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

“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.