Fish tales

**Updates for clarity thanks to Brandon

Stanley Fish is still not worth reading.  He's the guy at the party who iron-mans the holocaust denier by straw manning the holocaust historian. 

On another matter–his fondness for false equivalence–he writes:

Dawkins and Pinker replied that you ask them to show you their evidence — the basis of their claim to be taken seriously — and then you show them yours, and you contrast the precious few facts they have with the enormous body of data collected and vetted by credentialed scholars and published in the discipline’s leading journals. Point, game, match.

Not quite. Pushed by Hayes, who had observed that when we accept the conclusions of scientific investigation we necessarily do so on trust (how many of us have done or could replicate the experiments?) and are thus not so different from religious believers, Dawkins and Pinker asserted that the trust we place in scientific researchers, as opposed to religious pronouncements, has been earned by their record of achievement and by the public rigor of their procedures. In short, our trust is justified, theirs is blind.

It was at this point that Dawkins said something amazing, although neither he nor anyone else picked up on it. He said: in the arena of science you can invoke Professor So-and-So’s study published in 2008, “you can actually cite chapter and verse.”

With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.

Really slowly: the list of items Fish mentions here (in bold) are prescriptions based on divine commands.  The chapter and verse Dawkins refers to are descriptions based on arguments.  They're just reported second hand. 

Those things are hugely different.  

6 thoughts on “Fish tales”

  1. I think Fish has somewhat of a point, although he goes too far with his comparison between scripture and scientific articles. I dont think the difference between arguments and divine commands makes much difference, however. We can detect whether the argument is valid, but we must take the truth of the premises on faith.
    Although our trust in science has been rewarded in many instances, there have also been many cases in which that trust has been violated (thalidomide is one example that comes to mind).

    On the positive side of justification for religious belief, I think John Cottingham makes a fairly good case for the kind of evidence on which religious faith can be justified in his book "The Spiritual Dimension."
    Just to declare my biases, I was raised as a religious believer, but am currently agnostic.


  2. Hi Brad,

    Thanks for commenting. 

    My sense is that Fish rather ignores things that would more sharply distinguish the kind of faith one has in a scientific authority on a matter of fact (is A true or not true?) and the kind of authority a religious text has on matters of value (how should I raise my children?).  The latter, in addition to being a question of value, ultimately rests on the authority of a command, rather than on the authority of expertise.  So I think he's rather wrong to treat these sorts of things the same way.  They're both questions of faith; but not all questions of faith are the same. 

  3. This is a fascinating topic, and I think both Brad and John make good points. This conversation reminds me of Carl FH Henry and his God, Revelation and Authority.
    Here are some of what I think relevant quotes on this topic:
    ""The Hindu, the Christian and the logical positivist have similar sense experiences (not identical, to be sure, because every individual’s perceptions differ); the essential difference between them occurs not in what they see, hear, smell or taste, but in what they think about reality. The positivist thinks that sense data alone can relate us to the real world; the Hindu thinks that sense data are illusory and lead away from the real world; the Christian thinks that the phenomenal world is a real creation that witnesses to its Creator”

    “The mind of man is not veiled divinity. Transcendent divine revelation, not human reasoning, is the source of truth; publicly shared reason is a divinely gifted instrument for recognizing truth ”

    “Because theological and ethical statements cannot be verified by empirical methods does not mean, as the positivists erroneously and arbitrarily conclude, that they are beyond verification. Such a judgment stems purely from the metaphysical theory that only empirical experience supplies evidence about reality” (Henry, p.247).

  4. Thanks for joining in BN.  Theological statements can be "verified" by empirical methods.  At least some of them.  Here's one: "once upon a time there was a man, who lived far away in a foreign land. . ."

    That's Johnny Cash, but he's talking about Jeebus.  So there was a Jesus, who really did x, y, z, and had properties p, r, and q.  Those are theological statements and empirical ones.  

    Also, there's more to empiricism than positivism nowadays.   

  5. Nicely put.  I find Fish's argument (which alas, I've seen in some form many times) quite annoying because it's so inaccurate.  Some people just insist on trying to define empiricism in terms of religious faith.  
    By the way, this post would fit in nicely with the upcoming Blog Against Theocracy.  (There will be a hatchtag you can tweet.)  

  6. The conclusion here baffles me:
    "But the desire of classical liberals to think of themselves as above the fray, as facilitating inquiry rather than steering it in a favored direction, makes them unable to be content with just saying, You guys are wrong, we’re right, and we’re not going to listen to you or give you an even break. Instead they labor mightily to ground their judgments in impersonal standards and impartial procedures (there are none) so that they can pronounce their excommunications with clean hands and pure — non-partisan, and non-tribal — hearts."
    Oddly enough, Fish is doing the very thing that he accuses Liberals of doing in attacking Liberals — offering an impartial analysis of Liberal tribalism. If his analysis were partial, then we wouldn't have any reason to listen him, would we? This isn't even good Sophistry.

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