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?
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?