Thursday, June 21, 2007

Epistemological Indigestion: Stanley Fish and Godly Chips

Stanley Fish is an academic heavyweight with very little intellectual mass. Unlike most pomo intellectuals, he can write clearly, which, unfortunately in his case, works out to be a handicap. It throws his misunderstandings, ignorance and confusion into sharp relief, proving that the impenetrable and obfuscatory prose typical of his school of thought was adopted for a good reason by his peers – it is probably a tactical ploy, not a deficiency. For his part, Fish frequently mistakes vocabulary for thought, and sophomoric nihilism for sophisticated skepticism.

Fish’s review of the “New Atheist” literature is too riddled with absurdities to bother writing a point-by-point rebuttal, but I will comment on two key points.

Darwinian explanations of morality: Fish repeats the old canard that Darwinism is unable to account for altruism or morality, a claim that should crumble upon reading even one of the numerous popular expositions of the subject that are around. Theoretical rationale for the evolution of altruism were famously laid out by biologists like Hamilton and Trivers, and its manifestations in social insects and suchlike plotted in great empirical detail by people like E. O. Wilson. The general idea is that the gene’s long term interests are often compromised by maxing out on short term opportunities, which is why natural selection found it useful to instill internal commitments (e.g., parental or romantic love, loyalty and tribalism, status seeking, etc.) that override the narrower kind of selfishness and materialism. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology has pushed the boundaries of these ideas in trying to understand the greater complexities of the human mind, though with more speculative and contested results so far.

Fish breezily invokes scientific authority (geneticist Francis Collins), dutifully trotted out for the occasion as useful idiots usually are, to claim that “physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism.” No argument, no demonstration of any awareness whatsoever of the ideas of Hamilton, Trivers or Wilson, just sweeping claim nailed into place by the typical argument from incredulity: “How can there be a naturalistic explanation of [altruism]?” Well, Dr. Fish, if you spent all semester next to the beer keg in the frat house (or the champagne bottle in the faculty club, for that matter) instead of reading the textbook, none of the questions would make any sense, would they?

Instead of tackling existing Darwinian theories of morality, Fish quotes at length (very selectively, I suspect) from Sam Harris’ ruminations about the course of future research in the area, proceeding to surmise that it “sounds an awfully lot like faith.” Of course it does, but I am yet to come across any commentary on any discipline’s future prospects that sounds “an awfully lot like established truth.” I haven’t read Harris’ book, but I have read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, where he takes care to explicate (for the umpteenth time), at some length, the Darwinian reasons for “irrational” behavior like altruism or suicide. Indeed, it forms the very basis of his attempts to explain religion. Fish summarizes Dawkins thus:

One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority.
The first assertion is flat out wrong, and one of the commonest misunderstandings of evolution, while the second constitutes a very minor mechanism. Fish either didn’t understand Dawkins at all (and likely doesn’t care if he does), or has resorted to subterfuge.

In any case, how does religion explain human morality, pray tell? As the learned professor helpfully guides us through subtle theology, we learn that morality may be understood by attributing it to God! And then, as the problem of theodicy inevitably raises its ugly head, by attributing cheating, theft, murder, rape, war, genocide (presumably earthquakes and tsunamis too) and every manner of evil twittery to that other exquisite divine gift – free will. We are good because of God, and bad in spite of Him. Our goodness is not our choice but God’s gift, yet God didn’t stop us from going bad because He was determined to give us choice. The fact that this assessment is preposterously rigged in the Creator’s favor from the beginning is almost beside the point. If Fish had bothered to do to Dawkins’ book what he doubtlessly hectors his students to do all the time, namely read it, he would have found copious discussion on the tired point regarding God of the gaps. The religious “explanation” of moral and immoral behavior is no explanation at all, at least of the kind that requires painstaking enquiry. It is simply giving a name to unknown causes – God as a shorthand for “whatever causes us to be good.” Maybe GOD is an acronym – Goofy Omnipresent Do-gooder?

[I’ll end my rant for now. If the mood still persists, there will be a second part later, on Stanley’s idiotic, relativistic meanderings about incompatible paradigms and epistemology in general. In case the link doesn't work, the Fish article can be found at: iraqwarit.]