Sunday, 1 April 2012

Silly Equivocation

So, about a week ago I commented on how to turn religion into an empty and meaningless concept by just following the recommendations of contributor Kennedy, who defines religion as "anything that is about God." Aside from the fact that this excludes non-theistic religions like Buddhism from being religions at all, the real problem with that article was its clumsy and ham-handed way of dealing with concepts in an effort to support the ridiculous conclusion that atheism is not only a "belief system" but a religion. I guess the lack of belief in werewolves also constitutes a comprehensive belief system, too; how easy it is to build a systematic arrangement of beliefs by... um, just not believing in something!

In a similar effort at fudging boundaries, Stanley Fish tries to argue that science is really on a par with religion, and amounts to faith and appeals to authority. This is a common tactic typically employed by religious fundamentalists and creationists but in this particular case, is coming from a sort of postmodernist, relativist thinker. I feel that, in some sense, Fish and I are playing for the same team, at least in the sense that I sympathize with many of his criticisms of absolutist, rationalistic, and universalist positions. But I think he's picking the wrong targets on this one.

Jerry Coyne writes an excellent and straightforward response that, I feel, hits the nail on the head: Fish just "misunderstands science." Coyne doesn't come right out and say it but pretty much implies that science isn't really about "belief" at all; modern empirical science is concerned with providing tentative descriptions and explanations of natural phenomena for purposes of prediction and control and, well, for the most part, it just "works." Something like the theory of evolution isn't something you need to "believe" in at all; either you understand it, or you don't, and if you understand it, you see that it's a parsimonious and coherent explanation for the phenomenon of biodiversity. Scientific study may lead you to adopt or reject certain beliefs, but it operates well enough regardless of what you believe or don't believe. Science doesn't really need philosophical justification (although I do feel that good science and good philosophy go hand in hand, and one should not ignore one for the sake of the other; science pursued in the absence of philosophy becomes superficial and uncritical, while philosophy pursued without proper recognition of contemporary science becomes mere wordplay and fantasy).

Say we have a chemist who has a "belief" that if you put your hand into a vat of sulfuric acid it will burn your hand. You can argue all you like that this belief is just as good as belief in a loving God, and based on  faith, authority, or whatever. But, well, go ahead and put your hand in the fucking vat. You can believe that the searing pain is the magical sensation of the presence of angels or that it's, you know, acid burning your hand. What you believe just doesn't matter. Science takes place in the realm of acting and doing, of natural phenomena. It isn't metaphysical, but it doesn't really aim to be. You can believe the world is flat, but if you go on a voyage in a sailing ship, you won't fall off the edge of the world, because there just isn't one.

Religion as we know it is ultimately all about having certain sorts of belief, and Fish seems to concede that they are basically just based on appeals to authority. Now, I don't feel religion has to be this way. I think we can purge religion of doctrines like theism, supernaturalism, the existence of a unitary or eternal soul and an afterlife. I think we can conceive of religion in non-doctrinal terms, as a way of living in the world, which is complementary to science, and not in conflict with it. Science, any way you slice it, does not deal with questions of meaning or value, and no descriptive account of phenomena will tell us what we ought to do (in this sense, I disagree with some folks, like Sam Harris, who feel that we actually can base some type of morality, or some account of "how we should live," entirely on scientific data). Science provides us with a rough kind of "map," but not a destination or goal, so to speak. Any talk of how we should go about things takes place in the realm of value and non-rational desire and preference. I think one could say that a "religious person" is just one who has a unified way of responding to the totality of existence and phenomena, rather than just haphazardly reacting to stimuli.

I don't think science really does put itself forward as some kind of privileged, special, authoritative way of believing or seeing the world. It's just a pragmatic way of dealing with phenomena, nothing more. Science can be conceived of in much more epistemically humble terms than Fish characterizes it.

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