Saturday, August 22, 2009

A variant of the genetic fallacy

Consider the following argument form:

  1. p is believed because of argument A.
  2. If A is a good argument, then q.
  3. Not q.
  4. Therefore, not p.
This is a kind of cross of the genetic fallacy with a denial of the antecedent (in the conditional: If A is a good argument, then p). For example:
  1. The Immaculate Conception (the doctrine that Mary was saved by grace alone in the first moment of her existence) is believed because of the argument that Jesus would be subject to original sin if Mary was.
  2. But if Mary's original sin would have infected Jesus, then the original sin of Mary's parents would have infected Mary, and so on, and hence all of Mary's ancestors would need to be without original sin.
  3. But not all of Mary's ancestors are without original sin.
  4. Therefore, the Immaculate Conception is false.

Notice, however, that there is an argument form in the vicinity of (1)-(4) that is better. Namely, we replace (4) with:

  1. Therefore, the belief that p is not justified.

However, if we do that, we need to read (1) as saying "p is only believed because of argument A". But people are not very good at figuring out the reasons why they themselves believe something, and are much worse at figuring out why others believe something (that explains why so much political discussion is heated—for it is often difficult for people to figure out why someone might take a political position that disagrees with theirs, unless that person is stupid or vicious). So if the implied epistemic agent in (1) and (9) is someone other than the person offering the argument (1)-(3),(9), the argument is likely to be unsound in step (1). I think that when the argument form is found in the wild, it is common for (1) to fail.

Furthermore, it is important to keep constant the epistemic agent constant between (1) and (9).

I think the Marian case likely screws up on all of these counts. First of all, in (5) the epistemic agent is likely some ordinary believer or at best an incautious rookie apologist. In the analogue of (9), the epistemic agent is the Church. Second, even in the case of the ordinary believer or the rookie apologist, (5) ceases to be true if we read "is believed" as "is only believed", because in fact the ordinary believer and the apologist believe in the Immaculate Conception not just on the basis of their flawed argument, but primarily on the basis of the Church's authority.

Moreover, arguments of the form (1)-(3),(9) are often annoying to the interlocutors. I remember a job interview where a candidate tried to convince me that I only rejected his or her view because of thinking about a topic under the influence of a certain other position. This bit of mind-reading not only was incorrect (I can be accused of many things, but not of that particular influence; I rejected the candidate's view cause the conjunction of its claims obviously entailed some absurd proposition that we were both committed to the denial of), but I found it annoying and a bit offensive, and the other members of the interview committee did not like it either. That was a somewhat different version of the genetic fallacy, but the genetic fallacy is generally annoying.

There are places for arguments of the form (1)-(3),(9). But when one gives such arguments, danger is all about.


Heath White said...

I agree with you that there are lots of ways to go wrong with the sort of reasoning you analyze here. But I also tend to think there is a fairly reasonable argument in the neighborhood, if we stay out of the realm of psychology. How about this schema:

10. The only, or principal, argument that is offered for p is A.
11. But [insert reasoning here] A is not a good argument.
12. So the only or principal argument offered for p is not a good argument.
13. If there were a good argument for p, it would be offered by p’s proponents often and principally.
14. So there is no good argument for p.
15. So the belief in p cannot be justified by argument.

That, I think, is roughly how many Protestants think about some of the more controversial Catholic doctrines.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the Protestant use, "cannot be justified by argument" means something like "cannot be justified by argument not making reference to the Tradition"?

Heath White said...

What I meant was something like, “cannot be justified by argument other than an irreducible appeal to authority.”

Here’s how I see the difference. The Protestant epistemology is basically “Scripture and plain reason” in Luther’s words, plus scholarship. Now you could argue that this is self-refuting or that they are inconsistent about it, but there you go.

The Catholic epistemology has the Magisterium, irreducibly, as a kind of collective epistemic organ. That is, the Church is willing to endorse claims which could not be justified by appeal to Scripture or an open-minded scholar with all the relevant information that the rest of us have. And this is okay, by Catholic lights, because the Church is in some respect guaranteed against error, so that if the Magisterium does go ahead and endorse some claim it doesn’t really matter if there is any other evidence for it.

I am out of my area of expertise here, but I’ll try to give examples. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the genuine body and blood of Christ. I think Scripture can be interpreted different ways here. But there is a pretty good textual case to be made that the early church believed this widely, and that no one had a “memorial” view of the Eucharist. So there is good evidence that this is the original understanding of the church, and that is good evidence, or should be, for the Protestant also that it is true. (And it would be interesting sometime to figure out exactly where Catholic dogma and the Westminster Confession diverge.)

Some Marian dogmas, on the other hand, have much less of a textual case to be made for them. These seem to be ideas that became widespread some centuries after the apostolic age (or so I understand). Any appeal to Tradition on their behalf, then, is going to be a selective use of evidence—my understanding is that a secular scholar who looked at the evidence we have would not conclude that belief in the Marian dogmas was widespread in the early church. (Indeed, I have a colleague in my department who fits that description.) Any appeal to the Bible relies on tendentious typological interpretation, which seems to have arisen late also. But none of this is an obstacle to Catholic belief in the Marian dogmas, since the justification for that can just rest on a bare appeal to authority.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We don't hold that the Marian doctrines were explicitly believed by the early Church, but only that they are implicit in the early Church's beliefs. What is this implicitness? Perhaps it is entailment?

Typological interpretation was one of the main approaches, if not THE main approach, to the Old Testament from rather early on. Indeed, the NT tells us that all of the OT tells us about Christ. A reasonable way to understand that is typology.