Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Re-Fried Fish

Stanley Fish has written a follow-up to the article on which I recently commented and, to be honest, I guess I have no major objections to it. I feel it clarifies much of what was said in the previous article, and renders his claims a little bit more modest. He says he does not assert an "equivalence between the methodological premises of scientific inquiry and those of religious doctrine" and admits that "If you want to build a better mousetrap or computer, you will look to scientists and engineers" as opposed to priests or theologians. Well, that's fair enough.

Then again, priests and theologians don't often have too much to say about matters of mousetrap and/or computer innovation, but they do often have very strong claims about, say, medicine (for example, whether or not to provide medical care to a sick child). In such a situation, where science and religious doctrine somewhat overlap, I wonder (and this is an honest question) which authority Fish would tell us to consult? Although, to be fair, I guess in such a case, a religious authority doesn't necessarily tell us whether or not the medical care will work, but whether or not we ought to provide it, and I'll admit, that's a question on which science is silent. No scientific experiment or research can prove that letting thousands of children die of easily treatable medical conditions in order not to displease a deity is "wrong;" I guess it just helps being born to parents who care more about, you know, their kids' well-being in this world than about the emotional states of a God, and if you aren't lucky enough for that, then tough shit, in the grave you go!

Aside from that, I can appreciate the stuff about theory determining what counts as evidence and Fish's clearly-stated fallibilism. I still feel, however, that Fish is probably picking the wrong targets. Many of us philosophical types feel that this whole rationalist, scientistic "New Atheist" movement (dudes like Dawkins and the late Hitchens) is more of an enemy than an ally, but sometimes I suspect that this is largely out of jealously, because those guys are getting all the press and seem to have more credibility in the public eye when it comes to dogma-demolition and critical thinking. In my experience, if you actually read what some of those guys are saying, it's a lot more humble than people like Fish seem to think. I'll grant that there are strong exceptions to this, for example Sam Harris' recent project of trying to argue that science can not just tell us "what to do in order to get what we want," but can actually inform our ideas about "what we ought to want."

On the whole, outside of academia, in the public sphere, I think that the major questions being discussed (e.g. creationism vs. evolution, the age of the earth and so on) are probably better answered by folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris than by dummies like Ham, Comfort, and Falwell (God rest his miserable soul). I'd like to think that Fish might be tacitly conceding this, when he mentions in the article that it's the job of religious faith to give "meaning and direction to life," as opposed to describing, explaining, and predicting phenomena.

I guess I just wish that people like Fish would spend at least some time and effort shooting down religious authorities when they try to step outside of their proper sphere of activity, and start making claims about "what is the case" based on a particular interpretation of holy scripture.

No comments:

Post a Comment