Evidence in Science and Religion, Part Two

Stanley-fishStanley Fish follows up on his earlier piece about authority and knowledge in science and religion, in the NYT's Opinionator:

In the post previous to this one, I revisited the question of the place of evidence in the discourses and practices of science and religion. I was prompted by a discussion on the the show “Up w/ Chris Hayes” (MSNBC, March 25) in which Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins stated with great force and confidence that a key difference between science and religion is that the conclusions of the former are based on evidence that has emerged in the course of rigorous rational inquiry publicly conducted, while the conclusions of the latter are based on dogma, faith, unexamined authority, subjectivity and mere trust.

In response, Hayes observed that as laypersons, with respect to most areas of science we must take on trust what practitioners tell us. I took Hayes’s point further than he might be willing to take it, and suggested that because trust is common to both enterprises, the distinction between them, at least as it is asserted by Pinker and Dawkins, cannot be maintained.

Readers responded by pouring the proverbial ton of bricks on my head. The chief objection, repeated by many posters, was to the positing of an “equivalence” (a word that appeared often) between science and religion.

Michael K. declares that “the equivalence between the methodological premises of scientific inquiry and those of religious doctrine is simply false.” I agree, but I do not assert it. Neither do I assert that because there are no “impersonal standards and impartial procedures … all standards and procedures are equivalent” (E.). 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).

This means that all standards are equivalently mediated, not that all standards are equivalent in every respect.