Monday, January 19, 2009

Reply to Parsons on theism and the Genetic Fallacy

First, I don't think it's fair to say that atheists commit the genetic fallacy for the simple reason that atheists need not use an argument of the type you are suggesting, nor do they feel the need to.

It is true that very often atheists claim that their ability to explain theistic beliefs offers them a reason for rejecting theistic beliefs as false. Now if you had an explanation for theistic belief that showed that most human beings would believe in God regardless of the state of the evidence, that might be of some use argumentatively if it also showed that this was not the case for unbelievers. But do we have this? When someone like Freud comes up with a possible theory explaining the psychology of religious belief, that doesn't do a whole lot. We have a clearly true explanation for how we got our information about Hobbits. Theism is just a much tougher case.

So we get the argument "Humans fear mortality so much that they will invent any theory, however unreasonable, to escape the conclusion that they are headed for extinction." And now we're going to need the hard evidence, suggesting that this psychological theory is true. I can tell you that in my own case, wanting to believe in God made it more difficult to believe in God, not easier to believe in God. There are possible explanations for why I might have misevaluated the evidence in favor of theism, but these possible explanations don't do much to undermine my beliefs.

This is especially so since it's easy to come up with psychological explanations for atheism. Freud had a good one: the Oedipus complex. Or just the natural human desire to be the supreme beings, to have no one in existence who can judge my actions and tell me definitively that I am wrong, that I am a sinner. It seems to me that I can tell the atheist "OK, you take your psychoanalytic arguments off the table, and I'll take mine."

So while an industrial strength explanation for religious belief that really shows that people, including those like me who think they have good reasons for believing in God, would believe whether there were good reasons or not, might be damaging to religious belief, I don't think we are anywhere near having that kind of an explanation.


Jason Pratt said...

I have so no-idea who's saying what to whom (and why) here... FORMATTING HALPS!!?

(About the only thing I'm sure of, is that the first part of the final paragraph can't be Keith, unless he became a strong theist since the last time I heard...)


Victor Reppert said...

I corrected the title to make it clear that this is my response.

philip m said...

Since a true explanation always accounts for all of the facts, it seems that one of these facts is that people believe the opposite viewpoint. Thus, you need an explanation for why they do. To the atheist, since it is the case that atheism is true, which we can ascertain through carefully thinking about the matter, there must be some other explanation of why people believe the opposite. Either the other people are just not very smart, or, like Parsons implies, there is some sort of a-rational mechanism in the human psyche which produces the belief which clearly is not indicated in the facts (since atheism is, in fact, true).

I think postulating some a-rational mechanism in humans that make them imagine a god is responsible for the universe is a quite awkward and unsatisfactory explanation for why humans tend to believe in God. It seems a more natural explanation that God, or something like Him, is what our basic intellectual intuition is about the universe, an intuition which is deeply embedded in the human mind. Philosophers take these connections that a lot of people make subconsciously between God and different features of the universe, which is what I think is largely responsible for the confidence non-philosophers have that God exists, and attempt to codify them into a form that shows their direct connection, up close and in the light of day.

Sadly, I think a lot of people zoom so far in on the arguments they just skip that basic human experience of seeing these things in the universe and thinking about the issue of God. When you zoom so far in on the arguments that it seems like they're all walking a tightrope rather than working together in a more basic way to point toward God, you simply miss the actual experience of them.

This is more of an addendum to the main response I put over at Parsons's post.

Victor Reppert said...

Keith has responded to me over at SO, to which this post links.

Anonymous said...

A non-theistic explanation for the origin of belief in God (i.e. an irrational origin) is self-stultifying because such an "explanation" would, necessarily, be inclusive of all beliefs.

How would the atheist avoid "special pleading" and the ad hoc excusing of his/her, supposed, privileged belief system??

If the theists belief in God is groundless and irrational, then so is the atheists belief in the non-existence of God. After all, we are all equally children of the material universe and, therefore, susceptible to the same material forces that gave rise to our beliefs.

Freudian type explanations would only have validity on the assumption of substance dualism; that is, a "wish fulfillment" is not descriptive of some physical/chemical state, but rather, of some "psychological/mental" state. But what could that possibly mean in terms of physicalism??

Furthermore, Freudian psychology runs contrary to epiphenomenal and supervienence views of the mind/body relationship (i.e. the unilateral nature of physical causation).

Another way to look at Freud is by a gestalt switch to the Christian view: God created the child/parent dynamic as an image of His own hypostatic relationship as Father and Son. So, the parent/child distinction and dynamic, by analogy, in some ways reflects the hypostatic relationships within God's own nature. And so, when the human parent is no longer present or conveniently available to the child, he/she naturally begins to shift dependencies towards his/her Heavenly Father qua the true teleological end of all human longing.

At best, Freud merely highlighted a mechanism, fashioned by God Himself, by which people may naturally turn to Him [God].

At worst, Freud's argument is moot.

In fact, it could be argued that the mere presence of books that tout the "neural-physiological" and "psychological" origins of religious belief really proves that the origin of human neuroses is actually rooted in childish autonomy and the hatred of any Paternal impediments to infantile rebellion. Therefore, in the quest to preserve autonomy, some people choose to kill their Heavenly Father (Romans 1:21-23,28).

I borrowed some of this from Paul Vitz's "Faith of the Fatherless" excellent book, by the way, by a former atheist Psychology professor at NYU.