Fallacies come so easily to our lips and fingertips as we try to push our opponent’s position into the dim light of the Illogical, or the outer darkness of the Wrong. Even if the position doesn’t directly impact us, we still like to summon a handy fallacy and maybe repeat it a few times. I’ve already written several posts on a list of fallacies (including the Scriptural kind) that I’ve seen pop up, but I wanted to devote a post to this one which I often see pop up: The Genetic Fallacy.
The Genetic Fallacy goes about disproving/proving (or suggesting the implausibility/plausibility of) a position by explaining where the position comes from.
One way I’ve seen the genetic fallacy employed is with statements like: “My great grandfather was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Democrat and my father was a Democrat. They stood for the American People; and that meant Democrat.” Now it may be true that your family stood for the American People and it may be true that they’re Democrats—but it’s not true to say that being Democrat automatically meant that they stood for the American People. And even if being Democrat does mean that one stands for the American People, it is wrong to arrive at that conclusion because your family was Democrats. There has to be a premise there that first establishes that every single Democrat stands for the American People. If that premise remains uncontested, then the second premise would have to establish that your family members were Democrats.
Here’s another example. Joey was raised in a household where his mother abused him while forcing him to wear a dress while she wore pants. Let’s say Joey writes a book disproving feminism and its ideals. What might we say about the book? I imagine people automatically writing the book off as being horrendously skewed on account of his childhood; Joey was abused by a woman and that’s why he wrote his book against feminism.
But the origin of his anti-feminist ideals has absolutely nothing to do with the conclusions he arrives at in his book. It could be true that his anti-feminist agenda is spot-on—his environment may have influenced him but his conclusions as truth statements are predicated upon being true or false, not about where they came from.
What if you and I were in a room and I flipped a coin twenty times. I look (it landed on Heads) and put a mark in one of two columns. After twenty times flipping, tallying up the marks, I tell you “there is someone talking about us right now”.
You saw how I arrived at my conclusion and you know that I am saying it because it landed on heads X amount of times, but it doesn’t impact the truth of someone speaking about us or not. The two have absolutely nothing to do with one another. If we were in a room surrounded by two thousand people very involved with what we were doing, you would ignore my coin-flipping and paper and decided “ah, well, the way he got there was wrong—but it coincided with truth.” Inversely, if my tally wound up resulting in “No one is speaking about us right now” you would understand where I drew my conclusion, but you would verify the truthfulness of the situation by the reality of the members in the room.
Remove the two thousand people, close all the doors and set up one two way mirrors, and you quickly realize the real condition of these types of scenarios. My coin flipping stands independently of the truth—no matter how I got there.
The Genetic Fallacy finds a very cozy home in Christian discussions, as well. In an effort to disprove another Christian’s position, the explanation of the origin (or the mindset) of the position is offered. Be it a fundamentalist background, a liberal Jesus Seminar background, being grounded in the Western (instead of the Eastern) church, being a product of modernity or, the all time evil (ad hominem), being generated by twentieth century American Evangelicalism.
But the same thing applies here as in the situation of the Democrat Family or the Coin Flipper: truth statements stand apart from their origins. An American Evangelical may believe the sky is blue because he was brainwashed by his Western Modernist Pastors to believe that the sky is blue—but that doesn’t mean the sky is neon green, mauve or any shade of not-blue. A person may have been taught to believe in a global flood, a physical return of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the individualistic interpretation of Scripture and the specific predestination of individuals; but in all that, their being reared in these positions doesn’t impact if these positions are true or false.
Claiming that they are true (or false) because of their origin, is fallacious and exceedingly disingenuous: you’re not really dealing with anything the other person said. It’s best to actual deal with the validity of truth statements than to try to play historian or psychiatrist.
11 replies on “You Believe That ‘Cause…”
So, I guess we shouldn’t put all our eggs in the sacred tradition basket.
And, even more, in today’s society, one is encouraged to challenge everything they believe in because of the genetic factor, meaning, those things we believe because we were raised in them.
If the sacred tradition taught you “the sky is blue”, the fact the proposition is true because the sky is actually blue has nothing to do with the sacred tradition: it stands as a truth statement with or without where you were taught it. So it doesn’t so much as challenge the notion that the sky is blue or the notion that you were taught it; there’s no reason to bring the tradition up as the origin of the proposition. The origin of the proposition doesn’t matter. The question “is the proposition true?”
Of course, that’s not to say some sources for propositions are inherently more trustworthy than other sources. I mean, if I arrived at “The sky is blue” via a coin toss you would see me as an unreliable source for truth statements, but I still have a 50% chance of getting any truth statement correct. Another, more reliable source would be someone who looks at the sky, with a color spectrometer (if it was capable of reading those sorts of things) and then states “The sky is blue”. We might understand that he’s more reliable source, but we wouldn’t say “Ah, he just believes that because he spends his time looking at the sky.” That would be implementing the genetic fallacy to disprove the man’s claims despite his reliability on truth statements.
Do know that I wasn’t disagreeing with you in my comment, I was just stating.
But, I am wondering if, by your article, we must conclude that tradition is not sacred. We can say our ‘fathers’ (spiritual genetics) say this and this are true, thus I believe it. But maybe that’s not helpful. Thus, how do we know when genetics, in this case, spiritual genetics, is worth listening to.
I guess I am sidetracking a little. Het spijt me.
Non-believers actually bring that same charge all the time:”You only believe such and such because Constantine and the council voted such and such.” The response to this is “So what?” Even if I do believe it because some other people voted, is what I believe True or False. Is the fact they voted on it coincide with Truth or Falsity? So even though we could conclude tradition is sacred, we only conclude that because it coincides with Truth–not because it explains how Truth came to be understood.
The thing about sources is whether they are more, or less, reliable. We continue to be disingenuous if we consider any particular human source as perfect, including human interpretation of God’s words.
Therefore, we look at traditions as a reliable source, but we also agree that they are not a perfect source. That being the case, we are more inclined to listen to our traditions than, say, a person whose chief source of wisdom comes from flipping coins.
The question is, by what, then, do we measure Truth? That’s the kicker. Is it true because we observe it to be so (the sky is not always observably blue)? Is it true because someone has found a way to “prove” it (here is where the color spectrometer comes in, but there must be parameters; in this case, the human eye-brain connection to interpret “blue”)?
And what do we do with “The Taming Of The Shrew”? Convincing, charismatic personalities can pursuade us to believe nearly anything.
For example, if we lived in a world where everyone was colorblind and we all believed there was no such thing as color–we would be wrong. There is color; we just can’t see it. Now, if a kid grew up in such a world being told that there is color and he grew up believing that how he got there is questionable, but his belief coincides with truth. What would be fallacious is for the World Goers to say “No, there is no such thing as color. You only believe that because your parent’s told you that.” Well, so what if that’s the reason the person believes it–the question of Color Existing being true has nothing to do with where the person derived the belief.
Now, how a person goes about achieving the objective truth that Color Exists is an altogether different matter. That’s where the very long history of epistemology comes in.
I’m not sure your Democrat example is a true genetic fallacy. I’d think it would be a better example if someone said something was false because of who said it. It is kinda the opposite of an appeal to authority. One says something is false because the person that said it is a liar or has lied or is just disliked or whatever. The other says X is true because some person who is blindly trusted says it is.
I like the post though. People need a reminder to consider *why* the believe what they do. Coming to a conclusion just because that is what my favorite pastor or author said isn’t good enough. So I hope you don’t mind that I “featured” the post – at least until I can add a link to it on the About page. :)
I think another way to make that Democrat one clearer would be “My grandpaw believed in God, and my Paw believed in God; therefore God exists.” But I don’t usually hear that. Usually I hear it in the form of some sort of American Ideal stands in the place of Exists and the party line stands in the place of God. It surely is an appeal to authority but still leaves the belief statement separate from the existential statement and obfuscates the two. I think I read an article on the multiple threads of the Genetic Fallacy somewhere that I should link to (if I haven’t already).
Oh, and I don’t mind the featuring thing. This will making the invoking the Genetic Fallacy all the more sinful…
As bad as genetic fallacies are in the church, they are way, way worse in politics. We’ve become a society of talking-points truth.
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