Science will win, because it works
A day or two ago I criticised Stanley Fish on his piece “Citing Chapter and Verse,” in which he purports to show that science and religion are really on all fours so far as evidence goes, and that both require an initial act of faith before either enterprise can get going. Not content with the depth of his own grave, he has decided to dig it a bit deeper, but this time he has chosen to lie down and let his critics bury him. He thinks he has escaped suffocation by a long disclaimer, but it won’t work. Let’s hear the disclaimer first:
This, I take it, is what many readers meant when they said, in a tone of triumph, that science works. Yes, it does, but so does literary criticism (it settles interpretive disputes, at least for a while) and so does therapy (it enhances the ability to socially interact, at least sometimes), and so does religious faith (it gives meaning and direction to life, at least for some people). The parenthetical qualifications in the previous sentence acknowledge that the certainty these practices give us is, at least from the perspective of the long run, provisional; it can be replaced or overturned or dislodged. But so can the certainties science gives us. Johnny E points out that not long ago “in geology everybody believed in geosynclines, there was lots of published data about them, but … now geosynclines don’t exist and everybody … believe[s] in seafloor spreading.” Now you see them, now you don’t.
However, this simply won’t do. If Fish hasn’t noticed the difference between the provisionality of, say, literary criticism, and the provisionality of science, perhaps we can chalk it up to age and dementia, but certainly not to acuity of vision and insight. Hermeneutic provisionality is toto caelo different to scientific provisionality. In fact, it’s perfectly reasonable for two people to disagree about the interpretation of a particular poem, and continue to disagree, although all the facts of language, rhyme, metre, metaphor, subtlety, and so on are agreed by both. But it is unreasonable to suppose that the disagreement between, say, Jerry Coyne and Jim Shapiro — see Jerry Coyne’s “Jim Shapiro continues his misguided attack on neo-Darwinism“ – can continue on indefinitely without resolution. It seems clear that Shapiro’s claim that the molecular structure of the immune system is still a characteristic of organisms that either has survival value or not, and that it is either selected for, and contributes to the survivability of progeny, or it is not, and does not, and that there is something true about the world that determines one or the other. This is not something about which scientists can happily differ, as literary critics, however deeply convinced they are about the adequacy of their own interpretations, and however grudgingly, must do regarding interpretations that disagree with theirs.
At this point Fish jumps into an abstruse discussion of what constitutes evidence in science, basing himself entirely on the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry under ‘evidence, and accepts the idea that “theories determine what will count as evidence” as a comprehensive account of what evidence consists in. And, so far as it goes, it is true. What we are able to see and take note of is, to a large degree, determined by theory, but it does not follow, as Fish seems to think, that what there is is determined by theory. Indeed, at this point Fish needs a bit more philosophy, and could with benefit to his argument consult Susan Haack’s Evidence and Inquiry. Haack develops an understanding of evidence which makes use of both coherence (with existing theory) and correspondence with what exists (foundationalism). She calls it “foundherentism,” and suggests that we look at the process as analogous to solving a crossword puzzle. Answers to the puzzle clues must be consistent with each other, such that if 5-down requires an e, then 7-across can’t be ‘cow’ if it intersects with 5-down. So while our answers must be consistent with theory (with the way the answers to the clues comport together), they are also contingent upon the facts as they externally are. This is how scientific theories are constructed and progress, and are sometimes falsified and discarded. Certainly, what we see will be dependent upon theory, especially when the theory in question has been especially powerful in answering the questions that we put to the nature of things. But when it increasingly fails to account for the facts, theory itself must undergo change. There is a constant interplay between theory and observation and experiment, and while theory may determine what is seen, in the first place, the lack of fit between theory and fact must lead, in the end, to new or revised theory, and when that happens, the relationships of hitherto discovered facts undergoes a readjustment to fit new theory based upon new fact (facts which did not fit the old theory), just as, when doing a crossword puzzle, a new clue may bring about a number of cascading changes to other parts of the puzzle, as they are required to adapt to another answer.
Fish’s problem is that he assumes that evidence is never independent of theory. As he says:
But if evidence is never independent and is only evidence within the precincts of a particular theory, “adherents of rival theories,” Kelly explains [in the Standford Encyclopedia], “will irremediably differ as to the appropriate description of the data itself.”
In this case, as Fish says, “agreement between them cannot be brought about by simply pointing to the data.” Well, yes, in one sense that is true, but it is only true if scientists are irremediably locked in to the specific theories in terms of which they are interpreting what they see. And this may certainly happen, and questions may remain undecided from time to time until theory has caught up with observation. However, this is not because there is no difference between literary criticism, or theology, on the one hand, and science on the other, for the simple reason that genuinely conflicting observations in science must indicate disagreement in theory, and conflicting theories cannot stand.
And here is where Fish goes disastrously awry. He takes the old familiar saying that “Seeing is believing.” And then he tries to parlay that into a basis for saying that we should
give the label ”real” to whatever appears perspicuous to us within the evidential lenses that we happen to be wearing.
The problem, as he sees it, is that if we “withhold the adjective ‘real’ from anything that is not independently apprehended, [we] will never bestow it.” But that word ‘independent’ is doing double or triple duty here. Fish is talking in terms of theory, and claiming that nothing that we apprehend is apprehended independently of theory. It is theory all the way down, as philosophers used to say. But there are different kinds of independence here. While it is true that various gods are posited within different theologies, it does not follow that we can append the word ‘real’ to any particular gods, for the theories (the theologies, in this case) may have no relation whatever to what really exists. They may simply be elaborate surmises based on historical traditions or subjective experiences, or a combination of both. And this is just the problem. By Fish’s reckoning, gods should be just as robust, ontologically, as quarks, but they aren’t. There are reasons, traceable back to things that we can observe, for positing the existence of quarks. They are theoretical constructs in a sense in which gods are not, and it is a misrepresentation of the facts to suggest otherwise.
Fish tries to suggest that our theories differ only in respect of their persuasiveness. ”Of course,” he says,
the things we give the label ”real” to are not all real in the same way and with the same persuasiveness to everyone. There are important differences between the arguments and experiments that are taken to support the reality of quarks …, and the arguments and statistics that are taken to support the reality of faith-healing or the power of prayer.
But this is silly. The reality of faith-healing is dependent upon the very same kinds of evidence upon which the reality of quarks depends, and it has failed all such tests. There is no evidence that faith-healing works, no evidence of the so-called power of prayer. There is evidence for the reality of what have come to be known as quarks. That I cannot provide a good explanation of this evidence is neither here nor there. I depend upon the expertise of physicists who have done the experiments, and physicists who have checked the reliability of those experiments. There is no corresponding expertise in the realm of faith-healing. And that means, like it or not, that quarks are independent of theory in a way in which the efficacy of faith is not.
By suggesting otherwise, Fish effectively lays waste to objective truth claims, even though he claims not to be doing this. Objectivity means, he says,
going with the best arguments, and bodies of evidence one has at the moment.
But this is circular, because it depends upon the ability to distinguish better from best. How do we know what the best arguments are, if there is no basis, independently of theory, for at least some of our truth claims? Fish says that “science and religion cannot be distinguished on the basis of fidelity to reality.” The argument that they cannot is, he says, true, but also harmless. If this is only the claim that we cannot prove that god does not exist, then it is in fact an empty, and fairly uninteresting flourish. But I think it is trying to be more profound than this. Fish is attempting to affirm that there is a kind of ontological equivalence between scientific truth claims and religious ones, and neither can be taken to be more firmly grounded in reality than the other. And that is poppycock!
Fish’s article is a response to comments, and he says at the end that he cannot forbear mentioning a few of the most caustic ones:
Finally, [he writes] I cannot forbear noting the picture of religion assumed by some of the most caustic commentators who say that religious experts “don’t engage in … debate” (chuckwagon), that when a religious truth is announced “no further inquiry is permitted” (Kevin Brady), that “religious dogma brooks no debate” (Prakash Nadkarni), that the only arguments believers have is “The bible says so” (Kevin Grierson) and that “Faith requires a belief system by fiat” (drdave).
For these supposed howlers Fish suggests a course of reading, possibly including Job, Augustine’s Confessions, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. However, let’s consider these few words from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon:
“Easter makes a claim not just about a potentially illuminating set of human activities, but about an event in history and its relation to the action of God,” he said.
“Very simply, in the words of this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that ‘God raised Jesus to life’.”
He said any understanding of the significance of the resurrection that fell short of this truth would be to misunderstand it.
Compare that to Kevin Grierson’s claim that the only argument believers have is that the Bible says so. In the Acts we are told that “God raised Jesus to life,” and, according to Rowan Williams, ”any understanding of the significance of the resurrection that fell short of this truth would be to misunderstand it.” That’s a sophisticated way of saying “the Bible tells me so,” and that if you don’t agree, you’ve misunderstood. Isn’t this also to reject debate — not that there is no debate about the significance of the resurrection, or of what it means to say that Jesus was raised to life, but that this explicitly rejects the value and even the intelligibility of such debate. It also seems, not to put to fine a point on it, to suggest that we cannot enquire further about this matter. The Bible says so; that settles it. Of course, in other registers, no doubt, the archbishop would be quite prepared to have a theological debate about this, but this is precisely the problem. While there is a great deal of debate in Christian theology, in the end it all comes back to what is said in the Bible. Jesus was raised from the dead, and this religious dogma does in fact brook no debate as Prakash Nadkarni said.
It is important to note, adverting to one of the remedial readings that Fish suggests, that, after the agonised questioning and debate of Job, who was suffering for no wrong that he had done, and who challenged God to meet him in court and justify his sufferings, God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38):
1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– 9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
– and more irrelevancies of the same sort. No doubt, Job is overawed, and in the end, submits himself to God’s supremacy, and repents in dust and ashes. But God’s answer is irrelevant to Job’s concerns, and his suffering is never justified or remedied, despite being made richer than before, with daughters even more beautiful. If Fish takes this as a demonstration that there is argument and debate in religion, he must also take it as a demonstration that such argument and debate fails to demonstrate anything to the purpose.
There is no proof in religion. In the end it really does come down to dogma. Contrary to Fish, let us take Richard Holloway, one time Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, as an example. His eyes were opened at the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops. He was appalled at the behaviour of some of the bishops at the conference, and their male chauvinism and homophobia. As he says in his autobiography, Leaving Alexandria:
Behind Lambeth’s contempt for gay men, there lay a deeper contempt for women themselves, because they too are incapable of the fuck in this primordial sense. Men fuck. Women get fucked. Q.E.D. [322-23]
At the conference a Nigerian bishop spread the rumour that Holloway’s daughters were lesbians. If it were true, says Holloway, it would not have mattered, but it was untrue, and the spreading of the rumour, and the nastiness behind it, he says, fortified his sense
that there was a profound sickness at the heart of so-called Biblical morality, if it could lead to such hatred and cruelty. 
It won’t do to say, in response to this, as Fish suggests, that no one uses the Bible in the way that Kevin Grierson suggests in his comment, for many, if not most, Christians do precisely this. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for all his theological sophistication, did precisely this in his Easter homily, and there is no point trying to pretend otherwise. When the pope says that women cannot be ordained, that is a dogma about which there is to be no debate. These are normative moves in religious contexts, and it is simply dishonest to suggest otherwise. This does not mean that religious people do not debate. They debate all the time. But the underlying structures do not consist in evidence that is independent of theory in the way that scientific evidence must be, but in doctrinal declarations, sacred texts, and anathemas of those who disagree. There is no way to get out of the hermeneutical circle in theology, but if there were no way out in science, airplanes would not fly. Science will win, because it works.