Jerry Coyne put up a post on his website the other day raking Stanley Fish (of the New York Times) over the coals for his shabby piece of work on quoting chapter and verse: “Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture is the Right One?” However, Jerry has been putting up posts so quickly that this one is in danger of being forgotten, and since I wanted to speak about Stanley Fish as well, I thought it wise to remind you of Jerry’s contribution to the demolition of The Opinionator, as Fish is rather grandiosely styled. It’s better to have good opinions, if you’re going to use that as a byline!
Anyway, to get down to business. Fish is trying to establish an equivalence between references to sacred texts like the Bible or the Qu’ran and references to scientific literature by those who have not taken the trouble, or are not competent, to verify the claims being made. (He may in fact be trying to do more than that, but that’s enough to go on, and I don’t want to attribute to him claims that he wouldn’t want to make.) His point of departure is to take Dawkins’ casual, and deliberately confrontational use of the conventional saying about giving chapter and verse for a claim being made — which is often done in religious or theological contexts. Jesus said so — here — therefore … Here is Dawkins saying it.
(Notice, by the way, since I will raise it later, where the element of trust or faith comes in.) Now, what Dawkins is saying here is that by referring to peer-reviewed literature, there is some assurance that what is being claimed is true. Obviously, this is not a knock-down argument, for the research may actually have been falsified, and the chain of reviewers could have been implicated in a coverup of the falsification, or, like Marc Hauser’s research assistants, although suspecting scientific malfeasance, may have been reluctant to stretch their necks out in such a way as to ruin their chances of a scientific career. So, not everything written in scientific papers and books is guaranteed to be true. It may be wrong. In fact, a survey of articles in medical journals turns up many which are simply mistaken. In some cases it may turn out that an entire theory is wrong, and in that case the evidence needs to be revisited, and new explanations provided. This happened, for example, in the case of Lamarck’s theory of evolution by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which was shown to be mistaken. In fact, Dawkins has told a story about a scientist whom he greatly admired, approaching someone who had just provided a disproof of what that scientist had believed, saying, “I’ve been wrong these many years. Thank you for showing me where I had gone wrong.” That is the spirit of true science, where chapter and verse are not enough, and only evidence will do.
But, of course, this is just where Stanley Fish goes wrong, because the scientist, or the person who presents scientific findings in order to justify his opinion about how things are in the world, can always go behind the written text to the experimental or empirical confirmation of the claims made within the text, and this is something that cannot be done in the case of sacred texts. For the purposes of theology, the sacred text is the final word. What it says in the text is, by definition, held to be true, and there is no way to get behind the text to something else.
And notice, this is not just, as Jerry says, that “because we can’t justify the method of scientific inquiry by a priori logic, it is no more valid than methods of religious inquiry.” Nor was it ever (as this suggests) really an act of faith, as Fish claims, that reality could be understood by scientific enquiry. Jerry says:
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.
I don’t think that’s the way it was. It wasn’t an act of faith at all. It was an hypothesis. Thales, the earliest of the ancient Greek natural philosophers, who believed that the world was composed of water, didn’t make an act of faith. It was an hypothesis for which he attempted to provide reasons. He was wrong, of course, but that doesn’t make his theory into an act of faith. And that’s where Stanley Fish goes completely awry. He thinks both scientists and religious believers need to make an act of faith, but what was different about Thales metaphysical belief that the world was composed of water, and the religious belief that the world was created by divine fiat, is that Thales could have provided evidence (reasons) for accepting his theory, and he would have been prepared to accept evidence to the contrary. But the religious believer, whose beliefs are based on sacred text is locked into the confines of the text. If he wants to believe something else, he has to give a plausible case, within the text itself, for understanding the text differently.
Now, that’s a vital distinction between belief in revelation and belief in empirical theory and theory confirmation. There is no “act of faith” involved at any stage. Thales didn’t say that he had faith that the world was made of water; he thought it was made of water. And that’s the difference between revelation and discovery. And it wasn’t long before other Greek philosophers offered different theories about the basic stuff that lay beneath the world as it appears to us, the kind of stuff that could explain the why of the appearance. Religious proof-texting is a very different process. It’s true, of course, that the Greek philosophers couldn’t prove their theories. They didn’t have the equipment necessary for investigating the basic structure of things, though at least some of them had an inkling of this — Democritus, for instance, who thought that the universe was composed of atoms too small to be seen. This wasn’t an act of faith on his part. It was a reasonable conclusion based on the project of early physics: to determine the composition of the stuff which underlay everything and explained the diversity of the things that we see.
But Stanley Fish gets it all backwards and upside down. Here’s what he says:
We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.
This is nonsense. We don’t operate on trust at all. There is, of course, the level at which those who only know scientific conclusions by report need to be able to trust the sources of information, need to trust that the science has been done correctly, and is peer-reviewed correctly. But that’s not the level that Fish is talking about. He’s speaking, as Jerry does too, of the “act of faith” necessary to set off on the scientific project, but that, as I shall now claim, is established by the regularity and order of the world and our experience of it. If there weren’t sufficient regularity in the way things worked we wouldn’t be here. That’s why science actually working, as Stephen Hawking has said it does – ”Science will win, because it works” — is so important, because we are already familiar with the regularity, and that is what science sets out to explain. No faith is necessary, as Thales discovered, because it is what is right there that needs to be explained, not at a metaphysical, but at a physical level.
And at this level – at the coal face of science – we don’t need to make an act of faith, or operate on trust, because we can see, by their repetition, that things occur and recur in regular patterns. The question of what underlies those observed patterns is what interests us, and this is what science sets out to discover, and it all began with that basic theoretical question asked by Thales. What is it about the universe that enables it to act in regularly recurring ways? And this was not an act of faith, but a theoretical project. To bring science and faith together in the way that he does, Fish simply misunderstands the foundations of science. The difference between science and faith is brought out very clearly by Susan Haack, in her book, Defending Science — Within Reason, where she points out that for religion, according to Adolf Grünbaum, “it apparently doesn’t matter at all how the world is.” (284, my italics) But it is with how the world is that science is concerned in the first place. Science wants to know how the world is; it wants to know the why of the how. Religion, on the other hand, only asks the why question, regardless of the how, and thinks that that is a Big Question. But the why question, without the how, is irrelevant, because it isn’t an answer; it doesn’t tell us how it works; and that is what science is all about. As Haack says, speaking of the philosophical theologian Richard Swinburne: “Swinburne would offer the same explanation whatever laws scientists discovered.” (loc. cit.) And that’s the difference between an act of faith and an hypothesis. And that, by the way, is why God was never an explanation. It was just another way of saying that things are as they are. And it is precisely because he isn’t citing chapter and verse, that Dawkins’ claim that he can, makes sense.
None of this, of course, is meant to minimise the extent of the cultural bifurcation that has taken place between science and religion over the last two hundred years or so. Some people, like Alister McGrath and John Haught, want to claim that there is no conflict here, but even they must know that that is true only for reasonably “sophisticated” believers like them. There is a whole world out there in which the cultural divide between religion and science is a gulf simply too vast to be bridged, and which, to a very large extent, as Susan Jacoby says, though not entirely, parallels levels of education attained. How to bridge that gap is a social and political problem and a problem with education (and the rights of children, in my view), but it is not, as such, one that can be settled by argument, so I won’t even try. What is important is to see that, as Dawkins points out, there is a vast difference between citing scripture and giving chapter and verse for scientific confirmation, that the first engages matters of trust and faith, and that the latter raises questions about matters of fact and experience. There is no scientific scripture, and faith is not the evidence of things not seen.