As a lover of philosophy, one of my favourite things to engage in are rhetorical debates. Not only are these insightful, but they also provide me with different perspectives when it comes to looking at the world at large. As per usual though, with every positive there comes a negative, and such discussions are no exception to the rule. However, an interesting thing about this con is that it is a matter of context and not of the act of debating itself.
What am I referring to, then? Well, to none other than theological debates. Specifically, those about the existence of (or lack of) God and/or gods.
We all know how these usually go: Someone claims that God exists due to this and that, whereas someone else argues against it. And so a battle of philosophy vs religion, atheists vs theists, and good vs evil ensues.
It’s not as simple as that.
During most instances, all these discussions do is serve as a means to vex everyone present as quasi-dogmatic arguments get repeated over and over again. Which, in turn, makes the bickering seem pointless to a point of ignorance. So how do we avoid falling for such traps? Quite easily, to be honest. But, before we get into that, let’s understand why this foolery presents itself in the first place. And what better than a fallacy to explain it all?
So, enter the argumentum ad ignorantiam!
In logic, the argument from ignorance or appeal to ignorance is:
A fallacy where ignorance represents “a lack of contrary evidence.” That is to say, an argument is true if it has not been proven to be false and vice versa, an argument is false if it has not been proven to be true.
Generally, such appeals are used in debates when attempting to shift the burden of proof. While at the research level, this fallacy is applicable to low-power experiments subject to false negatives  as well as false positives . For our current purpose, we are going to consider only the use of this fallacy in debates and, as an example, I’ll talk a little about the American judicial system.
In the US, a person accused in a justice court should not prove their innocence against a charge that has not been proven. Such responsibility falls on a prosecutor, as they are the ones who have the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt. As such, a prosecutor would never try to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty just because the defendant could not present evidence to prove his innocence. If they did, they would be making an ad ignorantiam argument and possibly lose the case.
Think of it this way: Saying, “Your Honour, we found the accused guilty because she/he could not prove her/his whereabouts the night of the murder.” does not bear the same weight as arguing that, “Your Honour, we found the accused guilty because we have evidence that she / he was at the victim’s house the night of the murder.”
And this is where the “heart” of this fallacy lies: in the evidence.
The ad ignorantiam fallacy does not claim that an idea, opinion or belief is wrong by itself. On the other hand, this appeal makes us recognise that the way in which we justify our reasoning could be wrong depending on the handling of the evidence. Especially in those cases where such evidence is non-existent and, therefore, null.
In the case of atheism, those who define themselves as atheists disbelief or lack a belief in the existence of God or gods. A personal opinion that CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be taken as an ad ignorantiam argument. But, if an atheist claims that their opinion is right because we cannot prove that there is God or gods, their argument CAN and SHOULD be taken as a fallacy. The same rule applies to theistic arguments, where being a theist is not the problem. Instead, conflict arises by claiming that the existence of God or gods is proven by the lack of evidence on the contrary.
Therefore, what we’re being taught here is that if we are to argue something, we should always resort to objective evidence and not to subjectivity and ignorance.
However, it must be noted that this fallacy assumes a dichotomy between what’s true and what’s false. An aspect that is wrong, since there are many arguments whose answer does not fit a conclusive yes or no. In fact, we must know that an answer can also be: unknowable, only knowable in the future, or neither completely true nor completely false. A clear example is the previous argument regarding the existence or nonexistence of God or gods, where both parties don’t have the means to affirm or deny their version of the story.
And this brings me back to the main question: how do we avoid these traps? As I teased, the answer is simple: don’t bother having this kind of discussions. Why?
Well, besides being insignificant, are they really necessary? It’s not like an atheist will start believing or a theist stop their beliefs. And yes, I know that “assurance in our beliefs” is a really nice sensation, but here’s the problem with that:
We are all looking for answers, and we all believe that the answers we find along the way are the right ones. But, not everyone can be correct, right? At least not in this universe. So why not avoid so much conflict regarding these subjective and highly biased issues? Don’t we have more important things to focus on anyways? At least I think we do.
But then again, I might be asking too much. I often forget, after all, that I have to let everyone follow their own path and that forcing the world to function based on acceptance and wisdom is an impossibility. But I do have something to admit: that I still have hope.
Hope in humanity and in the things we can become. And hope for that fateful day in which we shall stop crushing each other as vermin to embrace one another as lost siblings, longing to love.
Thanks for reading. (: