Friday, 8 March 2013

The Argument From Incredulity

The argument from incredulity is one of the commonest 'arguments' against science and history, and for gods. It's not based on rational discussion, or a dispassionate assessment of the evidence, but on intuition and usually ignorance and an intellectually dishonest attempt to shoehorn the Universe into a preferred view of it and force it to conform to requirements.

A person who has never read any science or history or paid any attention in school, never-the-less feels competent to dismiss it as wrong and scientists or historians as mad because they find it hard to believe they are a biological member of the Great Ape family or that there really was nothing before the beginning of space and time, or that the Exodus story might well have been made up.

You only need spend a few minutes on Twitter when a swarm of Creationists are calling other people names for not agreeing with them to see examples of it being made by people who couldn't tell a test tube from a Bunsen burner or a amoeba from a cabbage and yet feel able to announce to the world that the science they are using to send the message to the world, has got it all wrong, and magic is the best explanation for everything.

That's just stupid! It can't be true!
The argument from incredulity is of course just another form of the God of the Gaps fallacy which argues that, because I can't think of any way this can be explained it must have been done by [insert preferred god]. It's found in the Cosmological Argument and the Teleological Argument, including it's modern pseudo-scientific versions, Intelligent Design, Irreducible Complexity and Fine-tuned Universe.

Personal incredulity

Another form, the argument from personal incredulity, takes the form "I can't believe P, therefore not-P." Merely because one cannot believe that, for example, homeopathy is no more than a placebo does not magically make such treatment effective. Clinical trials are deliberately designed in such a way that an individual personal experience is not important compared to data in aggregate. Human beings have extremely advanced pattern recognition skills, to the extent that they are objectively poor judges of probability.

General incredulity

Sometimes argument from incredulity is applied to epistemological statements, taking the form "One can't imagine how one could know whether P or not-P, therefore it is unknowable whether P or not-P." This is employed by some (though not all) strong agnostics who say it is unknowable whether gods exist. The argument in this case is, "No one has thought of a way to determine whether there are gods, so there is no way." The implied major premise, "If there were such a way, someone would have thought of it," is disputable.

I don't believe it! If that's what scientists say, they must be mad!
The psychological process going on here is our old friend, coping with cognitive dissonance. What ever it is being waved aside and dismissed is inconsistent with a pre-existing and preferred world view, so believing it would have set up a dissonance or conflict. The simplest way to resolve the conflict is to dismiss it as stupid or the opinion of someone who is mistaken, stupid or insane, or even evil. Voilà! Conflict resolved, no need to assimilate that new knowledge and a nice warm glow of smug self-satisfaction that your careful ignorance gives you a deeper kind of wisdom, a superior form of knowledge and the moral right to tell others what's right and what's wrong. A preferred view is preserved, undamaged by real-world facts and without much concern about its truth.

I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not knowing.

Richard Dawkins
And preserved along with it is a sense of superiority to those who 'waste their time' learning all that 'nonsense' when superstition, intuition and believing what mummy and daddy, or that preacher at Bible/Qur'an class, said is obviously the best way to understand things.

And so much easier too!

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  1. Very nice summary, Rosa. It is also good to point out the absolute lack of humility on the part of the propounders of the argument from incredulity; they effectively say, "My conception of what can and can't be believed is the standard by which all so-called facts are to be judged." Kind of pathetic, but that's the effect that willful ignorance has on people.

    1. Indeed. It's as though they think their intuition, no matter how lacking in knowledge they are, is somehow the arbiter of reality.

  2. This sounds like my family reunion. I usually hear the argument from incredulity as part of a straw man argument: "You'd have to be crazy to believe that all this complexity just happened by accident." And they're right, you would have to be crazy to believe that. Everything they think they know about evolution is a misrepresentation fed to them by creationist charlatans. I can't blame them for not believing in evolution if they think it works that way.

    1. I think when people say, "I can't believe..." they're actually saying, "I can't afford to believe..." or, "I'm not going to let myself believe...".


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