I argue that there is no reason to trust our moral feelings. Why? Because there is no reason to think we evolved a “conscience” that accurately “sees” moral values.
The origins of a belief are irrelevant to whether or not the belief is true. Let’s say I was a Bakuba child in the 18th century, and I was taught by ignorant shamans that the stars are not infinitely old, because they were created when the white giant Mbombo got a stomach ache and vomited them into the sky. My belief in finitely old stars comes from an extremely unreliable source, but as it turns out this is a true belief, and we can know it is a true belief by other means – albeit means arriving much later: scientific evidence.
As both John Loftus and I noted, the charge of “genetic fallacy” cuts both ways. Atheists often want to say that Christianity is probably false because we know how it evolved: from ancient semitic polytheism to monolatry to anthropomorphized monotheism to Neoplatonic monotheism. We also have some plausible theories about how religious ideas evolved and originated in the human brain.2 But this argument, too, commits the genetic fallacy. The causes of religious belief may be unreliable, but it could still be the case that some religious beliefs are true, just as with the Bakuba child and his belief in finitely old stars.
I might be “hardwired” to think that God exists, but, nevertheless, he might really exist, as arguments and evidence might show. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid does not mean the people are not out to get you; likewise, just because you are wired to believe in God does not mean that God does not exist (Maybe, in fact, it was God who wired you to believe in him!).
However, the charge that atheists commit the genetic fallacy is both wrongheaded and disingenuous…
First, why does Parsons think that charging the atheist with committing the genetic fallacy in this case is wrongheaded?
…there are times when the causal history of a belief is highly relevant to its epistemic merits… If a friend, known to be trustworthy, told us that he just saw Bill Clinton walking down the street, and we believed his cognitive and sensory functions were normal, we would probably accept that Bill Clinton was in the area. But if we knew that our friend suffered a peculiar psychological condition that made him prone to Bill Clinton-hallucinations, we would strongly discount the claim that Bill Clinton was in the vicinity. Likewise, if we identified in the human psyche a powerful mechanism that inclines people to believe in gods – whether or not gods actually exist – we should, absent strong reasons to the contrary, discount belief in gods.
But obviously, people hold lots of true beliefs for bad reasons: their witchdoctor or pastor told them so, or it “feels” right, or whatever. They are not justified in holding their belief, but nevertheless their belief may be true. This is what the charge of “genetic fallacy” tries to point out.
So what about Parsons’ counter-example?
Let’s call the Clinton-hallucinator “George,” and consider two different scenarios for George. In both scenarios, we know George has frequent hallucinations of Bill Clinton. In our first scenario, George has no special reason he would have seen Bill Clinton (in person) recently. In our second scenario, George is a journalist for The Washington Post. In the first scenario, we disbelieve George’s claims to have seen Bill Clinton recently. In the second scenario we might not disbelieve him so confidently. And yet the reliability of the mental faculty that caused his belief about seeing Bill Clinton is the same in both cases.
So it’s not the unreliability of the cause of George’s belief that makes us disbelieve him. As this example again shows, the cause of someone’s belief has nothing to do with whether or not it is true. Rather, it’s the absence of good reasons to think George’s belief is true that makes us disbelieve him in the first scenario. And so, the genetic fallacy remains a valid rebuttal to arguments such as:
(1) Because our moral intuitions are the products of biological and cultural evolution, therefore our moral intuitions are incorrect.
(2) Because our religious intuitions are the products of biological and cultural evolution, therefore our religious intuitions are incorrect.
Both arguments are invalid because they commit the genetic fallacy. However, the arguments below do not commit the genetic fallacy:
(1*) Because we have no good reasons to think our moral intuitions are correct, chances are they are probably wrong.
(2*) Because we have no good reasons to think our religious intuitions are correct, chances are they are probably wrong.
Of course, there will be much argument about whether “no good reasons” is true in either case. But I’m merely concerned with showing that the genetic fallacy still must be avoided, even though Linville and Parsons would like to deploy it in their pet arguments.
Parsons also says that charging argument (2) with committing the genetic fallacy is disingenuous. He writes:
Everyone disregards all sorts of ideas for no other reason than that we know how those ideas came about. Suppose that there are some fanatical J.R.R. Tolkien fans out there who think that Hobbits really exist and are even combatively aggressive in asserting such. Do we have a responsibility to take the Hobbit-believers’ claim seriously? Can you disprove the existence of Hobbits? I don’t think so. The reason why nobody, or hardly anybody, takes the actual existence of Hobbits seriously is that we all know where the idea of Hobbits came from. Tolkien just made them up. If Hobbit-believers accused us of committing the genetic fallacy, conflating the question of where the idea of Hobbits came from with the question of their actual existence, we would just laugh at them.
But again, I think Parsons has confused things. We all know that, for example, science fiction regularly becomes science fact. If I tell you about a videogame played with a joystick, you aren’t going to respond: “That’s nonsense. H.G. Wells invented that idea in 1903′s The Land Ironclads!” Or if I tell you about my robot lawn mower, you aren’t going to reply: “What a silly idea. That was made up by Clifford Simak in his 1944 short story City!”
So we do not disregard “all sorts of ideas for no other reason than that we know how those ideas came about.” Quite specifically, there is another reason, and it is more important than where the idea came from. The reason we disregard certain things is that we have no good reasons for thinking they are true.
- Actually, only one of Linville’s conclusions commits the genetic fallacy, though neither follows. Consider Linville’s first conclusion: that if our moral sense has evolved then there are no moral facts. This does commit the genetic fallacy. But his second conclusion – that if our moral sense has evolved then we cannot know moral facts – does not technically commit what is called the “genetic fallacy.” However, it still does not follow. Just because we cannot trust our evolved feelings about astronomy does not mean we can’t gain knowledge about astronomy through other means. Likewise, just because we cannot trust our evolved moral feelings does not mean we can’t gain moral knowledge through other means. [↩]
- See Alper’s The God Part of the Brain, Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, Atran’s In Gods We Trust, Broom’s The Evolution of Morality and Religion, and Boyer’s Religion Explained. Also see this one-hour lecture by Jared Diamond. [↩]