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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Arguments from Ignorance

I wrote this in response to a senior who argued that A) I ought to feel despair for not having a god for existential grounding, and B) that we cannot explain where poetry and the like come from through evolution by natural selection. Before I begin, I would like to say that I am only partly interested in A. Personally though, I do not think the lack of existential grounding should lead to any feeling what-so-ever. Perhaps thought this way: if I have no external reason to feel any particular way (a divine feeling-giver instead of a divine law-giver), I probably just choose to be happy rather than sad since sadness feels worse than happiness. Once I have some attachment to something, which attachment here suggests conviction emanating from the self, I will then have grounds for sensitivity to my surroundings. This leading to a more complex emotional reactions that the theist feels would be missing without a god. Now this essay is not really about me or how I deal with my emotions but rather, as the title suggests, the argument from ignorance.


There are difficult, sometimes unanswerable questions about the universe. The true test of one’s intellectual skill in critical thinking is in dealing with these kinds of questions. Two camps of thought particularly relevant to freethought exist in regards to how to respond to ignorance. One is the naturalist, the other the supernaturalist.

The naturalist responds to difficult questions like how did human language evolved by deferring to experts relevant to that field. The supernaturalist often tackles the difficult question from within his or her ignorance. For instance, since some supernaturalists cannot conceive of how beautiful art or music came about through evolution by natural selection, the supernaturalist relies of traditional answers like muses or deities.

This is called an argument from ignorance, which is to say: since we do not know the answer, my belief is true or better. It is not always the case that supernaturalist argue for strange phenomena via the argument from ignorance, for they sometimes attempt to prove their beliefs via some kind of experiment. However, for many supernaturalists, the purpose of the argument from ignorance approach is to undermine scientific and other critical methods as the golden standard of discovering truth. The goal for theistic supernaturalists is to replace empirical evidence with revelation as to give credence to their particular ecclesiastical tradition.

Theistic supernaturalists (as opposed to psychics and mystics) are particularly troubling in that feel compelled to search for difficult questions. This feeling comes from the coping mechanism rooted in dogma that major theistic religions use. The idea is that one is only happy if and only if he or she believes something, especially god. Many religions spend at great deal of effort teaching their practitioners what to feel, how to feel, and when to feel particular emotions. The most relevant in regards to the theist’s opposition to atheism is the existential despair that comes from removing the god crutch.

This belief basically means that a person is incomplete and incapable of true happiness before or without the rituals, religious community, and feeling of divine presences. Naturalists, particularly in the subgroup called atheists, have other beliefs about human existential completeness, but that is not the problem. The real problem with the theist position is that it assumes that belief is a coping mechanism. Some theists claim that they would go out and kill people if it was not for their beliefs. Why? Their religion has taught them that faith is extremely important for morality and personal well-being.

This is why I argue that non-religious people ought to make secular alternative more well-known as to combat this dogma. There are very important skills for dealing with situations which they can teach, and this will result in increased well-being for those who adopt critical thinking and scientifically-verified ways of coping with one’s emotions. Ignorance is no reason to jump to conclusions, and those conclusions can often be very risky. For instance, the dogma of faith only serves the religion as a way of controlling people, and often through fear, the dogma cuts people off from the rest of the world. 

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