Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Nietzsche, Schacht, God, and the Genetic Fallacy

In Nietzsche (Routledge, 1983, pp. 122-130), Richard Schacht considers the question of whether Nietzsche’s genealogical method falls afoul of the genetic fallacy. To my surprise, Schacht quotes the very same passage from Daybreak that I cited in an earlier post as a clear-cut example of the fallacy in question.

What Nietzsche says in the Daybreak passage is that “a counter-proof that there is no God becomes superfluous” once we have an explanation of how the God-belief arose. (Of course, it is being assumed that the factors from which the belief arose do not include God, or the experience of God, or any innate notion of God. Otherwise, the genetic account would support the existence of God.) Now what Nietzsche is saying can be read two ways. Interpreted in a strictly logical way, he is saying that the right sort of genetic account of the God-belief definitively proves the nonexistence of God, and that this is why theistic disproofs are superfluous. Their work is done by the genetic account. Read in this way, Nietzsche clearly commits the genetic fallacy. For suppose the God-concept arose by way of a Feuerbachian process of unconscious anthropomorphic projection. This is logically consistent both with the existence and the nonexistence of God. Therefore, the availability and correctness of such a genetic account does not entail the nonexistence of God.

Read in a looser way, what Nietzsche is saying is that the question of the existence/nonexistence of God is rendered moot by the right sort of genetic account of the God-belief together with the unavailability of any positive reasons for thinking that God does exist. In other words, if the only reason for thinking that God exists is that his nonexistence has not been proven, then the availability of plausible genetic accounts renders a counter-proof that there is no God superfluous. Read in this way, Nietzsche does not commit the genetic fallacy: he does not take the genetic account as entailing the nonexistence of God, and so he allows the existence of God as a bare possibility; but he treats this possibility as moot, as not a live issue.

But granting that Nietzsche can be interpreted in such a way that he does not commit the genetic fallacy, does his genealogical subversion of the God-concept give us reason to abandon theism? Even if Nietzsche and his defenders such as Schacht avoid the genetic fallacy, can they avoid the fallacy of begging the question against the theist? Note that for their genetic account to have any debunking force, for it to render the God question moot, it must be assumed that (i) there is no mystical or religious experience of God, and that (ii) the God-concept is not an innate concept implanted in us by God. Obviously, if God is the origin of our God-concept, then such an origin is useless for purposes of Nietzschean subversion. It must also be assumed that (iii) there are no good positive arguments in support of God’s existence such as cosmological arguments from the existence of the manifest universe, or teleological arguments from its orderliness. The fact that these three points cannot be easily dismissed shows that the God question is not moot, but very much alive, thank you very much.

Here is how Schacht begs the question against the theist:

It can hardly be denied that at the outset of their career [the idea of God and the belief in the existence of God] in human thought their status was that of a fiction and a superstition. Modifications of their content serving merely to ward off objections made to various formulations of this content cannot as such be taken to alter their status. Their origins and motivations render them suspect; and the unavailability of any cogent arguments telling in favor of them must be conceded to tell strongly against them in light of this fact. (p. 129)


To assume that the God-concept and the God-belief are fictions is of course to beg the question against theism right out of the starting blocks. A crude and primitive conception of God could still be a conception of God, i.e., a conception that targets a reality and captures something true of it. (Compare: Dalton's conception of water as HO was crude, but on the right track.) Subsequent refinement of the God-concept as practiced by the likes of Augustine and Aquinas would then not merely have the purpose of warding off objections, but of enriching our knowledge of God.

There is also a serious question about the correctness of any given genetic account of the God-concept that the Nietzschean debunker provides us with given the availability of competing accounts. Clearly, there can be mutually exclusive accounts. On one possible account, desire for comfort and security is at the root of the God-concept. On another, it is a masochistic desire to feel weak and powerless. On a third, the God-concept arises from the need to give transcendent sanction to a people’s lust for domination: they want to feel good about smiting their enemies and so they create a collective fiction according to which God has promised to them alone a certain chunk of choice real estate. Presumably, the Nietzschean cannot just announce that there must be some correct genetic account: that would be too high-handed and a priori. That would be on a level with claiming that God must exist because no one has definitively proven his nonexistence. The Nietzschean must specify the details of an account and show that it works. This will not be easy to do given the availability of competing accounts. Thus a certain suspicion regarding the whole genetic enterprise is warranted. For if no account is provably correct, then perhaps there is no workable genetic account at all. Perhaps it is the very enterprise of debunking that needs debunking.

Note the circularity of: ‘There must be a workable genetic account since the God-concept is a fiction!’ Presumably, it is the availability of a detailed and plausible genetic account that supports the idea that the God-concept is fictional.

The upshot is at least a stand-off. The theist, as far as I can see, can hold his own against the Nietzschean debunker. This is not to say that theism is true, but that it is rationally defensible, and remains a live existential option, as much today as it was in the days of Augustine (354-430 A.D.). Neither God, nor the God-question are ‘dead,’ nor ought they be. They are living questions and they ought to be.