The “If I Don’t Know . . . ” Fallacy

If I don’t know, . . . then neither do you.

The Friendly Atheist draws my attention to a piece by Andrew Brown based on an interview with Dan Dennett.

Brown’s argument reminded me of other arguments I’ve seen in the past that have irked me. After some thought, I’ve decided to that the argument form deserves to be properly labeled and placed on display as a fallacy.

I’m calling it the “If I don’t know, neither do you” fallacy. (Suggestions for pithification welcome.)

The fallacy runs like this:

  1. I believe X, but I’m not going to tell people who believe not-X that they’re wrong.
  2. Sure, I have my reasons for accepting X, but I can see why the not-Xers wouldn’t accept those reasons. And they have their own reasons for rejecting X (not that I personally find those reasons persuasive, but that’s just me).
  3. If you go telling the not-Xers that they’re wrong, then you’re being dishonest (because you’re pretending that it’s irrational to accept not-X), and you’re being intolerant (because you’re trying to force people to think the way you think).

This line of reasoning is apparent in Brown’s criticism of Dennett’s disparaging of the Atheist-Buts (that is people who say that they are personally atheists, but they think it’s inappropriate to tell other people that it’s wrong to believe in gods).

Brown writes:

The reason that I don’t go around trying to deconvert all my Christian friends is that they know the arguments against a belief in God so very much better than I do. I can entertain the possibility that Christianity is true. . . . There is a general point here about the inadequacy of all theological opinions. The “but” in “atheists but” is a mark of humility, to be worn with pride.

Now, having some Socratic humility (i.e., knowing what you don’t know) is indeed laudable, and I don’t fault Brown for recognizing that his Christian friends are often “cleverer and nicer” than he is (to use his phrase). I think he’s right that if he doesn’t have good reasons to be an atheist rather than a theist that it would be inappropriate for him to try to convince others that they should give up their beliefs.

So where’s the fallacy?

The problem comes in when Brown assumes that others are in the same boat he is in. To put it uncharitably: Just because you’re an uninformed idiot doesn’t mean that I am.

More to the point: We can accept Brown’s claim that he knows less about arguments for and against the existence of gods than his Christian friends do. But this in no way implies that Dennett likely knows less about these arguments than the Christians. You can’t criticize Dennett for attacking others’ beliefs just because you don’t know enough to assess the arguments yourself.

In your case it may be mere opinion unsubstantiated by compelling arguments. But that doesn’t mean that my beliefs are similarly unsubstantiated.

The other annoying instance of this fallacy that came to mind was Chris Mooney’s argument against ontological naturalism (he calls it “philosophical naturalism,” following Pennock, but I’ve always found that label unhelpful) in Unscientific America (which was coauthored with Sheril Kirshenbaum, but I’m pretty confident that these sections were written mainly by Mooney).

Mooney distinguishes between methodological naturalism (which makes the methodological point that scientific explanations don’t appeal to supernatural forces) and ontological naturalism (which says there is nothing supernatural). Mooney points out that methodological naturalism is usually taken to be a feature of current scientific practice, and that methodological naturalism doesn’t itself imply ontological naturalism. So far, so good.

But then Mooney goes on to dismiss those who argue that the results of contemporary science force us to accept ontological naturalism. His argument here (as I see it) is another example of the “If I don’t know” fallacy. He’s saying that he doesn’t happen to have compelling reasons for being a naturalist, and then he’s concluding that no one else does either.

But as a physicalist, I obviously think there are compelling reasons for being a naturalist, and the best reasons come from contemporary science. The mere fact that Mooney is ignorant of these reasons doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. (And the fact that methodological naturalism doesn’t imply ontological naturalism doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reasons to accept ontological naturalism – and in fact, there are very good reasons.

Another example, although it’s far less egregious, can be found in William Lycan’s paper “Giving Dualism its Due” (html, pdf). Lycan reports that although he is a physicalist, his position is not based on any compelling arguments. The arguments for materialism are rather weak, he reports, and so his rejection of dualism is more a matter of faith or politics than a matter of rational philosophy.

There is a hint of the If-I-Don’t-Know fallacy here, but to his credit, Lycan actually assesses the arguments against dualism and gives his reasons for finding them unconvincing. I obviously disagree with Lycan about this (and I’ve written most of a book explaining why I’m right, and an article explaining why Lycan is wrong), but at least he’s doing the intellectual work of confronting the relevant arguments – which Brown and Mooney failed to do.

This illustrates a general point about fallacies: Whenever there’s a fallacy, there’s almost always some legitimate form of reasoning in the neighborhood. We would do well, therefore, to teach our students to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate appeals to authority, to popularity, to genesis, etc. – rather than leaving them with the impression that all such appeals are fallacious.

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2 responses to “The “If I Don’t Know . . . ” Fallacy

  1. Proposed pithification: ‘argument from personal ignorance’?

    ‘Personal’ to distinguish from the case where evidence is truly unavailable, e.g. as in ‘god of the gaps’, rather than merely unknown to the maker of the argument.

  2. It seems to me that Brown is in fact criticizing Dennett’s “heresy hunting” of atheist-but’s rather than criticizing Dennett’s propagandist stance per se, so the not-X’ers are the “old style atheists”. That is, Brown is saying that Dennett is incorrectly accusing Brown of intellectual snobbery, when he is merely humble and a pragmatist about some good outcomes of religious belief.

    More generally, if there is a 2b “I consider myself your epistemic peer in these particular matters”, Brown has the advantage in that he is reporting his own motivations.

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