Evidence and Assumptions

Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami.. He has written a nice article addressing the debate du jour about faith and reason. I draw attention to it here simply because he makes a point that should be familiar to anyone who has read The Design Matrix. It is a point that is crucial to grasping the core argument of the book. Have a look:

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions…..that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

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.

While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

Yes, evidence is not an independent feature of the world. As I write in TDM:

In many ways, it is perception that is at the heart of the whole debate between design and non-teleological evolution. Regardless of their point of view on the subject, many people discuss and argue about “the evidence” as if this is all that matters. But what is evidence? It is not something we encounter or detect objectively, it is data that we interpret. This act of interpretation transforms data into evidence. But of what? Evidence for a hypothesis or theory—both of which are mental constructs, used to convert the raw data into something we call “evidence.” What we detect with our senses is not evidence, but raw data; it is what our minds recognize, while interpreting the data.

This is what explains an exchange I am all too familiar with over the years:

Critic: Mr. Gene, there is NO evidence for your views.

Mike: Well, what would you count as evidence for my views?

Critic: Er, um……..uh……..

In other words, even though my critics don’t seem to know what would count as evidence for my views, they know with certainty that I have none.

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