Careful with the Argument from Ignorance

I’m in a group that encourages honest, respectful conversations about what people believe to be true and why.

My latest conversation, with Mike, is providing a great lesson in what is called the argumentum ad ignorantiam or argument from ignorance fallacy. It relies on there being a lack of contrary evidence.

The fallacy basically goes something like this: something must be true if it has never been proven false.

Mike started the conversation by saying:

I believe that philosophical naturalism is false.

This should already raise a couple of flags.

One is this phrase, “philosophical naturalism.” So first I got clarification from Mike on what he meant by that. His answer was that for him, philosophical naturalism is the belief that the natural world is all there is.

Second, he is saying that he has a belief that another belief is false. We’re already getting into “negative” territory. After some prodding, I suggested that we should be talking about his belief that the supernatural world exists, rather than his issue with the claim that the natural world is all there is. But he was a bit unwilling to commit to an affirmative claim here so after a bit of back and forth, I’ve left him with this comment:

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I’m still not entirely sure about your process for arriving at the belief that naturalism is false. I don’t want to put words in your mouth here, but let me try to rephrase where we are at, and you let me know if I’ve got it right.

1. You have a belief that the “belief that the natural world is all there is,” isn’t true.
2. That language is a bit convoluted, since we’re not really talking about something you believe to be true, but rather, something you disbelieve.
3. So let me rephrase a bit. You disbelieve the natural world is all there is, because no one has ever proven that the natural world is all there is.
4. Which is another way of saying you believe that the supernatural world must exist. And since the supernatural world has never been proven not to exist, you believe that naturalism can’t be true.

I’ve never been a big fan of saying something is true, because it has never been proven false. I like to say that something is true, because we have good reasons to believe it to be true. Conversely, I like to say that one explanation is likely false, because we have good reasons to be believe that another explanation is true.

So I think we can go one of two ways here:
a) Using Street Epistemology, you can try convincing me that my belief that the natural world is all there is, might not be based on good methods or
b) Using Street Epistemology, I can try convincing you that your belief that the supernatural exists, might not be based on good methods.

Does that sound reasonable?

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That’s where we are at the moment. So stay tuned.