Monday, May 18, 2009

And regarding Stanley Fish...this is actually quite insidious, if I understand it correctly

As a Buddhist, his "God Talk" bears comment:

In short, 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 (a word that should be taken literally) that fog. This is the promise offered by Christopher Hitchens, who tells his readers (in “God is Not Great”), “You will feel better . . . once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” (Thinkers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.)

Sounds good, sounds simple. Just free the mind of pre-packaged beliefs and take a good look at things. But is it that easy? Is observation a matter simply of opening up your baby blues and taking note of the evidence that presents itself? Does evidence come labeled as such – “I am evidence for thesis X but not Y”?

Pay attention.

That's good advice, from a Buddhist perspective.

Fish then goes on to make a rather tortured metaphor with the question of "authorship." He seems to claim that those who have questioned the issue of a sole author have problems with any kind of proof or arguments for authorship. I guess he thinks a monotheistic deity is an author, perhaps. As a technologist who's Buddhist I can see both sides of the question of the existence of authorship, as well as a resolution: the sole creator of a new technology does exist, as does the guy who's in the right place at the right time with the right idea. We attribute authorship to that. As a Buddhist, we can also see that everybody & everything's connected. But we have attributions of authorship under certain circumstances by convention.

To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers, there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But 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.

[T]he act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses ? Let's be generous (I think) and assume that "within hypotheses" means "conditioned on a hypothesis being true," which we probabilists would take to mean "considering the assumption that a particular hypothesis is true."

But as scientists we look at all hypotheses, and consider the conditions under which each would be true or false.

We don't favor one over the other until we have examined the data and implications of that data under each hypothesis.

Fish is wrong though in asserting that "observing can itself only take place within hypotheses." That's why those lucky enough to be in academia can get grad students to take data.

By the same analysis, simple reporting is never simple and common observation is an achievement of history and tradition, not the result of just having eyes.

Here now the existentialist in me complains: so if the report's wrong it's "history and tradition's" fault? Nonsense.

And while there surely are facts, there are no facts (at least not ones we as human beings have access to) that simply declare themselves to the chainless minds Hitchens promises us if we will only cast aside the blinders of religion.

Facts don't declare themselves, of course, and Fish would make a better case with such sloppy uses of metaphors. If he means that there are no facts to be observed impartially, this is insidious, because carried to its conclusion we should avoid an honest search for "What Is," because we are doomed to fail.

Oddly enough, I oppose this as a religious person, and Fish thinks this is an argument that buttresses a religious position.

Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.)

We Zen Buddhists do "Great faith, great doubt, and great determination." And while some of us are content to label the Transcendent Nature that pervades the universe as "god," others do not apprehend the deity of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or their successors in this. Of course the question's ultimately irrelevant, because that Transcendent Nature really does pervade the universe.

But the rationalist counter is well taken here as well: there's faith and there's faith. After examination of hypotheses, it's better to go with the one for which there are more observations, which one is ethically obligated to reach without prejudice.

I could go on, but I should be on the cushion pursuing the Great Matter instead of going mano a mano with Prof. Fish via the keyboard.

1 comment:

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