Project Logicality | Logical Fallacies: The Argument from Ignorance

One of the first things to discover when adopting a skeptical viewpoint is how vastly ignorant we all are of much of what there is to know. But ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s oblivion. And it’s evil twin, the illusion of knowledge, is downright dangerous.

Here we deal with a common mistake in thinking that exploits ignorance, trying to make it seem like knowledge, the Argument from Ignorance, also the Appeal to Ignorance or in Latin, ad ignorantiam.

Using this argument does not imply that one is ignorant in any demeaning sense, merely that the one making this argument isn’t making a valid point or a reliable claim.

It attempts to make a definite claim to understanding by using what is not known rather than what is.

It often takes the general form of:

I don’t know X, so I know Y.

Or put differently it might go something like this:

No one has proven X false (or true), so X must be true (or false).

Or perhaps:

I can’t explain X, so I can explain X.

A few examples follow:

No one has proven that Godzilla doesn’t exist, so Godzilla is real.

I’ve never seen any real, absolute, rock-solid proof that the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, so the Apollo missions must be a hoax.

There’s no fallacy committed when there’s knowledge of missing evidence that should likely be found, and it’s known what the expected evidence should be. Absence of evidence in the right context is indeed evidence of absence when its lack is glaringly obvious, even if it’s not absolute proof of absence!

There’s no fallacy committed in and of itself when acting upon incomplete data for precautionary purposes, such as the threat of terrorists, who can be expected to operate in secret until they strike, if and when they do, or acting upon the threat of global warming in the absence of total certainty.

The following is a valid argument:

All of the scheduled openings of this library are listed. I don’t see a listing of it opening at this hour of the day. So it must be that the library is closed until two hours from now.

This, however, is not:

I see a strange light in the sky. I can’t think of an explanation for it off the top of my head, so it must be the aliens from Independence Day!

Or this:

There are gaps in the fossil record. I do not know of a plausible explanation as to why there are such gaps. So it must be that a Intelligent Designer has created or interceded in the existence or development of life.

Maybe, but without good evidence and reasons to support such claims, we cannot know with any justified confidence that this is so.

The default position, the conservative position, is to reserve judgment, to neither deny nor accept, until the supporting evidence is in, evidence proportional to the claim, and there are good reasons to accept such a claim.

A variation of this is Confusing the Unexplained with the Unexplainable, which is fallacious because it assumes implicitly that the current state of knowledge represents the ultimate limits of the knowable, which is just wrong on so many levels.

There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote floating about of a patent clerk in the late 19th or early 20th century who quit his job, because he thought that everything important had already been invented.

There’s also the silly claim, still circulated, that it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly because science can’t explain it, therefore it’s magic. Well, science has explained it, and it deals with the mechanics of a bumblebee’s wings and the physics of fluid dynamics.

This is understandable, even from perfectly normal, intelligent, sane, and sincere people. It’s reasoning from psychologically available information rather than an examination of more complex and difficult data that may not come as quickly or easily to mind.

It just so happens that supernatural or paranormal explanations are among the easiest to conceive of on the spur of the moment. They are more immediately available, and we are more prone to them through the biases and mental shortcuts we take in our default thinking under whatever narrative influences our brains at any given moment, to paraphrase Dr. Steven Novella.

In informal argumentation the fallacious use of the argument from ignorance is not a violation of logical form as much as an attempt to subvert efforts toward getting at sound explanations for our claims.

It’s important not to confuse a lack of evidence for its presence, though absence of evidence can indeed be evidence for absence in the case of demonstrating the existence of entities in the real world. If the data you logically expect to see as a consequence of a phenomenon just isn’t where it ought to be found, that’s a good sign that it’s likely not real.

Otherwise, belief in such entities comes down to a matter of faith, and that is entirely one’s own choice to make.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

2 thoughts on “Project Logicality | Logical Fallacies: The Argument from Ignorance

  1. Pingback: MNQ | Monday’s Noontide Query for September 19, 2011 « The Call of Troythulu

  2. Pingback: Logical Fallacies — the Unexplained vs the Unexplainable « The Call of Troythulu

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