Saturday, February 12, 2011

Do you know what you believe about God and why? or Is the Genetic Fallacy a Fallacy?

Despite recent developments in psychological research, there are a number of na├»ve assumptions that persist behind many of our arguments about religious claims. 

The Genetic Fallacy:  traditionally, it has been considered a fallacy to evaluate and/or reject a view on the basis of where it originated.  That is, bringing up the causal, historical, psychological, social, or emotional account of the origin of a belief is not sufficient to reject it or show that holding it is ill-founded.  If a woman believes some proposition and someone says, “You just believe that because you’re a woman,” it’s irrelevant to whether the view is true or justified.  (For an excellent run down of fallacies see the entry in the IEP )

C.S. Lewis often bristled at the genetic attacks on his Christianity:  “you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method  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 to be so silly.  (God in the Dock)

Of course, Lewis is making a good point, and the Genetic Fallacy sure appears to be a fallacy.  But now, with a lot more psychological research about belief formation and persistance available to us, it is legitimate to wonder if there are circumstances where we should not take a person’s avowals of why they believe some claim so seriously. 

If it turns out that a person does not have the ready access to what they believe and why they believe it as Lewis and the more rationalistic philosophers thought, then the fallacy may not be so fallacious.  

Introspectionism is the view that I know what I do and don’t believe.  I know why I believe it.  I know when I change my mind and why.  And when I’m certain about it, then I really know it.  A little more formally, we can characterize it as the view that I know my own mind better than I know anything else.  It includes presumptions about

Cognitive Transparency:  If it is in my mind, then it will be evident to me that it is.   
Cognitive incorrigibility:  I can’t be mistaken about what I take to be the contents of my own thoughts.  If on introspection, I take X to be a content of my own mind, then it is true that X is one of my mental contents.  
Belief access: If I believe it, then I am or I can become aware that I do, and the same for my disbeliefs.     
Justification Access—I have privileged access to the reasons, evidence, or considerations that led to my believing what I do.  My reasons for believing p will be incorrigible and transparent to me. 

There is a substantial case to be made for anti-introspectionism in the psychology literature, however.  Consider some studies:

            Poll students about integrated busing.  Put them in groups and have a confederate argue persuasively for the opposite view.  Poll them again and their views change sharply.  Ask them about the view they had originally and the revise it to match their new ones.   They radically change their minds, and then change their memories of their former view, and hide the change from themselves.   And none of the subjects believe that the discussion had had any effect in changing or modifying his position.

Ask  subjects to tie two hanging cords together that are too far apart to reach between.  Subjects are stumped.  A researcher walks around the room and casually bats one cord to make it swing.  Subjects figure it out within 45 seconds of the cue.  But they confabulate an explanation for how they figured it out.  "It just dawned on me." "It was the only thing left." "I just realized the cord would swing if I fastened a weight to it."

People are less likely to help those in distress as the number of bystanders increases.   Furthermore, they are unaware of the influence of these numbers; they persistently deny that they were influenced by the others present.

Give subjects a card with a smell sprayed on it.  Prime them with the word, “Parmesan cheese” and they report liking it.  Prime them with “Vomit” and they dislike it.  Same smell.

Conduct a consumer survey by asking shoppers to evaluate which article of clothing is the best.  The right most article is heavily over-chosen, no matter which item is there.  But shoppers seem to have no idea that they have a bias for the right most.  Almost all denied a right hand bias, and they confabulate answers about why the right one is the best.

Give subjects a placebo, tell them it will produce heart palpitations, breathing irregularities, tremors, and butterflies.  Expose them to steadily increasing shocks.  The pill subjects are subsequently able to endure 4 times a high amperage shocks than the ones who didn’t take the pill.  Ask them why they were able to take a higher than average amount of shock and they make up a story that doesn’t involve the pill.

Show male subjects pictures of women, some with dilated eyes, some without.  Ask them to rate the pictures for attractiveness.   They show a strong preference for the women with dilated eyes.  But they don’t know it.   And they confabulate reasons about what they find attractive in the pictures.

Manipulate a subject’s moral views about some topic by having them write and deliver speeches against their own view.   Later their views have shifted towards the contrary view.   Ask them, and they insist that that was their view all along.  It also turns out that they attributed the shifting view to God before and after without noticing the change. 

Subjects who receive painful electric shocks during a learning task with no explanation will downplay the painfulness of the shocks more than if they have a reason.  But none of the subjects realize that that’s what they are doing.

So what lessons can we draw from these sorts of studies?  People are poor judges of:  What they believe, what they feel, why they believe or feel it, when they change their minds, why they change their minds, who they find attractive, why they find them attractive.

Rather than having some privileged, incorrigible access to the private contents of my mind, I observe me and I theorize about what I am thinking, why I act, what motivates me in a way very similar to how I figure out what you think and why.  And since I’m so close to the subject, I often do a poor, biased job of it.  In many cases, someone else is in a better position to say what I think and why than I am. 

What is the relevance of this sort of research for the question of belief in God?  It shows that it is quite plausible that the real causes of belief in religious matters are not the conscious reflections or intellectual decisions that we may have thought.  Believing in God, like believing in anything else, is not simply a matter of reflecting on the evidence, considering the reasons pro and con, weighing that evidence, and then willing or deciding to believe.  That’s not typically how people arrive at belief.  Believing, it turns out, is a much messier, more organic matter.  And in many cases the influences that led to belief, the causes of belief, changes in belief, and even the beliefs themselves are not readily available or introspectible for the believer.  It often feels like we are the best ones to say what is going on in our own heads, but that feeling is an illusion, as countless studies have shown. 

Does analyzing the causes that lead to a person’s belief in God give us a reason to doubt that God is real?  If we have conducted a thorough investigation of the various reasons or arguments that have been presented for the existence of God and found them wanting (we have), then it is perfectly legitimate to wonder about the causes of so much belief in the world, and to be less inclined to take those beliefs seriously.  When I hear about the various exotic magical and metaphysical views that a villager from the jungles of Borneo has, or we hear about these people in the Amazon who have never had any contact with the outside world:

it’s no longer incumbent upon us to take their self-reported justifications for their religious beliefs as serious candidates for the truth.  We have a pretty good idea about the historical, psychological, and cultural origins of these beliefs, and knowing where they came from, by itself, is a pretty good justification for thinking that they are false.  Once we get clear on the genesis of modern theism, that knowledge is also a defeater that leads us to be highly skeptical.  


Rebecca said...

Never have any contact with the outside world is a bit of an overstatement. The tribes choose to be isolated and decline to be "contacted" by the local government (link). The humane thing to do is to respect their right to stay isolated, and to stop the illegal loggers and oil drillers that are stealing the land and killing the natives.

Anonymous said...

I treat religious beliefs the same as I treat hallucinations and delusions -- their origins are all based in mental faults or colossal misunderstandings. If that is the genetic fallacy, all I can say is "oops, but I don't care."

Chris said...

A dumb question: Could you not say the same for atheism?

As I read through it, I would say yes...which would mean what?

Anonymous said...


The is-ought problem is present in your argument.

You would have trouble convincing us that what humans do is what they ought to from study findings.

And you would also have trouble making a case that what humans are doing is what is correct

Just read the many social Psychology studies about conformity etc. Do these studies give us a basis for answering philosophical questions? Not likely. But they do give us insight on how to market our next product or influence humans.

Be careful how you interpret the findings Matt I dont think they support your philosopshical positions that well.

Matt McCormick said...

Anon, you're confused about what's being argued. I'm not contending that we do make these mistakes, therefore we should make them. I'm arguing that we cannot trust people's self reporting about what they believe and why.

Chris said...

So given, if I am understanding this right, that we are all on the same level - we can't trust either of us to our beliefs - where does that leave us?

Where do we go from there?

Because if neither of us can be trusted with our beliefs...

(correct me if I'm interpreting you wrong)

Anonymous said...


It doesn't help your case to show that human testimony is flawed. After all the many laboratory findings rely on human testimony of such and such occurred. In fact your blog post uses a study that conducted polling of students....

So if human testimony is....

I just don't think you understand the implications of psychological research and its inability to answer philosophical questions.

Go to the chair of Sac State department Matt and ask your question about God or even rely the alleged evidence you think you have against him. I bet you'll get "well that is a philosophical question"

Anonymous said...

Findings from psychological research have pragmatic implications rather than that of philosophy.

You use such findings for marketing, fighting crime, designing work place environments etc.

You cannot answer the question of God through its findings....

Matt McCormick said...

Folks, in general, you have zero chance of convincing anyone of something if you don't write intelligible, clear, grammatical sentences. If I read a bunch of rambling sentence fragments or thoughts that don't support point, I don't really have the interest to invest the energy to try to figure out what point you're stumbling around.

Chris said...

Well my issue is fairly simple.

Either there is a God or there isn't. One view HAS to be right.

Yet, your post, to me, suggests that we can't trust anyone's reasoning for believing in either of the two options.

How does this, any, discussion move further along then?

The Atheist Missionary said...

Chris wrote: Either there is a God or there isn't. One view HAS to be right.

Hold on buddy - I think you should provide us with the supposed attributes of your lordy and the best piece of evidence you rely on to support his/her/its existence.

The reason why I ask you this question is because: The concept of God is so ill conceived that it only leads us to a form of theological non-cognitivism (e.g., ignosticism). Ignosticism is the position that all current definitions and conceptualizations of god are so multifarious, so habitually obscure, or so incomprehensible as to be impenetrable to human understanding as so no real knowledge can be had with regard to god’s true nature. Advocatus Atheist, "The Implications of Ignosticism" [Internet] Hiroshima: Tristan Vick. [December 20, 2010] Available from:

I once knew a girl who had "Hey-Zeus" tattooed on her butt but I don't think that's what you're referring to.

gatogreensleeves said...

Great post, would you please cite sources for those studies?