Skeptical Wednesday: Argument from ignoranceby Don Lacey on May. 16, 2012, under Critical Thinking, Freethougth Quotations, History, Logic, Materialism, Skepticism
“No amount of belief makes something a fact.”
“The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”
Medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician.
The argument from ignorance is often used to bolster paranormal claims. On the surface it seems convincing. The argument states something is true until it can be proven false.
For example, a friend might say, “I saw a ghost last night.” So, you ask, “Are you sure it’s a ghost?” To which he replies, “Sure it was. What else could it have been?” Then, after a brief description of the sighting you come up with no explanation and your friend says, “See, you can’t explain it therefore it was a ghost!”
Sound familiar? Sound frustrating? This argument is frequently made. A recent commenter on this blog denigrated the Skeptics because in his view the fact that the skeptics looks for worldly answers to mysteries is a close minded approach. He said that in looking for only mundane answers to mysteries, the Skeptic has already excluded the paranormal solutions. I suppose that’s true I’ve seen no convincing evidence of the existence of the paranormal. Every argument I’ve seen in support of the paranormal has been an argument from ignorance.
Realistically, the argument from ignorance would severely limit our understanding. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we had to believe everything that couldn’t be disproven? There is a lot we can’t disprove. Are there unicorns or leprechauns? Do you believe that Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster are real? Can you prove that they’re not?
The reasonable solution is to adopt the “null hypothesis” or default position approach to these claims. Using the null hypothesis approach to claims would mean adopting a position that would be taken if there is no supporting evidence for the claim. For example, in the ghost example, the null hypothesis would be that there is no ghost. Then the evidence and alternate explanations would be considered. If the evidence is insufficient then we must adopt the null hypothesis and say that there was no ghost sighting. This may not sit well with your friend, however.
The main problem with the Argument for Ignorance, however, is the fact that it is an attempt to shift the burden of proof. The burden of proof lies solely in the hands of the claimant. When someone says that they can dictate the weather, you’re allowed to not believe them straight away. It is not necessary for you to prove that they can’t do it. When they say “Prove I can’t,” simply let him know that the burden of proof belongs to the person making the claim.
Next Wednesday, unless something else comes up, I’ll discuss the “Begging the Question” fallacy.