It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of this blog that neither Liza nor I are sympathetic to the musings of Stanley Fish that appear over at the New York Times. One thing I often ponder is the apparent incoherency of some of his ideas. Well, now there is an answer to this issue: Fish thinks that incoherency in thoughts is just fine. In a recent column, he discusses a new book out by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. According to Fish, Smith’s goal in this book is to critique the assumptions underlying the moral and epistemic tensions often seen in the contemporary discussions of science and religion. The apparent solution to this dilemma is to accept some admitted incompatibility of these different epistemic approaches without concern and move on. Via Fish, Smith writes, “the sets of beliefs held by each of us are fundamentally incoherent — that is, heterogeneous, fragmentary and, though often viable enough in specific contexts, potentially logically conflicting.” This statement alone is uncontroversial. It is, without doubt, the case that all of us likely hold some ideas that are incoherent with others. But Fish goes much further in his claim in this article. No, the take-home message here is about more than the assertion of the mere fact that the totality of some individual’s beliefs contains some incoherency. It is that such incoherency is perfectly fine, that there is no need to work to clear up such issues. According to Fish, “The conclusions we may have come to in the context of fancy epistemological debates (a context few will ever inhabit) will have no necessary force when we step into, and are asked to operate in, other contexts.” There can be no mistaking the message here. The knowledge gained in one context, whatever that is, is irrelevant to other contexts, even if the facts that are taken for granted in one context contradict the facts taken for granted in another.
It would be surprising if most of those reading this were not taken aback by such a bold assertion. Certainly, it is neither apparent nor intuitive that incoherency is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs. On the contrary, such is typically taken to be a sign of flawed reasoning. Fish seems to think that the only people who would be opposed to accepting contradictions in their systems of beliefs are those at the extremes of some ill-defined spectrum. He writes,
Needless to say, not everyone will be pleased by this argument. Those strong religionists who believe that the overweening claims of science (or scientism) must be denounced daily will not be pleased by an argument that says nothing about redemption, salvation and sin, and gives full marks to science’s achievements. (Smith, a pupil of B.F. Skinner’s, has been a sympathetic and knowledgeable student of science for many years.) And those materialist atheists who see religion as the source of many of the world’s evils and all of its ignorance will not be pleased by an argument that finds an honorable place for religious beliefs and practices.
So, according to Fish, those who will be disturbed by such a counterintuitive position will be “strong religionists” and “materialist atheists,” the implication being that each is a clear extreme, and the tone of Fish’s article suggesting that such positions are in error. Fish is explicit that he agrees with Smith’s described position, and that these two listed groups will not, thus leaving no room for any doubt as to Fish’s feelings concerning the matter. What Fish does, then, is set himself up as some kind of moderate between these two “extremes,” the moderate in this case being one who accepts, without worry, incoherency in their beliefs.
I want to suggest that such a position is not moderate at all. Rather, it is quite extreme in that it asserts something that seems to be obviously wrong, namely that being that incoherency is no vice or fault. The problem of incoherency is that it leads to contradiction, and, as anyone who has taken an intro class on logic knows, from a contradiction one can derive anything. Simply put, it is absurd to claim that incoherency, and thus contradictions, are not problematic. It puts one in the position of saying that both “a” and “not-a” are true. So, if incoherency is okay, then I can claim that it is simultaneously true that one needs to be coherent and one does not need to be coherent. This is, as I stated before, just absurd.
A defender of Fish might attempt to point out that what Fish is claiming is not that incoherency is okay, but that apparent incoherency between differing domains is what is unproblematic. However, as I suggested above, it is completely unclear what constitutes such a “domain.” Further, however one chooses to delineate between such areas of knowledge, if incoherency is an issue that arises, it is wholly unclear on how such areas could, in fact, be differing domains. Were they genuinely different, then issues such as incoherency should not arise at all. Here is an example: at the highest, most superficial level, let us think of two domains as including automotive repair and floristry. Here, we can imagine why it is fair to say that such areas of interest are, in fact, contexts that do not overlap. The problem, however, is that it is not immediately apparent that incoherency between these two domains can even arise. For example, were some mechanic to suggest the proper timing for some model of some car, it is completely unclear on what that would have to do, how it even could contradict, anything some florist might say about the arrangement of flowers. As these are differing domains, there is just no clear way for the claims within one area to contradict the claims within the other. Now, of course, the mechanic might begin to make claims that fall outside the domain of auto repair, and it is then easy to imagine how it might run afoul of something the florist might say. But, so long as the florist stays within the bounds of floral arrangement, and so long as the mechanic stays within the bounds of auto repair, both at the most superficial level, it does not appear that it is even possible for there to be some incoherency between these domains.
The point of the above is just to say that if some incoherency between ideas arises, then it is not at all clear that the ideas fall within differing domains. On the contrary, this looks to be great reason to think the opposite, that the ideas belong within the same area of concern. That leaves Fish’s idea of religion and science merely being different epistemic domains in which any incoherency is perfectly acceptable as looking just weird. What is the justification for such a claim? What would such a justification even look like? Whatever it might be, Fish will have a hard time arguing for it so long as it allows for contradictions to be unproblematic.
In the end, I am just baffled by Fish’s absurd assertion that incoherency is acceptable. Were this the case, there would be no issue with making the claim that Fish is a philosophical dunce while simultaneously making the claim that Fish makes important epistemic insights. As it turns out, it is ridiculous to hold both of those to be true at the same time. In light of that, I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which is the more legitimate claim.