Stanley Fish, self-proclaimed “contemporary sophist,” recently weighed in on the “religion and science” question in the New York Times. For him, the chief problem we have in this area is that we’re too bothered by contradictions: “The potential for logical conflict, however, exists only under the assumption that all our beliefs should hang together, an assumption forced upon us not by the world, but by the polemical context of the culture wars.”
As a historical claim, the latter part of the sentence is laughable and merits no consideration: it takes very little research indeed to find that the drive for logical consistency far predates any modern culture wars. It can be found not only in Plato, its most famous advocate, but also in Augustine, in Aquinas, in Śaṅkara and Kumārila. One might be tempted to find an exception in Nāgārjuna and his Madhyamaka school, which try to avoid having any position whatsoever; but even Nāgārjuna relies in his arguments on the assumption that our positions should not contradict each other – should make logical sense. Fish is smart enough to know this point; the claim that the drive for consistency is a product of the contemporary culture wars can only be understood as a deliberate falsehood, a lie.
More interesting is the normative claim, the view that we shouldn’t be bothered by contradictions. After all, if that’s true, Fish may be entirely justified in lying. One can claim in the context of editorial journalism that consistency is merely a modern invention, and in the context of historical scholarship that it is an ideal as ancient as philosophy. That’s inconsistent, but consistency doesn’t matter.
Fish’s answer to the religion-science debates depends on just such a view: “the realms of belief supposedly existing in a condition of opposition and conflict are, at least to some extent, discrete. What you believe in one arena of human endeavor may have no spillover into what you believe, and do, in another.” In a sense, Fish is taking up the logical implications of the NOMA view more seriously than Stephen Jay Gould had himself: “science” and “religion” can remain separate domains, not because they don’t contradict each other on important matters (it should be obvious that they do) but because that contradiction itself doesn’t matter.
Fish’s argument makes the case from everyday life. It’s not hard to imagine a fundamentalist Christian medical student during the week learning biological ideas founded on the presumption that human life evolved over millions of years, and then going to Bible fellowship on Sunday and speaking about human life on the assumption that human life was created by Jehovah in one instant. People can and do live with contradictions. Why should contradictions bother anyone, beyond pedantic philosophers bothered by obscure details?
Well, for starters, most of us already are bothered. Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance is fairly well established in social psychology: the perception of inconsistency among our own beliefs and actions is a motivating factor in its own right, one that makes us want to reduce this inconsistency. Perhaps Fish’s preferred form of spiritual practice would be a kind of therapy or meditation that makes us comfortable with such inconsistencies. He doesn’t, however, describe how such a practice could work, nor why we might want to follow it rather than just trying to make our beliefs and practices more harmonious. So we’ve already got a prima facie reason to try and reduce our inconsistencies and contradictions.
More than that: consistency is important for the efficacy of self-transformation as well. If one is trying to practice Osho‘s ideal of free expression for pleasure and sexuality, one will be hindered by simultaneously trying to practice the ascetic self-denial of a Theravāda monk; and vice versa. One’s efforts to become a better Christian will be hindered by learning in science class that core Christian beliefs are false. Attempting to practise contradictory ideals is like taking an expectorant and a decongestant at the same time: one undermines one’s own efforts. Perhaps Fish has never tried to become a better Christian or a better Buddhist or just a better person more generally, and has never had to deal with this problem; but for those of us trying to improve our lives, it’s a big issue. Consistency matters, and the differences between competing worldviews will not be resolved this easily in practice, let alone in theory.