thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Supernaturalistic fallacy

with 3 comments

Is it the ethics of evolution or the evolution of ethics or a bit of both?

This article follows What’s the big idea? in a discussion on The ethics of belief.

If I thought the categorical imperative was treacherous terrain, then the relationship between ethics and evolution is a minefield.

So much so I suspect I should tackle it back to front. Otherwise I’m not sure I’ll ever make a start. Or if I do I may not get out in one piece.

I shall begin with a very tentative conclusion, and then try to substantiate it.

But even before that, perhaps I should explain why I want to go in this direction. If I can explain it to the blogosphere then maybe I can make it clear to myself.

It’s this nagging doubt about William James’s argument that there are some things – or maybe even just one thing – that it is right to believe without sufficient evidence, because the very act or state of believing it makes it true and brings good into the world – good which cannot come into the world any other way. I’m summarising, but you get the drift. For William James that thing is the ‘religious hypothesis’.1

I’ve discussed his argument in

Which Will to believe?

Getting pragmatic

Better believe it

As if, as if

Tempest in a teapot

Infinite and mysterious obligation

What’s the big idea? (recap)

My nagging doubt has two sides. One side is the suspicion that maybe James is onto something. The other is the suspicion that maybe what he is onto does not have to have a supernatural or theistic dimension, but that it only seems to because that is how it has traditionally been packaged.

His argument is ultimately about ethics. If I am to knock some sense into my nagging doubt I need to engage with what Daniel Dennett has labelled ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’.2 Why? Because we are human beings. And because we are human beings our ethics are to do with how we behave and interact as human beings. Human beings are living organisms. At the risk of understatement bordering on absurdity, evolutionary theory is one of the more significant frameworks available to us to explain why living organisms are what they are and do what they do.

But please note: I do not presuppose that evolution as a whole is true or that any particular evolutionary account is true. The key word in that sentence was presuppose. I am taking it that evolution is part of science and is therefore verifiable and falsifiable by appropriate scientific methods. There is the world of difference between this and William James’s religious hypothesis, which has to be described as verifiable, but is not falsifiable. (It could be verified if a god actually turned up.)

So the hunch I want to explore is this. I want to see if it is possible to articulate a ‘secular’ alternative to James’s religious hypothesis – one that shares as many as possible of those of its features which are relevant to its ethical implications. I am making the initial working assumption that if this is possible, it is likely to involve evolutionary theory, in view of its profound explanatory power. But as I said, I am not presupposing its truth.

If it turns out that it is possible to articulate a secular alternative to James’s religious hypothesis, with equivalent ethical consequences, then a potential believer is faced with a choice of two options.

The choice is between:

(1) Belief B, which:

(1.1) is insufficiently supported by evidence;

(1.2) incorporates and depends on a belief in at least one supernatural entity or realm;

(1.3) is unfalsifiable in principle; and

(1.4) includes the belief that an achievable consequence BC – which is uniquely good in its ethical implications – follows from believing that B;


(2) Theory T1, which:

(2.1) is supported by empirical evidence if not (yet) conclusively;

(2.2) is in principle both verifiable and falsifiable;

(2.3) is compatible with other current (and also verifiable and falsifiable) scientific knowledge;

(2.4) does not incorporate or require a belief in any supernatural entity or realm; and

(2.5) provides rationale and motivation for an achievable ethical consequence TC1 which is not necessarily unique but is ethically equivalent to consequence BC.

The two options are mutually exclusive because of clause 1.4. The uniqueness claimed for consequence BC is assumed to have no intrinsic ethical value in itself – ie its uniqueness has no bearing on any of its ethical implications. But because consequence BC is claimed to be unique in its ethical implications, belief B rules out the possibility of there being another consequence TC1 which is equivalent in its ethical implications to BC. Therefore belief B and theory T1 are incompatible.

The options are not collectively exhaustive, technically speaking. After all it is possible to choose neither option. But we are considering the case of a potential believer who does want to achieve the ethical consequences BC which James claims for his religious hypothesis, or their equivalent TC1.

Again theory T1 may not necessarily be the only possible theory. There could for example be theory T2 with equivalent ethical consequence TC2; and/or theory T3 with equivalent ethical consequence TC3; …etc. But, for a potential believer who wants to achieve the ethical consequence BC or its equivalent, there is a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive pair of options: EITHER belief B OR theory Tn (where Tn = any one or more from the list of possible theories T1, T2 etc).

The choice between belief B and theory Tn is therefore, in James’s terminology (see Which Will to believe?), living (rather than dead), forced (rather than avoidable), and momentous (rather than trivial).

Belief B (and therefore James’s religious hypothesis) could be said to be a kind of ‘supernaturalistic fallacy’. This label has been used for a number of concepts. The ‘supernaturalistic fallacy’ I am referring to here though is that of attempting to deduce an is from an ought, by reverse analogy with GE Moore‘s coining of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ to refer to any attempt to deduce an ought from an is.3

Again this is because of clause 1.4. Because believing that B has consequence BC which is uniquely good in its ethical implications, it follows that we ought to believe that B. (Remember that believing that B is believing that B is true. It is not just believing in B, in the sense of eg ‘believing in democracy’ – which is believing that B is a good thing to bring about but does not necessarily imply that B already exists. Again see Which Will to believe?) Now from the perspective of the believer, to believe that B is to assert that B is true. Perhaps ‘we ought to believe that B‘ does not precisely mean or imply ‘B ought to be true’, but certainly the argument proceeds from a claim about ethical value to a claim about what is the case, which is enough to classify it as an example of the ‘supernaturalistic fallacy’.

But demonstrating a supernaturalistic fallacy may not be enough in itself to refute belief B, which would effectively mean refuting the ethical value of belief B. If it really was the case that believing that B was the only way of achieving a supremely good ethical consequence equivalent to BC, then a potential believer would no doubt consider any fallacy which B contains to be a small price to pay for achieving consequence BC.

Which is why the possibility of theory Tn is so important. All we actually need do is establish its plausibility, so as to establish that there could be conditions under which the choice between B and a possible Tn is a real one. Because in circumstances where it is possible to choose between B and Tn, the right choice would be Tn – and William James would agree:

If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away…4

This would remove James’s objection to William Clifford’s principle (see Clifford’s razor) that:

it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.5

Read on


1 William James, The will to believe, 1896.

2 Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

3 GE Moore, Principia ethica, Cambridge University Press, 1903.

4 William James, The will to believe, 1896.

5 William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877.

© Chris Lawrence 2008.


3 Responses

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  1. Hello again Steve.

    I realised I didn’t actually fully respond to what you said. I would probably also say that ‘thinking of the value of faith is faith and no more’ but I’m trying to understand whether it’s right to say that, and if it is, why it is.

    Hence all the analysis of William James’s ‘religious hypothesis’ in Better believe it and As if, as if etc. Otherwise all one can do is agree to disagree.

    Chris Lawrence

    26 December 2008 at 4:04 pm

  2. Thanks Steve!

    You probably noticed that Supernaturalistic fallacy is somewhere around the mid point (but as far as I’ve got right now) in a rather meandering argument on The ethics of belief. It starts out on pages & then gets more bloggy.

    And then The ethics of belief itself is just one thread on the site, but one I’ve been wanting to get down in words for a long time – to see how sound it is.

    I hope the blog title thinking makes it so is broad enough to cover anything I might want to write about – plus it’s from Hamlet so has some Shakespearian authority regardless of any connotation relevant to any specific thread. For example it goes quite nicely with my MA dissertation from all those years ago & which I’ve chopped up under the title Brecht and mimesis #1 etc.

    As far as The ethics of belief is concerned, I’ve long held the view that doubt is, ultimately, ethically superior to faith – which if true would demolish one of the few remaining justifications for religious belief.

    So I was interested to come across the debate between William Clifford & William James on this very topic. I’m trying to take William James’s ‘leap of faith’ counter-argument seriously. But I suspect it’s based on the assumption that the leap of faith into ethical commitment necessarily involves a commitment to something supernatural. And I don’t see why that has to be the case. Particularly if a secular alternative can be constructed, without recourse to either the naturalistic fallacy or what I’ve here called the ‘supernaturalistic fallacy’.

    Hope this makes some sort of sense, even at Christmas…

    Happy New Year!

    Chris Lawrence

    25 December 2008 at 9:06 am

  3. Blimey Chris, I got a shock when I looked at this on Xmas Eve, no less, obviously you have been winding up to this for a few weeks since you launched your blog, so, I sent it to a serious young philosopher, beware!
    ok, so, my opinion…”thinking makes it so” (sound familiar?) is different from “thinking it is so … is good,” since what we think (even a belief in an unprovable ‘mystery’)has no value without proof of consequences or intrinsic value, and thinking as such itself cannot produce that, unless the world and thinking are one and the same, so thinking of the value of faith is faith and no more.
    BUT, I am really impressed with your erudition in this field, after scratching the surface with you over a beer in Winchester two years ago…so Adamo and Diane will be following up I think!


    24 December 2008 at 11:49 pm

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