Friday, April 13, 2012

From Fish to Latour, Really

Stanley Fish has made a NYTimes post that brought Latour to mind, specifically, actor-network theory (ANT). Not immediately, but upon thinking about it, I ended up with Latour.

The topic of Fish’s post, Evidence in Science and Religion, Part Two, invites controversy, which, of course, is just fine by Stanley Fish. The post generated 451 comments before comments were closed (I’ve not read any of them). I more or less agree with Fish on this one, as far as it goes. But the argument Fish makes really needs to be extended in a way one can at least begin to imagine by thinking in terms of Latourian networks.

Assumptions, Assumptions, Everywhere

Here’s how Fish sets things up:
In the post previous to this one, I revisited the question of the place of evidence in the discourses and practices of science and religion. I was prompted by a discussion on the show “Up w/ Chris Hayes” (MSNBC, March 25) in which Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins stated with great force and confidence that a key difference between science and religion is that the conclusions of the former are based on evidence that has emerged in the course of rigorous rational inquiry publicly conducted, while the conclusions of the latter are based on dogma, faith, unexamined authority, subjectivity and mere trust.

In response, Hayes observed that as laypersons, with respect to most areas of science we must take on trust what practitioners tell us. I took Hayes’s point further than he might be willing to take it, and suggested that because trust is common to both enterprises, the distinction between them, at least as it is asserted by Pinker and Dawkins, cannot be maintained.
Fish then informs us that his post got him in a heap of trouble with his readers—surprise, surprise! He clarifies, pointing out that he’s not asserting that the standards of science and religion are equivalent, rather:
What I do assert is that 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).

This means that all standards are equivalently mediated, not that all standards are equivalent in every respect.
Well . . . that remains to be seen. One might wonder how you establish “equivalence” of mediation, though I suspect Fish may mean nothing more rigorous than “they’re all mediated” rather than asserting some comparison between modes of mediation. But let’s allow Fish to have his way a bit more. 

 He continues:
Apart from the shared characteristic of not being directly in contact with something called reality, science and religion are different in many, familiar ways, and by and large the differences correspond to the tasks we typically ask them to perform.

If you want to build a better mousetrap or computer, you will look to scientists and engineers. If you want to improve your marriage or learn how to win friends and influence people, you will look elsewhere, perhaps to couples counselors or to a religious tradition. If you want to figure out what a poem means, you consult and deploy the vocabulary and categories of literary criticism. And in each instance you will do this not because you have some metaphysical belief about the adequacy of a method to its independent object, but because, in your experience, the resources for solving this problem or addressing this issue are to be found over here and not over there.
Many differences among these tasks are obvious, as are differences between the formal and informal social institutions enclosing them. But it is one thing to take informal note of such things based on whatever experience one may have in life and something else to study an institution in some detail and with rigor. How many of us have done that? The question speaks to the kinds of intuitions we tap when reading arguments such as Fish’s.

After more discussion of a fairly standard kind, at least in some circles, Fish goes on to point out that
the things we give the label “real” to are not all real in the same way and with the same persuasiveness to everyone. There are important differences between the arguments and experiments that are taken to support the reality of quarks ... and the arguments and statistics that are taken to support the reality of faith-healing or the power of prayer.
Fish offers more discussion, and then this penultimate paragraph:
What is difficult for many to grasp is the irrelevance of theoretical speculation about faith and evidence (or anything else) to the conduct of everyday life. As ja, a scientist, put it, an argument like the argument that both science and religion rely on “assumptions about their own first principle … seems to be of purely academic interest. Most humans spend the vast majority of their time worrying about practical … issues like the availability of food and water, the suitability of climate, maintaining health, and combatting illness.” Exactly! Not only is the argument that science and religion cannot be distinguished on the basis of fidelity to reality true (a word I do not shrink from for the same reason I do not shrink from the word “objectivity”), it is also harmless.
That is to say, everyday life is one arena, science is another, and religion yet another. Each has its own demands, tasks, and standards. We participate in each arena according to the practices and mores appropriate to it.

From Ideas to Networks

What does this have to do with Latour?

Let’s go back to Fish’s second paragraph, where he points out Chris Hays’s observation that “as laypersons, with respect to most areas of science we must take on trust what practitioners tell us.” Most scientists, of course, are laypersons with respect to any scientific discipline not-so-far from their own specialty or three and most scholars, in whatever discipline, a laypersons with respect to most intellectual disciplines. The world contains specializations of skill and knowledge in the tens if not hundreds of thousands and most of us are laypersons with respect to most of them.

We live our lives in a vast meshwork of intersecting networks. We must trust in the expertise of those who constitute these networks. Fish’s discussion implies those networks, but he conducts it in different terms. He talks generally of “methodological procedures” and “tasks” and “resources for solving this problem or addressing this issue.” This is all quite general. One might well, and properly, attribute this to the publication, a newspaper read by the general public.

But, unless Fish has changed is basic modes of thinking since his mid-career work in literary theory, that’s more or less how thinks; that’s more or less how many academics think about science and religion. It’s about ideas and methods of reasoning that are more or less disembodied, almost platonic. They’re just out there somewhere in the cultural ether.

But Latour, if I understand him correctly—for I’ve not read any of his empirical work, but only some more philosophical and methodological work (Reassembling the Social, Politics of Nature, We Have Never Been Modern)—is rather more concrete about such things. He shows that science and religion take place within networks consisting of real and specific individuals of various kinds: people for sure, but buildings, vehicles, machines and devices of all kinds, books and periodicals, and so forth. The assumptions that the religious and the scientific bring to bear on matters, those are only some of the things, the individuals, the actants, playing in the networks through which science and religion organize themselves.

While I can’t imagine Fish denying the existence of such networks, I don’t see that they’re uppermost in his mind either. It’s not what drives his intuitions. It’s like the Gestaltist’s duck-rabbit. Fish and Latour may look at the same state of affairs, but one is driven by the intuition that it is a rabbit while the other sees a duck.

Further, what makes the notion of unmediated access to the world, of tacit assumptions underlying approach to the world, even through ohmygosh science of all things! is the accompanying assumption that Man and Nature are utterly different, an assumption that underlies Fish’s thinking. That utter difference means that we can’t get there from here and those pesky assumptions are evidence of that. Latour simply drops that assumption and acknowledges that the networks constituting science and religion, and everything else, are variously constituted by humans and nonhumans, Nature and Culture.

A Thought Experiment into the Deep Past

Let us undertake a thought experiment. Let us begin by imagining some network organized along religious lines, say, the church I visited some months ago, and some other network organized by science, say the lab Latour and Woolgar investigated. The actants in each network are quite different. And it is easy enough for us, in a casual way, to think of some of those actors.

But I want to push those networks back into the past. All of the actants in either network, the humans and the nonhumans, came into a preexisting world, with already existing networks. The humans were born with trust in others and adopted the world they conferred on them; they didn’t not reason it out from first philosophical principles. They started in faith and trust; they did not arrive there.

What happens if we extend these networks back into the past? Of course, as we move back, many of the network threads are simply going to disappear for lack of any record. If we were able to recover that information, however, I think that, when we got sufficiently deep into the past, before the advent of writing, we’re going to find that the networks ancestral to the lab and the networks ancestral to the church begin to converge in the types of actants and relations they contain. When we get to the kind of world Lévi-Strauss described in The Savage Mind science and religion simply become abstract thought and ritual organizing the collective containing the humans and the nonhumans. And if we keep pushing back even beyond that world, we’ll find the humans in the network giving way to proto-humans and they, in turn, give way to clever apes. The humans have vanished from the network.

What assumptions did the humans inherit from the proto-humans, and the proto-humans from the apes?

And I see no way around it. Once we start thinking about these heterogeneous networks in which we live our lives, once we follow them into the past, we will arrive at a point where there are no longer any humans in the network at all. That, in that deep past, is the matrix from which our assumptions, if you will, our innate ideas, arose.

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