A friend (who is teetotal) posted something on Facebook about beer, and his friends (who are mostly likewise) lined up to say how gross beer is. I don’t share their opinion, but there ya go. Then one person came out with the extraordinary statement that ‘No-one really likes the taste of beer, they just drink it out of peer pressure’. Riiight… so the people who drink alone are drinking it why? And, at least as a sample size of 1, I can tell you that I like the taste of beer very much.
It’s an example of ‘argument from personal ignorance’, or possibly ‘argument from lack of empathic imagination’.
The latter is based on the inability to imagine that others might be different and have different tastes than oneself. It’s often invoked in terms like “I can’t imagine how gay people can like kissing someone of the same sex”. The key concept in the sentence, though, is in the first 3 words: “I can’t imagine…” It’s not a comment about gay people and kissing at all. It’s a comment about that person’s own failure to be able to empathically place him/herself in another’s shoes. Our beerless correspondent cannot imagine that anyone else in the world can really like something he doesn’t like…
A recent example of the former – argument from personal ignorance – was the person who said “Can you explain how your heart keeps beating, even when you’re sleeping or not thinking about it? No? That’s evidence that God does it.” Well, no. The mechanisms of the autonomic nervous system that keep our hearts pumping, kidneys filtering, pancreas secreting and intestines peristalsing without our conscious attention are very well understood, and have been for many years. A morning of reading would dispel the ignorance… and that God would vanish in a puff of knowledge. It’s a week argument, and if there are real and convincing evidences for the existence of God, these kinds of weak arguments from personal ignorance diminish those evidences.
A final example is a recent discussion with someone who claimed that the Big Bang could not have occurred because gravity would have held the singularity together. When I clarified that gravity itself emerged as a physical property some distance into the Big Bang, I was accused of ‘murdering gravity’. His concept of the Big Bang was profoundly flawed and ignorant, and on the basis of that concept he was arguing that the Big Bang was impossible. No argument could convince him, which meant he had the even more powerful ‘argument from incorrigible personal ignorance’ on his side. It’s basically impregnable.
“I don’t know about that” is not an argument: it’s a deficit in need of remediation. If you want to make an argument, make it from a position of knowledge. An argument that is based solely in what you know is terribly vulnerable: sometimes people learn stuff even when they actively try not to!