Absence of Evidence

by Brian Hearn

If you think Christians, creationists and proponents of intelligent design are the only ones guilty of arguing from ignorance – think again. True, some say; “I do not see how such and such could happen by unguided material-processes, therefore God did it.” But others will say; “Even though I do not see how such and such could happen by unguided material-processes, science will eventually fill the gap and show that it does.” Neither of these of course are good arguments and it is probably safe to say; arguing from ignorance cuts across worldview boundaries. There is a particular form of this kind of fallacious reasoning I want to touch on in this post. Last week I was reading about Alvin Plantinga’s new book[i] where an atheist stated without qualification: “an absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is more than good-enough reason for not believing something [sic].” But clearly such an unqualified statement is not true. It is in fact an argument from ignorance.

Absence of evidence simpliciter is not evidence of absence. W.L. Craig likes to use the following example; “If I say there is an elephant in the room, then you would expect to see a massive living creature shaped like elephant before you. If you do not see evidence of this sort, then you rightly infer there is no elephant present. But if I say there is a flea in the room; just because you do not see a small insect does not mean, merely on that information alone, you can rightly infer a flea does not exist in the room.” Of course you do not know there is one either! In Craig’s debate with Peter Slezak he put it another way: “The lack of knowledge for some entity X counts as positive evidence against X’s existence only in the case that if X did exist, then we should expect to see more evidence of X’s existence than what we do see.” The atheist Carl Sagan seemed to understand this as well. In the Demon-Haunted World he wrote, “This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” [Emphasis added] In fact: One cannot infer the nonexistence of P merely from an absence of evidence for the existence of P unless one can rationally show there is evidence Q we should expect to see if P exists and yet Q is found to be absent…

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