for that matter have to resort to such tactics. I like what you said, OB.

  12. Massimo, why is there such a difference between yourself and these other atheist writers?

  13. Joseph,

    I wasn't arguing that Massimo or anybody else has "the right" to criticize based on style, because of course they do, thats obvious.

    What I was saying is that these issues of style are legitimate and relevant criticisms of some of the "new atheists".

    We as atheist all agree that there probably isn't a God. After we agree on that premise there is alot to disagree about concerning how we are to relate to the rest of society that does believe that a God exists. And that's where I find myself in agreement with things Massimo criticizes about some of the "new atheists".

    And by the way, one of those criticisms of Dawkins, that he is too scientistic on the God question; whether God exists or not is philosophical question, is much more than an issue of style.

  14. Joseph, someone.or.another,

    well, Sheldon put it very well. I disagree in tone with Dawkins/Hitchens, and I do think that tone is important in intellectual discussions and social controversies.

    I also really don't think that religious people are "stupid" (at least, not most of them!), nor do I think that all types of religious upbringing amount to "child abuse" (though some do).

    Finally, my disagreements with Dawkins on what science can or cannot claim, and on whether his arguments are philosophical rather than scientific are, I think, substantial.

    That said, yes, I still agree with 90% of the substance, but I think that 10% is important enough to distant myself from the group.

  15. Massimo, the way you create that distance can, I think, be viewed from the outside as creating two groups (if not more) out of the atheists/freethinkers/whatever other relevant label. I am just curious if that is your intention, or just an accident? Would it not be possible to create the image of dissenting individuals within a cohesive whole? This is mostly just voicing my thoughts on the matter without doing the hardwork myself right now.

  16. The problem is that it is impossible to assign "authorship" to the columns appearing under the name "Stanley Fish." Literary theory tells us that Fish is a fool who does not understood the Foucaultian implications of his own realization of the complex relationship between facts and theories.

  17. Oh my goodness.

    Why have we not reached the point where we say, "Oh, you're making a post-modernist argument. You obviously don't have a clue, let me help you?"

    Do you want to disarm a Po-Mo? Ask her to make a testable prediction. You say it's all narrative? Well, my narrative can split atoms to make electricity and put a man-made probe in orbit around a world millions of miles away. It can reduce human suffering by using the germ theory of disease.

    And the post-modernists have achieved what... (the sound you hear in the background are crickets)?
    It's O.K., say it out loud, the Po-Mo world view has produced the great discovery that, "My opinion about a painting is just as good as yours (although modern neuroscience is even discrediting that one)."

    If that is your argument, good for you, only don't say it on a computer, that took solid state physics and quantum electrodynamics to achieve. However, if you want to paint it on the wall of a cave, have at it.

    Post-modernism is a fully discredited, unreasonable position. I think it is about time we start calling it what it is.

  18. M. Tully pretty much nailed the lid down on that coffin.

  19. M. Tully, I agree with you almost whole-heartedly. But I must say that post-modernists do BEGIN with interesting ideas, as Massimo I think said. Then they are faced with a choice: They could investigate it scientifically and philosophically. Instead they take the other choice and run right off a cliff.

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  21. I don't read a lot of Fish, but I have to agree with gatotkatja; I see here a lot of vitriol and not a lot of substantive argument. Specifically, I don't see any attempt to explain why the existence of a scientific "web of knowledge" implies the existence of objective truth. I'm not saying objective truth doesn't exist--I'm just saying that you seem to have skipped a step in your argument.

  22. Scott,

    well, what is vitriol to one reader is sharp (and well founded) criticism to the author...

    As for including a false dichotomy in the title, surely you got the joke, right?

  23. I'll admit that I did not, at first! That's why I deleted the first version of my comment.

    Still, I don't see the connection between the "web of knowledge" concept and objective truth. Aren't such "webs of knowledge" precisely what people talk about when they talk about the social construction of scientific knowledge?

  24. Scott,

    sorry, my reference to a web of knowledge was much too quick, and I can't get into details now, perhaps I should do a separate post about it. But the basic idea is popular in philosophy of science, and it is that scientific theories are interconnected and reinforce each other; moreover, even if a particular "thread" of the web needs to be replaced because of new evidence, this does not disrupt the entire edifice. It's a better conception of science than the metaphor of an "edifice" of knowledge, since in the latter case the obvious (and misleading) question is: what's the foundation of the edifice?

  25. I think that makes a lot of sense, and that it does a good job of conveying the way scientific inquiry really works -- at least given my own limited knowledge.

    But it still doesn't quite address my question, which I'll admit I haven't expressed very clearly. I'll try again.

    I think a lot of people who talk about the social construction of knowledge (of any kind) tend to talk about "networks" or "webs" of individuals who collectively contribute to and construct said knowledge. So what is the difference between the account of scientific inquiry you just gave and a social constructivist model of scientific knowledge that (I am perhaps unreasonably assuming) Fish would be inclined to adopt?

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  27. Ok. Then would I be correctly interpreting you if I rephrased your above post this way?

    Philosophers of Science talk about a web of concepts, ideas, and empirical evidence that exist independently of the networks of human investigators that use them.

    (Apologies for the deletion -- I need a copy editor!)

  28. Close. Except that concepts, ideas and empirical evidence do require human investigators. The difference with the postmodernist position is that this requirement does not imply an ungovernable level of subjectivity.

  29. "Ungovernable level of subjectivity" -- that's an interesting way of putting it. I take "subjectivity" to mean something like "the prejudices of individuals." What about prejudices that have nothing to do with "subjectivity"? Pressures against objectivity that arise at the level of the web, rather than at the level of the individual?

  30. Scott, I'm not sure what you mean by that. Subjectivity is not necessarily a result of prejudice, unless by prejudice one means that people cannot avoid having certain views and understandings of the world that are shaped in part by their experiences.

  31. You're quite right about "prejudice" -- it was the first word that popped into my mind, but what I really mean is "bias" in a broad sense -- that is, anything that pushes us away from objectivity.

    But that wasn't really the focus of my comment anyway. My main point is that, at least as I understand it, "subjectivity" is something linked to individuals, rather than to groups of individuals. People often say that the mechanisms of science help reduce the biases of individual scientists. But what about structural biases that result from interactions between larger systems? "Emergent" biases?


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