Arguing Science as Faith

Stanley fish professor bloggerFirst, Stanley Fish over at the NYT's Opionator:

… [Chris] Hayes…posed the following question [to Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker]: If you hold to the general skepticism that informs scientific inquiry — that is, if you refuse either to anoint a viewpoint in advance because it is widely held or to send viewpoints away because they are regarded as fanciful or preposterous — how do you respond to global-warming deniers or Holocaust deniers or creationists when they invoke the same principle of open inquiry to argue that they should be given a fair hearing and be represented in departments of history, biology and environmental science? What do you do, Hayes asked, when, in an act of jujitsu, the enemies of liberal, scientific skepticism wield it as a weapon against its adherents?

Dawkins and Pinker replied that you ask them to show you their evidence — the basis of their claim to be taken seriously — and then you show them yours, and you contrast the precious few facts they have with the enormous body of data collected and vetted by credentialed scholars and published in the discipline’s leading journals. Point, game, match.

Not quite. Pushed by Hayes, who had observed that when we accept the conclusions of scientific investigation we necessarily do so on trust (how many of us have done or could replicate the experiments?) and are thus not so different from religious believers, Dawkins and Pinker asserted that the trust we place in scientific researchers, as opposed to religious pronouncements, has been earned by their record of achievement and by the public rigor of their procedures. In short, our trust is justified, theirs is blind.

It was at this point that Dawkins said something amazing, although neither he nor anyone else picked up on it. He said: in the arena of science you can invoke Professor So-and-So’s study published in 2008, “you can actually cite chapter and verse.”

Jerry Coyne responds to Fish:

Fish’s big mistake: the reasons undergirding that belief are not that we can engage in a lot of philosophical pilpul to justify using reason and evidence to find out stuff about the universe. Rather, the reasons are that it works: we actually can understand the universe using reason and evidence, and we know that because that method has helped us build computers and airplanes, go to the moon, cure diseases, improve crops, and so on. All of us agree on these results. We simply don’t need a philosophical justification, and I scorn philosophers who equate religion and science because we don’t produce one. Religion doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of reality. Indeed, they can’t even demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that a deity exists at all! The unanimity around evidence that antibiotics curse infections, that the earth goes around the sun, and that water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is not matched by any unamity of the faithful about what kind of deity there is, what he/she/it is like, or how he/she/it operates. In what way has religion, which indeed aims to give us “understanding” has really produced any understanding? Fish goes on:

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. 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.

Yes, but we get results that all sane people agree on, and that actually help us get further results that help us solve problems and figure out why things are they way they are. Note how weaselly Fish is here by using the word “act of faith” to apply to both science and religion. Yes, it was originally an act of faith to assume that there was an external reality that could be comprehended by naturalistic processes, but it is no longer an act of faith: it is an act of confidence.