Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Stanley Fish's untenable post-modern relativism

By Mathew Goldstein

In his New York Times opinion article, "Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture Is the Right One?", Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, argues that all "original authorities" choices are equally parochial, equally tribal, equally partisan, equally ideological, and equally arbitrary. Stanley Fish has his own beliefs, and he views himself as one of many other equally parochial, tribal, partisan, ideological advocates. What is important, in his view, is that while we hold and advocate for our beliefs, we simultaneously recognize that all competing beliefs have equally valid foundations. He criticizes modern atheists for placing "the tenets of materialist scientific inquiry" above other equally valid authorities, such as "revelation and conversion".

He points out that any defense of empiricism is circular because "the reasons undergirding that belief [in empiricism] are not independent of it." Such circularity is necessarily true of any possible method of belief justification (what Stanley Fish calls "original authorities") that is uniquely correct and successful. If there is only one method that reliably works then the only way to justify that method is to utilize that method to justify itself. But that doesn't mean all methods of justifying belief are equally valid. There is a way to compare the methods to each other. Consider the hypothetical: What would happen if we did not rely on this method?

Let's start with abandoning the methods of religious revelation and conversion, because those were the only two other methods Stanley Fish mentioned, and rely on empiricism (what Stanley Fish refers to as "education" or "materialist scientific inquiry"). What would happen? Well, generally speaking, people who convert from one religion to another other religion, or to or from no religion, and people who cite one religion based revelation as against another revelation, or no revelation, do equally well, more or less. So, for the sake of argument, lets just say that without relying on revelation and conversion people can, and do, proceed with living their lives as modern atheists (or, if you prefer, as "scientists") without major negative or positive impact.

Now let's try abandoning empiricism. Without empiricism we ignore our senses of smell, touch, hearing, and sight. We can stay perfectly still and within about one week we starve to death for lack of water sitting or lying in our urine and feces. Or maybe we move around, cut ourselves, break our bones smashing ourselves into things, burn ourselves, bleed to death, get run over by a car, walk over a cliff. The details don't matter, there are lots of possibilities, most of them leading to death within a few days.

Of course, outcomes are evidence, and we learn of these outcomes through the "original authority" that Stanley Fish refers to as "education", not from "revelation and conversion". So pointing to outcomes is an empirical way of defending empiricism. Stanley Fish thinks that makes the justification for empiricism circular, and he is right. But he is foolish, not just wrong, to claim that therefore empiricism is no better than any other authority for justifying beliefs. It is foolish because outcomes matter. The only method that reliably works is empiricism. Unlike all other ineffective methods, our lives literally depend on this one method, no one can survive as an independent person without many beliefs that are empirically justified. Everyone, even dependent young children, even dependent adults in adult care institutions, relies on empiricism to navigate our world.

There is no other method of belief justification that has any record of success whatsoever for distinguishing what is true from what is false. The reason that people who rely on revelation and conversion survive at all is that they are inconsistent. Religious people invariably rely on empiricism when they face important decisions that risk their health and welfare, such as whether to walk on water. These same religious people then arbitrarily rely on revelation and conversion when they make decisions that are relatively unimportant, such as whether to spend some time each weekend in a house of worship. Many religious people don't seem to recognize how inconsistent they are and fail to acknowledge the complete failure of revelation and conversion as methods for distinguishing what is true from what is false. Those religious people who really do follow revelation and conversion over education when making health decisions, also known as faith healing, such as Christian Scientists, sacrifice their, and their children's, health and welfare as a result.

At least one professor of humanities and law, maybe thinking he is being sophisticated by being non-judgmental, tragically appears to be unwilling to publicly acknowledge this substantial and important difference. Stanley Fish himself probably relies on medical doctors, not on faith healers, when it really matters to maintain his health, even though the medical knowledge database is obtained indirectly through second hand education that requires some trust in the sources of that information. He argues that because empirical evidence is often obtained second-hand, it is is no better than any other method. But almost all group activities require trust, such as the market economic system and democracy. It doesn't follow that a mixed market and command economic system and republican democracy are no better than North Korea's strictly command economic and political model. It is by inter-person and inter-generational sharing of empirically obtained knowledge that we continuously build up our knowledge base for better outcomes in the future than we had in the past. Yet according to Stanley Fish's relativistic argument, anyone with real and serious injuries who seeks assistance from faith healers instead of medical doctors has acted on equally valid evidence, and for equally good reason, as everyone who opts for medical doctors. The post-modern relativism that Stanley Fish is peddling is foolish nonsense on stilts.

1 comment:

Explicit Atheist said...

On the blog "Evolution Is True", Jerry A. Coyne, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, has now published a criticism of Stanley Fish's NY Times Opinionator article with arguments simlar to those in this article. He wrote of Stanley Fish "He’s the Andy Rooney of postmodernism, except, unlike Rooney, what he has to say is always dumb." and "Well, Professor Fish, since science and religion rest on equally unjustifiable premises, do you operate on that conclusion?  When you get sick, do you go to a doctor or to a shaman or faith healer?"