Stanley Fish is complaining about atheists again. As you might guess from the last time we went through this, his arguments are poor, and worse, are the same tired apologetics for religion we’ve all heard a thousand times before. Come on, Fish, I expect better from the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor than a warmed-over platter of scraps left by creationists!
In short, Fish’s argument is that if religion has no evidence, then evolution doesn’t have any either; if the religious rely on a Holy Book, then so do the biologists in Darwin’s Origin of Species; and everything is built on faith, science and religion alike, so criticizing faith undermines both. It’s a typical retreat into extreme relativism that we see in creationists and the religious whenever their indefensible assertions are attacked. It’s also the same strategy we all remember from grade school playgrounds, where “I am rubber, you are glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you” was considered an effective protective chant. At least the schoolkids didn’t usually try to back up their mantra with bible verses, though. And they have the excuse of not having earned a Ph.D. yet.
The one statement he makes that I will not entirely disagree with is that he argues that the religious also build their conclusions with reason and logic. That’s not true for the majority of religious people — the primary impetus for faith is usually indoctrination with traditions and a desire for wish-fulfillment — but I do concede that there are smart people who erect towering logical constructs to support their beliefs, and conveniently enough, it’s those clever theologians to whom the believers cling when us nasty, unsympathetic members of the reality-based community get ornery. I’m not going to waste time with that; neither was Dawkins, and one of the most common complaints against his book was that he failed to appreciate the elegant elaborations that saints and theologians had assembled.
Let’s cut right to the point Fish put in his title: the evidence.
Fish complains that people like Harris and Dawkins claim that we will someday understand the natural cognitive processes that underlie principles like altruism, but that since we don’t understand it all now, it is exactly equivalent to religious faith. In fact, his entire argument rests on this bizarre conflation of religious belief in things unseen with the confidence scientists have that they will puzzle out the unknown.
They are not the same thing. I can think of two key differences.
One is that scientific belief is not built on an acceptance of the invisible and unseen. It is the product of a demonstrable history of success, of near constant progress in increasing our understanding of the natural world. It has proven useful to dismiss the supernatural hypothesis in the lab and in fieldwork; so useful, in fact, that many of us are arguing that the antique hypothesis of supernatural entities has been an obstacle to human endeavor for millennia, and it’s time to dismiss it altogether. Meanwhile, the utility of religion has been demonstrably shrinking—it explains nothing, and has been reduced to the domain of hucksters and the traditionalists who cling to ancient hierarchies. The “faith” of scientists is not faith as Stanley Fish understands it at all: it’s more like confidence born of a distinguished record of success. Meanwhile, the faith of the religious is more like the pathetic and forlorn hope after ages of failure that some tiny scrap of vindication might be found by closing their eyes tightly and pretending that a god dwells in the darkest parts of our ignorance.
Another is that it does not postulate the invisible and unseen. When Harris and Dawkins say that someday we will understand how emotions work, or how we make moral decisions, they are not inventing homunculi that dwell in the brain, or claiming that we will track down the source of the soul — they are saying that we already understand that the brain is made of proteins and lipids and salt solutions, and that we can see how activity is modulated by its chemical nature, and that future understanding will be, must be, built on that foundation of fact. For instance, we know very well that movement is generated by patterned ionic transients across axon membranes that trigger contractility in muscles. We do not then propose that there are ghosts flicking open ion channels deeper in the brain; we propose physical mechanisms that form and vary patterns of connections between neurons in the brain, and that there are signaling pathways that affect gene transcription, and so forth. Neuroscientists have been successfully marching deeper and deeper into the operation of the brain using that assumption of physicality, and it works. The tools of the religious are dead useless and have accomplished nothing in improving our understanding, but have been handy in hobbling us.
Fish is playing word games, using an imprecision in the English language to tag disparate phenomena with the same label. He can claim that the “faith” of the scientist is the same as the faith of the pious only because he does not understand the former. Accepting religious faith is to stand still and imagine a journey through a fantasy land, while science is about walking forward on firm footing towards a destination to which we may not have arrived yet, but can see glimmering on the horizon. It simply doesn’t matter that the faith-head is using his reason and imagination to extrapolate and create his fantasy world, so exclaiming that he has a brain and is using it doesn’t rescue him. The scientist will discover something new—Fish considers that remarkable and a strong assertion, and unsupported by evidence, but it’s a commonplace consequence of using science and ignoring religion—but that isn’t a matter of “faith” at all. It’s about as remarkable as understanding that the sun will rise in the morning.