Argumentum ad Ignorantiam, mea natibus


A reader writes:

Every student of philosophy should know that an appeal to lack of evidence, argumentum ad ignorantiam, is proof of nothing. So I was told recently when I claimed that the shroud must be real because no one had figured out how the image was created.

There is something compelling, however, about mystery that speaks to our higher faculties; those faculties which ignore the limitations of mere rationality. One would think, really, that after so many years someone would have figured it out. There is nothing like it in the world of art from any period in history. That includes photography.

Fifty years ago John Walsh wrote these words. They are no less meaningful today.

The Shroud of Turin is either the most awesome and instructive relic of Christ in existence or it is one of the most ingenious, most unbelievably clever products of the human mind and hand on record. It is one or the other, there is no middle ground.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam? Mea natibus (but mea asinum sounds better).

7 thoughts on “Argumentum ad Ignorantiam, mea natibus”

  1. There is certainly a considerable amount of commentary available on the Argument from Ignorance. Wikipedia cites Bertrand Russell’s over-simple example that no-one has proved that there is not a teapot (American readers may prefer a coffee percolator) orbiting the sun. Therefore the argument from ignorance would say that there is in fact a teapot (coffee percolator) orbiting the sun. However, the problem with this example is that there is no good reason for saying that this phenomenon occurs.

    To say that the Shroud is authentic because no-one has proved that it is not, is I think, an insufficient argument by itself, and another more detailed analysis, or a different approach must be considered. For example it might be argued that our technology is far superior to anything that was available in the fourteenth century, and if a 14th c. genius was capable of a technology that could create the Shroud, then a modern technologist would also be capable of creating the Shroud. But we know of no technology that could create it; therefore it is HIGHLY UNLIKELY that there was a 14th c genius capable of creating it. Futhermore, unlike the tea (coffee) pot example, there is strong circumstantial evidence why the Shroud may very well be authentic.

    This will not satisfy the philosophic pedant, who will still say that the case has not been proven, and the reasonable Shroudie would then say PSHAW! to the pedant. He would say that there are many aspects of life that we accept on merely reasonable grounds and circumstantial evidence, and that undue rigour is not required to sustain what is a reasonable belief.

    In the early 20th century, it was the objective of Russell & Whitehead to derive a rigorous and indisputable logical derivation for all of mathematics. After some 300 pages of arcane Set theory, Russell was able to satisfy himself beyond any shadow of doubt whatever, that indeed he had proved that when one entity was added to one other entity, the answer was indeed two entities. However the Russell/Whitehead project was doomed, and came to an abrupt end when Kurt Godel proved that within any rigorous mathematical system, there would be propositions within that system that could not be proved. The Russell/Whitehead symbolic logic system that they derived is now barely of antiquarian interest.

    An analogous situation to Godel’s theorem also seems to occur in quantum physics. Thus the philosophic assertion may be made, that unless a fact is observed, then there are no grounds for accepting that fact. It was on some such grounds that Albert Einstein was most uncomfortable with the probabilistic approach that seemed so necessary to the laws of quantum physics. He felt certain that there had to be underlying causative variables. However there are no causative variables, they have never been discovered, and despite the so-called fallacy of the “argument from ignorance” it is asserted that they never will be!

    I personally think that the Deity likes to have his little jokes with his creatures. He seems to have wanted to teach Russell & Whitehead an important lesson in humility, and have said to Einstein, “Don’t tell Me what to do with My dice!”. As far as the Shroud image is concerned, I think He may be saying, “Bet you can’t discover how I did it!”

  2. In response to Tonrike’s cryptic and terse comment, it was not my intention to give a detailed exposition of “Argumentium ad Ignorantium” which for all I can guess, he may be better qualified than I to expound. There is a considerable amount of detail about AAI already on the web, and there was little point on expanding on this. My personal position is that I consider AAI, and indeed much of the pedantic rigorous type of philosophy is only of limited value in arriving at the truth of matters. The Russell/Whitehead programme with its “logical positivism” was directed at developing a rigorous type of logical deduction. There are clearly equally valid reasons, for a softer approach in coming to a rational belief as contrasted with the rigorous deducitve approach aimed at certain knowledge. Much of reasonable human activity has as its basis, rational belief, without worrying about the baggage of rigorous logical deduction for every little matter that may occupy our minds. Thus rational belief for most reasonable people is derived from the weight of circumstantial evidence as they may interpret it.

    The limitations of the Rusell/Whitehead approach was effectively demonstrated following Russell’s massive work “Principia Mathematica” when Godel published his theorem of “undecidability”. The uncertainties associated with Quantum Mechanics is another example demonstratinig the limits of certain knowledge.

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