The Divine Fallacy: When People Use ‘God’ as the Explanation

The Divine Fallacy

 

The divine fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone assumes that a certain phenomenon must occur as a result of divine intervention, simply because they don’t know how else to explain it, or because they can’t imagine that this isn’t the case.

For example, if someone doesn’t understand how evolution works, they might display the divine fallacy if they claim that their inability to understand evolution is proof that God must have created all the living organisms on Earth.

It’s important to understand the divine fallacy, since people frequently use it in an attempt to discredit scientific theories that they disagree with, and in order to support various pseudoscientific concepts. In the following article, you will understand how the divine fallacy works, see some examples of its use, and learn what you can do in order to counter people who use it.

 

What is the divine fallacy

The divine fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone assumes that a certain phenomenon must occur as a result of divine intervention or a supernatural force, either because they don’t know how to explain it otherwise, or because they can’t imagine that this isn’t the case.

Accordingly, the divine fallacy usually has the following structure:

Premise 1: if I don’t know how to explain a certain phenomenon using science, then it must occur as a result of some divine intervention.

Premise 2: I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon using science.

Conclusion: this phenomenon must occur as a result of divine intervention.

This form of reasoning is fallacious, since it relies on a faulty premise, and namely on the notion that if someone doesn’t know how to explain a certain phenomenon using science, then that means that a divine force must be the best explanation for it.

Furthermore, people often use the divine fallacy in cases where they don’t even attempt to explain the phenomenon using science in the first place. This means, for example, that the person using the divine fallacy might attribute a certain phenomenon to God, simply because they can’t imagine that this isn’t the case, rather than because they failed to understand the scientific explanation for it.

Since this form of argument is fallacious due to a flaw in its premise that renders it logically unsound, the divine fallacy is considered to be an informal logical fallacy.

More specifically, the divine fallacy can be seen as a subtype of the argument from incredulity, which is a logical fallacy which occurs when someone assumes that if they can’t believe that a certain concept is true, then it must be false, and vice versa.

This is because, in both the divine fallacy and in the argument from incredulity, the person using the fallacy attempts to use their inability to understand the scientific explanation for a certain phenomenon as proof that their alternative theory must be the right one. The divine fallacy is simply a specific case of this, where the alternative theory proposed by the person revolves around a divine or supernatural force.

Accordingly, the divine fallacy is often used even in cases where there is a clear scientific explanation for the phenomenon in question, since the use of this fallacy depends on what the speaker knows and believes, rather than on what other people know about the topic.

 

Examples of the divine fallacy

The divine fallacy is frequently used in an attempt to discount various scientific findings and to support pseudoscientific alternatives that revolve around divine and supernatural explanations. For example:

“There can’t be a natural reason for all the hurricanes that our country experienced recently. It must be the work of God.”

And:

“Human beings are too complex to have evolved by chance. We must have been designed by God.”

As these examples show us, it’s important to understand that the divine fallacy is based on the speaker being unable or unwilling to explain a certain phenomenon without resorting to supernatural or divine explanation.

As such, the general reason people why use this argument isn’t necessarily that there isn’t any scientific evidence on the topic. Rather, people use this fallacy either because they don’t know about this evidence, don’t understand it, or don’t want to accept it.

 

The divine fallacy and the God of the gaps

The God of the gaps is a concept which refers to the fact that gaps in scientific knowledge are often presented by people as proof of God’s work. ‘God of the gap’ arguments therefore have the following basic structure:

Premise 1: if science can’t explain a certain phenomenon, then it must be the work of God.

Premise 2: science can’t explain phenomenon X.

Conclusion: phenomenon X must be the work of God.

Accordingly, the God of the gaps fallacy is similar to the divine fallacy in its structure, since it relies on the faulty assumption that if a certain phenomenon can’t be explained using science, then it must be the work of God, or of some other divine or supernatural force.

The distinction between these two fallacies can be described as follows: while the divine fallacy depends on what the speaker knows about the topic, the God of the gaps fallacy depends on what the scientific community knows.

Accordingly, the divine fallacy is a more appropriate description of this sort of arguments in cases where there is a valid scientific explanation for the phenomenon in question, which the speaker doesn’t understand or refuses to acknowledge. Conversely, the God of the gaps fallacy is a more appropriate description of such arguments in cases where the scientific community does not yet have a valid explanation for the phenomenon.

Overall, this means that the God of the gaps fallacy can be viewed as a specific case of the divine fallacy, where there isn’t yet a valid scientific explanation for the phenomenon in question. However, the distinction between these two arguments isn’t crucial, and the important thing is to simply be aware of what the term ‘God of the gaps’ means, and of how it relates to the divine fallacy.

 

The divine fallacy and divine explanations

Arguments that are based on the divine fallacy are inherently fallacious, since they rely on a faulty premise, and namely on the fact that if you can’t explain a certain phenomenon then it must be the work of God (or of a similar force).

Accordingly, it’s important to understand that the issue with this form of argument isn’t the fact that ‘God’ is used as an explanation, but rather the fact that ‘God’ is assumed to be an explanation simply because the speaker isn’t aware of a valid alternative, or won’t accept it.

In general, using ‘God’ as an explanation for various phenomena is flawed in itself, since such explanations are generally not falsifiable, and can’t be tested empirically. However, the issues with such explanations are separate from the logical flaws associated with the divine fallacy, though they are still important, and should still be taken into account.

Overall, the issue with arguments that use the divine fallacy is that they have a basic flaw in their logic, because they rely on a faulty premise. Conversely, the issue with using ‘God’ as an explanation is that doing so produces explanations that can’t be proven, disproven, or empirically tested. These two issues are separate from one another, though both are important to consider when assessing people’s use of the divine fallacy.

 

How to counter the divine fallacy

There are three main things that you can do in order to counter the divine fallacy when someone uses it in an argument:

  • Explain why the reasoning behind it is fallacious. To do this, you need to highlight the issue with the premise of the divine fallacy, which means that you should point out the fact that your opponent’s inability to understand a certain theory or to explain a certain phenomenon doesn’t constitute as evidence of God’s work.
  • Give examples of previous uses of this fallacious reasoning, which appear ridiculous in hindsight. For example, you could point out that people used to believe that thunder is caused by the gods, or that epileptic seizures are caused by demonic possession. Of course, there is always the risk that you might encounter people who still believe such things today. If that is the case, then you will have to find different examples to use in order to illustrate your point, or you might have to accept the fact that you won’t be able to convince the other person that their reasoning is fallacious.
  • If possible, show that we can explain the phenomenon using scientific evidence. When doing this, keep in mind that people might often struggle to understand a scientific explanation, and will react by attacking your viewpoint, instead of admitting that they can’t understand your reasoning. To reduce the chance of this happening, try to present your evidence in a way that is accessible and intelligible to your target audience, even if it means that you have to simplify it.

In general, when countering this type of logical fallacy, you want to shift the burden of proof back to your opponent, and ask them to prove that their explanation of the phenomenon is the right one. Though this rarely works in the case of the divine fallacy, since there is no valid proof which can be used to support this sort of reasoning in the first place, this approach is still beneficial, since it helps emphasize the fact that your inability to explain a certain phenomenon doesn’t prove that your opponent’s fallacious reasoning is valid, as we saw above.

Finally, when debating someone who is using the divine fallacy, you should apply the principle of charity, and assume that your opponent’s use of the divine fallacy is unintentional, and that they will be open to changing their mind when they hear what you have to say. Doing this will help you approach the discussion with the best intentions in mind, and will encourage you to communicate in a productive manner.

However, at the same time, you should also remain realistic, and recognize the fact that some battles can’t be won. This is because, sometimes, people might use the divine fallacy intentionally, despite being aware that it’s fallacious. Furthermore, there are some cases where the person you are talking to is not going to change their mind, regardless of what you say.

In such situations, you might benefit more from simply disengaging from the discussion. An exception to this are cases where there is an audience watching the discussion, who are open to listening to your arguments on the topic and who might change their mind, even if your primary opponent will not.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The divine fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone assumes that a certain phenomenon must occur as a result of a divine or supernatural force, either because they don’t know how to explain it otherwise, or because they can’t imagine that this isn’t the case.
  • This type of reasoning is fallacious because it relies on a faulty premise, and namely on the fact that one’s inability to explain a phenomenon using science does not constitute as valid evidence of divine intervention.
  • A notable subtype of the divine fallacy is the God of the gaps fallacy, which is the idea that gaps in current scientific knowledge are valid proof of God’s work.
  • To counter the divine fallacy, you should explain why the reasoning that it relies on is problematic, which you can do by giving examples of previous uses of this fallacy that appear ridiculous in hindsight, such as the idea that thunder is caused by the gods.
  • If possible, you should also attempt to show that the phenomenon in question can in fact be explained by science. When doing this, you should generally use simple explanations, that are accessible to your target audience, and that will make your opponent willing to listen to what you have to say.

 


The Empathy Gap: Why People Fail to Understand Different Perspectives

The Empathy Gap

 

The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to account for the manner in which differences in mental states affect the way that they and other people make decisions.

For example, when it comes to misjudging your own perspective, when a person who is dieting feels full, they struggle to assess how well they will be able to handle the temptation to eat certain foods later, when they’re hungry. Similarly, a person who is feeling calm at the moment will find it difficult to accurately predict how they will act if someone angers them.

Furthermore, when it comes to misjudging other people’s perspective, a person who is feeling relaxed and safe will often struggle to imagine the perspective of someone who is feeling threatened. Similarly, a person who is looking to fight over something will find it difficult to imagine that others might prefer a peaceful solution.

Because the empathy gap has important implications when it comes to interpreting and predicting people’s behavior (including our own), it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will learn more about the empathy gap and about why we experience it, and see what you can do in order to account for its impact.

 

What is the empathy gap

The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to account for the manner in which differences in mental states affect the way that they and other people make decisions.

This means that the empathy gap makes it difficult for people to imagine how they will feel and act when they’re in a different emotional state than the one that they’re at at the moment, and also makes it difficult for them to imagine how other people feel and act when they’re in a different emotional state than they are.

For example, one of the most common ways in which the empathy gap influences people is by causing them to underestimate the influence of their visceral drives, which are factors such as hunger, pain, and sexual arousal, on their decision-making ability.

Most people are familiar with this aspect of the empathy gap in an intuitive way. Essentially, the empathy gap is there whenever you believe that you will act in a rational, positive way in a certain situation, but end up failing to do so due to the influence of your visceral drives, which you underestimated when planning for the situation.

This means that the empathy gap can cause people to be unprepared for situations where they are affected by various emotional considerations that cause them to do things which satisfy their instincts, urges, and cravings in the short-term, but which fail to help them accomplish their long-term goals, or to act in the way that they would ideally prefer.

The influence of this cognitive bias can be so powerful that people often continue to assume that they will be able to handle a certain type of situation properly, even if they are repeatedly proven to be wrong.

However, despite the fact that this is the aspect of the empathy gap that people are generally the most familiar with, the empathy gap affects people in many other ways, both in terms of how they struggle to understand and predict their own actions, as well as in terms of how they struggle to understand and predict the actions of others.

 

Why we experience the empathy gap

The reason why we experience the empathy gap is that human cognition is state-dependent, meaning that the way we process information and make decisions depends strongly on the mental state that we are at at the time.

For example, when we feel full, it’s difficult for us to predict how we will behave when we are hungry, since the hunger represents a different mental state than the one we’re experiencing at the moment. Essentially, in this example, the issue is that it’s difficult for us to imagine how we will feel when we crave something we enjoy, at a time when we are at a mental state where that craving is weak, and especially immediately after we have satisfied that craving.

The same principle applies to other situations. For example, when we are angry about something, we struggle to imagine the perception of someone who doesn’t care about it, because we are at a distinctly different mental state than they are, and because people generally struggle to adjust their perception in order to account for that.

 

Examples of the empathy gap

As we saw above, the empathy gap can affect us in many situations, both when we try to think about our own emotions and behavior, as well as when we try to think about other how other people feel.

When it comes to misjudging our own emotions and behaviors, the empathy gap could, for example, cause us to:

  • Overestimate the likelihood that we will be able to stop consuming a substance that we developed a craving for, such as cigarettes or coffee.
  • Overestimate our ability to act properly and in full control during a stressful event.
  • Underestimate how much our feelings for someone affected our judgment in the past.

When it comes to misjudging the emotions and behaviors of others, the empathy gap could, for example, cause us to:

  • Struggle to understand why someone who is nervous about something acted the way that they did.
  • Assume that the way that we feel towards someone mirrors the way that that person feels toward us.
  • Fail to predict how a person will act when they’re angry about something.

Overall, this demonstrates the fact that the empathy gap can affect us in a variety of ways. In the next section, we will see what specific types of empathy gaps exist, so we can understand all the ways in which it can affect us.

 

Types of empathy gaps

There are several criteria which can be used in order to categorize the different types of empathy gaps. First, there is the hot/cold distinction, which distinguishes between two types of empathy gaps:

  • A cold-to-hot empathy gap. This form of the empathy gap occurs when someone is in a cold (emotionally neutral) state, in which they have difficulty imagining themself in a hot state, where they will be more strongly influenced by emotional and visceral impulses.
  • A hot-to-cold empathy gap. This form of the empathy gap occurs when people are in a hot (emotional) state, in which they fail to realize how much their current thought patterns and behaviors are influenced by their emotional and visceral impulses.

Empathy gaps can also be categorized based on two other criteria:

  • Intrapersonal/interpersonal bias. An intrapersonal empathy gap refers to cases where people experience the empathy gap as they consider their own thoughts and behaviors. Conversely, an interpersonal empathy gap refers to cases where people experience the empathy gap as they try to consider someone else’s thoughts and behaviors.
  • Retrospective/prospective bias. A retrospective empathy gap refers to cases where people experience the empathy gap as they consider their past actions, and try to understand their behaviors at that point in time. Conversely, a prospective empathy gap refers to cases where people experience the empathy gap as they think about future events, and try to predict how they will think and act when these events occur.

Each empathy gap can be categorized based on these three criteria.

For example, a situation where you fail to understand why you acted in an emotional manner in the past (e.g. why you failed to perform well during a stressful interview), can be said to involve a cold-to-hot, intrapersonal, retrospective empathy gap.

Alternatively, a situation where you are emotional about something and fail to predict the future response of someone who doesn’t care about the same thing as much (e.g. if you’re planning a romantic gesture toward someone who isn’t interested), can be said to involve a hot-to-cold, interpersonal, prospective empathy gap.

Overall, all these forms of the empathy gap have one thing in common: they involve the failure to understand or predict someone’s thoughts and behaviors, because the person who is trying to understand them is at a different mental state.

 

How to account for the empathy gap

So far, we saw what the empathy gap is, why we experience it, and what types of it exist. Next, we will see a few techniques that you can use in order to reduce the influence that the empathy gap has on you in various situations.

For convenience, these techniques are generally written with a focus on one of the main types of the empathy gap, and namely on the cold-to-hot, intrapersonal, prospective bias, which represents our difficulty to predict how our emotional and visceral impulses will affect us in the future.

However, while reading about these techniques, remember that the empathy gap can play a role not only in the way we predict our future behavior, but also in the way we examine our past actions, as well as in the way that we consider other people’s actions. Furthermore, the empathy gap can occur not only in a cold-to-hot direction, but also in a hot-to-cold direction, as we saw above.

 

Visualize different mental states and perspectives

One way to minimize the empathy gap is by trying to visualize exactly how you will feel when you’re in a different mental state than the one you’re in at the moment. Essentially, this means that instead of just trying to predict how you will act, you need to start by actively trying to imagine how you will feel, before you can move on to trying to predict your future behavior.

As noted above, this technique is also helpful in other scenarios, such as if you’re trying to understand someone else’s feelings and behavior. The more you can get inside their head and see things from their perspective, the more you will be able to mitigate the influence of the empathy gap.

 

Think about how other people would act

If you’re trying to account for the empathy gap when it comes to predicting your own behavior, it can sometimes help to imagine how other people would act under the same circumstances.

For example, instead of asking yourself whether you will be able to stick with a certain diet, ask yourself how likely someone else would be to stick with that diet, under the same set of circumstances that you will have to handle. Even though you might assume that you will be able to handle it due to wishful thinking, by asking yourself how likely someone else is to be able to handle it, you will be able to examine the situation in a more emotionally neutral and unbiased manner.

This can also be beneficial if you’re trying to predict the behavior of someone that you feel strongly about, for similar reasons. For example, instead of asking yourself whether you think that someone you care a lot about is trustworthy in a certain situation, try to think about whether you would recommend to a friend to trust a different but similar person in the same situation.

Overall, though thinking about how others would act in a certain situation won’t necessarily reduce the empathy gap directly, it will help you account for its impact in a beneficial manner.

 

Consider past actions

One of the main reasons why we experience empathy gaps is the fact that when we try to predict our future behaviors, we often try to imagine how we will feel, while ignoring our past actions, which are the best indicators of how we will act in reality.

For example, let’s say you want to stick with your diet, and one of your goals is to avoid eating any snacks while you’re at work. However, you know that every day, around 2PM, you go to get some coffee from the breakroom, and end up also eating one of the fresh pastries that they keep there, thus failing your goal of maintaining your diet.

Because of the empathy gap, you might overestimate your ability to resist those pastries, even if you’ve already failed to do so many time in the past.

This is because, when you choose to eat that pastry, it’s usually at a time when you are feeling hungry and are directly facing the object of your temptation. Conversely, when you’re thinking about avoiding that temptation, it’s usually at a time when you are feeling full and don’t have the temptation in sight, such as when you’re sitting at your desk right after you’ve finished the pastry, or when you’re lying in bed at home.

To avoid this issue, where you keep repeating the same mistake due to the way that the empathy gap influences your planning, you can examine your past actions, and see how you truly act when you’re in a different emotional state, rather than how you think and hope you will act. This will enable you to accurately predict your future thoughts and behaviors, and will help you prepare yourself accordingly.

In the case of breaking your diet, which we saw above, examining your past behavior could allow you to realize that if you go into the break room hungry at 2 PM, then you’re probably going to eat that pastry, even if you wish that wasn’t the case. Then, instead of continuously engaging in the same detrimental behavior, you could modify your actions in order to behave in a way which will allow you to accomplish your goal.

You could, for example, decide to eat a small healthy snack before you go into the break room, which could help reduce the impact that hunger has on you when it comes to resisting that pastry. Alternatively, you could decide to bring some coffee with you, and avoid going into the break room at all during a time frame where you are vulnerable to temptation.

Overall, the important thing to remember is this: when trying to predict your future behavior, don’t just try to imagine what you would ideally like your future behavior to be like, since the empathy gap will often cause you to overestimate the likelihood that you will actually behave that way. Instead, look at how you acted in similar situations in the past, in order to get an accurate picture of how you will likely act in the future, and then try to account for any empathy gaps you might have, so you can prepare for the future accordingly.

Note that, as with other debiasing techniques, looking at past actions can also help you reduce your empathy gap when it comes to predicting the behavior of others. That is, instead of trying to predict how people will act based on what you want to believe they will do, try to look at how they actually acted in the past, in order to get a more accurate picture of what their future behavior will likely look like.

 

Other ways to reduce the empathy gap

Since the empathy gap is a cognitive bias which we experience due to the way that our cognitive system works, it can be countered using the same debiasing methods that are used in order to counter other cognitive biases.

These methods include, for example, increasing your awareness of the bias, slowing down your reasoning process, and increasing your personal accountability for the decisions that you make. You can read more about these debiasing strategies and how to implement them in the guide to debiasing.

 

Altering your mental state

As we saw above, one of the main ways in which the empathy gap affects us is when it causes us to underestimate how being in a hot state will affect us.

While it can be beneficial to reduce the empathy gap in order to be able to prepare for such situations in advance, you might find yourself in a situation where you are already in a hot state, and need to cool down. In such cases, you should attempt to use cooling strategies, such as distracting yourself from the thing you crave by focusing on an enjoyable but unrelated activity.

Of course, you should generally not count on your ability to use cooling strategies in advance, since the empathy gap will often cause you to overestimate their effectiveness. However, these strategies can be helpful if you find yourself in a hot state that you need to reduce, or if you know that you will encounter a hot state that you cannot avoid.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for us to predict the thoughts and actions of those who are in a different mental state than we are at the moment.
  • We experience the empathy gap because our cognition is state dependent, which means that the way in which we process information and make decisions is strongly affected by the emotional state that we are at at the time.
  • Accordingly, we experience cold-to-hot empathy gap when we are at an emotionally-neutral state and fail to predict how we will act when we are emotional, and experience hot-to-cold empathy gaps when we are in an emotional situation and fail to predict how we will act once we had a chance to cool down.
  • Empathy gaps can be either prospective, when we try to anticipate our future actions, or retrospective, when we try to understand our past behaviors. They can also be either intrapersonal, when they affect the way we think about our own actions, or they can be interpersonal, when they affect the way we try to think about other people’s actions.
  • There are various debiasing techniques that you can use in order to account for the empathy gap, including visualizing different perspectives, using people you feel neutral toward in your assessments, and considering past actions.

 


The Argument from Incredulity: How People Explain What They Don’t Understand

The Argument from Incredulity

 

The argument from incredulity is a logical fallacy where someone assumes that if they can’t believe that a certain concept is true, then it must be false, and vice versa.

For example, if someone doesn’t understand how evolution works, they might use the argument from incredulity in order to claim that the theory of evolution must be incorrect, since they are unable to see how it could possibly be true.

It’s important to understand the argument from incredulity, since people often use it in an attempt to discredit concepts that they disagree with, and in order to support various pseudoscientific theories. In the following article, you will see how the argument from incredulity works, see some examples of its use, and learn what you can do in order to counter it.

 

What is the argument from incredulity

The argument from incredulity is a logical fallacy where someone concludes that since they can’t believe that a certain concept is true, then it must be false, and vice versa. People use this fallacy in order to support their preferred explanation for various phenomena, simply because they feel that alternative explanations are difficult for them to believe.

Accordingly, the argument from incredulity has two basic forms:

“I can’t imagine how X can be true; therefore, X must be false.”

“I can’t imagine how X can be false; therefore, X must be true.”

This form of thinking is fallacious, since one’s inability to explain a certain phenomenon or to imagine how it might be true, does not mean that it must be false, just as one’s inability to explain how something could be false, does not mean that it must be true.

From a formal perspective, the basic structure of an argument from incredulity can be described as follows:

Premise 1: I can’t explain or imagine how proposition X can be true.

Premise 2: if a certain proposition is true, then I must be able to explain or imagine how that can be.

Conclusions: proposition X is false.

A similar phrasing can be used in order to argue that a certain proposition is true, in cases where the speaker can’t explain or imagine how it can be false.

When the argument of incredulity is used, premise 1 is usually stated explicitly. This premise is considered to be logically well-founded, since the speaker can truthfully state that they are unable to see how a certain proposition could be true. This is the case even if there is clear evidence that shows that that proposition is true, since this premise depends on what the speaker knows (or proclaims to know) about the topic, rather than on what other people know about it.

Premise 2, on the other hand, is usually implicit, and is always logically unfounded, since one’s ability to explain how a certain proposition could be true or false has nothing to do with whether that proposition is true or false in reality.

Accordingly, the conclusion of an argument from incredulity is always unsound, since there is an issue with a premise which is used to support it, meaning that the argument from incredulity represents an informal logical fallacy.

Keep in mind that it’s acceptable to be incredulous of something, and to bring this up as part of an argument. The issue with doing so occurs when this incredulity isn’t justified or supported by concrete information, and when this lack of belief is used in order to assume that a preferred personal explanation must be the right one, despite the lack of proof.

At the same time, it’s also important to remember that it’s possible that the person using the argument from incredulity is right, despite the fact that their reasoning is flawed.

This is because, no matter how weak a certain argument is, it can still have a truthful conclusion, even if this conclusion is based on faulty premises and invalid logic. To assume that someone must be wrong just because they used the argument from incredulity or some other logical fallacy is fallacious in itself, and it’s something that you should avoid.

Note: the argument from incredulity is sometimes referred to as the argument from personal incredulity or the personal incredulity fallacy. This fallacy is often mentioned in conjunction with the argument from ignorance, which is based on the faulty premise that something can be assumed to be true or false simply due to lack of evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, the divine fallacy is a notable subtype of the argument from incredulity, which occurs when someone assumes that if they can’t explain a certain phenomenon using science, then it must be the work of God.

 

Examples of the argument from incredulity

The argument from incredulity is frequently used in an attempt to discredit various scientific theories. For example:

“I can’t imagine how human beings evolved from simple, single-celled organisms; it just doesn’t make sense. There is no way that the theory of evolution is right.”

This illustrates how the use of the argument from incredulity is often based on the speaker’s misunderstanding of the topic, or on gaps in their knowledge. This means that people who use this fallacy often resort to it even when there is a perfectly valid scientific explanation available for the phenomenon being discussed.

Furthermore, the person using the argument from incredulity will often offer an alternative pseudoscientific or conspiracy-based explanation for the phenomenon in question, if they believe that the current explanation for the phenomenon is false. For example:

“There is just no way that the concept of evolution is right; it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Creationism is a much better explanation of how we came to be.”

And:

“I don’t see how vaccines can be safe for children. The only reason doctors push for vaccination is because they get paid to do it by the big pharma companies.”

 

How to counter the argument from incredulity

Now that you understand the argument from incredulity, you can learn how to counter it when it’s used in a debate.

The first and most important thing that you should do is explain why this sort of reasoning is fallacious.

To do this, you need to highlight the issue with the premise of the argument from incredulity, and namely with the fact that your opponent’s inability to explain a certain phenomenon or to understand a certain theory, does not invalidate current explanations for it, and does not constitute as evidence that they can use in order to support their own theory.

Then, you can choose to shift the burden of proof back to your opponent. You can do this by asking them to support their initial assertion, and explain why they are incredulous, and why they think that this validates their position. Furthermore, if they suggest an alternative explanation for the phenomenon being discussed, you can ask them to provide evidence in support of this alternative explanation.

Finally, if possible, you should show that there is scientific evidence that can be used in order to explain the phenomenon that’s being discussed. When doing this, it’s important to avoid using complex scientific explanations, since people will often struggle to understand them, which might cause them to support their original stance even more strongly in the face of evidence that they are wrong, or to attack your viewpoint instead of admitting that they can’t understand your reasoning.

To reduce the chance that this will happen, try to use explanations that are as simple and as accessible as possible, given your intended audience.

However, remember that the burden of proof generally rests on the person using the argument from incredulity. That is, even if you can’t explain a certain phenomenon yourself, or even if science doesn’t know how to explain it yet, that doesn’t mean that your opponent’s fallacious reasoning is valid, and that doesn’t mean that their conclusion is right.

 

Intentional and unintentional use of the argument from incredulity

When countering the argument from incredulity, it’s important to remember that many people might use it without being aware that they are doing so, meaning that they might use this pattern of reasoning without being aware that it’s fallacious.

Therefore, as long as it’s constructive and reasonable to do so, you should implement the principle of charity, and assume that your opponent’s use of the argument from incredulity is unintentional, and that they will be open to changing their mind. This can be beneficial when it comes to engaging in a productive dialogue, which will make your opponent more willing to listen to what you have to say, and when it comes to showing observers that you are willing to discuss the topic in a reasonable manner.

At the same time, however, it’s important to keep in mind that people might sometimes use the argument from incredulity intentionally, even if they’re aware of the logical flaw in their argument. Furthermore, there are some cases where the person you are talking to is not going to change their mind (even if their use of fallacious reasoning is unintentional), regardless of what you say.

In such situations, it’s often preferable to simply disengage from the argument, since nothing that you say could help change the other person’s mind. However, there are situations where it’s still worth it to continue discussing the topic regardless of this issue, such as when there are other people watching the discussion, who are open to hearing what you have to say.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The argument from incredulity is an informal logical fallacy, where someone concludes that since they can’t believe that a certain concept is true, then it must be false, and vice versa.
  • An example of the argument from incredulity would be to say that since you can’t imagine how humans naturally evolved from single-celled organisms, then the theory of evolution must be wrong.
  • Arguments from incredulity are fallacious because they rely on a faulty premise, and namely on the misconception that one’s inability to explain a certain phenomenon or to imagine how it can or can’t be true, constitutes as valid evidence that they can use in order to support their own theory.
  • To counter an argument from incredulity, you should first explain why the reasoning that it relies on is fallacious. Then, you can shift the burden of proof back to your opponent and, if possible, show that there is in fact a scientific explanation for the phenomenon that’s being discussed.
  • If you do choose to show how the phenomenon in question can be explained by science, make sure to use an explanation that is accessible to your intended audience, in order to ensure that they are willing to listen to what you have to say.