Monday, June 18, 2007

Sticking your neck out

In today's New York Times, Stanley Fish tries to take apart the logic of arguments employed by several recent critics of religion, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I don't think he succeeds, and in fact, I think he seriously misrepresents how much science is helping us to understand human emotions and ethical behavior, such as human altruism. We're not in the dark on these things, although that's the impression a reader might be left with.

Fish starts with what to me -- without having yet read the books in question -- seems like a fair point. He suggests that the authors (especially Harris and Dawkins) don't back up their claims about the power of science with any evidence. He quotes Harris, for example, as saying

"There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Yet Harris, Fish relates, also acknowledges that to date “little convergence has been achieved in ethics,” not only because “so few of the facts are in” but because “we have yet to agree about the most basic criteria for deeming an ethical fact, a fact.”

Fish concludes, rightly, that Harris, in this material at least, isn't really backing up his claim:

"This is a remarkable sequence ... A very strong assertion is made – we will 'undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct' – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride."

Fish catches Dawkins in a similarly sloppy episode of reasoning. Fair enough. Bad reasoning ought to be critized.

But Fish then goes on to suggest -- I think -- that Harris and Dawkins have fluffed the logic because there really isn't any scientific evidence to suggest that we can understand human behavior, including ethical behavior, in natural terms, or that the science is so underdeveloped that appeal to supernatural explanations is just as legitimate. He gets a bit weird in one place, where I'm sure I cannot quite understand what he really means.

To Dawkins' claim that there are "good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other”, Fish responds with this baffling retort:

"Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I 'believe in evolution,' Dawkins declares, 'because the evidence supports it'; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it."

This misrepresents how science works in a serious way. Science doesn't work by using evidence to formulate a hypothesis, then using the hypothesis to explain the evidence. If it did, it would be wortheless. Rather, science uses evidence to formulate a hypothesis, and then tests that hypothesis against OTHER evidence; that is, against other facts that are independent from the first set of facts. Only if the hypothesis stands up to the new set of facts does it get good marks, and even then only temporarily, as it has also to stand up against all other new sets of facts that might arise in the future.

Good science, as the American physicist Richard Feynman used to say, has to "stick its neck out."

So while I think Fish scores some points on the atheists, they're cheap debating points. I'll say more on this in a post tomorrow. There is, in fact, good scientific work on human emotions and ethics, and good reason to expect that we'll come to understand the origins of our ethical behavior in terms of the beneficial collective patterns to which such behaviors have led our ancestors.


JGF said...

I'm glad you had the energy to tackle this one! I considered blogging on it, but I couldn't raise the energy.

Fish is either confused or intentionally obtuse. There's abundant evidence that we're understanding the physiologic basis of 'morality' and we've long understood that ethics is a post hoc explanation of moral behavior.

Unknown said...

I think Fish is proceeding from the postmodern stance that one's basic assumptions determine how one views the world. Thus Darwinian theory makes some assumptions and sets forth some working propositions about how one would know something, and religious theory starts with some assumptions and propositions about how one would know something. Fish argues that therefore, a person proceeding from one of these positions will interpret real-world observations differently than a person proceeding from the other position.

He is unwilling to acknowledge that scientific theories like Darwinian evolutionary theory have ways of learning--i.e., of modifying basic assumptions and working propositions on the basis of how well hypotheses derived from them conform to the evidence. Religious theory, on the other hand, doesn't have good ways of "learning" in this sense. Anecdotal evidence is sometimes admitted, but only to the extent that it is validated by the original assumptions/propositions, not to the extent that it is able to falsify same on the basis of evidence systematically gathered in the real world.