Arguments from personal incredulity

Sometimes, because I live a hectic lifestyle that can be detrimental to the intellectual life, thoughts enter my brain that make me think, I should write about that topic, at which point something else distracts me and makes me lose the thought. In fact, this has happened so frequently to me without actually writing about the given subject that I made a To-Do list on my personalized Google homepage just to jot down ideas (how do I love thee, Google? let me ennumerate the ways…). One such topic has been the argument from personal incredulity, especially as scrutinized by the New Atheists in regard to religion.

So when I ran into an entry by Alan Rhoda entitled Ignorance, Incredulity, and God-of-the-Gaps, I went into high-gear trying to think of what I had been pondering for so long. Here it is, after some consideration.

The first thing that I feel obliged to say is that Alan has inadvertently elucidated to me almost precisely what I had been trying to figure out about arguments from ignorance or from personal incredulity. He spells out what should probably be obvious about the validity of these argumentative structures: they are invalid only when missing a conditional premise. (Any argument missing a vital premise can be said to suffer from the broad category error of ignoratio elenchi, anyway.) So the argument from ignorance (henceforth AI) implies a premise of the form “If X were true [I would add “if X obtains”], then we would have evidence for X,” while the argument from personal incredulity (henceforth API) implies “If X were true, then I would be able to imagine how X could be true.” The problem lies, therefore, in the conditional premise, not in the structure of the argument. Since informal fallacies are not – surprise, surprise – based on form but rather on content, then that doesn’t get every argument of these forms off the hook, but it does give clarity to the issue of these arguments as a whole in the way a proper understanding of slippery slope arguments allows us to understand more precisely why some are fallacious and others not.

I think this is helpful to discourse in the fact that the labeling of an argument as any of these (or the additional one Rhoda mentions, the so-called “God-of-the-gaps” argument) is largely used as a way of waving off such arguments summarily. Moreover, I think these argument forms are actually implicitly acknowledged as legitimate by some such individuals by their use.

To illustrate this, consider an API that is commonly used regarding common descent:

  1. I cannot imagine how human beings, as complex as they are, evolved from a unicellular organism.
  2. Therefore, common descent is false.

Of course, the missing premise is

If common descent were true, I would be able to imagine how human beings evolved from a unicellular organism.

and with its inclusion the argument is formally valid. Its soundness, therefore, depends on the veracity of the missing premise, and most people (myself included) would dispute it based on the fact that current evidence should make it much easier to imagine the evolution from unicellular organism to complex multicellular organism by the examination of transitional forms. (I should add that this argument gains at least some rhetorical strength if it focuses in on features of humanity for which naturalistic explanations are not so well accepted, like consciousness.)

Consider then the following parallel argument:

  1. I cannot imagine how an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God can allow suffering.
  2. If God existed, then I would be able to imagine how an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God can allow suffering.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

As above, the argument is valid but rests on the presumption that one has made a serious attempt to rationalize the coexistence of evil and an “omni” God and has been unable to do so. The theist arguing against this line of reasoning will likely present a theodicy, and the atheist must then tackle responses accordingly. Notice, however, that you generally do not see theists summarily dismissing these types of arguments, and rightfully so – they are not formal errors, and so the premises must be attacked as in the case of other formally valid arguments.

This has bugged me when I read essays by New Atheists like Dawkins criticizing arguments as being from personal incredulity when it is not incredulity that it is the problem – it is unfounded incredulity that is the problem. Dawkins and I are probably both incredulous about the notion that the world was created Last Thursday or – to use a serious example – that God planted fossils to give the illusion of an old earth, but that is because we have what is for us good reasons to be incredulous (namely, the belief in the efficacy of our noetic devices). The reasons for asserting incredulity are the key, and anyone who wishes to dismiss arguments from personal incredulity without trying to understand where the arguments really break down is doing themselves a great disservice.


3 Responses to Arguments from personal incredulity

  1. […] Every so often in wandering around the blogosphere I notice a blog that makes me say, “Why haven’t I noticed this before?” I found one today, The Christian Cynic, and I wanted to call attention to his post dealing with formal issues of an argument from ignorance. […]

  2. Sideroxylon says:

    “Of course, the missing premise is

    If common descent were true, I would be able to imagine how human beings evolved from a unicellular organism.”

    I like that insight into the missing premise but it does not make such an arguement any less problematic. This type of arguement fails because there are many things that can seem incredible to a person or society due to their having a limited perspective or a lack of key knowledge. This is why good critical thinking requires great effort be put into learning necessary background information. To think we can pass judgement in this way is arrogant. Further, this type of arguement fails to tackle the case for evolution, which is generaly agreed by people who have dedicated significant amounts of time in research to the subject.

  3. Brody says:

    I tend to agree: arguments from incredulity have a real danger of hubris in assuming what is beyond credulity. Perhaps this argument form is one that can be held conditionally based on X amount of information; it is far more likely that individuals could agree on the efficacy of a core of information than the subjective nature of credulity.

    Good comment; thanks for stopping by.

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