Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

That Aquatic Aroma...

Recently I wrote a post remarking on Stanley Fish's review of Terry Eagleton's book, "Reason, Faith and Revolution." As you might recall, I was less than impressed by the argument he advanced. Or, perhaps more accurately, I was less than impressed by the fawning praise he gave Eagleton. Well, as it turns out, I wasn't the only person underwhelmed by Fish's writing as he has apparently felt the need to write a follow-up as a response to critics:

According to recent surveys, somewhere between 79 and 92 percent of Americans believe in God. But if the responses to my column on Terry Eagleton’s “Faith, Reason and Revolution” constitute a representative sample, 95 percent of Times readers don’t. What they do believe, apparently, is that religion is a fairy tale, hogwash, balderdash, nonsense and a device for rationalizing horrible deeds.

One is forced to wonder how much of the response is due to his readers being agnostics and atheists, and how much was due to the fact that his original review was quite poor. The rejoinder continues in that tradition, quoting a few select critics briefly and somewhat mockingly before detouring into a painfully drawn out example from literary criticism that hardly anyone is likely to find illuminating. Eventually, however, he gets to his point. And it's a doozy:

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers, there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.

While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

And this is all very problematic, because Fish is confusing "observation" for "interpretation." It makes a certain amount of sense that he does so- in our daily lives these two things occur with near simultaneity most of the time- but they are quite distinct. Observation is simply the act of noting something in the environment while interpretation is the act of identifying or classifying it. So, let's say that you and I enter a room and discover a man clutching a knife, covered in blood, standing over what appears to be a dead person. We observe the same thing but we may interpret it differently- I may conclude that we've stumbled into a murder scene while you may conclude that we've stumbled into a movie set. Our observations are in some sense evidence for either position BUT it's important to note that (a) we could resolve our disagreement by gathering more evidence and (b) the multiplicity of interpretations does not mean that there is actually a multiplicity of underlying realities. So long as we prefer not to retreat into solipsism, anyway. Getting back to Fish, it is certainly the case that the interpretation of evidence will be somewhat colored by our preconceived ideas but, that said, it is not the case that those with different preconceptions won't necessarily agree on observations. I might be naive but I think Dawkins, Fish, Dembski, Schlafly, and myself could all get on the same page about things like the sun coming up and objects falling to earth. What we think these things mean might differ, but that they occur would likely win consensus. And, of course, Fish's claims ignore the fact that people- every day- reject hypotheses that don't concur with the facts. While the human ability to creatively interpret evidence is substantial, it is not all-encompassing.

Of course, he also hits on the necessity of faith for any logical exercise, but takes the argument too far:

Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.

Yes, any logical chain (as I argued in my original response) must start with certain assumptions that are effectively taken on faith, but this does not mean that all faith claims are identical. Taking it on faith that the world is more or less as I perceive it is one thing, but taking it on faith that the world is mostly as I see it AND that there are legions of powerful, insubstantial critters that can't be observed but love/hate me is another thing entirely.

And Fish ends with a tooting of his own horn via the words of another:

It would be hard to reply to that without seeming either defensive or boastful, so I’m happy to leave it to someone else. I refer you to a piece by syndicated columnist Paul Campos, which begins by asking, “Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?” Darned if I know.

That Fish's critics were shallow is something about which I have little doubt.* Yet, for all of his caustic dismissal of them his own retorts are, by and large, equally shallow. The arguments in favor and in opposition to religion are many and some are quite sophisticated but, for all of Fish's mastery of the English language, he is relying on arguments pulled solely from the ash heap of history.

Too bad.

* Including myself. I'm a goddamned idiot, as I've asserted previously and at length.

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