April 07, 2011

Genetic Fallacy

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, April 7, 2011

Genetic Fallacy

A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning or argument. Some fallacies are so common that they have been given their own names. Today we will look at the genetic fallacy.

Philosopher J. P. Moreland explains the genetic fallacy as follows: "This fallacy occurs when someone confuses the origin [genesis] of an idea with the reasons for believing the idea and faults the idea because of where it came from (for example, because of who said it or how the idea first came to believed) and not because of the adequacy of the grounds for the idea."

For example, consider this argument (said by a critic of objective moral truth): You learned about right and wrong from your parents, so your beliefs about the reality of right and wrong should be dismissed.

In reply, let's say it's true that I learned about right and wrong from my parents. We should notice, however, that from this truth it does not follow logically that what I learned should be dismissed as false.

My parents also taught me that Ottawa is the capital city of Canada, that water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius (under normal atmospheric conditions), that the Holocaust happened, and that 2+2=4. Surely, whether we should think that a belief is true depends on whether there are good reasons for believing it, not merely on where or from whom it was learned.

C. S. Lewis writes the following as a general reply to those who are inclined to commit the genetic fallacy (Lewis had in mind the Marxists and Freudians of his time): "[Y]ou must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [of argumentation] is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly."

So the question that's missed or dismissed by the critic is this: Regardless of whether my parents taught me about right and wrong—regardless of how I "became so silly"—do I have good reasons for thinking that moral truths actually exist? The fact is that I—we—do. (Take a look at philosopher Paul Chamberlain’s book Can We Be Good Without God, available in many libraries, or take a look at chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation, available online.)

The genetic fallacy would have us ignore this fact right from the get go.

Now consider another example (a criticism of Christianity, which is popular in our present postmodern era): You are a Christian because you grew up in a Christian country, but if you grew up in a Muslim country you'd probably be a Muslim—so your religious beliefs should be dismissed.

Okay, let's say it's true that I grew up in a Christian country, and let's say it's true that growing up in a Christian or Muslim country makes it probable that I would be, respectively, a Christian or a Muslim. These are interesting truths. But they're beside the point.

Whether one's Christian or Muslim beliefs should be accepted or dismissed depends on whether there are good reasons for those beliefs, not merely on where or from whom the beliefs were learned.

So the question that's missed or dismissed by the critic is this: Regardless of where I grew up—regardless of how I "became so silly"—do I have good reasons for thinking that Jesus is God and Muhammad isn't? The fact is that I—we—do. (Take a look at philosopher William Lane Craig’s books Reasonable Faith or On Guard, available in most bookstores, or take a look at the rest of my PhD dissertation.)

Again, the genetic fallacy would have us ignore this fact right from the get go.

Moreland clarifies the problem that lurks at the heart of the genetic fallacy by drawing much-needed attention to an oft-missed distinction. In answering the question—Why do you believe in x?—the genetic fallacy gains traction because people tend to confuse a psychological-sociological originating "why" with a rational-justifying "why."

To be sure, answering the why question in terms of personal or social origins is interesting and important from the point of view of psychology and sociology. Personality quirks and motives plus social and cultural contexts can and do influence what we believe—and it's good to be aware of this. (Think of Joe whose ego is so huge that he believes he can never do wrong, or think of Jane who is racist because she grew up in a society that promotes the view that one race is inferior to another.)

Nevertheless, and this point is crucial, answering the why question in terms of whether the belief is actually well grounded in truth and reason is a different, independent question—and answering this question allows us to assess the logical and truth-related merits of the psychological and sociological influences. (By discerning truth, we can know that both Joe and Jane are mistaken.)

Why do you believe in x? Answers to the psychological-sociological “why” may provide grounds to suspect that belief in x is problematic, but answers for the rational-justifying “why” must be dealt with first.

The genetic fallacy occurs, then, when one thinks that the psychological and sociological factors in an idea's discovery are the whole story when in fact there's another, more fundamental story—one that has to do with the testing and justification of the idea via truth, evidence, and critical reasoning.

What's silly is the genetic fallacy.

P.S. For further reading on the genetic fallacy, I recommend C. S. Lewis's essay "Bulverism" which can be found in his book God in the Dock. (Lewis's book is available in most libraries and bookstores; his essay is also available online).

Update: Here is a very short video interview with William Lane Craig on the Genetic Fallacy: The One Minute Apologist.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Manitoba, CanadaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


Climenheise said...

Bulverism is one of my favourite essays by Lewis. I also enjoyed the comments on the genetic fallacy in Kreeft's "Between Heaven and Hell". Thanks for a good column. It is especially pertinent for those who say, "You're a Christian because of where you were born and the family in which you were raised." Even if I am, the observation says nothing about the truth of my belief. Then the speaker will follow up with, "Therefore I don't believe this Christian thing because it's simply unfair." One could argue that the speaker only says this because of the prevailing societal thought-patterns in which we live. That observation also may be true; but I have to show that the statement itself is wrong (in which your column helps), and only then ask how the speaker came to make so elementary a mistake.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks for your comment, Daryl.

"Bulverism" is one of my favourite essays by Lewis, too. And I really like Peter Kreeft's work as well. Lewis's writings influenced me quite a bit when I first became (was becoming) a Christian, and Lewis's work helped me much in my studies in philosophy. Ditto for Kreeft.

About the speaker you mention and his/her follow-up comment (about Christianity being unfair), I would add the following for the sake of clarification. A person who asserts the claim that X is unfair has to shoulder a burden of proof for that claim, i.e., the person should shoulder some responsibility for providing grounds/ argument for believing the claim. Yes (as you correctly point out), the claim that X is unfair shouldn't be explained away socially or psychologically unless I've first shown that the claim is mistaken. Nevertheless (and here is the point of my clarification), the speaker's claim that X is unfair need not be accepted as true merely because I haven't shown that the claim itself is wrong. The speaker's assertion of a claim is not enough; substantiation for the claim is also needed.

For additional discussion on the burden of proof issue vis-à-vis claims concerning God's existence, see my December 28 2009 replies to my agnostic friend Jordan Kotick here.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

I have heard before phrases built upon the "I was born in a Christian country..." or "He was born in a Muslim country," but in fairness to those I heard, it was never in the context of "therefore the truths of such systems should be rejected." In my context at least, these wouldn't be examples of such a fallacy.

Such comments were brought up in the context of pluralism, and how we understand the possibility of salvation.

In a series of homilies I recently read by Joseph Ratzinger (from the early 60's), he observed that everything Christians believe about God, and know about humans prevents them from accepting that beyond the limits of the Church there is no salvation. Ratzinger said that we Christians are no longer able to think of our neighbours --- decent and respectable people --- and in many ways better than we Christians, as being damned simply because they are not Catholic.

To that extent, when I hear comments about someone being born in a Muslim country, I am hearing "He's not a Christian, NOT because he hates them or is disinterested in the God they present, but because he was born in a country where everyone else is Muslim."

Such a comment is intended to convey that this should have no bearing on his capacity to respond to God as a Muslim, and I have no problem with this sentiment, even if I do believe that when such a person encounters Christ in a more personal way their life will be more fulfilled.

By the way, Happy Easter...

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Kelly,

Thanks for your interesting comment. Please keep in mind that the point of the present installment of my column (and its examples) is that if one discounts the truth of a belief because of the belief’s originating psychological or social factors when relevant rational truth-related factors are being neglected, then one incurs the genetic fallacy. In other words, my column has to do with logical or epistemological matters, not theological matters or questions of who hates and who doesn’t hate God or questions of who is and who isn’t damned.

Nevertheless, I will say this about the topics you raise: From what I gather from reading the New Testament (and, say, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion), it does look like some people have a "hate on" for God; I also gather from reading the New Testament (and from some personal experience) that some people choose to cut themselves off from intimate union with God. Having said this, I quickly add that it is best that specific judgments about who truly hates God and who, if anyone (whether Christian, Muslim, or whomever), will actually be cut off from God eternally should be judgments that are left up to God. In addition, I quickly add that we should remember that the New Testament tells us to proclaim (and defend) the truth of Jesus' resurrection and the accompanying good news (John 3:16).

Happy Easter to you too!


Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. V,

Having blogged for a few years, when I see a comment responded to as "interesting," my experience is that it is usually followed by a "but," and then an attempt to refocus the person to the point of the post...

Although I might not have given sufficient evidence, I understood you point as philosophical. My observation was based on my experience, and was that when I have heard phrases appealing to the genesis of a belief system, the appeal has never been itself the basis for an evaluation of the truth or falisty of the claim.

Rather, the appeal is made in response to an over-simplified perception that a person will find himself unfortunately judged for espousing the wrong belief system.

As you note, a question should move from "where I grew up" to for example, "do I have good reasons for thinking that Jesus is God and Muhammad isn't?"

The question points to the need to evaluate a claim on the basis of its merits, but, I don't think most people engage with belief in this way. I think most people are conditioned into the "logic" of that which has been a part of their lives since their earliest memories. In which case, the extent to which they are to be held responsible for mistaken belief, is just that, a question.

And so, to repeat, I think you've made your point regarding the example you identify as being "popular in our present postmodern era." But I wonder of the strength of the point, since in my experience I've never come across anyone who wishes to dismiss truth or falsity on the grounds of genesis of belief (my experience is they only want to dismiss a certain level of responsibility...).

Perhaps you've met such people however...

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello again Kelly,

Interesting comment. :-)

I think that the strength of my point remains, even if in your experience you've never come across anyone who has attempted to dismiss the truth of a religious belief solely on the basis of its genesis. It seems to me that the strength of my point remains when it's taken in its appropriate context.

You seem to be attempting to cast doubt on whether there actually is an appropriate context where my point applies. Is there such a context? That is, does it ever happen that someone wishes to dismiss the truth of a religious belief solely on the basis of its genesis?

I think that the answer is Yes. In my experience (mostly in secular circles) the truth of core religious beliefs often has been (faultily and hastily) dismissed because such beliefs originate, it is alleged, in personal/ social usefulness and so have been merely culturally constructed and inculcated. (Of course, such religious beliefs can include claims concerning, as you say, an "over-simplified perception" of the consequences of having a mistaken belief system.)

Am I the only one who has had such an experience? I'm inclined to think not. When a fallacy is given its own name (e.g., genetic fallacy), such naming is an indication that particular instances of a general mistaken pattern in argument have happened so often in human experience that it is useful for logicians to label the mistake, and so the pattern of faulty argument enters into critical thinking textbooks. Here, then, are a couple of textbook examples of the genetic fallacy:

• "Religion results from human beings inventing an idea of God so they can have an ideal image of what they would like to be themselves. So all these religious beliefs about a god who existed before he created the world are simply false." Trudy Govier, A Practical Study of Argument, 6th edition (Thomson/ Wadsworth, 2005), p. 316.

• "[T]he only reason we now believe in God is because we were raised as Catholics…." S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (Bedford/ St. Martin's, 2000), p. 216.

These examples do not exhaust the particular instances of the general genetic fallacy, but they provide pretty good evidence for thinking that the experience I described is not at all peculiar (and limited) to me.

Hence, my point remains—and remains strong.

I hope that the above is helpful.

Best regards,