Why do scholars in the humanities take pleasure in deflating the pretensions of their colleagues in the hard sciences? Why does someone like Fish enjoy landing a few punches on the noses of the likes of Dawkins and Pinker? I have a theory; it goes like this: hard scientists are sometimes clueless when it comes to epistemology, that is, the study of justified belief.
It is not the case that people of faith, not to mention students of the humanities, take things on faith, without testing the assumptions they make, and people of science take nothing on faith, and test everything until they prove it. On the contrary, as every epistemologist knows, knowledge of all types is set within a framework of a web of belief. With the demise of positivism, it is understood that a stock of indubitable certitudes from which we might deduce all necessary knowledge does not exist. Instead, theories are devised by taking as data some of one’s beliefs about entities deemed within a theory’s scope. It is possible to back-track, but one must start there.
As Fish aptly remarks,
with respect to a single demand — the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions — science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest).
Admittedly, it is possible to define science in such a way that everything about which human beings make non-probabilistic judgments stands outside the purview of science. In that scenario, all of the really interesting questions, what Pinker refers to as imponderables - subjective experience, the self, free will, conceptual meaning, knowledge, and morality - are questions of faith, not science. Not to mention the same questions brought down to a personal level, such as, does she love me? What is the purpose of my life? Why did that happen to me?
Though it may be the case that Pinker and Dawkins are convinced that they have no need of hypotheses relative to said questions in order to contribute to the progress of science, they continue to slip into a discussion of those very questions, questions which preoccupy philosophers and theologians and scholars of the humanities in general. Regardless, as a student of literature, history, anthropology, and theology, I am thankful that I can eat my cake and have it too. The questions of truth, beauty, and right and wrong fall within the domain of Pinker's "imponderables." In other words, there is no way one can converse about the good, the true, and the beautiful except within a web of belief in which certain ideas about subjective experience, the self, free will, and knowledge are open to debate, and, at the same time, foundational to the pursuit of further knowledge.
I get to ponder Pinker’s imponderables all the time. I pity him since (albeit only in theory) he cannot.
I see a banquet spread out before me. One would have thought that the dogs under the table would have wished for a few crumbs to come their way. Apparently not. They refuse even the crumbs.
If Dawkins is satisfied with being a strident atheist and, in his own words, a “cultural Christian,” the choice is his. But it seems to me that a less fractured life, in which means and ends bear a debatable but strong relationship to one another; a more thoughtful life, in which imponderables are pondered and specific working hypotheses about the same gather up and purify our most basic hopes and fears, will continue to be found attractive by the vast majority of those who belong to that odd species with an oversize brain, homo sapiens sapiens.
It’s ironic if you will. This is a fight between epistemologically self-aware atheists like Stanley Fish, Terry Eagleton, and Jürgen Habermas, and “blinded by the light” atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Pinker. Not surprisingly, the self-aware are winning the argument hands down.