Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Believers Say the Darndest Things 4: The Argument from Ignorance

To be ignorant of something is simply to lack knowledge of it, and every human being is ignorant about a great number of subjects. Obviously, since it’s impossible for one individual to study and become expert in every field, each person is going to be incredibly ignorant when it comes to most subjects (of course, human knowledge – taken as a whole and built up through bodies of experts using peer-reviewed methodology – is not nearly so ignorant. It should not be assumed that humans thus know “nothing” about the universe: see this post for more).

In short, there is no shame in being ignorant.
There is shame, however, in using ignorance as the basis of a logical argument, which is a fallacy called – appropriately enough – the argument from ignorance.
Read on for examples of this believer script at work. 
Religious believers often fall back onto arguments from ignorance, and one subject in which they do this frequently is one about which humans currently lack a lot of knowledge: the origin of the universe.
Presented below are a few different phrasings of the argument from ignorance in this area, listed in order of increasing rhetorical sophistication (though the essential logical premise that begins each one is equally ignorance):
1)      Of course God created the universe…how else could it have happened?!
2)      The universe is too complex to have just “poofed” itself into existence! There must have been a God to create it!
3)      Matter is incapable of creating matter. Therefore, something outside of matter must exist capable of creating matter. We call this something “God.”

All of these versions of the argument take as their first premise “We don’t know how the universe came about.” 
This is most obvious in the first example. The argument begins from the position of ignorance – no one knows exactly how the universe came to be – and then declares that “God” – however that term is defined – must be responsible for the existence of the universe. Clearly, this is a fallacy. If you don’t know the answer to a question, then you have no grounds for asserting that the answer is X. You actually need to present evidence for X if you want it to be a justified answer.
The fallacy is a little harder to detect in the second example. This example begins with the assertion that the universe is too complex to have created itself. In the first place, this is a mischaracterization of current scientific understanding. No one thinks that the universe “created itself,” and no one thinks that matter “created itself.” The best current model to explain origins, The Big Bang Theory, deals with describing how the singularity that preceded the universe began to expand into the universe. The Big Bang Theory does not tell us how the singularity that preceded the universe got here or what caused The Big Bang. Those facts are currently unknown. We are, to put it another way, ignorant of what happened before the Big Bang and how the Big Bang came to occur.
[Incidentally, it should be noted that “theory,” in science, does not designate a “good guess” or a “hunch,” as it does in vernacular English. In science, a “theory” is a model that is well supported by evidence that explains observable facts. In order to be considered a theory, an hypothesis needs a great deal of evidentiary support, as is the case with the Big Bang]
Let’s now rephrase this second argument, replacing the faulty understanding of modern science with a correct one: “We don’t know what happened before the Big Bang or what caused the Big Bang. Therefore, it must have been God.”
Now, all becomes clear. This second argument is attempting to use our ignorance about origins as the basis for an argument that a god exists. Clearly, this too is a fallacy.
The third argument is worded in a more sophisticated manner, but it participates in the same fallacy as number two. Just like the second argument, it begins from a faulty understanding of the facts (no one claims that matter “created itself”), and on the basis of our ignorance of origins, it asserts that a god must exist.
Notice, by the way, the rhetorical sneakiness of the third argument. It doesn’t come right out and say that a god exists. It proceeds in an underhanded way, palming a god-card under the table:
1)      The universe can’t create itself
2)      Therefore, something other than the universe created the universe
3)      Therefore, that something is God
When we put it this way, we can see exactly what’s wrong with this argument. It begins from the flawed assumption that modern science thinks the universe “created itself,” which is not the case. It then goes on to postulate, on the basis of absolutely nothing, some other creator, and then, on the basis of absolutely nothing, declares this other creator to be a God (presumably, an intelligent being of some kind).
In point of fact, modern science seems to strongly suggest that things such as complexity and intelligence are the result of a long process of development. The idea of a complex and intelligent being existing without such a process of development runs counter to everything that we have ever discovered about the universe, making it incredibly unlikely that an intelligent “god” of any kind preceded the universe.
So, what is the answer to the question “What happened before the Big Bang?”
There is only one honest answer: No one knows.
Those claiming to know – who claim that it was an intelligent being of some kind – have the burden of proof to demonstrate that this is the case. And in the lack of any convincing evidence, the proper default position is not to accept their claim.
The argument from ignorance also comes up in discussions of the supernatural, where occult religious believers use their ignorance of the cause of some experience they’ve had as justification for thinking that a supernatural explanation is likely.
Take, for example, the thread on about this very blog, where one occult believer claims that he and his friends, when kids, managed to “raise energy” to levitate an object.
Let us be clear: it is not the intention of this post to question whether or not the poster had an experience that seemed like levitation. That the poster had the experience is evidence that this experience actually happened. What we are about to question is not whether the experience happened, but whether or not the poster’s explanation for the experience is justified.
Certainly, if someone just wishes to have spooky experiences and not analyze them, that person is perfectly entitled to do so. However, if that person wishes to determine what the experience actually was, then it is necessary to enter the realms of reason and use reason to analyze possible explanations, which are, after all, factual claims about the world (and thus subject to the realms of reason).
There are a host of explanations for an experience that seemed like an object levitation. At one extreme end of the spectrum, the person in question could have simply been hallucinating the whole thing. At the other extreme end of the spectrum, the event could have happened for the supernatural reason he believes. Between these two poles of explanation are a host of possibilities, ranging from misperceiving what was happening, to misremembering, to making the whole thing up, to someone playing a trick on the individual, to having had a vivid daydream, to some natural explanation that we simply don’t know yet (for example,  perhaps a very small earthquake or other shifting of the earth’s plates threw the object briefly into the air, and this was misremembered as a levitation; or, for example, perhaps some stray quantum particle, operating under some principle as yet unknown by humans, wandered into earth’s gravitational field and produced a very small, localized disruption of gravity, coincidentally producing something that looked like “levitation”; there are thousands upon thousands of potential natural explanations that could be advanced).
For the sake of completeness, we should also mention that there are a whole host of supernatural explanations other than the supernatural explanation accepted by the poster: for example, a mischievous leprechaun on another plane of existence could have levitated the object as a kind of prank. Using a little creativity, one could easily invent thousands upon thousands of other potential supernatural explanations as well.
So now we have thousands upon thousands of potential explanations, which can be placed along a continuum that has natural explanations at one end and supernatural explanations at another.
Now comes the tricky part: which of these explanations is mostly likely the correct explanation?
It’s impossible to say for sure, of course, since we can’t go back and subject the experience to any kind of controlled tests. But based on everything we know about the universe, the actual explanation for the experience is very likely closer to the natural end of the spectrum than the supernatural end.
At the very least, it should be easy to agree that we are all ignorant about the exact explanation for the experience, and on the basis of that ignorance, the poster has insufficient evidence to claim that the explanation is supernatural claim X.
Thus, we can conclude that the claim “My friends and I raised energy and levitated an object” does not have sufficient evidence for anyone to accept -- including the person who had the experience -- and the proper default position with regards to this claim is not to believe it (until there is some evidence to support it).
I pointed all of this out to the poster, and it is instructive to observe what happened next. The poster went through each of the potential natural explanations I offered and gave reasons as to why each of them could not be the actual explanation (incidentally, some of these reasons are hysterically funny. In response to my point that he could simply be misremembering, he asserts that he remembers the experience as if it were yesterday. How brilliant is that, eh? “My memory can’t be flawed because I have the memory!” This is the kind of response we ought to expect from a dullard like him).
[Incidentally, while we’re on this point, have you ever noticed how stories of the supernatural like this are very often set in the distant past, such that one’s memory – which psychologists acknowledge is quite malleable and often untrustworthy – can twist the experience into a mighty tale of mystery?]
In other words, it’s the good ol’ argument from ignorance rearing its stupid head again. "You can't give me a good natural explanation, so I'm going to go with supernatural explanation X just because!"
However, in this case – unlike the case of claims about origins – we can actually subject these claims to a test. A universe in which snot-nosed teenagers can “raise energy” to levitate objects is a detectably different  universe than one in which such things do not happen, and all evidence points very strongly to the fact that we live in a universe in which such things do not happen.
Indeed, it is only possible to believe in such supernatural explanations if one relaxes the critical thinking faculties – the very same faculties that make a proper practice of Thelema possible – and begins to use one’s ignorance as the basis for logical arguments in support of factual claims.


  1. Of course Crowley's claim is that he turned sceptical methodology against itself, and concluded that we can't even by sure that our naturalist and critically reasoned explanations are any more true than the poetic supernatural explanations that appear to intuition and emotion. That is He distrusted his reasoning as much as his emotions, and considered all explanations to be symbols of and outer manifestations of deeper "spiritual" realities. That the Reason of Hod, the Emotions of Yesod and the Passions of Netzatch as well as their culmination is physical phenomena of Malkuth are all lower expressions of the Unity than transcends all experiences of the HGA in Tiphereth. His view was Idealism, where the whole phenomenal world is the expression of that which is above the veil of Paroketh and transcends all assertions and doubts (Soldier and the Hunchback) as a sort of higher certainty, Which is even more solidified in an absolute Transcendent emptiness above the abyss.

  2. “Of course Crowley's claim is that he turned sceptical methodology against itself, and concluded that we can't even by sure that our naturalist and critically reasoned explanations are any more true than the poetic supernatural explanations that appear to intuition and emotion.”

    And, of course, this claim – whether or not Crowley really did believe it – is utterly incorrect. All explanations are rational constructs and, as such, need to be critically reasoned. As long as you’re engaging in the act of explaining, you are bound by reason.

    Supernatural explanations are equally rational constructs – they simply don’t stand up to scrutiny the way that natural explanations do.

    “That is He distrusted his reasoning as much as his emotions […] That the Reason of Hod, the Emotions of Yesod and the Passions of Netzatch as well as their culmination is physical phenomena of Malkuth are all lower expressions of the Unity than transcends all experiences of the HGA in Tiphereth.”

    Reason, emotions, and passions are equally unable to reveal the true will: the true self (i.e. the HGA) is utterly beyond them. However, reason is a tool that the true self can use to evaluate claims that fall into its jurisdiction, and a very significant group of claims that fall into its jurisdiction include factual claims about the world.

    There simply is no other consistently reliable tool for the job.

  3. What I mean is that, he rarely gave one correct conclusion, he always would put both an occult explanation like metempsychosis along side another more scientific example that visions of past lives are expressions of parts of the unconscious personality traits. He then would not accept one over the other, in a sense saying either could be true, but the real truth is beyond all explanation and understanding by words and concepts of the mind, on a higher non-conceptual plane. So Crowley adhered to something like RAW's Model Agnosticism.