Thursday, July 22, 2004

Nietzsche and the Genetic Fallacy

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Book I, sec. 95:

Historical refutation as the definitive refutation. -- In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God -- today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous. -- When in former times one had refuted the 'proofs of the existence of God' put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted: in those days atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.

This passage, which is entirely characteristic of Nietzsche's way of thinking, strikes me as a text-book example of the genetic fallacy.

Every belief has an origin: it comes to be held by a person or a group of persons due to certain causes. Thus I came to believe that there are nine planets by reading it in a book as a child. Is Nietzsche suggesting that every belief is false just in virtue of its having an origin? That would be absurd. Is he suggesting instead that only false beliefs have origins? That too would be absurd. My belief that our solar system consists of exactly nine planets orbiting one mediocre star is true despite its having an origin.

Given that both true and false beliefs have origins, it follows that one cannot refute a belief, i.e., show it to be false, by tracing its origins. To think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy.

People who commit this fallacy fail to appreciate that questions as to the truth or falsity of a belief and as to the reasons for its truth or falsity are logically independent of questions as to the origin (genesis) of the belief in question. Herr Nietzsche is therefore quite mistaken in thinking that accounting for the genesis of a belief renders "superfluous" (ueberfluessig) the question of its truth or falsity.

Far from being the definite refutation, historical refutation is no refutation at all. A belief's loss of widespread acceptance and existential importance says nothing about its truth.

Nietzsche was subjectively certain of the nonexistence of God. But this was merely a fact about his psyche, a fact consistent both with the existence and the nonexistence of God. Similarly, the "death of God" -- in plain English: the waning of widespread belief in God among educated people -- is merely a cultural fact, if it is a fact. As such, it is consistent both with the existence and the nonexistence of God.

What Nietzsche and his followers do is presuppose that there there is a way things are: There is no God, no moral world-order; truth is a matter of perspective, a "vital lie"; the world at bottom is the will to power; and so on. Their view that logic is a falsification of experience absolves them of arguing for these theses. Armed with these unargued presuppositions, they set out to debunk countervailing positions. What they seem not to appreciate is that debunkers can be debunked and psychologizers psychologized; bullshitters of the decadent French form can themselves be bullshat. Deny truth and your presuppose truth. Turn everything into flux, and you flux yourself up as well. The river into which you can step only once turns out to be a river into which you cannot step at all. Logic, rendered super-fluous, gets its revenge in the end.