The divine fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when 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.
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.
Explanation of the divine fallacy
The divine fallacy usually has the following basic 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 that 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.
Note: a related fallacy is the appeal to holy scriptures, which is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes that everything that is written in the holy scriptures must be true, since they believe that those texts come from a divine source of knowledge.
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.”
“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 that 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 that occurs when 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.
- 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.