Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Science and Religion Are Very Different Where It Counts

The trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari, Campo de' Fiori, Rome.

I have not seen much commentary on Stanley Fish's recent follow-up to his New York Times piece, "Evidence in Science and Religion."

Fish makes very questionable assertions that are, unfortunately, too common in atheist-religious dialogues. His main point is that
because trust [in authority] is common to both [science and religion], the distinction between them ... cannot be maintained.
I must caution that I have edited, using bracket inserts and ellipses, to isolate the substance of Fish's argument above. Yet, it must be understood that he is responding specifically to formulations about the science-religion distinction made by Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, so Fish is not saying that there is no distinction between science and religion:
What I do assert is that with respect to a single demand — the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions — science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest).

This means that all standards are equivalently mediated, not that all standards are equivalent in every respect. Apart from the shared characteristic of not being directly in contact with something called reality, science and religion are different in many, familiar ways, and by and large the differences correspond to the tasks we typically ask them to perform.
Fish's argument fails on many levels:
  1. Although science and religion both operate with experts and authorities, religious authorities have no obligations with respect to empirical, independently verifiable evidence. In religion, authority ends with the Torah, or the New Testament, or the Qu'ran. Even where data apparently contradicts the book, the book wins--see the Genesis account of creation, for example. In contrast, science and reasonable academic disciplines make the expert answerable to evidence. We saw this recently with the faster-than-light particles story. We saw this, too, with Fish himself, when he crafted a nifty interpretation of John Milton's "Aeropagitica" out of the pattern of "b" and "p" sounds. That interpretation cannot stand, or persuade many, if the pattern it depends on is not sufficiently illuminated. To return again to religion: a religious interpretation can always stand, no matter what. The sun "stopped"? Sure, no problem. Or, sure, it's figurative. Under no circumstances can the book, Joshua in our latest example, be incorrect.
  2. Unless I have missed it, Fish doesn't elaborate on what "the methodological procedures" might be. Could he mean something like the Passover Seder? The ritual of a Catholic/Christian mass? Prayer? If so, notice that none of these procedures have the natural world as an object in the way of science. The object of a Seder, for example, is to enact the tradition. It makes no difference whether that tradition has any fact to it at all. Science and educational practices are not enacting for the sake of enacting; rather, to the extent the enact or re-enact, they seek to record what happens in and to the world of fact when the acts are performed. So again, Fish is very far away on how different science and religion really are.
  3. Fish hedges when he states "This means that all standards are equivalently mediated, not that all standards are equivalent in every respect." The adverbial "equivalently" is misleading. Yes, practitioners of science and religion bring assumptions about the world to their respective activities. This point is not new. It's not controversial and not provocative in any way. And it's completely beside the point, which is that scientific activities acknowledge this mediation and seek to understand how it influences their approaches and results. And the related point, also missed by Fish, is that religions tend to suppress this mediation and insist their views of the world are the capital-t truth. That "equivalently" is complete glibness and a sign that Fish has not challenged himself intellectually in a long time.
  4. The glibness continues with the last sentence of Fish's I have quoted, where he reduces science and religion to two different tools made to perform different jobs. This is utter accommodationism and blatant bullshit. I can confidently assert without citation the statement that even today the physical world and how it works are a primary concern for religious authorities and doctrines. No religion can survive without a statement of what the universe is and does. That statement is the foundation from which all religions derive their authority to speak on human affairs. Religion cannot get enough of science; they cannot stop incorporating scientific findings into the incessant train of apologetics they use to keep the dependent faithful showing up (with cash) on weekends.
I like the way Fish reads texts. He's better than most, if not great. But his argumentation on science and religion is embarrassingly bad. He's enamored with pronouncements that momentarily seem smart and insightful but are really vacuous. Fish's arguments remind me of the speaker in "What He Thought," a poem by Heather McHugh:
                    For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there
we sat and chatted, sat and chewed,
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked
                                             "What's poetry?"
Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or
the statue there?" Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think—"The truth
is both, it's both," I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest to say.
Interestingly, the poem ends by taking us into the mind of a heretic monk--Giordano Bruno--about to be burned alive for the crime of "his belief / the universe does not revolve around / the human being."

Science and religion are very different in their approaches and in their relationships to both  practitioners and the world. Yet science and religion both seek to make true and meaningful statements about reality. So, contra Fish, they really are different where it counts while jockeying for position in the same space. I hope Fish will expend the difficult effort to see this.

It's hard to understand why Fish would fail so badly on this topic. I don't think he is anti-science or pro-religion so much as pro-humanities. His remarks on science come out of a humanities perspective, and his larger argument is really that humanities-type learning governs everything, even science. All he wants to do is bring those haughty scientists down a peg or two, but all he winds up doing is wasting polysyllables. 

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