Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Still arguing god with Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish wrote an annoying essay about religion, which I complained about last week. This week he is back at it, responding to what must be a tiny sample of the comments he received. He has fun with this by picking shrill atheists who confirm, by their shrillness, everything he said about shallow atheism. But instead of responding seriously to the issues they raise, he tosses out further obfuscation.

He goes back again to the notion that scientific knowledge rests on a kind of faith:
Thought itself — the consideration of problems with a view to arriving at their solutions — requires chains, requires stipulated definitions, requires limits it did not choose but which enable and structure its operations....

If there is no thought without constraints (chains) and if the constraints cannot be the object of thought because they mark out the space in which thought will go on, what is noticed and perspicuous will always be a function of what cannot be noticed because it cannot be seen. The theological formulation of this insight is well known: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11). Once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained.

Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.
Yes, science depends on all sorts of assumptions, from cause and effect to the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in describing the world. But Wittgenstein demolished the facile equation of religious faith with a scientist's assumptions more than 70 years ago, saying "the house of science supports its foundation." Using the assumptions of science, you can launch a probe to Saturn and it will end up in exactly the orbit you predicted, and while this proves nothing it is strong evidence that cause and effect are real things. There is no equivalent evidence for the existence of god.

In his first piece, Fish offered this description from Terry Eagleton of the kingdom of God:
a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.
Yet when readers complain that Fish's religion is "Polyanna-like, happy-days optimism", he protests. Certainly there is much darkness in a Christian view of the world, but if Eagleton's notion of the kingdom of God is not wildly optimistic, what is? Is not the Christian promise of eternal life in paradise not the most optimistic possible idea? What could go beyond it as something to be hoped for?

Fish likes being a Christian, and finds life without theological underpinnings empty. Which is ok by me. But as an intellectual, he feels that he has to be able to defend his faith intellectually, using the kind of arguments he regularly deploys in his essays. I wonder if he can even see how weak his arguments appear to someone who lacks his vision.

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