April 26, 2012
Fish's Faulty Dilemma
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, April 26, 2012)
Fish's faulty dilemma
In the New York Times piece “Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture Is the Right One?” cultural gadfly Stanley Fish argues that scientists Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker define science in such a way that their materialist assumptions are wedded to science. But, Fish suggests, if we were to begin science with, say, a God assumption, things would be vastly different. I think that Fish makes some important and accurate observations, but I also think that he makes an important mistake.
Here are Fish’s important and accurate observations.
It's true that scientists such as Dawkins and Pinker appeal to materialist assumptions that they have connected to the very doing of science proper. Such materialist assumptions are also embedded in what Dawkins and Pinker say counts as scientific evidence, careful scrutiny, and method. As a result, the materialist assumptions end up in the conclusions of Dawkins and Pinker’s so-called “disinterested inquiry”—which is, as Fish correctly points out, a circular argument.
So far, so good (i.e., good for Fish, not Dawkins and Pinker).
A faulty dilemma arises, however, when Fish suggests (implies) that we must begin our scientific investigations by assuming either no God or God. To be sure, if we begin with no God and force science to reflect that assumption, we end up with no God. To be sure too, if we begin with God and force science to reflect that assumption, we end up with God. But, it seems to me, in the doing of science there is an unnoticed third alternative: begin with maybe God—and let the evidence have a say.
I think that materialist assumptions which have been wedded (whether wittingly or unwittingly) to the doing of science can be challenged in the name of scientific knowledge-seeking. How? By asking science to seek whatever is the best explanation, period, not merely whatever is the best material explanation.
Significantly, as Fish seems not to notice, Intelligent Design theorists have made this challenge by asking scientists (whether believers or non-believers) to approach empirical evidence open-mindedly so that if intelligent design is in fact empirically detectable, then science—as an empirical search for whatever is true—should have a design hypothesis available in its explanatory toolkit, instead of ruling design out at the get go.
Thus far, major plausible candidates for design explanations are the very beginning of life itself (i.e., the change from non-living chemicals to a complex specifically-structured living organism) and the fine-tuning of the universe's initial conditions at the big bang beginning (i.e., a fine-tuning that allows the universe to sustain life and/or bring about life's evolution, if it evolved).
Whether the detected design was caused by God or an alien—or whomever—would require subsequent philosophical and theological argument. (In this subsequent philosophical-theological argument, I would suggest that we also take into account the historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as additional evidence that points us to God.)
Unfortunately, Fish ignores this third way.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)