The Fish files

Massimo Pigliucci says why Fish is wrong and silly.

[T]he problem lies with Fish’s cheap rhetorical trick: Stanley seems to think that once one has refuted the naive logical positivist view that human beings can adopt a purely objective viewpoint and grasp reality for what it actually is (a position that in philosophy has been abandoned since the 1950s, by the way), voilà, all knowledge has ultimately been shown to be a matter of faith…It is simply not true, as our friend cavalierly maintains, that “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.” And the reason this is not the case is that there are more than two options on the table. True, facts don’t speak for themselves, and evidence is such only within a particular conceptual framework, which itself depends on certain assumptions. But the framework and the assumptions don’t need to be arbitrary. In science, they are not (contrary to postmodern literary criticism).

The web of scientific knowledge is reliable, Pigliucci says, because it works; one can keep examining particular threads, and pulling them away if necessary, without destroying the whole web.

As always in the case of postmodernism, a perfectly reasonable and potentially interesting idea (the non-independence of facts and theories, which was not discovered by postmodernists) gets blown out of proportion to justify an insane conclusion (that science is the same as religion, or that reason and faith are on the same epistemological level), a conclusion that very likely the author himself does not believe. A famous quip by philosopher Bertrand Russell comes to mind: I wish that all philosophers who do not believe in the existence of walls would get into a car and drive straight into a wall (any would do) at a speed proportional to their skepticism concerning the existence of the wall itself.

To finish, Pigliucci tells Fish off for the childish last paragraph in which he reports that somebody wrote a piece that started ‘Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?’

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