There’s got to be some formal recognition of the fallacy already, but it comes up often enough when Daniel and I discuss issues, so I thought I’d lay it out here. I’ll call it “the fallacy of gravity as a mechanism of consciousness.” One might also call it the “ignorance is bliss, so don't rock the boat” fallacy.
Often people fall into this fallacy when rejecting a theory that is (or threatens to be) foundational in some sense, where acceptance would involve a radical change in one’s conception of reality. In response to such a theory a person fallaciously points out that, were it true, all hell would break loose. For example:
“Affirming Darwinian evolution would be devastating to morality and human commitment to charity or altruism”
“Affirming divine predestination would be devastating to human free will”
What’s wrong with this thinking is that, were Darwinian evolution or divine predestination the case, it would always have been the case. Any crisis that occurs following the acceptance of these facts is not then a result of the facts themselves, but rather a psychological result of certain peoples’ acceptance of them (conversely, the pre-crisis state of things might simply be psychological rather than objectively the case). It is not, then, an appropriate argument against evolutionary theory or predestination to say that affirming as much would threaten anything that wasn’t especially threatened before. It’s not as if people suddenly cease to have charitable feelings when evolutionary biology comes on the scene, or cease to act freely when predestination is indoctrinated. Nor are there any magically retroactive powers to these theories that will erase every free or moral act previously undertaken.
The reason why I call this “the fallacy of gravity as a mechanism of consciousness” has to do with a colorful and classic illustration from Looney Tunes. As Wile E. Coyote chased the Road Runner, he often found himself inadvertently running off of a cliff into thin air. In the cartoon, it was not until Coyote realized he was running across air that gravity took effect:
There are some pesky details of the physics of horizontal projectile motion that would confirm some aspects of Wile E. Coyote's experience. But the relevant point is that Coyote doesn't fall at all until he realizes that he has run off a cliff, regardless of whether he runs off the cliff with some velocity under his belt. And the spectacle ends up being funny because even children intuitively realize how silly this is. Unfortunately, adults often don't pick up on this rather obvious silliness when theory becomes personal and there is a perceived tension with one's standing conception of how things are.
This isn't to say that there is no useful reason to bring up devastating effects of accepting certain theories about reality, or that one can't reframe the objection to be more appropriate. The fallacious response might be better framed to say something like this:
"I take the moral state of things to be X, and evolutionary theory fails to adequately account for X"
"I take human free will to actually be the case and carry with it some burden of theoretical explanation, and the idea of divine predestination simply can't live up to that standard of explanation."
In these cases, we are at least on the right track in identifying a new theory's explanatory power as inadequate. Here at least we're pitting one theory against another and we can have a meaningful conversation about how best to explain what is the case. This is much different, however, than acting as if a theory can nullify something that already is the case. It can't. Things just are what they are, and they will continue to be that way. Theories change our understanding of things, but they don't change things outside of our understanding.
Friday Night Music
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