Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam

Here’s a quote I ran across this morning:

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 4)

I’m still waiting to hear some evidence for the existence of a god that doesn’t boil down to god-of-the-gaps. So many of the arguments theists have presented to me basically run like this: You don’t know how X happened, therefore my god did it. And if he did it, he must exist. In that equation, X can equal the origin of the universe, the source of human morality, the origin of species or any number of other things that the world (or often just theists) don’t understand (or refuse to accept).

In some cases, this argument is wrong because we actually do have a pretty good candidate for explaining the phenomenon in question. The persistence of evolution denial shows that people will go to great lengths to maintain that there’s still a gap for their god to live in. As Chuck said above, the people who argue from ignorance often show more confidence than those who point to ideas from science. One of the things that has made science so successful and valuable is that it tries to proportion certainty to the evidence.

But in all cases, this argument is wrong because even when we don’t have a scientific explanation, that doesn’t mean that one particular supernatural explanation is true by default. It’s more honest to say “I don’t know” than to say “Yahweh did it.”

I’m open to hearing evidence for the existence of a god, but please don’t expect me to be impressed by an argument based on what we don’t know. The human race should use ignorance as a motivation to do science and try learn the truth, not to settle on a superstitious explanation and stall our examination of reality.

To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today. (Isaac Asimov, New York Times Magazine, 14 June 1981)

15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Andrew Sillis on December 2, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Unfortunately, what may count for me as evidence, is unlikely to work as evidence for anyone else.
    You are right to point out that any ‘God of the gaps’ position is deeply flawed, however it is a position only likely to be taken by someone whose faith relies entirely on a logic founded on the documents and presuppositions of a faith.
    Having had what I believe to have been a personal encounter with God (and I don’t expect anyone else either to believe me about that, nor be able to relate to any description I have to offer) my God is not just a God of that which I don’t know, but also the God of all that we do know. God is not just a God of the gaps, but God of everything.
    Any discovery of science does not make my God smaller, just all the more amazing. It was as an earth scientist that I first began to relate to God. My God is the God who does evolution and cosmology, and when we work out how God did it, also the God of multiple dimensions and universes and strings and particles and forces.
    The evidence for God is all around, and more is being discovered every day. If one truly opens their mind to all the possibilities, the existence of God becomes not simply a thought process, but an experience.

    Reply

    • Posted by Mike Pictor on December 2, 2010 at 9:49 pm

      You had me until
      “The evidence for God is all around”

      No it’s not. There are observations that you choose to name evidence, but only because you have not sought, and then tested for alternative explanations for those observations.

      Reply

      • Posted by Andrew Sillis on December 3, 2010 at 8:06 am

        I think Mike that you are looking at the observations on the way there, whereas I am looking at them on the way back.

        That is, having had an (admittedly personal) experience which is sufficient evidence to me of the existence of God, as would my meeting you be sufficient evidence to me of the existence of you (and not accepting that a blog post in your name is existence of you!), I know (as well as I know anything) that a creator of the universe(s) exists. From that point, everything I see strengthens the evidence I have.

        As a scientist, seeing one thing is not evidence of another, until you have made a link between the two. Once the link is made, evidence which was previously unrelated, supports your scientific beliefs.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by almightygod, almightygod, Ben Clinkinbeard, Dan Campos, Jim Rion and others. Jim Rion said: RT @almightygod: I'm open to hearing why I should believe in a god, but spare me your god-of-the-gaps: http://is.gd/i5Uxv […]

    Reply

  3. As the gaps continue to shrink, those who make the argument will likely move into panic mode and hold more strongly than ever to the ancient texts.

    I’ve been thinking about how to lay out the case to show, beyond anything that could be considered a reasonable doubt, that the invisible, immortal creator of everything does not and cannot exist by the very arguments made by the apologists. I hope to reach those who waver & doubt and help them come out into the liberating and awe-inspiring natural world. The Truly Convinced are likely out of reach.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Jackson on December 2, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    For me, it boils down to historical evidence, particularly about Jesus. To start with, four independently written Gospels (though some are copied from the same sources), and other non-canonical documents would be just as valid as any other historical document of the time, after considering bias.
    Putting all the evidence together, you can build up a general picture of Jesus’ lifetime: he lived around the start of the first century, was well known as a religious teacher (and people thought he was the messiah), he was eventually crucified, and a few days afterwards, some of his disciples made claims that they had seen him alive again. The disciples were so sure that Jesus was the messiah that they spent the rest of their lives going around, spreading his teachings and being martyred for doing so.
    Sure, that’s not conclusive evidence, and it’s not hard to pick out potential uncertainties, flaws, etc. in what I’ve just said, but it’s (at least for me) strong evidence for the divinity of Jesus. And, the divinity of Jesus is predicated on the existence of a divine being (aka God) in the first place.

    Reply

    • Posted by Mike Pictor on December 2, 2010 at 9:55 pm

      It is *moderate* evidence for the existence of Jesus. There seems to be some corroborating evidence there was a man known by that name around that time frame.

      It is not even the ghost of evidence for his divinity.

      “four independently written Gospels”
      Four? four?! There were many more than four. It was hundreds of years later, long after the original authors had passed, that the field was narrowed down to four gospels as somehow being the ones worth forming into a foundation of christianity. In addition, the 4 gospels as you now know them have been heavily edited, in some cases having had verses added that are not reflected in any of the original texts.

      Reply

      • Posted by Jackson on December 3, 2010 at 7:16 am

        I heard once (don’t know if it’s right) that there’s more evidence, even excluding today’s bible, to support the existence (not divinity) of Jesus than that for Julius Caesar. Early texts written by people that didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus didn’t even bother to argue that Jesus didn’t exist, that was widely accepted fact.

        The “evidence” in my comment above lies in the “disciples that claimed to see a resurrected Jesus” bit – If someone was so certain of the truths in the message they were spreading about someone they knew personally, that they spent the rest of their lives spreading that message to the point of martyrdom, chances are they weren’t joking or making it up. I use the term evidence loosely, that’s not what most people would count as historical evidence, but it at least hints at it, like someone subtly trying to get your attention while pointing in the direction they want you to look. It’s not unreasonable to call that the ghost of evidence.

        Sorry about not mentioning the non-canonical gospels, but more than four is even better than four. I haven’t read them, but I wouldn’t argue with the suggestion that describing the divinity of Jesus is a common theme to all (or at least most) of them.

      • Jackson,

        You won’t find many texts from that period that bother to argue that Zeus or Sol Invictus didn’t exist, that was widely accepted fact, too. That doesn’t mean it was true. Think about the dumb shit that people pass on via email forwards today (and I’ve found Christians to be worse about this than others). And this is in a time with snopes.com and free high-school education! People back then had much less access to information. Is it so hard to imagine that people were spreading stories about Jesus that had more imagination in them than reality?

        Many people have gone to their death for religious beliefs that they should have known were false. Joseph Smith comes to mind. Does his supposed martyrdom prove that he was telling the truth? And we don’t even know that any eye-witness disciples were martyred. There’s even less evidence about them than about Jesus. You’re getting that story from church tradition and they had much more motivation to lie than our current-day email forwarders do. They also had less chance of being fact-checked.

        You should read the non-canonical gospels sometime. They don’t present a consistent view of Jesus at all. This might be a good place to start: http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Scriptures-Books-that-Testament/dp/0195141822

  5. “Many people have gone to their death for religious beliefs that they should have known were false.”

    The I suppose you are also willing to die for your own set of beliefs mate? Do you have a better religion?

    Reply

  6. Here’s an argument for the existence of God that I wrote a while ago. I am not asserting that it is perfect by any means, but I did try to avoid the god-of-the-gaps philosophy that you, correctly, point out is inadequate. I hope you enjoy!

    http://solatu.blogspot.com/2010/12/god-vs-determinism.html

    Reply

  7. Posted by Efrax86 on March 21, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Quoting Tim Minchin’s Storm

    “Throughout history
    every mystery
    EVER solved has turned out to be
    not magic.”

    What I can conclude from that small verse is that there are a lot of things we don’t know, “mysteries” if you will, but once the mystery is solved, it always turns out to be not magic, not supernatural, and definitely independent of whether a god exists or not. So if we don’t know something, we just have to wait until someone finds out about it, and in the meantime, admit that we DON’T KNOW about it instead of trying to attribute whatever it is to something like a god.

    Reply

    • There is already a known difference between solved mysteries and unsolved mysteries: They are solved. If at least that difference exists, who can say that there are not other differences as well? We cannot draw the conclusion that a property of solved mysteries must be present across ALL mysteries.

      Furthermore, the lack of “magic” found in our solved mysteries may be due to the mechanisms we use to solve our mysteries, namely science. Science is only capable of solving mysteries that are scientific in nature. Similarly, other magic-free tools would have a difficult time finding the answer to magical mysteries.

      This is really only a criticism of the first part of your conclusion. I do agree with you on the latter part. Just because we don’t know something doesn’t permit us to immediately shift responsibility to a deity.

      Reply

  8. “Religion is the suspension of rational thought”.
    You can’t embrace faith with you eyes opened and your brain working.
    Period.
    Thank you for the great work you did, anyway.
    I do personally love it.

    🙂

    Reply

  9. Posted by Aoi on December 24, 2011 at 6:39 am

    I’d like to voice out my thoughts, even though I’m just a young sixteen year-old who probably doesn’t know as much as the rest of the repliers. You’re free to ignore or debate with this post, but I don’t think I want to say much after sharing this (since I’ll probably contradict myself in one way or another. Spare me for acting stubbornly).

    Like Andrew Sillis, I also had an encounter with God. At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe. I don’t expect you to believe me. I mean, when it first happened, I thought nothing of it and even mocked it for what it was. God calling me? It was something I joked about with my friends.

    A week later I had a bad episode of depression, something I’d been fighting for a few years, because my values and beliefs were all over the place and I just plainly found no point to life.

    I didn’t believe in God. I hated that I was forced by my family to believe in Him, and who wouldn’t? There were so many things that I disagreed on in the Bible; the teachings just didn’t make sense and there are most definitely a lot of things that I can only question about. I’m a practical person, so if I can’t see the evidence of “God” in my life then why should I believe in him?

    Two weeks after that first encounter (or a week after that depressive episode), I had a second encounter. It was honestly shocking to have gone through a second encounter, since one was already a lot. During that encounter, I legit thought that I was going to die and ended up sleeping in tears. I don’t think I could’ve slept if my brother hadn’t comforted me that night. (… Actually, I would be okay to tell you more about this second encounter, but only if you really wanted to hear about it.)

    That night, I kept wondering why God was being so cruel to me. I was starting to believe and find comfort in Him since my first encounter, but at that point He only scared me. It felt like He was watching me constantly, like I was a criminal being monitored to do virtuous things. Was I supposed to be happy that God was “pretending” to kill me or something? Hell, it was a scary night. But, anyways, I just felt like sharing a few bits of this story of mine because preaching isn’t my style. Were you waiting for an ending to that story? There isn’t.

    You know, I can tell you to believe “this” because “this happened” but that kind of talk when it comes to religion irritates me. Preaching has always irritated me. Just freely believe what you want to believe. Religion is based off of “beliefs”, right? Not concrete evidence.

    “This” happened to me “just because”. There be no solid reason. ;P It just did. You can believe my story, you can choose not to. Just remember that I am someone who actually hated God. I hated Him in all lights. I mocked and ridiculed Him and could not follow Jesus’s teachings. Even now do I fail to fully believe in Him. Everyone does. But in the end… I can’t help but choose to follow Him, and I do this all on my own will. Not because of what someone else says or what I see as evidence of Him. (Unless you count those encounters I had with him. Who knows? Maybe I’m crazy or possessed…)

    I guess the thing that sparked for me to make this reply was that the way you write reminds me of me before my encounters with God, only more… “expanded”. I just happened to come across your Twitter account today and was a little shocked with some of the postings.

    Does it irritate me that you write in such ways? Of course, but who am I, a sixteen year-old girl who never really believed in God, to judge you?

    (And now, forgive me for my preaching, which I know you won’t look too nicely on.)

    If you’re anyone like me, someone seriously trying to look for evidence of God, you must openly surrender yourself to Him. You must open your heart. You have to see past what’s “real”, because God is more than what’s real (if that makes any sense).

    … I learned this the hard way, but probably one of the best ways: searching for solid evidence of the existence of God is an unproductive journey.

    You have to believe in Him before seeing the evidence. You may call this ignorance; I’ll call it belief. God is everything. He’s on a completely different level from us. He is said to be the creator of mankind, so it’s no doubt that He surpasses humans: our logical minds and way of thinking… You can only choose to believe in Him or not.

    … Alright, sorry for preaching with this long and annoying reply, but I do get worked up about these things and feel powerless when I can’t say my opinion. Plus, “If you’re anything like me, or anyone who questions God, you need to search for God in a less practical way,” says this practical, simple-minded girl… /:

    Reply

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