Rational, Appeal To Ignorance

July 9, 202

Have you ever known someone who would make assertions that were doubtful but said it with such confidence that you didn’t want to question. Maybe you have been the one, who in an effort to make a point or win an argument, made some assertion that you knew could not easily be proved false. 

     I used to work in construction and often this involved some work that was up high. Many people who I worked with were less than totally comfortable with heights. I can remember on one occasion, a high school student expressing doubt about the board he was standing on. To which one of the other guys on the sight responded by nailing the board to the house we were working on. He then stated with great confident “a 31/4” ardox can hold 300 pounds and that’s a lot more than you weigh.” The student felt much better, but I doubt that anyone on the job site actually knew the weight bearing capacity of a 16 penny nail. Especially considering everything from how far in the nail goes to the kind of wood to the angle would change this figure. No one questioned the figure probably because we all knew there was no way of proving it wrong. Just because we couldn’t prove the figure wrong didn’t mean it was right.

     This tactic in an argument or discussion is called appealing to ignorance. That is you are asking people to believe your point is true and right because no one can prove it wrong. A slight variation on this is when you assert that your point is right because you can prove your opponents point wrong. Neither of these are rational or logical ways of proving a point. 

     An example of the first one could be someone who says; the bible contains 300 prophetic references to Jesus. This becomes strong evidence that he is the messiah. Then when no one questions the statement the speaker moves on thinking point made. In most instances no one is going to be able to test this claim when it is made. Why not look up and use some specific passages that do predict Jesus’ birth, life, death, or other attributes. This way you are offering people real evidence rather than a large claim not easily tested. (by the way I’m not saying there aren’t hundreds of references to Jesus coming in the Old Testament just that if you’re going to claim it you better know where they are).

     An example of the second variation is something I hear a lot in the discussion about creation verses evolution. Many a Christian has pointed to some problem with the theory of evolution only to say that this proves creation is right (I have also heard the opposite). A person may say for example, there is no good evidence in the fossil record for macro-evolution. Therefore God created the world. The problem is that evolution being wrong does not make creation right. Instead we need to offer positive evidence that backs up the claim that God created the world.

     So in your search for truth remember that a point is not proven right simply because no one can prove it wrong. Instead look for evidence to support any truth claim and make sure you offer evidence to support your truth claims in discussion with others. In the same way just because you can prove someone else wrong does not mean that you are right. Again the other person or position may well be wrong but you still need to prove your view right.

     Remember Jesus example (Mk 7:1-23; Mat 22:23-33; Jn 5:30-47). He didn’t just attack the Pharisees for being wrong (when they were) but he also pointed to what was true and right. He asked people to follow him on the basis of what was right and true and loving. Not because he could prove his opponents wrong. Let’s call people to follow him with us for those same reasons.

Kevin Cleary