atheism, christians, culture, religion, science, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Fish Story

So, Stanley Fish has felt the need to reply to the flood of reader responses to his blog post about religion, as I commented on here. His post begins thus:

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.

Need I say, kudos to New York Times readers. He is gracious enough to indicate that the arguments against his original writing were not just name-calling, but contained some arguments to back it up. I will give credit where it is due, he did not have to acknowledge that his readers are actually intelligent, but he did. From there, however, Fish careens off the rails and into a mud hole of obscurity and postmodern blather.

Any long-time readers of this iteration of Blevkog and of its predecessor will recall that I have somewhat of a… problem with the idea central to postmodern thought: all forms of knowledge and understanding are valid, ergo none are. (I direct you to Francis Wheen’s Idiot Proof for a more fulsome discussion on the matter – I highly recommend it)

His main example is a dispute over the authorship of a poem – people, as he puts it, presuppose who the author may be, and see evidence to support it within the text. He extrapolates this to scientific endeavor, with people assuming they will see no evidence of god, so they see none. Conversely, those who accept god will see evidence of his works everywhere. I need not point out to rational readers that this is a classic example of a false analogy, a rationalization built on a faulty premise. The point, to adapt his example, is not to establish which author is reponsible for a particular work, but to establish that a human being wrote it, and that it did not spring from supernatural causes. The assumption of one author or another excludes its’ composition by ghosts or aliens, therefore it is a rational process. The problem arises when you ignore the central tenet of Occam’s razor, and add layers of explanation that require additional assumptions. If I assume Shakespeare wrote a sonnet attributed to him, there are rational and generally accepted ways to analyze the text to look for some clues for alternative attribution. I cannot, however, assume that it was written by a poet in the 30th century who travelled back through time and assumes Shakespeare’s identity when composing the work. It is accepting the limits of reasonable, and indeed possible, explanations that makes the poem analogy work as a metaphor for science.

As the whole piece is built on a faulty premise, Fish must struggle to reconcile the weakness of his analogy with his inability to refute his readers:

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.

By the same analysis, simple reporting is never simple and common observation is an achievement of history and tradition, not the result of just having eyes. And while there surely are facts, there are no facts (at least not ones we as human beings have access to) that simply declare themselves to the chainless minds Hitchens promises us if we will only cast aside the blinders of religion.

The fact that this makes his argument invalid as well seems to escape him.

History and tradition govern the operation of science as well – methods are tested and developed, theories and hypotheses are tested and re-tested, we learn from the past. What we should not do is allow the superstitions of the past to overwhelm our reason. If, as Fish asserts, religions are as valid a way of knowing the world as any other, are we to accept the resurgence of human sacrifices to assure bountiful harvests, or to make the sun rise as necessary for our survival? If not, are we to assume that some religions do in fact have a premium over others in their interpretations of reality? Who decides? Is Fish actually preaching the supremacy of his own religion over others, and, if so, doesn’t that violate one of the fundamental ideals of religion (or in fact does it just represent the bias inherent in religious thought)?

We assume the relative importance of things around us, that is true, but that reflects these individual parts’ varied utility to us as we proceed through our daily life – everything around us is simply not as important as everything else. While the ojects in our homes are probably of greater importance to us than the average, they still are relatively more or less important dependent on context – the TV becomes less important as the pipes burst (at least, unless it’s the playoffs – remember, there are priorities). The same applies to facts, particularly about the natural world – they exist, and they do present themselves, but we do have to focus on them and apply the scientific method to discover them in a way that is transparent and rational, and, perhaps most importantly, can be re-discovered by others following the same method. ‘Facts’ in a scientific sense do not come onstage and dance for us unless they pass the auditions, thank you, to borrow from Fish’s artistic metaphor. The assumptions that make science what they are, of precision, of testing and re-testing, of openness to criticism and sharing of knowledge, have nothing in common with the blind faith required from religion – religious ideas fail as knowledge because they require no rigor, only a decision to consciously omit rigor in our thought.

Tradition is, and always is, an insufficient argument to establish anything – scientific methods have come down to us over time, ’tis true, but it’s because they have been proven to be consistent and reliable. Other traditions, like the aforementioned human sacrifices, or prohibitions against women voting, or owning property, etc., simply have no utility in an advanced society – they have no utility in practice.

Science and religion do not compare to one another, and they are not compatible with one another, no matter what anyone says – you do either your work or your faith an injustice if you try to have it both ways. Fish tries, and fails, to denigrate rationalism by indicating that religion is immune from the criticism that it relies on faith. The point is meaningless, and ill-considered for a university professor – it is comparable to saying that I must not be a white male because I have never said that I am (I am, and I have said so, repeatedly – but you take my point).

Perhaps the most telling portion of Fish’s post is the last line, which is simultaneously the most arrogant and ignorant comment I have ever seen, made all the worse because he refers to himself:

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.

The article would havc been more informative if it consisted of just that statement. We would then know clearly what Stanley Fish’s thesis was: I’m smarter than anyone else.



4 thoughts on “Fish Story

  1. Nice review, Flash. If I may summarize his central argument – there is no such thing as observation independent of bias, so God exists, and not just any god, my good Christian God.


  2. I have the advantage of simple cherry-picking.

    Fish also seems to ignore Occam’s Ineffable Razor in almost every element of his argument. Just because observations are observer-dependent does not imply that any old fabricated construct is as valid as any other. Occam’s Razor implies that you take the simplest of any possible solutions and there has to be compelling reason (evidence) to take a more complex one. How does adding an arbitrary creator/overlord simplify things?

    In previous discussions we’ve had here we got bogged down on discussions of whether or not atheism required proof. I think that this is where Fish is going -> atheism requires evidence just like religion does, and since the religious can “deny” atheism by proposing that we don’t fully understand the Big Bang (for instance) and they can say they “understand” creation by saying “God did it”, the proof is found wanting.

    Thus, we get bogged down once again, and I then, again, refer to Bertrand Russell’s Celectial Teapot.

    Flash, a question – what the fuck was he talking about with the “chainless mind” bit? Was he riffing on Hitchens’ “free your mind” stuff? He creates this bizarre strawman about a chainless mind being unable to think and I don’t think that anyone, anywhere said anything about atheism being the absence of context, whatever the fuck that means!

    I’m glad he made the effort to defend himself, but really, these are pretty childesh comments that do nothing but distract from the real topic.


  3. I’m not entirely clear on that myself, but in the context of both articles he uses Hitchens and Dawkins as the boogeymen in his little play – primarily because the first article was a review of a book with the same flawed premise, and Fish is jumping on the bandwagon. Both Hitchens and Dawkins are ridiculed and belittled, which is the common reaction one would expect from someone who has encountered someone smarter than they are…


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