Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Context isn’t everything


Natural law theory holds that a large and substantive body of moral knowledge can be had apart from divine revelation.  Natural theology holds that a large and substantive body of theological knowledge can be had apart from divine revelation.  Yet both secular and religious critics of natural law theory and natural theology sometimes accuse them of smuggling in the deliverances of revelation.  For example, theologian David Bentley Hart, in his recent attacks on natural law theory (to which I responded here, here, and here), seemed to take the view that natural law arguments implicitly presuppose revealed or supernatural truths.  Secular critics routinely accuse natural law theorists of rationalizing conclusions that they would never have arrived at if not for the teachings of the Bible or the Church.  Critics of the Scholastic tradition in philosophy sometimes accuse it of constructing metaphysical notions ad hoc, for the sake of advancing theological claims.  (My friend Bill Vallicella has made this complaint vis-à-vis the Scholastic notion of suppositum.)  In every case the objection is that if an idea has an origin in a purported source of divine revelation, its status as a purely philosophical thesis or argument is ipso facto suspect.

One of the problems with such objections is that they overlook the distinction between what Hans Reichenbach called the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification” -- a distinction he applied within the philosophy of science, but which has application in other contexts too.

Back to the Future fans will recall that Doc Brown hit upon the idea of the flux capacitor (which, of course, makes time travel possible) after slipping on the wet porcelain of his toilet while hanging a clock and banging his head on the sink.  Presumably, however, since the flux capacitor worked, he had independent reason -- actual scientific arguments -- for thinking that it would work.  That he had a flash of insight as a result of a blow to the head may have prompted the discovery of the flux capacitor, but it wasn’t his justification for believing that it would work.  He wouldn’t have said: “I had a sudden flash of inspiration as a result of hitting my head; therefore the flux capacitor will work!”

Of course the example is just for laughs, but the serious point behind it is that there is a crucial difference between, on the one hand, the psychological, social, cultural, or historical factors that led to an idea, and, on the other hand, its epistemological or logical credentials.  A physicist might hit upon a solution to the problem he is working on while listening to Bach, reading a comic book, or soaking in the tub.  Something in those particular circumstances might trigger the crucial thought.  It doesn’t follow that the worked-out solution, though packaged and defended in the way arguments in physics typically are, is “really” grounded in music theory, panelology, or plumbing.  It could even be that certain theories in physics were in practice extremely unlikely to have been discovered in the absence of certain crucial historical, cultural, and economic factors.  It still simply doesn’t follow that physics “really” boils down to history, culture, or economics.  The evidence and arguments for a scientific theory can be evaluated apart from the economic interests its discovery served, the cultural attitudes it fosters, or the historical period it reflects.

Those who suppose otherwise, claiming that the epistemological reduces to the psychological and sociological, inevitably refute themselves.  For either their own position itself constitutes just the sort of extra-psychological and extra-sociological point of view they told us was not possible, or it reduces to just one psychologically and sociologically relative position among others, with no better claim to our allegiance than the views it criticizes.  (See pp. 46-49 of The Last Superstition for more on this sort of problem with relativism.)

Now, a similar point holds for natural law and natural theology and their relationship to particular religious traditions.  That a certain moral or theological proposition or argument arose in (say) a Christian context, even if it was extremely unlikely to have arisen outside that context, simply does not by itself show that it is impossible in principle to justify via philosophical arguments that make no reference to sources of Christian revelation.  Suppose, for example, that we accept the common view that Aristotle did not regard the Unmoved Mover as the cause of the world’s being sustained in existence, but only of its motion.  (That is sometimes disputed, but if you doubt it just suppose it is the case for the sake of argument.)  It simply does not follow that God’s continual creation of the world out of nothing can’t be defended on Aristotelian premises -- even if Aristotle himself did not see this, and even if Christian thinkers were motivated to look for arguments to this effect because of their prior commitment to revelation.

Atheists who are happy to accept Newton’s scientific ideas despite his theological commitments, or Martin Luther King’s moral ideas despite his theological commitments, are being inconsistent if they glibly dismiss Aquinas’s arguments in natural theology or natural law as mere rationalizations of what he already believed on the basis of revealed theology.  Theologians who deny that there is any theological or moral knowledge to be had apart from special revelation are playing into the hands of such atheists, implicitly stripping the faith of the philosophical preambles Aquinas and Catholic teaching more generally recognize that it needs.  In any event, the genetic fallacy remains a fallacy even when deployed against ideas you don’t like.  Or to exaggerate the significance of ideas you do like. 

(I can just see a certain kind of continentally-trained theologian or religious philosopher reading this post and concluding: “A-ha!  I knew Feser must be some kind of closet positivist!  He just cited Reichenbach -- that clinches it!”  That would, of course, itself be an instance of the very fallacy I’m criticizing.  That an idea arose in a positivist context simply does not entail that it is an inherently positivist idea.)

30 comments:

rank sophist said...

I liked this post. I feel the (slightly evil) need to post something that Hart wrote about this topic in Atheist Delusions, though:

It is true that it is an example of the so-called genetic fallacy to assume that an idea's value or meaning is always limited to the context in which it arose; just because certain moral premises have their ground in the Christian past does not mean that they must cease to carry authority for those who no longer believe. But it is also true that ideas are related to one another not only genetically but structurally. If the beliefs or stories or logical principles that give an idea life are no longer present, then that idea loses its organic environment and will, unless some other ideological organism can successfully absorb it, perish. If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning.

The commenters here are free to make of it what they will.

Adam Zur said...

It is part of Greek thought that there is a kind of moral reality separate from the gods. This began from what we can see from Socrates. we definitely see in the Talmud that the reason for the commandments is outside of the Torah itself. For example rabbi Shimon says we look at the reason for a commandment --not the literal text. The Rabbis disagreed with him and said we look at the text and go by that. But both agree there is a reasonable understandable known reason for every commandment of the Torah. This you see later in Maimonides also. Saadia Geon held some the laws of the Torah that are based on reason.
What i wish to add is that human beings are so low as to need the Torah to wake us up to what human decency means. After we have the Torah then it becomes a matter of reason.

Matt said...

Thanks, this will be helpful in explaining the issue to my students.

However, what do you make of the charge sometimes made (in ethics, at least) that a failure to take seriously the demands of the context of justification reveals an implicit dependence on revelation?

I'm thinking of a situation in which a Christian thinker has his philosophical arguments refuted, but still does not change his position on a controversial ethical question. Not that the converse (a secularist refusing the take seriously the arguments of a "religious" thinker) does not happen with equal frequency--if not greater frequency.

Debilis said...

The place I tend to see the genetic fallacy most clearly committed is in the "you're only a Christian because you were born in (fill in the blank)".

Setting aside the fact that none of the people who have said this to me actually know where I was born, it does seem strange that anyone thinks this refutes an argument for theism.

Anonymous said...

No more Hart please. I am sure he is a nice guy and has good intentions, but he has shown himself to be a self-contradictory mess. That paragraph being a prime example.

"...just because certain moral premises have their ground in the Christian past does not mean that they must cease to carry authority for those who no longer believe."

followed shortly by:

"If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning."

Irenist said...

Another example for apologetical use:
Most atheist naturalists are quick to spot the genetic fallacy when some postmodernist questions the correctness of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection by claiming that it merely reflects the competitiveness of laissez-faire Victorian capitalism. That the Victorian milieu may have made Darwinism easier for the likes of Darwin and Wallace to independently theorize doesn’t make the modern account of evolution any less true.

Anonymous said...

I do not see why it is essential for catholic faith to use "the philosophical preambles Aquinas and Catholic teaching more generally recognize that it needs".

I think catholicism is based more on practice than a theory and it would be a mistake to think that we are receiving salvation through the natural law theory or that the natural law theory is the perfect theoretical tool to describe what's going on with God, morality, decisions and the Bible. Because it is simply not the best, we can use other theories to describe it and still be within the Church. I would even say - it is better to reject classical thomism to find some new ways of understanding our faith.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous,

Who on earth ever said that we "receive salvation through the natural law theory"? Certainly not me. That's simply not what is at issue.

What is at issue is the question of why Catholicism is -- as it most definitely is -- grounded in objective reality rather than in wishful thinking, or religious feelings, or a will to believe, or a love for some cultural heritage, or personal aesthetic preferences, or refined moral sensibilities, or any other such purely subjective considerations. Absolutely anyone -- Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, Unitarians, Zoroastrians, neo-pagans, you name it -- could appeal to such considerations in defense of their religion, and in absolutely every case this would count for squat if what is at issue is whether the religious claims in question are true (and not merely practical, or inspiring, or aesthetically pleasing, etc.)

This is why official Catholic doctrine is hostile to fideism and insists on the rational preambles to the faith. Without the preambles, theology floats in mid-air and is made to seem what its critics falsely claim it is, something arbitrary and subjective.

Those who dismiss or downplay the preambles are thus playing into the hands of New Atheist types, and deserve the abuse they get from them.

George R. said...

Ed writes:
"In any event, the genetic fallacy remains a fallacy even when deployed against ideas you don’t like."

How true!

Are we to understand, then, that you would not be among those who reject creation-science as being "not science, but religion"?

DNW said...

Gaia, I hate the term "genetic fallacy"; almost as much as the term "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

As a commenter implies, [actually he merely cracks the door slightly while I take it upon myself to toss in some invective] it seems to be a favorite of those testosterone deficient GNU atheist dweebs [and this from a veritable nonbeliever] who have one community college semester of "critical thinking" under their belts, but clearly experience a little self-validating frisson each time they deploy a special name for some fallacy of relevance they think they might have detected.

But, it's also as Feser demonstrates, a term that is difficult to avoid nowadays if you're attempting via shorthand to add some precision to your observation that an irrelevant historical (in the broadest sense) predicate has been deployed as part of some particular justification.

Wiki states of "genetic fallacy", that it originated with Cohen and Nagel's "Logic and Scientific Method".

Since the Wiki article merely cites an "Oxford Companion" reference as the source for this attribution, I suppose I ought to pull the old book off my shelf and see exactly what it was that they wrote.

Maybe the exact text would inspire us to find a way to spike the term through the head once and for all.

Oh and regarding "historicism":

Since Feser's critical blogging on Hart, and rank sophist's subsequent plea for a more nuanced understanding of Hart's position, many of us [even those of us not too interested in theology per se] have probably gone back to our shelves and pulled off old copies of Husserl or Heidegger, if not Dilthey, in order to try and think alongside of Hart, in order to understand just how he conceives the sway of this historicist concept.

Is he agreeing with Rorty that culture goes all the way down; or endorsing the slogan that "existence precedes essence"? Is he erroneously taking an interpretive principle which within limits aids understanding, but which overdrawn upon, contravenes obvious facts and ultimately empties into tautology?

After a couple of weeks of rereading, or maybe re-browsing, through the intellectual prequel to Hart's play, I have to say that I still can't figure out just how Hart imagines the logic implied as underlying his assertions, actually works. Or if you prefer, how the historical conditioning of possibilities, holds sway to the extent he seems to claim it does.

Scott said...

@DNW:

"Since the Wiki article merely cites an 'Oxford Companion' reference as the source for this attribution, I suppose I ought to pull the old book off my shelf and see exactly what it was that they wrote."

Which I've just done, and you'll find it on pp. 388-390. Essentially, they describe it as the fallacy of identifying developmental history with logical structure.

Stephen J. said...

The thing I dislike most about the genetic fallacy is that it is an unfalsifiable accusation: any philosophical criticism founded on the key words "you would never have" assumes an unproveable, impossible-to-test condition. As Aslan himself observed, "To know what would have happened? No... No one is ever told that."

(Ironically, however, both it and its inverse play strong roles in legal argument, as the "fruit of the poisoned tree" and "inevitable discovery" principles. But law does not have to concern itself with philosophical truth, only with admissible evidence and reasonable doubt.)

rank sophist said...

I think that a lot of post-modern/historicist/hermeneutic criticism commits the genetic fallacy, but it's also true that, without a pre-existent context to rationalize, our logic could reach an almost limitless number of conclusions that were equally sound. Consider, for example, the countless versions of God reachable by classical theistic methods. The One is not the Christian God; Allah is not the Christian God; the God of Maimonides is not the Christian God; the God of Banez is not the Christian God. But all are logically sound. There is nothing self-refuting about the One's utter distance from creation, nor about Allah's occasionalism, nor about Maimonides's God's unknowability, nor about Banez's God's causation of evil.

Logical deductions always take place in certain cultural frameworks that limit their conclusions. Remember that even Christian philosophy began (and continued until recent times) as a way of rationalizing truths that were already revealed by theology. Writers like Augustine had to justify the selective use of pagan philosophy as a tool for elaborating on those truths. What Christians already believed dictated what they could accept as true from the pagans. Even up to the Scholastic period, this practice was continuing: Aquinas bent large portions of Aristotle to fit a Christian structure, when other ways of taking Aristotle were just as logically sound. In fact, Aquinas got into quite a bit of hot water for his use of Aristotle, and he had to justify his interpretation to the wider Christian community. That is, he had to explain why Aristotle could fit into what Christians already believed--not vice versa. The idea that Christianity has to justify itself as logically supreme in a "neutral market" of rival ideologies comes from the Enlightenment. It would have been incoherent to Aquinas, who began his own greatest work by acknowledging that philosophy is merely a tool for elaborating Christianity's pre-existent principles:

This science [theology] can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer. For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens: even so the master sciences make use of the sciences that supply their materials, as political of military science. That it thus uses them is not due to its own defect or insufficiency, but to the defect of our intelligence, which is more easily led by what is known through natural reason (from which proceed the other sciences) to that which is above reason, such as are the teachings of this science. (ST I q1 a5)

Edward Feser said...

The One is not the Christian God; Allah is not the Christian God; the God of Maimonides is not the Christian God; the God of Banez is not the Christian God. But all are logically sound.

They are not all sound, full stop. Rather, the arguments for them represent mixtures of truth and error. Hence the correct thing to say is that each of them is the Christian God, but only imperfectly conceived of or even partially misconceived.

Compare: the morning star and the evening star are the same, and would remain the same even if someone did not think they were identical, or mistakenly attributed to the evening star various things he did not attribute to the morning star, etc.

Edward Feser said...

George,

You are supposing that the reason (some) critics of creation-science think it is not science is merely that it has a religious origin. And that is not the case, or at least it is not the case with all of the critics. They have methodological and empirical objections to creation-science (its purported unfalsifiability, etc.) Whatever you think of these criticisms, they don't necessarily involve a genetic fallacy.

For another thing, the critics don't all say it is non-science. Some of them say it is science, but science badly done.

Anonymous said...

Another good article.

I would only add - and no doubt the professor could express the idea more clearly than I can - that this fallacy also highlights the false dichotomy some believe exists between natural science and religious knowledge itslef. They presume that the understadning of a 'natural world' and the classic understanding of the 'spiritual world' are mutally exclusive, as though Revelation were purely 'miraculous' and had no common measure or analogy to the 'logic' of the natural world. From a religious point of view, it is understood that the metaphysical and logical truths expressed by a particular Revelation would remain perfectly coherent, and by definition must remain so, had that Revelation not come at a specific point in history, or indeed not come at all. Truth is One and Immutable.

George R. said...

You're right, Ed. Some of them don't commit the genetic fallacy. But not even evolutionists can be expected to all commit all the fallacies all the time.

Charles said...

I am a southern Baptist, by tradition. I am firmly in your camp in terms of natural theology and natural law. Discovered your work about a year ago and have contributed to your paying the light bill by studying TLS and Aquinas. Loved both books. Although we may have differences in what consider non-essential areas of our faith, your thinking and work is a great contribution.

DNW said...

Scott said...

@DNW:

"Since the Wiki article merely cites an 'Oxford Companion' reference as the source for this attribution, I suppose I ought to pull the old book off my shelf and see exactly what it was that they wrote."

Which I've just done, and you'll find it on pp. 388-390. Essentially, they describe it as the fallacy of identifying developmental history with logical structure.
May 14, 2013 at 1:39 PM


Yeah, I went home, grabbed it and there it was, right at the bottom of page 388. The book is laying on the backseat of the car now so I cannot cite the page, but while flipping around I caught and appreciated the comparative remark concerning formal, or as is almost said the "real" or "respectable" hypothetical syllogism fallacies of: modus ponens and tollens and the categorical's four terms error.


And of course I do acknowledge that fallacies of equivocation and relevance and conceptualization have their place and utility in clarifying discussions. Where does the name game end though?

Those who've studied historiography may have read Hackett Fischer's "Historian's Fallacies" ... the list is potentially endless.

Eduardo said...

lol... he is texting while driving isn't he XD.

DNW said...

Eduardo said...

lol... he is texting while driving isn't he XD.
May 15, 2013 at 7:38 AM "


Clever, if that's a reference to the backseat book.

But no, fortunately. It's just left out in the parking lot.

Frankly though, and even granting that I'm pretty much uninterested in theology per se, I don't think I could find the time to reread enough of my old books to keep refreshed on the engaging topics broached here, much less give a close reading to the many worthwhile appearing new titles that are recommended.

Congratulations, and thanks, to professor Feser for blogging in a way that makes that a challenge in the first place. Somebody at least, is doing something socially and morally constructive with his blog.

DNW said...



By the way. Granting that this is a scholastic and analytic leaning forum, is anyone here familiar with Dallas Willard's work, as a philosopher?

I'm not. I just ran across the guy by accident while researching something not religious. Seems to be a full professor, to have real academic credentials, to be a careful reasoner. But an evangelical phenomenologist?

There's always something interesting to be discovered in the world.

Scott said...

@DNW: Funny you happened to run across Willard's name just now. He died about a week ago.

DNW said...

Scott said...

@DNW: Funny you happened to run across Willard's name just now. He died about a week ago."



I ran across his name back a couple of weeks ago at least, as I was prompted by something here to start reviewing what I knew of recent literature on either historicism or Galilean science.


It may have had something to do with searching that chapter, or whatever you want to call it, in the "Crisis of European Sciences" which I has intended to check for dates and substance against a title on the metaphysical foundations of science which professor Feser had mentioned several times (Burtt).

I was wondering who it was that first explicitly formulated and then investigated the metaphysical assumptions involved in the mathematization of nature as a philosophical problem.

Never got around to doing it.

Brandon said...

By the way. Granting that this is a scholastic and analytic leaning forum, is anyone here familiar with Dallas Willard's work, as a philosopher?

'Familiar' would be too strong a word, but I've read a number of his articles. His work on how mereology relates to knowledge, and the problems the intersection of the two causes for naturalism, is quite good.

George R. said...

Atheists who are happy to accept Newton’s scientific ideas despite his theological commitments, or Martin Luther King’s moral ideas despite his theological commitments, are being inconsistent if they glibly dismiss Aquinas’s arguments in natural theology or natural law as mere rationalizations of what he already believed on the basis of revealed theology.

If atheists weren't inconsistent, they couldn't be atheists. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Atheism is an inherently irrational position, and it can only be defended by sophistical means. Atheists are extremely intelligent people. Don't you think they that they'd be employing some good arguments if there were any available to them? But there are not, so they have to settle for goofy ones instead.

rank sophist said...

Prof. Feser,

They are not all sound, full stop. Rather, the arguments for them represent mixtures of truth and error. Hence the correct thing to say is that each of them is the Christian God, but only imperfectly conceived of or even partially misconceived.

I agree that this would be a better way of phrasing the issue, particularly since it's in line with ST I q1 a1. The problem is that it isn't, itself, a deduction of logic. Logic alone does not tell us which tradition is a misconception of the other. That the Christian God is the source from which all others are drawn is a belief based on pre-existent Christian tradition. It isn't a philosophical claim. Used as a logical argument, it blatantly begs the question against competing traditions. If I was debating a Muslim and I told him that Allah was just an inferior conception of the Christian God, for example, then he would have no reason to do anything but laugh at me. His tradition makes the same claim about ours. So, I agree that Christianity has the one truth that other traditions embody to a greater or lesser degree, but I see no way to establish this via logic. In fact, given that Christian philosophy has always (and openly) been a way of rationalizing tradition, I don't think that there's a way to get someone to accept our claim about the Christian God's supremacy without first bringing them into our tradition. And this is a matter of persuasion and appeal; not of cold logic.

DNW,

I've been meaning to read more Willard, particularly after I heard about his death. My only serious encounter with his philosophical work was his paper "Predication as Originary Violence", which is probably the best and clearest explanation of Derrida that I've ever read. I plan to check out more of his stuff--he seems like he was a brilliant guy.

DNW said...

rank sophist says,

"DNW,

I've been meaning to read more Willard, particularly after I heard about his death. My only serious encounter with his philosophical work was his paper "Predication as Originary Violence", which is probably the best and clearest explanation of Derrida that I've ever read. I plan to check out more of his stuff--he seems like he was a brilliant guy. "

Seems to have been. Translated some of Husserl's works into English as firsts.

My "history" window shows that I went to Youtube and watched parts of a couple videos of a speech regarding the transformation of the will which he had given to some (of what I am calling) evangelicals some weeks ago.

I guess you could say that it struck me that he seemed to have found a way to integrate certain phenomenological, or at least psychological ideas of intentionality, into his ministry.

Of course, if you mention the name Brentano as a precursor to Husserl, you could say I was putting it backwards.

In fact, I recall, and reinforcing the notion that there is an obvious chain of conceptual custody there, he even made some remark to the effect that his audience might find his methodological suggestions too Catholic sounding.

I guess I really made no inference at all. He said as much outright.

James said...

Re: For either their own position itself constitutes just the sort of extra-psychological and extra-sociological point of view they told us was not possible, or it reduces to just one psychologically and sociologically relative position among others, with no better claim to our allegiance than the views it criticizes.
=======
Absolutely. All these kinds of thinking amount to theme and variations of the rampant relativism and subjectivism of our times.

Don Jindra said...

An Experiment on How to Derive an 'Ought' from an 'Is' With Comments.

The materials you will need for this experiment are a hammer and your left thumb (assuming you are right handed).

Position your thumb on a flat, raised surface -- preferably hard wood or concrete. Then strike the thumb with the hammer. Please do so forcefully. A powerful blow will increase the effectiveness of this experiment.

When the hammer strikes the thumb, you will notice a sensation we call pain. It's not important that we know the neurological mechanisms that excite this sensation. It's sufficient to note the class of the sensation. (A pillow might be required to muffle the verbal expressions associated with this sensation.)

My hypothesis is that your immediate reaction to this sensation goes something like this: "I ought not to have done that."

How do you draw this conclusion? In a way David Bentley Hart is correct. My throbbing thumb is, indeed, "an apocalyptic interruption" of my otherwise pleasant day. If the student wants to experience a mini-apocalyse, this a good method.

I assert this derived 'ought' from the 'is' of the hammer strike is perfectly intelligible even to the most simple-minded. In fact, expert metaphysicians might be inclined to curse metaphysics and reach the same 'ought' as I do. I'd be willing to predict that the brute-force 'is' of striking a thumb with a hammer squeezes an 'ought' out of the most intransigent Humean.

This experiment does not deny Hart's observation that an 'ought' cannot be proven logically. He is 'formally correct' on that. If humans were robots he might have a point. But humans are not robots to the best of my knowledge. 'Ought' is a human term of which logic is no ingredient. Similarly, 'final cause' need not be consulted. All talk of logic, reason and final cause puts the cart before the horse, as fun as that ride might be.

What of revelation? It's the opinion of this experimenter that revelation is merely the 'insight' some excitable humans attach to similar thumb striking events. Experience reveals, no question about that. But 'revelation' attempts to raise certain experience to the sacred or lower it to the demonic. 'Revelation' is experience described by hyperbole.

In closing, this experiment was a rudimentary attempt to demonstrate natural law can be rooted in nature prior to any sort of theology or philosophy. Please be aware that experimentation has certain risks that theology and philosophy do not.