Are “God did it” inferences automatically an appeal to ignorance?

  • Clarifying the question

    Do explanations which feature God (or God’s action) constitute “appeals to ignorance”?1 Do theistic explanations commit the so-called “appeal to ignorance” fallacy? (Relatedly: When apologists conclude that God explains something, or invokes the need for God to explain something, do they automatically commit the so-called “God-of-the-gaps” fallacy?)

    Appeal to ignorance (fallacy) = def. “if an argument claims that some statement is false, just because it is not known to be true or has not been proven, or it claims that a statement is true just because it is not known to be false or because it has not been refuted or disproved, then that argument commits the fallacy of appeal to ignorance.”2

    God of the gaps (fallacy) = def. An argument that says, 1. The hypothesis that God explains phenomenon x has not been refuted. 2. Therefore, phenomenon x must be explained by God. [Note: this argument straightforwardly becomes a formally logically valid modus tollens argument if one adds a conditional premise, “If there were a non-God explanation for explanation x, then the hypothesis that God explains phenomenon x would have been refuted by now.”]3

    1. As an example of some atheists arguing this way,

      Thomas Henry Huxley: “Suppose for a moment we admit the explanation [special creation], and then seriously ask ourselves how much the wiser are we; what does the explanation explain? Is it any more than a grandiloquent way of announcing the fact, that we really know nothing about the matter? A phaenomenon is explained when it is shown to be a case of some general law of Nature; but the supernatural interposition of the Creator can, by the nature of the case, exemplify no law, and if species really have arisen in this way, it is absurd to attempt to discuss their origin.” [“Origin of Species,” Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (Macmillan, 1860): 282.]
      Richard Dawkins: “Gaps, by default in the mind of the creationist, are filled by God … lazy and defeatist - classic 'God of the Gaps' reasoning. I have previously dubbed it the Argument from Personal Incredulity.” [The God Delusion (2006, Mariner Books), 128.]
      Matthew Bagger: “We can never assert that, in principle, an event resists naturalistic explanation. A perfectly substantiated, anomalous event, rather than providing evidence for the supernatural, merely calls into question our understanding of particular natural laws. In the modern era, this position fairly accurately represents the educated response to novelty. Rather than invoke the supernatural, we can always adjust our knowledge of the natural in extreme cases. In the modern age in actual inquiry, we never reach the point where we throw up our hands and appeal to divine intervention to explain a localized event like an extraordinary experience.” [Religious Experience, Justification, and History (Cambridge, 1999), 13.]

    2. Freeman James, Thinking Logically (Prentice-Hall, 1988), See also:

      Robert Larmer: “The fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam is standardly cited in texts as an argument that takes either of the following forms: 1. There is no proof (or you have not proved) that p is false. Therefore p is true. 2. There is no proof (or you have not proved) that p is true. Therefore p is false. [“Is there anything wrong with ‘God of the Gaps reasoning?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 52, No. 3. (Dec., 2002): 130.]

    3. One might complain that this argument could be overturned in the face of new empirical data, wherein the God explanation “retreats” into smaller and smaller gaps. However:

      Gregory Ganssle: “What we learn from the possibility of having these arguments overturned is that they are similar to any other argument that depends crucially on empirical premises. Our justification for any empirical premise may change with scientific and other empirical advances. This fact is not unique to arguments for supernatural explanations. Every argument that has empirical premises is subject to revision in these ways. The possibility that one will need to revise an argument on the basis of new knowledge, then, does not indicate that the argument was fallacious in any way. [“God of the Gaps’ Arguments” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Theology (Blackwell, 2012), 134.] A good gap argument here could have some straightforward virtues:
      Robert Larmer: “A key question in addressing this issue is the question of under what conditions is the failure to find evidence of something good reason to conclude that it is not present […] In general, however, the following factors are relevant to evaluating the adequacy of search procedures: (a) how many individuals are conducting the search? (b) are the individuals competent to conduct the search? (c) are the individuals conducting the search motivated to find the thing they are looking for? (d) do the individuals conducting the search have the resources necessary to conduct the search? (e) have the individuals conducting the search taken the time necessary to conduct a thorough search? It is no accident that meeting these conditions is a prerequisite of good science. What should be at issue in assessing "God of the gaps" arguments is whether they have met these conditions.” [“Is there anything wrong with ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 52, No. 3. (Dec., 2002): 136-7.]

“No, after all…
  • Gaps arguments are implicit modus tollens arguments

    Alleged “God of the Gaps” arguments are normally meant as modus tollens arguments (i.e. of the valid form, 1. If p then q. 2. Not q. 3. Therefore not p.)1

    Consider 3 reason to agree:

    • Statistically, virtually no one argues from ignorance.2
    • A modus tollens is regularly what is meant upon closer analysis.3
    • The principle of charity demands interpreting them as modus tollens.4

    This is relevant because appeals to God as an explanation which take the form of modus tollens by definition do not commit the so-called appeal to ignorance fallacy.

    1. Contextually analyzing the arguments of theists or questioning to seek understanding regularly reveals that the argument form is in fact a modus tollens argument with an implied conditional (“if-then”) statement.
      Walton Douglas: “This redescription or transformation turns an argument from ignorance into a more positive-appearing kind of argumentation using modus tollens, and an implicit conditional assumption . . . The transformation is based on the conditional that if you have looked for something, and clearly it is not there, then this observation can count as a kind of positive evidence that it is not there. [Arguments From Ignorance (Pennsylvania University Press, 1996), 134-35.]
    2. Gregory Ganssle: “It is rare to encounter anyone defending any claim or position solely based on an argument from ignorance. What appears to be an argument from ignorance is usually an argument of a different form. [“‘God of the Gaps’ Arguments” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Theology (Blackwell, 2012), 132.]
      Robert Larmer: “A problem with the standard discussions of argumentum ad ignorantiam is that they tend to be very short and the examples used to illustrate this fallacy seem artificial. Discussions of the fallacy are typically in the order of one to two pages and the illustrations of the fallacy frequently bear little resemblance to real life arguments. Copi's widely used Introduction to Logic devotes one and one-half pages to discussing the fallacy and provides the "practical" example that it is fallacious to argue that there must be ghosts because no one has ever been able to prove that there are not any.” … “Equally, it needs to be recognized that the examples customarily cited of argumentum ad ignorantiam are often a caricature of how arguments actually take place. With reference to Copi's ghost example, I suspect that it is difficult to find a defense of the existence of ghosts that relies simply on the assertion that it has not been proved that ghosts do not exist. Those who believe in ghosts generally make appeal to some body of positive evidence that, rightly or wrongly, they take to support their contention that ghosts exist. The artificiality that plagues the short discussions of argumentum ad ignorantiam found in so many textbooks on informal logic results from the fact that in real life it is difficult to find arguments based simply on ignorance.” [“Is there anything wrong with ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 52, No. 3. (Dec., 2002): 130.]
    3. Robert Larmer: “In most instances, arguments which might at first glance appear to commit the fallacy of simply appealing to ignorance, reveal themselves on further inspection not to be arguing that a particular proposition P has been proved false simply on the basis that it has not been proved true, but rather on the basis that there is good reason to believe that if P were true then we should have been able to find evidence for its truth. The fact such evidence is lacking provides good reason, via modus tollens, for concluding that P is false. […] This analysis suggests that in most instances what is really at issue is the status of the conditional claim that if P were true (or false) then we could reasonably have expected to find evidence that it is true (or false) and thus, lacking such evidence, are entitled to conclude that P is false (or true) [“Is there anything wrong with ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 52, No. 3. (Dec., 2002): 131.]
    4. The principle of charity is a standard methodological principle for interpreting another person or group. It says we ought to assume the best about the other party's rationality, and accept strictly logically fallacious arguments as non-fallacious if a nearby non-fallacious understanding is available.

      Simon Blackburn: “it constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject's sayings.” [The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Seven Stories Press, 2007, 78.]

  • Some arguments are deductive, inductive, abductive

    Theists often conclude that God explains x using canonical argument forms (deductive, inductive, abductive). This is relevant because the literal “argument from ignorance” is not among these argument forms.