6/12/2010

Beer, heartbeats, the Big Bang and arguments from ignorance

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:37 pm

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!

4 responses to “Beer, heartbeats, the Big Bang and arguments from ignorance”

  1. deloceano says:

    What? someone actually said that comment about the heartbeat keeping on going when you’re asleep being evidence for god?!?!? Surely you satirise and take the piss?

    Although that is one of the sad things about those inclined to argue from ignorance (an ignorance, I might add that they all to often appear hell bent on remaining in), I have noticed that it is getting harder and harder to satirise them. When some genius apostate comedian comes up with a witty but ludicrous situation, there is always a church group just round the next corner who will out-do the insane pronouncement … except they’re serious.

    I like your phrase argument from incorrigible ignorance.

  2. Mark says:

    That’s a brilliant line: “An argument that is based solely in what you know is terribly vulnerable”. It sums up much of the human condition right there.

    But I do think there are times when the imagination is best not exercised. Fantasizing about criminal action can predispose people to commit it, for some individuals. Thinking is becoming, to some extent. I mean, we are all changing all the time, in some people the connection to right-doing is not as deep as in others, so maintaining a sense of disgust at the behaviour of others that we disapprove of is not always wrong.

    In general, though, for most people, most of the time, empathy is exactly the way forward.

  3. Bravus says:

    deloceano wrote: “What? someone actually said that comment about the heartbeat keeping on going when you’re asleep being evidence for god?!?!? Surely you satirise and take the piss?”

    Sadly, no:

    …you say you have looked for evidences of a loving God. You need not look any longer. Look at your own heart. Your heart is a muscle and yet it beats independently of your will and that is why our teachers told us that the heart is an involuntary muscle. It is involuntary as far as the human will is concerneced but the heart cannot beat once without a command! It is said that there are about 500 muscles in the human body and every one of these muscles will not contract unless it receives a command from the will. That is a fact. But the heart contracts without our will! There must be another will that makes the heart beat and that will is the will of God!

  4. Neil says:

    The “Will of God” is NOT a “command”….Therefore, God does not command the heart to beat [ insert number of beats per day/year as you will ]….However, if you interpret the “Will of God” as desire, then, yeah, God desires your heart to keep beating and evidence that may preclude one to think that a LOVING GOD exists…Clarifying the concept of will/desire-it is MY WILL that I drive my car to Australia…However, I have two very big problems….one of them being that my will can be thwarted…by someone running/crashing/incapacitating into me….another is that there is this ocean between US and the land of OZ….. These two problems tend to crush the will being equated with command….

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