Someone give Fish a new topic, please

Because this is getting ridiculous. It's another installment in the atheism/faith debate, and this one is no more convincing than any of the others. Fish's argument isn't even a variation on a theme this time--it's the same old "atheism is as much a faith as any other religion" argument, dressed up in some fancy language. Here's an example:

Dawkins exhibits the same pattern of reasoning. He believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. 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. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”


Now before we get to Fish's "aha!" moment, let's take a look at the basic argument here. Dawkins is making his argument about altruism in response to the claim made by many in the faith-based community that altruism/morality/generosity exists only because God hardwired it into us. In short, without a God, we'd be a bunch of slavering animals killing each other off in a fits of desire to survive at all costs. Dawkins shows--as have many other biologists--that altruism is often a viable evolutionary strategy, and a more effective one than simply climbing to the top of the food chain.

But here's Fish's triumphant moment:
Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.

So in other words, Dawkins sees the world that way because he's determined to see it that way, just as a young-earth creationist sees the earth as 6,000 years old because he's determined to see the "evidence" for his belief in that light. Fish, I imagine, would hesitate at my characterization of his argument, but while my counter-example is an extreme one, I think it's also a fair one. A young earth creationist--and I was one, when I was a Jehovah's Witness--has all sorts of "evidence" for why the earth (or in my case, human and animal life) is only 6,000 years old, and sees that evidence as logical and compelling. But that "evidence" is crap, because it flies in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. Quality of evidence makes a difference.

I'm not saying Fish is an extremist--I don't think he is--but I do believe he has a lot invested in the issue of faith despite his claims that readers can't have determined anything about his personal views from his writing on the subject. I don't think a person honestly makes the argument above if that person doesn't have belief of some kind, and I think that honesty has to be a primary component of any sort of reasonable discussion on this topic. This is not an honest statement:
just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.

I'm speaking from personal experience here--you don't have faith in physical science in the same way you have faith in an afterlife. In fact, I think it's more than a little misleading to call understanding something like Newton's Laws of Motion faith. There's no faith involved in understanding the basics of natural selection--it's not required. You need faith to believe in an afterlife, or in the Trinity, or in Zeus sitting on Mount Olympus, lightning bolts by his side.

But here's the other side of that--saying that understand how a process works in general doesn't mean that you necessarily understand how that process works in every aspect. So if faith plays a part in science, it does so as a sort of extrapolation from current evidence--X has occurred every time I've observed this phenomenon, and so I assume it will continue, and if I do something, Y is likely to occur. Of course, if Y doesn't occur, good scientists generally say "hmm. Let's figure out why that didn't happen the way I expected."

So for Fish to argue "Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design," is more than a little ludicrous, because faith is a huge catch-all of a word. It encompasses those young earth creationists I mentioned earlier--and that's a faith that should consider itself falsified by empirical evidence. I'm not suggesting that everyone who has faith is as silly as those young earth creationists--but I'm not arguing that understanding the natural processes of the world is the same as believing in a personal God either, so I'm not depending on words that encompass a world full of people, many of whom would look askance at being lumped in with each other under the rubric of "people of faith."

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