Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More God Talk

Stanley Fish, the same New York Times columnist that prompted my last entry on this subject wrote a follow-up yesterday to respond to critics of his first piece. I certainly cannot do justice to that response in the little short space I'm going to give myself to notice it. Faithful readers, the handful of you that are out there, will have to bear with me for the next three weeks or so. I've got to read a Civil War paper* at a conference in early June, and I'm just at this point beginning to write it. If procrastination is a sin, I'm going to fry in the deepest pit of hell. Anyway, although my intent is to post something here on Powderfinger every day, I may not succeed. All depends on the mood of the Muse. Bear with me; just know that I'm pretty much consumed with work at the moment.

But to the point. Most of the critics of the original piece . . . . well, here, I'll let Fish summarize their argument for you: "while science provides a window on the world, religion places between us and the world a fog of doctrine and superstition, and if we want to become clear-eyed, we have to dispel . . . that fog." The ensuing discussion, which is highly interesting, but most difficult to encapsulate in a few sentences, turns on the notion of evidence. Fish essentially argues that the evidence one accepts is determined by the position one supports.

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence. . . . . the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur. While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

All very interesting, no? The relativity of argument! How post-Einsteinian! And yet . . . it makes sense to me. I've never put the argument in anywhere near these terms, but I've said the same thing for years: People believe what they want to believe. Which is another way of saying, rare is the person who is convinced by evidence, even overwhelming evidence, when it proves something he cannot bring himself to believe true. This is why both sides of the debate on religion or politics, especially these two, but others surely . . . this is why they just talk past each other 95 percent of the time.

*On an interesting, obscure subject: General H. H. Sibley's Confederate incursion into the New Mexico Territory in 1862.
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