Stanley Fish on the Universal Rejection of Scientific Privilege

The New York Times published a 2 part story by Stanley Fish which deals with how we deal with evidence in Science and Religion. It’s well done & I recommend that you take 15 minutes and read the whole thing. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here. Here’s a quick summary for those who don’t have the time to read, but want the concepts.
Fish is articulating the ways in which scientists fall prey to their own logic, dealing themselves the best cards in the deck, and reserving the bad hand for those who still submit to crazy, unscientific things like religious dogma or sacred texts. This leaves scientist blind to their own prior assumptions. Fish says:

“They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

This gives scientists a mechanism to dismiss out of hand all of those who operate under different assumptions.

“So when you come across someone who gives the wrong kind of reasons (global-warming deniers and creationists) or subscribes to the wrong kind of belief (Holocaust deniers), you don’t give them the time of day; they are just obviously the wrong sort and you don’t have to deal with them until they have gone away and read the right books and taken the right courses and so have acquired the ability to engage with you in a rational discussion.

In so doing, they come to occupy a very comfortable space, completely enclosed within a logical fallacy. After Fish wrote this he was pounded by readers. Part two is a defense. In it he says,

“What I do assert is that with respect to a single demand — the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions — science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest).”

Fish is reminding us that there is no such thing as unmediated knowledge. It is simply impossible because we are all subjects & thus subjectivity is always our position. The idea that Science is somehow privileged and religion is somehow fanatical or delusional is simply arcane (old school classic liberalism). What matters most is what sort of questions you are asking. He writes:

“If you want to build a better mousetrap or computer, you will look to scientists and engineers. If you want to improve your marriage or learn how to win friends and influence people, you will look elsewhere, perhaps to couples counselors or to a religious tradition. If you want to figure out what a poem means, you consult and deploy the vocabulary and categories of literary criticism. And in each instance you will do this not because you have some metaphysical belief about the adequacy of a method to its independent object, but because, in your experience, the resources for solving this problem or addressing this issue are to be found over here and not over there. This, I take it, is what many readers meant when they said, in a tone of triumph, that science works. Yes, it does, but so does literary criticism (it settles interpretive disputes, at least for a while) and so does therapy (it enhances the ability to socially interact, at least sometimes), and so does religious faith (it gives meaning and direction to life, at least for some people).”

Fish drives the nail down hard, noting, 

“…this Baconian model of scientific progress in which data sits waiting to be revealed by superior instruments is now, the Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly tells us, “universally rejected by philosophers”

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  • Den

    Tim, I came to something of the same conclusion and did a series of blog posts on it recently as a sort of Lenten meditation, under the general title "Quid Est Veritas?" beginning here: I don't begin to claim that I gave it the same rigor as Stanley Fish, but it seems to me that the Subject is an essential ingredient to even being able to discover truth – without an ear to hear and a mind to experience, the tree falling in a forest makes no sound.

    Thanks for continuing to keep us thinking by bringing these things to light.

  • Indeed! What a fun read this was. Thanks!