Saturday, July 24, 2004

Nietzsche and the Genetic Fallacy: Objections and Replies

A blogger by the name of StrangeSemantics offers a thoughtful, well-written, and interesting reply to yesterday’s Nietzsche post:

(By the way, why do so many bloggers hide behind pseudonyms? Why not be a man (or a woman), say what you think and take responsibility for it?)

The genetic fallacy is a fallacy of relevance, as I'm sure you know. However, in the case of Nietzsche's point about God-beliefs, the historical analysis is not irrelevant. If God-beliefs originated in and gained prominence through cultural factors, rather than actual experience of God, then Nietzsche's point is perfectly valid.

BV: Let’s be sure we understand what N’s point was in the passage I quoted. It was that “in former times, one sought to prove that there is no God...,” while today (Daybreak was published in 1881) “one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise.” This genetic account is supposed to make a proof that there is no God “superfluous.” In other words, one can show that the proposition that God exists is false simply by tracing the origin of the belief that God exists. But this is the genetic fallacy: it confuses questions about the origin of a belief-state (in an individual or in a group) with questions about the truth-value of a proposition which is the accusative of the belief-state. The crucial distinction between a belief-state (whether occurrent or
dispositional) and the belief-state’s content or accusative is at the root of the allegation of genetic fallacy.

Suppose no God-belief ever arose from any actual experience of God. Suppose instead that every such belief arose by inferences from facts about the physical world (its contingent existence, its order) or facts about our mental life such as the experience of conscience. It would still not follow that God does not exist. The objector speaks of “cultural factors.” Well, suppose every God-belief arose from cultural or psychological factors such as a need for comfort. See here. That would still not show that God does not exist.

Consider an analogy. A man dying of thirst in a desert forms a mental image of a water-source of such-and-such a description. Pretty clearly, it is his extreme need that accounts for the formation of the mental image. But then he stumbles upon a water-source of that very description. This is a possible situation. Its possibility shows that the inference from ‘need accounts for the image’ to ‘nothing corresponding to the image exists’ is invalid.

What is really going on here is that Nietzsche and his defenders are simply begging the question against the theist: they are presupposing the nonexistence of God. Of course, if God does not
exist, then the only possible explanation of God-beliefs must be in non-God terms. But then one has simply traded one fallacy (the genetic fallacy) for another (that of begging the question).

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against psychologizing. Once you show that the subject’s beliefs are false, you may psychologize all you like. But the crucial point is that you cannot show they are false by psychologizing.

Take another example where the origins of a belief matter. You may or may not be aware of the relatively recent debate among psychologists over the existence of recovered memories. Many of these recovered memories involve the belief that the individual who has recovered these memories was the victim of some previously unrecalled sexual abuse at the hands of a parent or family friend. These beliefs have led to criminal cases, and even convictions, based on little or no evidence other than the testimony of the allegedly abused individual based on his or her recovered memory of the alleged abuse. The primary argument against the existence of recovered memories, both in individual cases and in general, is a genetic one: these memories are not the product of actual instances of abuse, but of implanted memories from therapists or other sources
(e.g., books, friends, loved ones, or environmental sources such as newspapers accounts of other abuses). If we were going to structure the argument against a particular individual's (X) recovered memories being veridical as a syllogism, we would put it something like this:

P1 Beliefs about sexual abuse (or any other type of event) based on implanted recovered memories, rather than memories originating from actual abuse (or other type of event), are false.
P2 The beliefs of X about his/her sexual abuse are based on implanted recovered memories.
Therefore:
C The beliefs of X about his/her sexual abuse are false.

This argument is both valid and sound. Both premises are true, and so is the conclusion.


BV: I simply deny that (P1) is true. I take it there is a tacit universal quantifier in play in (P1) -- indeed there must be if the argument is to be valid in point of logical form. So what (P1) amounts to is: Every belief based on implanted recovered memories is false. And that is plainly false. What is true is that such beliefs are dubious and not sufficiently trustworthy to stand up in a court of law.

The reason is, the origins of beliefs about sexual abuse are relevant to the veracity [read: veridicality] of those beliefs (Gettier-like cases in which a person believes that he or she was abused because the beliefs were implanted, but was in fact abused and simply has no genuine memories of the event not withstanding). Nietzsche maintains, throughout his work, that the same is true about other beliefs, and about God-beliefs in particular. If God-beliefs arose not through experience of God (even if that experience is direct, in the sense that philosophers like Plantinga talk about these days), or reports about experience of God, but were created out of particular human psychological or cultural motives, then those beliefs are false, based on an argument similar to the one above about sexual abuse beliefs.

BV: Your central claim is this conditional statement: If God-beliefs originated from cultural/psychological motives, then those beliefs are false. But I deny that the consequent follows from the antecedent. No matter what the origin of a belief, the question of whether or not it is true is a logically independent question. Suppose a mathematician takes LSD and discovers a proof of a theorem. The validity of the proof is in no way mitigated by the rather extreme goings-on in his brain under the influence of LSD. Of course, later, when the LSD wears off, the validity of the proof can be checked by him and by his colleagues. But equally, theistic beliefs, once they have originated ontogenetically or phylogenetically by whatever concatenation of cultural or psychological causes, can be checked for rationality and plausibility
by philosophers even if these beliefs cannot be conclusively proven. (The only reason math results can be conclusively proven is because they rest on axioms that no one thinks to dispute.)

But even when our mathematician is not under the influence of drugs, he is is still under the influence of his brain-chemistry. If the cultural origin of God-beliefs shows that they are false, then why doesn’t the electrochemical origin of math-beliefs show that they too are false?

As in the sexual abuse situation, you could have Gettier-like cases that are relevant to Nietzsche's argument, in which God does exist, but our beliefs in God (all beliefs, including the first beliefs among humans) originated independent of any experience of God. A counter argument to Nietzsche's might be that while God has not directly interacted with any human, He set up the world, or the human mind, in such a way that humans would eventually invent a concept of Him.

BV: Very interesting. You now seem to be conceding what I said above when I rejected (P1).

This does not show that Nietzsche's argument is invalid. Instead it argues that Nietzsche's version of P1 is false, and therefore his argument is unsound. However, the need for a counter-argument like this shows the relevance of P1 in Nietzsche's argument, and thus demonstrates that Nietzsche is not committing the genetic fallacy.

BV: What you saying here is none too clear, but perhaps you have the following in mind as Nietzsche’s argument:

N1 Every belief that does not arise from its putative object but from some other cause is false.
N2 Theistic beliefs are not caused by God but by human wishes, needs, fears, etc.
Therefore
C Theistic beliefs are false.

This is a valid argument. It is unsound because (N1) – and perhaps (N2) as well – is false. But why is (N1) false? It is false because it commits the genetic fallacy: (N1) rests on the confusion of the question of the truth/falsity of a proposition p with the question of the origin of the belief that p. These are logically independent questions; (N1) violates this independence.

I am sure you are aware that the genetic fallacy is an informal fallacy; hence an argument valid in point of logical form can fall afoul of it. So, depite what you say, I persist in my view that Nietzsche commits the genetic fallacy in the passage I quoted.

A final note: Nietzsche does not argue that his point amounts to a disproof of God's existence.

BV: That’s exactly what he argues in the passage quoted. Please read it again.

Instead, he wants to show that our God-concepts are human constructions, rather than empirical or a priori beliefs.

BV: But obviously we don’t need Nietzsche to teach us that; we could have got that from Kant.

Showing that our God-concepts were constructed does exactly that! This is why he does not claim that such a historical argument amounts to a disproof of God's existence. Rather, it renders such disproof's "superfluous."

BV: ‘Superfluous’ means unnecessary. Now why is a disproof of the divine existence unnecessary? Precisely because it has already been accomplished by the genetic debunking of the God-belief. If the historical-genetic ‘argument’ does not amount to a purported disproof of God’s existence, what does it amount to? Seems you are missing N’s entire project. He is the debunker par excellence. He is out to genetically debunk practically all traditional notions, whether logical (identity), moral (guilt, conscience), theological, religious (sin), psychological (freedom of the will, existence of the self) – you name it.