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Must There Be a Bottom Line?
« on: 2010-01-19 20:05:51 »
I posted this strictly for discussion and without initial judgment on my part.
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January 18, 2010, 9:30 pm
Must There Be a Bottom Line?
By STANLEY FISH
Stanley Fish on education, law and society.
God, religion, science
Tomorrow, Jan. 19, marks the official publication of Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s “Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion.” The title would seem to identify the book as an addition to the ever-growing body of studies that explore the relationships and tensions between religion and science, usually with the intent either of declaring one epistemologically or morally superior to the other, or of insisting (somewhat piously) that the two are compatible if we avoid extreme claims and counterclaims, or of triumphantly announcing that science is a form of faith, or of purporting to demonstrate that religion can be explained in naturalist terms as an expression of the instinct to survive and propagate.
While Smith rehearses these theses and shows limited sympathy for some of them (and disdain for some others), her object in the book is to interrogate and critique the assumption informing the conversation in which these are the standard contentions. The assumption she challenges — or, rather, says we can do without — is that underlying it all is some foundation or nodal point or central truth or master procedure that, if identified, allows us to distinguish among ways of knowing and anoint one as the lodestar of inquiry. The desire, she explains, is to sift through the claims of those perspectives and methods that vie for “underneath-it-all status” (a wonderful phrase) and validate one of them so that we can proceed in the confidence that our measures, protocols, techniques and procedures are in harmony with the universe and perhaps with God.
It is within the context of such a desire that science and religion are seen as in conflict, in part because the claims of both are often (but not always) totalizing; they amount to saying, I am the Truth and you shall have no other truths before me. But if religion and science are not thought of as rival candidates for the title “Ultimate Arbiter,” they can be examined, in more or less evolutionary terms, as highly developed, successful and different (though not totally different, as the history of their previous union shows) ways of coping with the situations and challenges human existence presents.
Thus the argument made by some champions of religion that were science to turn its naturalizing lens on itself, it would discover that “its theories reflect nothing more . . . than the biologically . . . shaped ideas and activities of mere mortal humans” is damaging only if science’s procedures come to nothing once the claim to transcendence of the human is abandoned or debunked. And in fact, says Smith, science and everything we appropriately value about it do very nicely even after such a debunking has been performed. For “what gives the cultural form (or set of ideas and practices) we call science its epistemic authority is not the putatively transcendent truth of its theories, but the fact that its models of the operations of the material-physical world enable us to predict, shape, and intervene in those operations more effectively in relation to our purposes.” (Richard Rorty often makes the same point.)
That is to say, we have certain problems, goals and difficulties with respect to the physical world, and of the models available to us for application and elaboration, science more often than not proves to be the most efficacious. Were our purposes otherwise — say, to deal with trauma, political hopes and fears, the project of community building — we might have recourse to other models and ideas from literature or philosophy or religion or even sports.
Once the shift is made from asking “what is and should be the ultimate ground of our actions?” to asking “what resources are available to us for dealing with these problems and opportunities?,” the question of which model or way of conceptualizing things is true or truer becomes, Smith observes, less urgent and less interesting. The inability of science to demonstrate its truth by standards not internal to its practices is not something to worry about because science “as a method is not the sort of thing that can be thought either true or false.” Rather, it works (with works being defined by our needs) or it doesn’t: “[L]ike using low-octane fuel or following a low-fat diet, the minimalism and self-restraint that defines it can only be thought more or less appropriate for the purposes at hand.”
What this means, among other things, is that the various projects we pursue and engage in may not all cohere in a single intelligible story. We may not be unified beings. In fact, Smith says, “the sets of beliefs held by each of us are fundamentally incoherent — that is, heterogeneous, fragmentary and, though often viable enough in specific contexts, potentially logically conflicting.” The potential for logical conflict, however, exists only under the assumption that all our beliefs should hang together, an assumption forced upon us not by the world, but by the polemical context of the culture wars. It is that context which generates the puzzles and (apparent) conundrums culture warriors hurl at one another, usually in the form, ”Well, if your philosophy tells you that facts are relative to belief systems, how come you don’t walk through walls or jump out of your apartment window?,” or (from the other side) “Well, if your philosophy tells you that religion and ethics are reducible to materialist evolutionary forces, why do you bother to be ethical at all?”
In short, if you believe this, how can you also believe that? The answer is that the realms of belief supposedly existing in a condition of opposition and conflict are, at least to some extent, discrete. What you believe in one arena of human endeavor may have no spillover into what you believe, and do, in another.
Thus, for example, you may have assented to an argument that calls into question the solidity of facts, but when you’re not doing meta-theory, you will experience facts as solidly as the most committed and polemical of empiricists. In doing so you will not be inconsistent or self-contradictory because the question of a belief in facts arises only in the special precincts of philosophical deliberation. In everyday life, we neither believe nor disbelieve in facts as a a general category; we just encounter particular ones in perfectly ordinary ways; and any challenge to one or more of them will also be perfectly ordinary, a matter of evidentiary adequacy or the force of counter examples or some other humdrum, non-philosophical measure of dis-confirmation. The conclusions we may have come to in the context of fancy epistemological debates (a context few will ever inhabit) will have no necessary force when we step into, and are asked to operate in, other contexts.
This last point is mine, not Smith’s (although I have reason to think she would find it agreeable). Her point, stated frequently and in the company of careful readings of those who might reject it, is that while science and religion exhibit different models, offer different resources, display different limitations and enter into different relationships of support and (historically specific) antagonism, they are not, and should not be seen as, battle-to-the-death opponents in a cosmic struggle. Nor are they epistemologically distinct in a way that leaves room for only one of them in the life of an individual or a society: “There is nothing that distinguishes how we produce and respond to Gods from how we produce and respond to a wide variety of other social-cognitive constructs ubiquitous in human culture and central to human experience.” Which is not to say that science and religion are the same, only that that their very different efforts to conceptualize and engage with very different challenges have a common source in human capacities and limitations.
Needless to say, not everyone will be pleased by this argument. Those strong religionists who believe that the overweening claims of science (or scientism) must be denounced daily will not be pleased by an argument that says nothing about redemption, salvation and sin, and gives full marks to science’s achievements. (Smith, a pupil of B.F. Skinner’s, has been a sympathetic and knowledgeable student of science for many years.) And those materialist atheists who see religion as the source of many of the world’s evils and all of its ignorance will not be pleased by an argument that finds an honorable place for religious beliefs and practices.
And some will be irritated by a book that does not take sides, but tells you what the sides are and how they make their (flawed) cases, and tells you, finally, that there needn’t be any sides at all. That’s what makes the book good.
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