Sunday, April 27, 2014

The argument from ignorance

Ever have somebody accuse you of making an "argument from ignorance"? Kinda sounds like they're insulting you, aren't they? Nobody likes to be called ignorant, despite the fact that we're all ignorant of many things. (Except me. I know everything, but much of it I am sworn to never reveal.) Realize that it's not that the person is calling you ignorant though. Allow me to explain:

Imagine that you met a guy who said he didn't believe in the sun. What would you do? You'd walk him outside, grab a hold of his head, pry open his eyelids, and make him stare right at that big ball of fire until he was blind. Then you'd say, "Why do you think you're blind now, dumbass?"

What if you met a woman who said that she didn't believe in gravity? You'd take her to the tallest building and push her off. Using a bit of pre-planning, you'll make sure to attach an MP3 player on to her and stick the headphones in her ears. As she plummets to her death, the last thing she'd hear is: "What do you think is pulling you down to the ground now, dumbass?"

Maybe you have a friend who doesn't believe in evolution. What do you do but lock them up in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum and make them memorize all of the transitional fossil and genetic evidence until you finally allow them to leave. (This person gets off much easier, but you can still call him/her a "dumbass" when it's all said and done.)

These, or perhaps somewhat less extreme, examples are what you'd do to prove the existence of what you're talking about. Do you know what you wouldn't do? You wouldn't say: "You can't prove that the sun/gravity/evolution ISN'T real." What kind of argument is that, anyway? It's not necessary when you can prove that they ARE real, is it?

And that's the argument from ignorance. It contributes absolutely nothing to the conversation, and it's not a piece of evidence. The problem is, people will use it to help bolster their claims for everything from God (most popular) to alien visitation, to dowsing. The problem is that it can work easily as well for Santa Claus, werewolves, or the Kardashians, yet nobody would take it seriously if that kind of argument was used. In other words: if an argument is a good one, then it works in all cases, not just the ones that you have already decided are legitimate.

Another form of the argument from ignorance goes along the lines of: "You can't explain X; therefore, I can explain X by saying that it's (insert preferred hypothesis here)." This is another argument that doesn't move a person's case forward at all. There are many things that defy explanation, but the thing is that there are fewer things that we can't explain now than there used to be. When we couldn't explain lightning, all that meant was that we couldn't explain it. It didn't mean that the explanations that people offered up (wrath of an angry sky-god) were somehow more legitimate.

The problem is that it's using ignorance about something as evidence, but ignorance is just that. It proves nothing but a gap in knowledge. For some reason though, people don't like gaps in knowledge, and unfortunately the response isn't necessarily to figure out what the answer is but to supply an answer that can't be justified by any actual evidence.

The two most popular examples of this form of argument from ignorance are the "God of the gaps" and the favorite of the History Channel: "aliens of the gaps". Things are complicated and mysterious, and rather than simply acknowledging that and saying: "We have a lot to learn", they're inserted as "evidence".

I once was accused of being condescending by pointing out that an argument was merely a "God of the gaps". I didn't know how to respond other than to point out that's exactly what had happened. The other person provided no evidence for the existence of God other than to say that a God can explain things that are complicated. Well, if you want to believe that a God is a good explanation, then that's fine, but you need to provide a reason why he's a good explanation - not just the fact that he's AN explanation.

I was then accused of doing the same thing, filling in gaps in knowledge with an "atheism of the gaps". That was a real head-scratcher, and an obvious example of how misunderstood atheism actually is. Atheism provides no explanations. When I can't explain something, I say that I can't explain it. I don't say: "I can't explain it; therefore, it wasn't God." In other words, there is no "therefore" in my point of view. If you want to say that God explains it, then you have to provide evidence for that.

Take my example of the guy who gets blinded by sunlight. The bright light from the sun explains that. And it's not just the "sun of the gaps". We can explain exactly WHY the sun's light does that, and there are other evidences for the sun (like photosynthesis, its warmth, the results are repeatable and verifiable, the fact that you can SEE THE DAMNED THING, etc.) We know what the sun is, what it's comprised of, what it does, and so on. When it comes to God (or aliens) we don't know exactly what he/she/it is or anything about it. When asked questions like that, the other person will appeal to some sort of mystery - which is the heart of the problem. It's replacing a mystery with another mystery, which gets us absolutely no closer to solving the problem.

Keep in mind that using the argument from ignorance does not automatically make you wrong. If a person actually did use "You can't prove that the sun doesn't exist!" as an actual argument, that wouldn't suddenly mean that the sun doesn't exist. Likewise, a person who uses the God of the Gaps hasn't suddenly invalidated the existence of God. God could very well be real - but he's not real for the reason that's being given. In other words, you can make a bad argument for something that's true.

The only thing that I'd point out though is that if the only reasons you have for believing something are all arguments from ignorance, at the very least, you should take a long hard look at why you still believe that.

25 comments:

JstNEarthling said...

At least I and probably millions of others have at least seen and or been affected by ETs......as opposed to super heroes and magicians in the sky with imaginary powers.....get a grip they are polar opposites...after all if ETs are not real then we are alone in the universe and the fact that we are here in a young galaxy.....????

Lance Johnson said...

I didn't say that ET's aren't real. I'm just saying that there isn't any evidence that they're visiting us.

And why is it impossible that we're alone in the universe? I personally don't think it's likely, but it's possible.

And what does that have to do with a young galaxy?

Anonymous said...

"When asked questions like that, the other person will appeal to some sort of mystery - which is the heart of the problem. It's replacing a mystery with another mystery, which gets us absolutely no closer to solving the problem".

When asked questions like that the other person, in my experience, falls back on that dusty old book of myths, which doesn't advance anything either.

Kaboom32 said...

And if ET's aren't real, then who ate my Reese's Pieces, Lance? Who ate my Reese's Pieces?

Tony from Pandora said...

Can you prove that Love exists?

Lance Johnson said...

Yes. Considering that it's a subjective feeling, and I feel it, then I don't need much else.

However, there is much evidence of people acting on that feeling - from how they treat others to what inspires the arts.

Tony from Pandora said...

But can you prove it TO ME?

Can you provide evidence of people acting on that feeling? and how do you know it's love that is causing the actions?

Lance Johnson said...

"But can you prove it TO ME?"

My subjective feeling? No. But you could put me to the test like you would anything else. How would you expect me to act, for instance, if I loved my son?

One can easily devise a test for this - propose what would happen if I did love him and what would happen if I didn't. Then see if the data matches with what's expected. If I behave in the way you'd figure that I would, then you have evidence.

"Can you provide evidence of people acting on that feeling?"

I think that's pretty easy. Go to a funeral, to name just one example.

"how do you know it's love that is causing the actions"

What other hypothesis would you suggest? And how would we go about testing that?

As always, I go with the idea that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". Love is not an extraordinary claim. It's a really cool one, to be sure, but it's easily demonstrable.

Lance Johnson said...

It might also help if you provide your definition for the word love, so I can figure out what it is that I'm trying to prove.

Tony from Pandora said...

Let's just go with the first definition found on www.merriam-webster.com

"A strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties."

Do you love your child according to this definition? Can you prove it?

sub-question. What constitutes an 'extraordinary claim'?

Lance Johnson said...

Oops - had to fix my original post:

Can I prove a strong affection?

The thing is, that's a subjective question by its very nature. It's not akin to asking whether I can prove the existence of something objective. (Like the existence of a god - there either is one or isn't - your feelings don't matter.)

So yes, I feel it. Again, as for proving it, you could devise a number of tests to see if I act out on this feeling. For instance, The sheer fact that I take care of my son, even when he's driving me crazy, is a good indicator of my love for him.

As for extraordinary claims, it's the kind of thing that you don't normally witness - like the existence of leprechauns. Plus, the existence of it would require us to re-think much of what we know about the world.

Claiming the existence of love is consistent with actual observations.

Tony from Pandora said...

While I agree that some people argue from ignorance is true, I think some of the issue stems from not accepting things AS evidence.
My point on proving love, is that while the manifestations of love are subjective, the idea of love isn’t. Love either exists or doesn’t. It’s an objective truth, just like the sun. But you really can’t prove it, the same way you prove the sun, or gravity. It takes an entirely different set of tests. We can agree that love is “a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” But you can’t prove that anything is done out of that definition.
You mentioned a test for it would be “the sheer fact that I take care of my son, even when he's driving me crazy, is a good indicator of my love for him.” How can you prove that? How do I know you’re taking care of him simply so you won’t go to jail for neglect? Or because of the financial trouble you’d be in if your wife divorced you due to mistreating your son? The only way to get me to believe you is by developing a relationship with me, and through that relationship, I begin to see and understand your relationship with your son. Only then do I see that love.
The bible says that God is love (I John 4:7-8). Yes, we’ve discussed the veracity of the bible. You believe the scholars who say it’s made up. I believe the scholars who say it’s not. But, if God is Love… then logically, couldn’t He possibly choose to reveal Himself in a similar way, that is, through relationships?
I just don’t think that the ‘objective evidence’ you use determining fossils, necessarily work with trying to find or prove God. Once you believe in God, then you see everything else differently, like the theory of evolution. But that belief in God isn’t found in the same way that fossils or DNA is discovered.
I look at the theory of evolution this way:
I pull the string to a toy wooden top and it starts spinning at 100 rpm
After 5 seconds, it slows down to 95 rpm, at which point, you start keeping track of the rpms
After 10 seconds, it’s at 90 rpm, then 15 seconds, it’s 85, then 20 seconds it’s at 80.
At this time, you say, “The top is spinning at 80 rpm and is slowing down 1 rpm every second. Knowing this, we can plainly conclude without a shadow of a doubt that 60 seconds ago, the top was spinning at 140 rpm.” What you can’t know (until I reveal it to you) is that it was me who spun the top 20 seconds ago at 100 rpm. And I choose how to reveal myself to you. You don’t get to choose that, because it’s my top, and I spun it. The evidence you’re looking at for the top, simply doesn’t apply to me.

This post is a bit rough, and not as polished as I'd like, but I'll just put it up here and let you do what you want with it.

Lance Johnson said...

"The only way to get me to believe you is by developing a relationship with me, and through that relationship, I begin to see and understand your relationship with your son."

But isn't my description consistent with your experience and the experience of others? And what about people who cared for their children even when there aren't legal consequences for abandoning them?

Plus, there's more to "caring" for my son than feeding and clothing him. I spend time with him. I play with him. If you tried to take him from me, you're putting your very life at risk. This is consistent with human beings all over the world.

I proposed that as one test, but there are countless tests that we can create, and for love to exist, that would be consistent with our observations.

"But, if God is Love… then logically, couldn’t He possibly choose to reveal Himself in a similar way, that is, through relationships?"

Sure, if this, then this. But you still haven't provided evidence for the existence of this God. You haven't even proposed a test that could either prove or falsify its existence.

Your analogy with the spinning top is a classic argument from ignorance. And again, if all you have as "evidence" is a logical fallacy, then you don't actually have evidence.

Lance Johnson said...

And honestly, Tony, even IF you demonstrated that the belief in love was an argument from ignorance, then all you're stuck with is a "two wrongs make a right" fallacy - which doesn't help your case at all. (I think that you're very far from that, as love is a concept that describes the reasons why we behave the way we do.)

From where I see it, you have a few options:

1. Try and explain how an argument from ignorance is not a logical fallacy.

2. Provide evidence that's AT LEAST as objective as what I presented for the existence of love.

3. Admit that you have neither logical reasons nor evidence to support your belief.

Tony from Pandora said...

I don't think the belief in love IS an argument from ignorance. My point is trying to prove love in practice may be indistinguishable from it. Trying to prove its existence using the same methods as figuring out how lightning works, or photosynthesis, or the tides, don't work. And relating back to God, if He chooses to reveal Himself through love, then the normal scientific methods using weights and measures and the like won't work either.

1. I believe an argument from ignorance IS a logical fallacy. We're together on this. I'm just trying to show there are proofs that are accepted for some facts (like the existence of love) may appear as such.

2. I'm still waiting on your objective evidence FOR its existence. Your example of time with your son can be explained by any number of motivations besides love. Many foster parents do it just for the money.

3. If the 'belief' in question is love, I don't have any. I can't explain the existence of love(an objective factual idea) apart from the fact that I feel it (my subjective response to it) If my 'belief' is that arguments from ignorance is NOT a fallacy... I've addressed

Lance Johnson said...

Tony, do you really want to die on this hill?

Are you trying to tell me that there's no way to distinguish between a person who actually loves his child versus somebody who's just trying to cash in? If the kids were to die, for instance, do you think that they'd react the same way?

And while I don't feel like I need to go here, to say that we cannot analyze love the same way we do other natural phenomena is demonstrably false. We have brain scans, ya know:

Watching New Love as it Sears the Brain

Still Madly in Love? Brain Scans Can Explain

Those are just a couple of hits I got when I Googled "love" and "brain imaging".

So, yeah, there's empirical evidence.

"if He chooses to reveal Himself through love"

You still have yet to give a single reason for this God's existence that's even as good as some of my weaker reasons for the existence of love.

Kaboom32 said...

What if God reveals himself to me through bowling? I go bowling and I knock down some pins. I turn around. When I turn around again, the pins on the ground are gone.

And then I knock down those pins. I turn around. I turn around again and there are now ten pins standing. What happened to those pins? Who put them there?

God reveals himself in so many ways. I turn on my faucet and there's water. I didn't put that there. Did you put that there? I doubt it. Therefore, God.

I went for a walk once. There were so many beautiful things to see. I saw all of them. You should have seen them.

But here's the thing. And then I went home. My house was still there, Lance. It was still there. And you know what? It's still here today. I'm in my house.

I could go on a walk today if I wanted. And I bet I would see things. But I wonder if my house would be here when I come back? You see, Lance, I have faith. Faith that it will be here. God reveals himself every day when he shows me my house. And when I see things when I walk. And walking. And houses.

Lance Johnson said...

You do have a house. I can confirm that.

Tony from Pandora said...

Hmmm, wait a minute... I get the funny feeling you're trying to pick on me... Oh... kaboom32, you're silly... if that's your REAL name....

Tony from Pandora said...

This is why I don't like this little 2" by 2" box to respond. These types of discussions are much better in person, with the chance of instant feedback and clarification. I can't adequately convey everything in these response boxes...

On a technical note, both links reference the same article when I click on either one. Is that an issue on my end?

Concerning the scans... empirical evidence? Really? The whole basis of the test assumed love existed in the first place. It didn't prove that love existed. You never let me get away with that!
That article (and a few others I gleaned over in the last 2 minutes... so I'm now an expert) show the same responses happen in people in response to food or other appetites. It's Pavlov's dog... ringing a bell doesn't mean the dog loves bells. Showing a man a picture of his wife could show he's thinking, "she makes me great food... and I love that food."

And even with the scans as "evidence" the data is only "proved" as love after the scientists spend time with the subjects, in other words, developed a relationship with them, which was part of my point.

You have an argument against every piece of evidence for God. The thing is, if you substitute "love" for "God". I think your arguments would still work. The only difference is, you've experienced love in a way that makes you accept its existence, that you apparently haven't had with God. But I have had that experience. That's what's communicated through the Holy Spirit. You say it's hocus pokus, self-deceptive trickery. But someone who hasn't experienced love (and there are victims in this world who haven't)
could say the same to you about your love for your son.

Now, I will grant you the question, "Why doesn't this "god" let me experience him or her, then?" and for that question, and those like it, I would have to turn to scripture, which you don't accept, so there we are...

And to Kaboom32... is the '32' in reference to your bowling score?

Lance Johnson said...

Tony,

You're trying really hard to ram those square pegs into those round holes.

"The whole basis of the test assumed love existed in the first place."

How do you figure this? You keep talking about love like it's this mysterious thing. It's a strong - but subjective - feeling. Brain scans show that this feeling accompanies demonstrable changes within the brain.

We can demonstrate that people have strong emotions toward others. Love is simply the word we use to describe that.

I don't even understand the bit with Pavlov's dog and its relevance to this one way or the other.

"The thing is, if you substitute 'love' for 'God'. I think your arguments would still work."

This is so wrong that it's not even wrong anymore. Again, making a claim that people have a certain feeling that they act out on is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT thing than saying that there's an all-powerful creator of the universe. It's not even apples and oranges. It's apples and nuclear missiles.

" But someone who hasn't experienced love (and there are victims in this world who haven't)
could say the same to you about your love for your son."

Again, apples and nukes. We can explain why some people don't feel love - there are those who have no empathy at all and then are unable to love (sociopaths, for instance). But this is something that we witness all over the world. (Just as we witness love - both in the present day and in writings from various cultures throughout time.)

If love was something that only a particular group of people felt - and it was concentrated in particular geographical locations - and people who never heard of it didn't feel it but some other emotion, then you'd have something. But this comparison is so completely absurd that it's not even the atheist in me that rejects it but the English teacher in me.

"I would have to turn to scripture, which you don't accept, so there we are..."

Just as you don't accept the Koran, Hindu scriptures, Dianetics, etc.

Lance Johnson said...

Ultimately, Tony, are you trying to say that we cannot know what one person describes as love is the same thing as what another person describes as love? That they can be feeling two completely different things but both call it by the same name? (Even though brain scans show that the same thing is happening in both cases?)

Tony from Pandora said...

I said this is why I don't like this little comment box to give my arguments... It's much harder to flesh out my thoughts (to even myself) in this medium.

Pavlov's dog & brain scans
I meant that showing a picture to someone could trigger a response, but it didn't mean that it was love for the person shown, but what that person does for him. Like Pavlov's dog salivating for food, showing a person a picture could be a 'bell' triggering a response for something other than the picture itself. It's only after developing a relationship with the subject, do you see that the response is love, as Webster's definition of "a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties"

This whole discussion is veering off your main post (which is largely my fault, due to my ramblings.)

"It's so wrong that it's not even wrong anymore" So I'm right, then? Well, moving on...!

Apples & Nukes
Yes, it's a bit like that. That's also part of my point. Proving an 'all-powerful creator of the universe' is like that. The weights & measures system used for science is limited. How could the laws of science alone prove or disprove this 'all-powerful creator' when, by definition, He is outside the laws of this nature, i.e supernatural? This being could choose how to reveal Himself.

This brings me back to the original topic of arguments from ignorance. What triggered my response initially was your comment of proving evolution (transitional fossils, genetic evidence, etc). To me, those 'proofs" of evolution are arguments from ignorance according to one of your examples, "You can't explain X; therefore, I can explain X by saying that it's (insert preferred hypothesis here)." Evolution is your preferred hypothesis. You call these fossils and DNA "evidence", but I don't see where that proves evolution. DNA is simply a "computer code" for genetic design, the complexities of which are still just being discovered. I just can't help but see God working through that code, like a art major may see Picasso in... whatever paintings he did (i'm not an art major)

Okay... I'm going to read your Spider-man review now...

Lance Johnson said...

"It's only after developing a relationship with the subject, do you see that the response is love, as Webster's definition of 'a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties'"

For the sake of argument, I'm going to give you this. Why? Because you prove my point - ultimately, there is a way to objectively verify all of this.

And what about other emotions? Would you try to make the same argument for hate, sadness, happiness, etc? I don't think you're following this thought through to its logical conclusions.

"How could the laws of science alone prove or disprove this 'all-powerful creator' when, by definition, He is outside the laws of this nature, i.e supernatural?"

This is what I always find amusing about these discussions. You theists act like I should just give you that - as though you've somehow already presented a case for this being's existence. Unfortunately, you've got as much evidence for this as you have for leprechauns.

Regarding evolution, I have yet to have a debate with an evolution denier that didn't eventually reveal some sort of misunderstanding on that person's part as to what evolution is.

Are you not aware that evolution has been observed? In other words, there are examples of a species becoming another species? So, your argument doesn't work because there is observable evidence for evolution, and the fossils and DNA can be explained by a process for which we have unquestionable evidence.

So, saying "These bits of evidence can be explained by a process that we have observed" is not the same as saying "These bits of evidence can be explained by something that lies outside the laws of nature".

Please, do some more reading. The talk.orgins archive is a great place to start.

Lance Johnson said...

Just re-read my response and realized that what I wrote sounds like a circular argument. Allow me to be clearer:

We have evidence for mutations and speciation that has been actually observed. That's evolution. Looking at fossils and our genetic code and saying that it's evolution is not an argument from ignorance. Like I said, it's using an observable process to explain something.

In other words, it's like the theory that the Egyptians built the pyramids. We know that there are Egyptians. We have records (from them and other cultures) of their existence in the past. The pyramids are in Egypt. Even though we can't get a time machine and watch Egyptians building it, saying that they're responsible is not an argument from ignorance - even if new evidence comes along that it was actually The Phoenicians.

And one more example - it's like if my keys go missing and I blame my son. I have evidence for my son. He's been known to play with my keys and hide my stuff. Even though I haven't seen him hide my keys, attributing it to him is not an argument from ignorance - even if it turns out that I simply misplaced them.

The problem with inserting God in there is that you're using the ignorance AS the evidence. In other words, it would be like if I blamed my son, but my son was indistinguishable from my imaginary friend. And then I would insist that the missing key counts as evidence for his existence.