This may shock some of you—but I’m not Spock! Of course, I like to think (or, better yet, have others think) I’m as dispassionate and logical in my thinking as was the original Star Trek science officer Mr. Spock. But, then again, I’m not half Vulcan.
To continue in my intellectual candor, I’m sometimes aware I remain unmoved by an otherwise sound or cogent logical argument simply because I don’t like the conclusion. In effect, there are times in which I place personal preference ahead of more pure rational considerations. However, I don’t think I’m alone in this intellectual condition.
Human beings in general are far less neutral, fair, and objective than we think we are when it comes to evaluating logical truth-claims. And this vulnerable tendency to place preference ahead of truth is potentially disastrous when it comes to spiritual truth about God (see Romans 1:18–23). According to the Bible, sin can and does cloud a person’s thinking and motives (Ephesians 4:17–19). It seems the assertion that human beings are indeed sinners is clearly the best-attested truth-claim of the Bible.
Beware of the Genetic Fallacy
A fallacy occurs in logic when an argument contains a specific defect that causes the argument to break down and, thus, fail to provide genuine support for its central claim (conclusion). The genetic fallacy is easy to commit because it can appeal to either personal preference or aversion.
The genetic fallacy takes place when a person evaluates a position (idea, person, practice, etc.) in terms of the thing’s origin and ignores developmental changes relevant to the position’s present value or importance. In effect, one argues against a point of view simply because it has questionable origins.
For example, one would commit the genetic fallacy if they were to reject modern astronomy simply on the grounds that the first astronomers were involved in astrology (an occult practice). What is ignored is that astronomy’s current truth and value as a scientific discipline is verifiable independent of its original connections to occult beliefs. So the point to remember is that a belief’s truth or verifiability is more important than how the belief originated.
People tend to lay great significance upon the origin of things—making the genetic fallacy an easy error to commit. As logician T. Edward Damer notes: “Where a thing comes from tends to have a rather potent effect on the way we evaluate it.”1 So we must remind ourselves to separate a things worth from its origin.
My Struggle with the Genetic Fallacy
I am a diehard Los Angeles Lakers fan and have rooted for the team since the late 1960s. Over those 40+ years, the Lakers’ greatest rival has clearly been the dreaded Boston Celtics. To put it mildly, there is no love lost between the Lakers and the Celtics or their respective fans. One might say that in Lakerland nothing good can come from Boston.
However, a book by NBA historian Charley Rosen makes a strong case that the most influential basketball mind in building the Los Angeles Lakers into an NBA dynasty belongs to a man who played his entire career as a Celtic—hall of fame player and coach Bill Sharman.2 It seems that when Sharman coached the Lakers and later served as the team’s general manager he incorporated many positive things he had learned from the great Celtics teams of the 1950s and 1960s. Sharman, in effect, brought some of the Celtic magic to Los Angeles.
Here lies my struggle with the genetic fallacy. Nothing good can come from Boston, right? (Except for maybe American independence.) Can anything be good for the Lakers when it came from the Celtics? I surely don’t want to give any credit to the Celtics for the Lakers’ ultimate success. But if Rosen is correct, then I must logically separate the value of Sharman’s basketball genius from where it was originally shaped.
My Christian brother Danny Cole, a lifelong Boston Celtics fan whom I’ve become good friends with over the last year, might be surprised by this revelation; yet despite my personal preference, I must admit that The Lakers and their fans have benefited from the coaching of a former Celtic. One might say that this personal transformation was made possible by allowing truth to triumph over origin.
1. T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, fourth ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001), 57.
2. Charley Rosen, The Pivotal Season: How the 1971–72 Los Angeles Lakers Changed the NBA (New York: Thomas Dunn, 2005), 274–79.
This article marks Reflections‘ 100th post on WordPress. To celebrate, I’d like to send a set of my two talks from the RTB Live! DVD series–Religious Pluralism and Made in the Image of God–to the first person to answer the following question correctly.
What are the three classic laws of thought attributed to Aristotle?
Submit your answers in the comments and thank you for visiting Reflections.