Rational Wiki Summarizes My Stanley Fish Paper

The skeptics and freethinkers over at Rational Wiki have done me the kindness of offering a one-line summary/review of my article on Stanley Fish’s presuppositionalism. It was part of a list of many other of their summaries of articles in Answers in Genesis’ Answers Research Journal. Needless to say, Rational Wiki views ARJ as a convenient punching bag. But I was surprised at how evenhanded some of the summarizing was.

Without further ado, here is their summary of my little paper:

Apparently, social constructionism literally means that anything you want to be true is true, and anything you want to be false is false.

Now, I don’t think that’s what I said… But that’s good, because conflict sells blog posts—right? Now it’s my job to take them to task. But how? They didn’t say very much. They did link, however, to their own wiki entry on social constructionism. This is what they said about it:

The strong version of social constructionism … posits that all knowledge is socially constructed through action and speech. This position is easily refuted in a number of ways. While it may be difficult in some cases to draw a clear distinction between brute and institutional facts, one can argue as Searle does that there are clear instances of fact that do not rely on social convention, such as the eruption of a volcano. Another line of argumentation is to accept the basic premises of the strong version but to argue that the consequences are either trivial or incoherent. Many objections to science come from excesses of social construction. While the extreme position is ridiculous (though exists, e.g. much of New Age thought), scientists are human and therefore full of s***, and the science they come up with can carry ridiculous amounts of entirely local cultural baggage. With time sciences tend to get less constructed and more objective; the really successful scientific models, like evolution or quantum mechanics, are truly alien to common human thinking.

Now the battle can be joined (come on in, new blog subscribers!). A few points:

  1. It may be unlikely (though surely not impossible) for people to deny the eruption of a volcano while it’s happening, but think about the kinds of presuppositions that underlie and guide the modern scientific enterprise. Think about the law of noncontradiction. Think about the uniformitarianism assumed in so much of our scientific inquiry. Is it as easily accessible to empirical verification as the eruption of a volcano? Even if it were, every day human beings deny things they know to be true. They deny the existence of their own creator, whose eternal power and divine nature are staring them in the face in creation (Rom 1:20–21). They—we all—suppress the moral law written on our hearts (Rom 2:14–15).
  2. There’s some hubris here, I’m afraid. “With time sciences tend to get less constructed and more objective”? Every day, and in every way, science is getting better and better? But based on what standard can you say that your field is getting more objective, if your field provides the only definition of “objective”? Is science getting better? Only, I think, in the sense that science seems to be proving itself progressively more useful for the purposes mankind has, not that it is proving itself to be more true (and who’s to say that all those purposes are good?). Scientific paradigms have been overturned in the past (see Kuhn); the educated elite of the day would have bristled at the suggestion that they’d pretty much gotten it all wrong. In the 1970s, the major American news magazines were following the scientists in proclaiming a coming ice age.
  3. But evolution and quantum mechanics are said to be so successful as models of the data—and so far from common sense—that they can’t be mere social constructions. And yet I say they can, or at least evolution can (I can’t speak to quantum mechanics). Even to common sense it leaves such massive questions unanswered: how did life begin? How did matter begin? Can random mutations truly explain the diversity of flora and fauna on our planet?

I obviously do not believe that all knowledge is socially constructed. I don’t believe that anything I want to be true is true, or that anything skeptics want to be false is false. True human knowledge has to be able to put together all the facts and the right presuppositions. True human knowledge begins, most importantly, with the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7). I have yet to find a rationalist (like the skeptics at Rational Wiki) who seems to be able to process this idea, or the related arguments of a Stanley Fish. Their worldview lenses make it nearly impossible to see the role played in their thinking by presuppositions. But, in fact, every skeptic who is presented with the idea retreats immediately to his most important presupposition: the scientific method is the beginning of knowledge.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

Leave a Reply