Darwin on Darwinian Accounts of Religious Belief

There is a fine post up at DarwinCatholic discussing some of the issues raised by the materialist hypothesis that religious belief can be explained mechanistically in terms of selection forces. Darwin has articulated a very important point about such theses: they are instances of the genetic fallacy, the mistaken idea that by explaining the origins of some particular belief in terms of subjective interpretations of a complex and mysterious natural world we thereby disprove the objective truth of the belief. This is a very important point, since it vitiates every such materialist argument.

The materialist view is that religious belief is not what philosophers call an "inference to the best explanation", that is, it posits entities (such as God) that are unnecessary if we can explain the observable kosmos in terms of naturalistic entities and forces (matter and natural selection). This is a valuable strategy to use in scientific explanations, but it is important to remember that it is merely a strategy--that is, it carries no guarantee of truth. All the scientific evidence in the universe could suggest that there is no God, and there might still be one. It may, in fact, be "irrational" in a materialist sense to believe in God, and yet still a good idea, because still true. This is yet one more reason why it is better to be an anti-realist rather than a realist about scientific explanation.


Harold said…
Who exactly these days is committing the genetic fallacy in this way? Natural explanations of the prevalence of religious beliefs don't prove any particular beliefs false. They do, however, undermine the theistic argument that, if everyone believes in a god, there must be one.

It is of course true that "all the scientific evidence in the universe could suggest that there is no God, and there still might be one." But it's silly. In this statement you can substitute for "God" other terms such as "fairies," "phlogiston," "Thor," ad infinitum, and the statement will still be true, and silly. No one acts on hypothetical explanations like this without good reason and evidence. It might be that fairies will protect our garden from frost, but we don't neglect to cover delicate plants. It might be that some supernatural entity will slow down that speeding semi, but we don't step in front of it. To the extent that a religion makes truth claims about the universe, it's going to have to do a lot better than this sort of special pleading.

Harold Henderson
Scott Carson said…
I suppose that there are about as many folks arguing that psychological explanation prove the non-existence of god as there are folks arguing that there must be a god because so many people believe that there is. You'd be surprised how common that way of thinking is among educated people. I've been teaching in universities for over 25 years and there have always been a significant number of people who believe, for example, that because nobody can agree on any objective moral standard there must not be any such thing. There are even some professors who maintain the same thing, claiming that if there were such a thing as an objective moral standard we would have "discovered" it by now.

So this kind of sloppy logic is common enough that I wouldn't hesitate to ascribe it even to such smart people as Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins. Of course, they are quite open that they do in fact think that way, but they are certainly not alone.

As for your comments about phlogiston, Thor, and the rest--I congratulate you on making a your first small steps towards anti-realism! I should warn you, however, that the fairies aren't going to protect your garden until you learn to distinguish between an explanation and an argument.
Anonymous said…
Dear Dr. Carson,

What is the proper translation of the phrase "this, therefore that". Quid ergo quo?

Former student,
Arthur Mellin
Scott Carson said…
Hi Art! It's great to hear from you! What have you been up to?

I think a literal translation of your expression would be Hoc, ergo illud, though perhaps what you have in mind is something along the lines of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (="After this, therefore on account of this").
Anonymous said…
Dear Dr. Carson,

I was thinking more along the lines of someone ascribing y on the basis of x, or "'that' on the basis of 'this'" in the form: x therefore y (or "this, therefore that") when the whole while x ~= y.

I'm meaning to identify it as a fallacious way of reasoning, though I'm wide open for a broadside of my own comment without not knowing exactly how.

I suppose what I've got in mind boils down to misassociating two distinct objects or assimilating one to the other (Richard Manning's former pet phrase) which steams toward Bertram Russell's logical atomism.

The quick escape is to simply claim 'this' is functionally equivalent to 'that', though what if someone's 'this's' are and someone else's 'this's' are not? For example, one person's excitedness is the chemical result of mental illness while another, whose behavior is identical, is not?

That is where the fallacy of "this, therefore that" comes into play. Appearance v. reality.

Wish I had the proper language, maybe Greek or Latin to phrase it convincingly. As a pool shooting friend of mine used to joke, "Waaay out my league". In this case I wouldn't be joking.


p.s. - will correspond personally once establishing an e-mail address
Anonymous said…
Dear Dr. Carson,

Please also remove comments once no longer relevant to the issue. I apologize for the error: "without not knowing" which was intended to be "without knowing", which may have been accidentally interesting.

Art Mellin

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