Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Are you incredulous?

In a couple of posts so far I've been analysing some of the logical dodges and tricks that often turn up in popular Darwinist argumentation:

  1. Is "God of the gaps" always a fallacious argument?

  2. What is the "Fine Tuning" argument?
Here's another one today: the "argument from personal incredulity".

EvoWiki defines this logical fallacy this way: "An appeal to ignorance is an argument that absence of proof is evidence of absence." (http://wiki.cotch.net/index.php/Argument_from_incredulity)

In the 80s film "Back to the Future" (part 3), Doc Brown, having lost the love of his life, stays up all night in a 1880s saloon bar. He doesn't actually get round to drinking anything until 8am the next morning. Having loved and lost, he no longer cares enough to keep up the pretence of being a bona fide resident of the 19th century, and starts spilling the beans about the future. He explains to his fellow bar-dwellers about engines and cars - and that in future, people will only run for fun. They, of course, just laugh at him.

After all, nobody runs just for fun. And the idea of mechanical, motorised vehicles - pure nonsense! Unbelievable! The Doc is obviously a crank.

If we look around today, lots of what we take almost for granted would seem like magic to those of previous generations, and if we were able to hold a conversation with them and tell them about it all, they might think we were barking mad. To be able to see a live picture of a person on the other side of the globe and hear their voice in real time? Visiting the moon? An orchestra that fits in your pocket and weighs only 50 grammes? Nonsense, my boy!

That's the appeal to personal incredulity. And it's bogus. Things that we can't explain do exist. An explanation may be forthcoming in future; or maybe already exists now but you just don't know it.

So, there is such a thing as a bogus appeal to personal incredulity. It's arguing that because you can't understand how a thing could be, therefore that thing isn't. (At this point you may like to pause and consider Richard Dawkins' well-worn argument that it is illegitimate to speak of an intelligent designer because we can't explain where that designer came from, or in its briefer form - "Who designed the designer?"...)

Charge!

This is a logical fallacy which Darwinists are very confident that critics of Darwinism use all the time. EvoWiki in the article above, under the heading "Examples in creationist arguments" offers us a sample of 41 instances covering a vast amount of ground. What strikes me, though, as I look at some of the instances under that list, is the extent to which the authors of the articles linked from it have over-played their hand.

Let's float back to that 1880s saloon, and imagine that a different conversation is taking place. Doc Brown is still at the bar, glass (not yet drunk!) in his hand. He's explaining that in the year 1985, where he comes from, people will be able to travel at faster than the speed of light, and that telegrams will actually travel completely instantaneously - no time at all. The other regulars in the bar are laughing at him - they are incredulous.

Are they laughing because of their personal incredulity? Very likely. But the scientific data which we have actually points to their incredulity being right. Transport the Doc back into the late 20th century, and have him make the same case to a competent group of physicists. They laugh just like the bar-dwellers did. Their laughing, though, is an informed one - and arguably correct. They have some data, and it points in the opposite direction to the Doc's ideas. Of course, they don't know with absolute certainty, because their interpretation of the data might be based upon faulty assumptions at some point. Their may be new data yet to be discovered which may give a different spin on things. But the point is, it's not just personal incredulity which is driving their skepticism.

That's enough to begin with. Next time, God-willing (or, for the atheists out there, should the molecules favour us by bouncing into the right positions), I'll develop this line of thought a bit more, and identify some particular and telling ways in which the argument from personal incredulity is being abused in order to shore up the troubled foundations of the materialist world view. If you want something to chew over and see where it leads, start pondering these questions. What is the relationship between skepticism and the scientific method? When is incredulity good? 'Til next time...

David Anderson

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