Getting reliable knowledge can be tricky. But contriving explanations for what we don’t know with what’s itself unknown is slippery. We humans are naturally disposed to see patterns and intentional agency in nature. It comes quickly and easily to us.
But the best explanations we’ve found for things in our experience have consistently and reliably been natural, rarely obvious, and almost never simple. Each and every time. Never has any successful inquiry undertaken ever uncovered any explanatory agents outside, apart from, or in any way above nature.
As our knowledge improves, this gives whatever such agencies we invoke ever-shrinking responsibilities, them being reduced to what Neil deGrasse Tyson has called “an ever-receding pocket of ignorance.” However it’s used to explain things not currently understood, it’s often called the God of the gaps fallacy, for, so the argument goes, wherever there are gaps in our knowledge, there lies God…or any other sort of extraordinary entity we might give a name to.
From here on, I’ll call this the X of the gaps fallacy, with X standing in for any concept we choose as our unknown causal agent.
It’s the same argument when we use any sort of extraordinary or otherwise unknown or unknowable entity; witches*, wizards, demons, angels, ghosts, psionic abilities, aliens, faeries, cloud nymphs, computer pixies, evil secret conspirators, quasi-evil conspirators, pseudo-evil conspirators, diet cola of evil conspirators, such elusive things as souls and free will***, and the list goes on.
A few examples of this argument follow:
- This study has produced statistical results that appear to rule out chance.
- So something other than chance must be at work.
- I don’t know what that something might be apart from psi.
- So that something must be psi.
- Witches cause all kinds of misfortune with their evil spells.
- My milk got curdled, my best ram died after eating them funny-looking weeds, a hailstorm wiped out my crops, and all my cats have hairballs again.
- So witches must be responsible for all of this!
- We do not know, to an arbitrary level of detail, the exact naturalistic mechanisms giving rise to the origin of life, its diversity, or the origins of the universe.**
- No one is smart enough to figure out the answer.
- So the Intelligent Designer™ must have done it all, in ways we know not at all, for the Designer’s ways are Mysterious™.
While there’s no absolute guarantee that our knowledge will continue to progress as it has, it does us no good to invoke things we don’t really know or understand to explain other unknowns based only on our own subjective or even collective ignorance.
After all, why not just be honest with ourselves and admit that when we don’t know, we just don’t know. It’s better, more effective and more rational to make a real effort to look for answers instead of making them up, and either convincing ourselves that we have all the answers or throwing up our hands and declaring that we if don’t know something now then we’ll never understand.
That is simply intellectual laziness.
That’s no judgement on anyone’s persons, but an observation of the sort of thinking process at play.
Lazy thinking leads to fuzzy understanding and unreliable knowledge claims that don’t stand up to the test of reality, and we all do it, both we ordinary mortals and those Sophisticated Theologians™ alike.
*This does not include Wiccans, but only those now stereotypical witches and warlocks imagined during the European witch hunts, and the modern witch hunts going on in African nations, many of which horrifically involve the old and the helpless, like young children.
**It should go without saying that these involve different branches of science, but Creationists and many Intelligent Design proponentsists (sic) tend to treat them as though they were the same.
***thanks to Benjamin Steele for mentioning that last. It had slipped my mind in the original writing of this post, so I’m adding it in this edit.
This is the second re-release in my Project Logicality series, and it was posted in its original form in April of 2011. I’ve corrected and re-written this and reposted it here, hopefully clearer and to the point. May all your arguments be rational and all your disputes be resolved. ~ Troythulu
We persuade others through our arguments, to get them to accept the statements and claims we make as likely true of their own free choice, justified on the basis of the reasons we give rather than prove them absolutely. Argumentation contributes to healthy discussion and debate, to let those so arguing find common ground, and to make easier a willingness to compromise.
People argue daily, though seldom with skill, and in my view, argumentation as a well-honed tool of a functional democratic republic is needed more than ever with the increasing decay of social discourse, political polarization and interpersonal conflicts that ever more are seen as irreconcilable.
In this post, I’ll describe the basic assumptions and basic conditions that go into any attempt at constructive argument, and before I do, I’ll note as before that good argument is intellectual in force, not coercive or deceptive. It is an ethical means of influencing others, limiting their freedom of action without imposing on their freedom of will.
First, argument is carried out under conditions of uncertainty: We generally don’t argue about things we think certain, though that doesn’t prevent us from talking about them.
We argue about things because we think it important enough to convince others of them, and things may well turn out to be otherwise. If things were absolutely self-evident, they would be so to all, and there would be no need to convince anyone of them.
These differences may be implied and apparent to an analyst, concealed in the context of an argument, or explicit, obvious to an audience. Bear in mind that even the concept of certainty can depend on the audience addressed and the assumptions they bring to the table as to what it means.
Second, Argumentation must consider the needs of an audience. people argue about things that matter to them, attempting to resolve what they think are conflicting positions that cannot simply be settled by any non-argumentative means; appealing to common knowledge, or widely-shared empirical methods; things they consider to be non-trivial, matters important enough to need resolution.
This is not to pander to their biases, or to say that one claim is just as good as any other, it’s just that in being ethical, we must consider what is likely to persuade a given audience as if they were exercising their critical judgment on the merits of the arguments we give, and the soundness of the justifications we offer for our claims.
The audience is the final judge of whether an argument is strong or weak, justified or not, assenting to it if it is strong or justified, rejecting it if not.
Third, argumentation is both adversarial and cooperative. we make choices in arguments, choices in what arguments to select, and how to arrange and present them, based upon the audience we are addressing.
The adversarial components of argumentation help the rigor of the discussion; they help us avoid hasty generalizations; they reduce omission of important details. Skilled arguers seek first to find common ground which is itself the bedrock upon which they can meaningfully discuss their disagreement. Ultimately, these enhance our confidence of the outcome, a confidence pending better arguments to be made in future.
Fourth, argumentation involves restrained partisanship. It requires a cooperative effort between arguer and audience, despite the contentiousness often associated with everyday argument.
Arguers must share a common system of terms, assumptions, and meanings. This allows resolution of the dispute, and is needed to permit any meaningful argument at all.
Fifth, and finally, argument involves elements of risk. This is the risk of losing the argument, the risk of being shown wrong, the risk of having to alter one’s views and position, and in either case the emotional disruption of wounding one’s self-esteem or losing face with others.
But the cooperative aspect of argument means that in willingly accepting these risks, each arguer is respecting the rights and personhood of the other, and in so doing, claiming that same privilege of respect from the other for him or herself.
I think that these are good situational benchmarks, and are the optimal conditions, I would argue even necessary conditions, under which can be made any serious attempt to argue constructively, for the purpose of reaching the best possible conclusions given the means at hand.
I feel up to blogging for this morning, and during this day and the next I’ll be reading up on SF approaches to zero-point energy production for a friend of mine, which should be fun.
*waves at @Ravenpenny*
Especially important in looking into zero-point energy is avoiding any use of blatant pseudoscience from so called “free energy” machine sellers…
Rubber science is acceptable within the context of fiction, implausible technological quackery is NOT!
So far, I’ve got two reference pages out of five candidates in separate browser tags. The other three candidate pages are all crank sites, with obvious red flags. I won’t sully my reputation, such as that is as a relative no-name in the skeptical community, by using those last as sources.
This raises a question…
Out of the arguments of both proponents and critics of any claim, how do I decide which claimant is more credible?
There are a set of steps I use that make for a useful start of any inquiry, and I’ll put these into three groups of related questions:
- First: Which side in a given controversy, genuine or manufactroversy, commits the fewest logical fallacies? Which side has the most valid or cogent arguments and makes the fewest errors in reasoning? Once these are compared and an answer obtained, I then choose the side with the best arguments and go to step two. Remember though, to take care to see fallacious arguments that are actually there, and not the result of wishful seeing. And so…
- Secondly: Which side has the better factual support for their claims. Do their respective claims add up under adequate fact-checking using reliable sources? Do credible sources support or reject the claims made? Which sources have the better track-record and reputation as a valid and reliable? Next…
- Thirdly: Related to the second, but worth it’s own step: Which factual statements, when checked, even if and when true, are actually relevant to the claims and counterclaims made? Does the alleged factual support of a given claim actually have anything to do with it?
These three points are a basic rundown of the steps I use.
Answering these questions on science and science-relevant news are one reason I tend to support climate scientists over so-called climate sceptics, and professional biologists over the various species of creationists found online and in religion and politics.
They are the reason that I tend to give more credence to the statements of astronomers than I do astrologers, Physicists and psychologists more than psychic claimants, chemists over alchemists, and neuroscientists over phrenologists.
These questions are the reasons I don’t get my science from clergymen, religious apologists, allegedly fair and balanced media outlets, politicians or radio talk-show propagandists.
Those are not what I would call credible sources.
I get my science from scientists, and science-writers with a real background in the field, thank you, not preachers, partisan bloggers, or people who loudly decry government and taxation while also running for public office so they can get paid a rather handsome salary, with kickbacks and bribes paid by lobbyists, otherwise funded by my taxes.
- Top 10 Fallacies of Internet Trolls (americanlivewire.com)
- Conservative media’s attacks on climate science effectively erode viewers’ belief in scientists (rawstory.com)
- 2013 SkS Weekly News Roundup #32A (skepticalscience.com)
- The Appeal to Authority (ethicalrealism.wordpress.com)
- The Prodigy Effect (ketyov.com)
- 5 Ways Right-Wing Media Make Their Fans Fear Science (alternet.org)
- Anti-science arguments: How do we respond? (newanthropocene.wordpress.com)
- Moving science communication beyond the standard argument (nrelscience.org)