Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Noch Einmal: Nietzsche and the Genetic Fallacy

Hunt Stilwell writes:

Wow, sorry about the poor grammar. That's what I get for not editing, and starting to say things one way, and then saying it in another. Obviously, it should be, "Not only does he [Nietzsche]not explicitly say that he is doing this, but such a disproof...". Anyway, to make a coherent point. I should also have said our God-concept is a construction, rather than God itself. God may very well be "independent of everything that exists," but under Nietzsche's view, our concepts of God are constructions (whether they have any correspondence to the actual God, if it exists, or not). The point is simply that the construction, and subsequent use (notice Nietzsche talks about the prominence of such beliefs as part of the argument, and not just their origins) can be shown to be destructive, and therefore belief in them inadvisable. Bad fictions are not to be believed, and this is what our God-concepts would be if they were constructed and destructive (they would be fictions, even if God actually exists, and our concepts correspond to it in any way- imagine a character in a fictional book who inadvertently corresponds completely to an actual person - he's still a fictional character, who corresponds to the real by chance). If this is so, then disprooving such beliefs is unnecessary, and hence, superfluous.

BV: Now I think I see what you mean. You are inviting us to consider the possibility that God exists, but that (i) our God-concept is a mere human construction in the service of human, all-too-human, needs and desires, a concept that merely happens to correspond to something real, and that (ii) this concept is an impediment to human flourishing. I take you to be saying that a proof of both (i) and (ii) would render superfluous any proof of the nonexistence of God. In other words, if it can be shown that the concept of God is a deleterious human construction, then one ought not believe in God, even if God does exist, with the result that the objective question of whether God does or does not exist drops out. If this is what you are saying, then I concede that Nietzsche in the passage quoted can be so interpreted that he does not commit the genetic fallacy: he does not take the putatively human origin of the concept of God to show that God does not exist. On this interpretation, Nietzsche is 'bracketing' (in roughly Husserl's sense) the question of the existence/nonexistence of God and investigating the life-enhancing or life-stunting value of the God-belief in terms of its psychological and cultural origins.

This concession, however, does not settle the matter since Nietzsche and his defenders now face a dilemma. Either N. commits the genetic fallacy or he does not. If the former, then N. stands condemned and must repeat Logic 101. If, however, N. does not commit the genetic fallacy, then he accepts the coherence of an attitude like the following:

Even if God exists, I refuse to indulge in this belief on the ground that it will weaken me or otherwise unfit me for a strong, dominant, happy life in this world.

Now this attitude strikes me as incoherent. The question as to whether or not God objectively exists cannot fail to be a most serious question for any serious human being, as great philosophers such as Pascal and Brentano have clearly seen. For God is by definition the summum bonum participation in which would be the highest good for a human being. If God exists, then belief in, and ultimately knowledge of, God is where my happiness lies. To refuse to cultivate this belief on the ground that it unfits me for life in this world makes sense only if there is no God and this world is the only world. But then one must make a reasoned case for God's nonexistence. If that reasoned case involves an account of the origin of the God-belief, then N. and his followers fall into the genetic fallacy. If, on the other prong, they stay clear of the fallacy, and consider the God-belief in merely 'immanent' fashion, i.e., under bracketing of all concern with its transcendent reference or lack thereof, then they willy-nilly presuppose the nonexistence of God -- which is a frivolous thing to do if one is serious about human flourishing. They must presuppose the nonexistence of God if the God-belief is to be destructive of human flourishing.

The God-belief is destructive presumably because it is weakening. But it is weakening only if God does not exist. If God does exist, then the God-belief is ultimately 'empowering' -- I hate this PC term, but here it finds an appropriate use. So it seems to me that there is no getting around the question of the objective existence/nonexistence of God: to prove that the God-belief is destructive, one must first prove (or make a reasoned case for) the nonexistence of God.

Hence I persist in my original conclusion: theistic disproofs are not rendered superfluous by Nietzschean conceptual genealogy. They are necessary if one is to show that the God-belief is destructive of human happiness.