Monday, March 27, 2006

A Genetic Fallacy?

This post is a belated contribution to the "Dennett Wars": the explosion of scientific and philosophical invective directed at Leon Wieseltier's notorious review of Breaking the Spell.

I haven't read the book; nor do I mean to defend the whole review. But much of the invective strikes me as being unfair. Part of the pleasure of reading reviews is the occasional polemic, and given the constraints of space, the polemical review is bound to involve some measure of unargued assertion. If it is to concede this point, the objection to Wieseltier must be that his dismissal of Dennett's book depends on assumptions that are simply unreasonable, ones that no competent reviewer would make. That seems to be the implication of some of his critics.

The problem is that, for the most part, the implication is false. Resistance to "scientism" is perfectly reasonable – at least if it is sufficient to make an opinion reasonable that it is held by perceptive thinkers who have thought carefully about the matter. (A stronger test for reasonable belief would make the polemical review impossible.)

To take one central case, consider Wieseltier's suspicion of genetic tests for the credibility of our beliefs:
You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason.
These remarks are easy to dismiss. But everyone knows that the simple genetic test – on which a belief is justified only if it was formed on the basis of appropriate evidence – will have to be revised. If there is sufficient evidence now, who cares how the belief was formed? You can't refute belief in God, however it arose, without tackling the ontological argument.

More significantly, even a qualified genetic test will threaten to undermine our moral and political beliefs: suppose that our basic ethical stance is formed by acculturation, not rational argument; and that it cannot be defended against every alternative – at least not without begging the question. These assumptions are no doubt controversial, but they deserve to be taken seriously. (Witness the anxieties expressed by G. A. Cohen, in the introduction to his wonderful book on egalitarianism.) One reasonable response is to reject or further qualify the genetic test – and this may well leave room for the credibility of religious belief.

It is also reasonable to fear that a crude genetic test will undermine science, by undermining our belief in the reliability of scientific method. (Think of "inference to the best explanation": why do we assume that the world is simple, or that more elegant descriptions are more likely to be true?) Even worse, the test might indict belief in itself. It doesn't matter, here, whether such fears turn out to be correct. What matters is that reasonable people are moved by them – and so they are sceptical of anything but an extremely qualified version of the genetic test.

This may not be Wieseltier's point, of course. His rejection of the test may be the product of sheer ignorance – not a shorthand for the need to qualify it in ways that might permit religious belief. But it would be clear instance of the genetic fallacy to dismiss his critique of Dennett's book on that account.


Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

See also: this post by Jonathan Derbyshire.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Brian Leiter said...

A quick comment on Derbyshire: methodological naturalism does not presuppose that all facts are physical facts. So I'm not sure why you've linked to him, but perhaps I've missed something important.

My critique of Wieseltier's incompetent review did not rest on the claim that all his "assumptions...are simply unreasonable." In fact, I noted that he was right to point out that Dennett's "scientific” explanation for religious belief is not a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis, but speculation. My critique was that much of the content of the review, apart from this point, was simply wrong: wrong about epistemology, wrong about Hume, wrong about naturalism.

As to "genetic tests," you again misrepresent my criticism: the only claim I made (the same claim Maudlin made in the letter to the NYT, which I posted on the blog) was that the genesis of a belief is relevant to its warrant. No one said you can "refute belief in God" based on the genesis of that belief. (Maybe Dennett said it, though I doubt it; I didn't say it; nor did Maudlin.)

If one thought moral judgments were truth-apt, then you’re surely right that the genetic test would probably doom them as well; that strikes me as the right conclusion. But I don’t actually accept the antecedent of that conditional.

Perhaps the more interesting point pertains to scientific method and the genetic test itself. You’re right, of course, that there may be a problem of self-refutation here, though only if you assume the warrant for science is some further criterion outside science. With Quine, I’m not sure we can make good sense of that thought. But that is, to be sure, a hard question, and I’m certain you’re being facetious when you say “this may not be Wieseltier’s point.” Of course, it’s not his point. He’s an apologist for religion, full stop. I think it’s good for philosophers to keep in focus what’s really going on when these debates seep into the popular culture.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Zena said...

The biological utility of belief in God is not only compatible with the providential theistic view of the world, it is what one might expect given such a world-view. Wieseltier has over-generalized on genetic accounts, as has this discussion. The question is whether this kind of genetic account could or should "break the spell" of religion. I suspect not. Much more effective would be accounts of the origins of theism that indicate it to be a biological malfunction or a kind of mental illness. The latter sort of account, like the problem of evil, creates difficulties for the providential view of the world and so seems to me to be the best sort of atheistic argument. Of course, not all theistic systems are providential, so this kind of argument has a more limited scope than the one Dennett seems to want.

Another way to put it: the kinds of genetic account that would be useful here are ones which seem in principle incompatible with the existence of God, or at least very problematic given his existence—they should involve operations which we wouldn't think God would or could be in charge of. Compare accounts of the origins of morality in selfishness or blood-lust.

I take it that biological utility is not the whole argument—Dennett also wants to say that religion is the product of persistent ignorance and systematic deceit and manipulation. But I don't see how these claims aren't just a description of religion under the assumption of God's non-existence—hardly something that could or should break the spell.

I haven't read Dennett's book either; maybe he has something to say on these points.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I know very little about biology, but I heard Dennett speak when he was in Pittsburgh, and from what I could gather (and assuming I understand the terminology), he would reject biological utility theories. He compared religion memes (he did think it useful to conceive of religion as a meme) to certain parasites (I forget what they're called) that inhabit the brain of insects and control said insects for their own ends. Religion spreads, according to Dennett, because it's the meme that's best at surviving and its being best at surviving has nothing to do with its utility to humans, just as the parasites being good at surviving has nothing to do with the utility the insects derive from being inhabited by them. I may be getting the analogy slightly wrong, but Dennett certainly stressed that he believed the survival of the meme has nothing to do with doing any good for its hosts.

According to his specific theory, superstitious beliefs arise when a faculty for detecting agents malfunctions. These beliefs spread and evolve to become primitive religion memes. These in turn spread and evolve and end up as modern, organized religion memes. He didn't seem very committed to this theory, though. He seemed to offer it more to give an example of what shape a theory of the kind he's looking for might take than because he really believed it.

Again, I know too little about biology to endorse this picture. But having some rough idea of Dennett's view should help us decide how consistent it is with the theistic world-view.

11:52 PM  
Anonymous Zena said...

Thanks; that's very helpful.

There's still a worry here, though. A biological need to believe in God, even if it is of no particular use otherwise, is still what would be expected under a providential theistic world-view. Plato's creator-god in the Timaeus gives humans upright posture so that they can look at the (divine) motions of the heavens. Same basic type of explanation will do here. I think Dennett's type of account will only be effective if it could show that the 'meme' had some biological dis-utility--and it would be best if the dis-utility could be explained in terms other than "causing a false belief in God's existence".

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Brad C said...

Those following the Dennett wars may be interested in the exchange between Dennett and Richard Swinburne that has been published in Prospect magazine. It can be found here.

As a non-christian, I found Swinburne's response informative. It helps that the exchange is less polemical than others I have seen.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous John Dolan said...

Dear Mr Setiya,

An eXile fan sent me a link to your contest for most devastating review, which mentioned my pan of James Frey. But what caught my eye was the fact that Charles Pigden is one of your nominees. You see, I used to teach with Dr Pigden in New Zealand. A decent man, a fine swimmer, but hardly an incisive mind. I once sat through a lecture he gave on Nietzsche, in which he attempted to rehabilitate the notorious German by showing that poor Nietzsche meant to be John Stuart Mill, wanted to be John Stuart Mill – but alas, not having had the benefit of an Oxbridge education, lacked the vocabulary and method. So Pigden patronizingly translated the bravest mind of the 19th century into a blackboard demonstration, actually featuring X and Y symbols, proving that poor old N. meant well after all.

I learned quite a lot about the Anglo-American philosophical project in the course of that agonizing hour. And I put the knowledge to use in my review of Harry Frankfurt's portentous coquette of a book, On Bullshit. If your contest is still running, I suggest you enter my Frankfurt review, rather than the Frey essays. It will offend your readers more, and dear God, they very much need offending.

John Dolan

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reliabilism is the claim that "what turns a true belief into knowledge is the reliability of the cognitive process that produced the belief". Would that be an appeal to a "genetic test"? I've never understood how we're supposed to judge the "reliability" without tacitly assuming that it leads to knowledge, thus making a very small circle.

The question I would raise about Dennett is what "religion" is taken to be. Is it a specific belief, or rather an attitude that can be manifested toward beliefs, not necessarily theistic ones. The latter sound more true to me, since it certainly seems to be part of psychology of fascism and other movements that they have a religious aspect. But then it is impossible to evaluate whether such an attitude has any utility, because it could attach to any one of too many views.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I need to think more about reliabilism. In any case, you are right that it is hard to formulate the genetic test. A good attempt is made by Hartry Field in Realism, Mathematics and Modality, though he is concerned in the first instance with arithmetical knowledge. Cohen's introduction talks about ethics and politics.

I make some critical remarks about the idea of religious "belief" as non-cognitive attitude here, building on the previous post. What do you think?

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It all turns on what the "attitude" is supposed to eb directed at (this is an issue for non-cognitist theories of anything).

I would say there is a sharp divide between religion and theology. Theology is the stuff that the terribly clever men talk about, and they give impenetrable sermons about it for which no questions are possible at the end. But that isn't what gets the crowd in. Religion is the business that has a part of millions of ordinary lives and it has it for a million worldly reasons - and there's nothing wrong with worldly reasons per se, they are the only ones we've got, but some are better than others.

The religious attitude is an act of identification - "I am a X... speaking as an X...", adopting the position of the group and presuming to inherit its justifications, if there are any. This is something that seems to occur in movements that are not theistic at all, movements like communism and the like.

The Czech communist Artur London, who narrowly avoided execution in the Prague, called his memoir The Confession, which reveals the devotional, self-abnegating mentality required for being a committed Stalinist in the 1930s and 40s, and also the shattering effect of losing faith in it.

The commitment is to the movement or the body of the church. Any problems in its teaching are presumed to be soluble, or not worth worrying over. Zealots do not debate doctrine, they just reiterate its correctness.

But not all theists, or Marxists, have such an attitude. The religious spirit is not tied to any particular set of ideas, and ideas can be held without it. (JN)

9:23 AM  

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