Latest Fish Follow-up

I wanted to post a quick follow-up to my last entry on Stanley Fish.  (I do this for mostly for my own interest as, judging from the number of hits on that post, people are far less interested in criticisms of a dominant American post-modern intellectual than they are Pat Robertson, bird poop, or asshats.)  There I discussed Fish’s assertion in a recent article in the New York Times that incoherency was not so problematic as normally thought.  What occasioned this article was the publishing of a book by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (The Terry Lectures Series) .  In my analysis of Fish’s article, I was careful not to direct my criticisms at Smith herself.  This is because I thought it unlikely that she took the position that Fish put on her, mostly because such a position is so untenable.  Now Smith herself has posted a response to the wide criticism she has received in response of Fish’s article.  Unsurprisingly, she does some work to distance herself from the extreme position taken by Fish and attributed to her.  Also unsurprisingly, she does so in such a way as to avoid saying outright that Fish is wrong.  That said, the distinction between her position and Fish’s is evident.  Further, I think there is still plenty of room to criticize her own position.

The first thing of note is that Smith makes it clear that she does not think that incoherency is wholly unproblematic.  She writes, “Contrary to impressions drawn by several readers, I don’t think anyone can blow away such facts or conflicts by declaring (via Whitman or otherwise), ‘So we contradict ourselves. So what?’”  She also does not buy into the idea that science and religion are different “domains” or “contexts” that need not intersect.  She both dismisses the oft held up NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) of Stephen J. Gould and points out that it is quite common for religious and scientific beliefs that contradict to cause very practical problems in a person’s life.  She writes,

For many people, contradictions between religious teachings and other knowledge — experiential as well as formal — create not only very real conflicts but also considerable anguish. Conflicts of this order can sometimes be resolved by rejecting religious teachings on one or more matters. Significant examples of such matters are homosexuality, the use of contraceptive devices and proper roles for women. Sometimes, however, when such contradictions are fundamental, the personal conflicts they create can be resolved only by abandoning religious doctrine, religious observance or, ultimately, religious identity altogether.

This seems to strike right at the heart of Fish’s assertion that “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.”  All the better, then, that he followed that with “This last point is mine, not Smith’s (although I have reason to think she would find it agreeable).”  It would appear that Fish might have been mistaken to think that Smith was as willing to embrace contradiction as he was, and that, of course, was the core of my argument against him.

All that said, Smith does seem to hold a position that I see as very problematic.  She explicitly says that those engaged in epistemic approaches from both the scientific and religious mindset are equally unlikely to yield in the face of argument or evidence.  She writes,

This tendency to belief-persistence is well illustrated in the back-and-forth celebratory descriptions of science and pious invocations of the truth of one or another religion that swell the comments on Fish’s column. Such celebrations and invocations are typically accompanied by long lists of the crimes of religion and the glories of science or (in equally long lists) vice versa. What is notable here is that no position in these seesaw exchanges is ever changed. No one is enlightened; no one is converted.

This is not to say that enlightenment and conversion never occur. But, as scholars of religion from William James on have observed, conversions do not commonly occur as the result of such arguments or such evidence. And, as scholars of science from Thomas Kuhn on have added, that’s not quite the way scientific revolutions occur either.

I’m just going to have to strongly disagree with Smith here while expressing confusion as to how she could come to any such conclusion.  While paradigm shifts themselves might be more complicated, within science it is absolutely the case that arguments and evidence overcome beliefs every day.  That is exactly how science works!  Science is antithetical to positions held on unyielding faith.  Refusing to acquiesce in the face of contrary evidence only ensures that you will quickly become irrelevant in the domain of science.  Moreover, in science there is simply little reason to hold onto any position that is not favored by the evidence.  This is simply because of the nature of science itself.  It is not the case that good scientists constantly work to massage the data to make it fit in their favored hypothesis.  Rather, they attempt to form hypotheses that best fit the data itself.  Science is the practice of discovery, not revelation, and this is exactly where it differs from religion.  There the arrow is reversed, and the conclusion is presumed before the evidence is ever gathered. 

Given that the above is the case, Smith’s assertion that those working from the epistemology of science are as prone to belief-persistence as those working in a religious framework just seems bizarre.  It is obviously wrong-headed.  Were that the case, science would never get done.  As it does get done, as science is constantly changing while religion, though not wholly static, is certainly not best described as dynamic, it clearly cannot be the case that those doing science refuse to alter their beliefs in the face of better arguments and evidence.  As such, one cannot help but think that Smith is guilty of serious error, though at least she does not, like Fish, proclaim that incoherence and contradiction is nothing about which we need concern ourselves.

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