Fish’s big mistake: the reasons undergirding that belief are not that we can engage in a lot of philosophical pilpul to justify using reason and evidence to find out stuff about the universe. Rather, the reasons are that it works: we actually can understand the universe using reason and evidence, and we know that because that method has helped us build computers and airplanes, go to the moon, cure diseases, improve crops, and so on. All of us agree on these results. We simply don’t need a philosophical justification, and I scorn philosophers who equate religion and science because we don’t produce one.
People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.
And Coyne comments:
Yes, but we get results that all sane people agree on, and that actually help us get further results that help us solve problems and figure out why things are they way they are. Note how weaselly Fish is here by using the word “act of faith” to apply to both science and religion. Yes, it was originally an act of faith to assume that there was an external reality that could be comprehended by naturalistic processes, but it is no longer an act of faith: it is an act of confidence…
Well, Professor Fish, since science and religion rest on equally unjustifiable premises, do you operate on that conclusion? When you get sick, do you go to a doctor or to a shaman or faith healer? When you want to fly to one of your many conferences to preen in front of your colleagues, do you take an airplane or do you simply flap your arms and hope that faith teleports you there. Are you typing on a computer? Are you aware of the many ways that science works for you, and that that work is based on a succession of studies that trusted in reason and observation?
Regardless of the philosophical debate, this is really the best argument for science: it works like nothing else. No other approach to the world in the entire history of human consciousness comes anywhere close to competing with science’s track record of predicting and manipulating the material world. The consequences may not all be positive, and the philosophical implications may be disturbing for some people, but we live in a world where all of us in industrialized societies rely daily on technologies that are the direct fruit of extremely esoteric and non-obvious scientific theories. (More on this issue, and why you should read Darwin, here.)