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Personal Incredulity

In my ongoing debate with an anti-evolutionist I have noticed his use of many logical fallacies. Last time I talked about the appeal to authority and how he had (falsely) accused me of using it. This time I want to mention a fallacy which he uses over and over and is very common amongst creationists and other science deniers. It’s the argument from personal incredulity.

I have mentioned this invalid way of thinking on several occasions in the past but I will just reiterate here the basic meaning: it’s the claim that something cannot be true because the person has a personal disinclination to believe it, either because it seems unpleasant, or he doesn’t understand the technicalities, or it contradicts some other personal belief he has.

It’s obvious how evolution can be the victim of this attack. Evolution isn’t as “nice” as creation. Many people would rather think they were created by a wise and good god instead of being the product of natural organic processes. The basics of evolution are simple but the finer details can involve a lot of effort to understand so again it can be rejected because “god did it” is just a lot easier. Finally evolution contradicts many supernatural explanations of origins, and although some religions have tried to merge the theistic and naturalistic explanations of origins that often seems rather contrived.

Any theory can be rejected using personal incredulity. Whenever I produce evidence for evolution my opposition can just say “that doesn’t seem real to me” or “there are other explanations” or “those observations haven’t been confirmed as 100% true”.

In fact in most cases all of those objections are true. Sure, some of the evidence may not seem real to him but that’s a fault on his part, not the evidence. And there are almost always other explanations but not all explanations are equally likely. The evidence for the origin of the diversity of life indicates that either evolution is happening or there is something else which produces results so similar to evolution that it becomes almost indistinguishable. And yes, we all admit the evidence has not been proven 100% but no evidence from empirical science (which is almost all science) is ever totally proven. But just because the evidence for evolution is “only” 99% proven doesn’t mean we should reject it or seriously consider a theory with evidence which is only 1% proven at best!

Science is usually not exact and it’s unreasonable to expect it to be. In the world of philosophy it is OK to point out that inductive logic cannot absolutely produce the truth about the real world but in science, where real results are required, the best methods available must be used. Everyone understands the limitations of induction and that is why scientific experiments and observations must always be confirmed by repetition and why all theories should be negatable.

I know that some people claim that a particular fact is proven but technically they probably shouldn’t be saying that. However it does become tedious after a while saying that many very well supported things are not facts. If scientists had to speak that way, and more importantly act that way all the time then they would become effectively paralysed by indecision.

The best approach is to accept certain empirical observations as being facts, even if from a strict technical philosophical perspective they aren’t, while always being aware that extraordinary new evidence might be presented in the future which will require changing the details of that fact or to maybe even rejecting it completely.

So when I say “evolution is a fact” I really mean “the process of evolution has been confirmed by an extraordinary number of independent and objective observations, it has been critically tested by many experts, it has passed every test which has been applied to it, and there is no credible alterative, so it looks very very likely that it is real which means we can provisionally accept it as true unless some extremely strong counter-evidence is presented”.

But you can see that the short-hand of saying “it’s a fact” is a lot more convenient!

Whatever the case, when someone actually asks me to debate them on evolution then just rejects every piece of evidence I present just because he doesn’t like it you could see how I would find it a bit frustrating. I guess the argument from personal incredulity really is one of the most annoying logical fallacies out there!

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