Monday, December 31, 2012

Lawyer Thinking vs. Scientist Thinking

Over at Cross Examined, hosted on Patheos, Bob Seidensticker distinguishes between two modes of thinking: open-ended scientific inquiry into the truth of the matter and a lawyer's biased defense of a perspective on the truth of the matter. The blog post is a response to an Christian apologist's critique of an earlier attempt made to clarify the distinction between the two sorts of thinking. Bob's disdain for lawyer thinking is palpable; to be fair, he thinks it appropriate to the court setting room, though he doesn't seem to think it appropriate anywhere else.

This blog caught my attention because Bob does not go out of his way to stick it to the religious nutcases. If anything, it is a more general account of how the truth is known. There will be implications for a 'scientific' perspective and a 'religious' perspective. Bob associates scientist thinking with being open-minded, and lawyer thinking with being close-minded. It won't come as a surprise to Bob, then, that the legal language permeates the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, since he thinks religious people close-minded. The relationship between God and creation is defined in terms of covenant, sinners are covenant breakers, whom God presses charges against in a heavenly court of law, and the function of the priestly caste to make restitution for blame-worthy actions.

The old debate about religion versus science is not the point of Bob's blog, even though Richard Dawkins does make a celebrity appearance. The actual point of contention concerns whether historical study constitutes an example of science thinking or lawyer thinking. Bob makes a rather high-minded (or, dare I say, Pollyanna-ish) assertion that historians 'use' science thinking rather than lawyer thinking. And I have to wonder what sorts of evidence Bob draws on to make this assertion. Has he read a couple of history books? Has he watched some professorial lectures online? Maybe he took a few history courses in college or university. Better yet, has he set through an academic conference debating the pros and cons of this or that point of interest? Or, even better yet, has he studied historiography, or the history of historiography?

Bob will have to forgive me for coming across as a bit glib. I have done all these things. His insistence that historians user science thinking, not lawyer thinking, doesn't ring true--and not merely because of the laughably simplistic definitions that Bob provides. One wonders, for example, whether Bob ever read and took to heart Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If he had, he would be aware that even scientific paradigms are inherently prejudiced, that there is no single standard of scientific rationality, and that different scientific disciplines operate with different criteria of truth in mind. The idea that any human endeavor could be entirely open-minded--'an egoless and collaborative search for the truth by following the facts where they lead'--is utopian and has very little to do with actual scientific study, i.e. its the sort of thinking with which religious persons have an intimate acquaintance. Collaboration and consensus have nice rings to them; but they are ideals, things we aim at and hope for, never realized in actuality.

The methods of scientific study do contribute to the study of human history, but they play second fiddle the methods of humanistic studies, which end up looking a lot like Bob's scanty description of lawyer thinking. What distinguishes the study of human history from the study of the natural sciences is the fact that principle body of evidence of which historians make use is created or generated by other human beings. Texts, buildings, coins, clothing, and so on, fit into this category. Rocks and trees don't communicate with human beings like human beings can and do communicate with other human beings. There is, after all, a fundamental difference naturally occurring rocks and trees and the rocks and trees with the word 'Hello' etched or carved into their surface. The latter has become a medium of human communication. This is a very simple truism, and Bob seems to have missed its importance. The study of human thought and action are subject to wholly different standards than the study of the natural world. The study of human thought and action is a self-referential study--human beings studying other human beings--whereas the study of rocks and trees is not. And, as it is human, it is not egoless.

As soon as questions about what another person meant by saying or doing this or that come to the fore, what Bob calls lawyer thinking takes precedence over what he calls scientist thinking. Why? Bob also misunderstands what goes on in a courtroom. In fact, the antagonism of a courtroom is highly consensual and collaborative. Everyone knows the roles prepared for them to play. Truth is supposed to emerge from a process of investigation and interrogation. There are rules that must be followed if the desired outcome is to be achieved. That desired outcomes serves the general social consensus on legal form of the political community. The process has been established to assess evidence that is generated by human being. Historians engage in a similar process of ordered antagonism when evaluating evidence their human-generated evidence. Different historians make their partial offerings to the study of a particular topic. Each definitive study can be taken to be a single ruling on a case. But the law and its interpretation, like human history and its interpretation, evolves over time. Old precedents are over-turned; new precedents are established.

My suggestion to Bob is that he ought to think less about different sorts of thinking and more about the different sorts of things about which human beings think--like the difference between rocks and trees, on the one hand, and texts and buildings, on the other.

No comments: