Monday, January 24, 2011

College Classes and Argumentum ad Ignorantiam

I would like to begin today's post by talking briefly about my first day of the semester at the University of Maryland, College Park.  After all, the name of the blog is "SecularStudent:  A Journey Through College".  I had three classes today; Calculus II, Contemporary Moral Issues, and Art and Archaeology of Ancient America.  In my Contemporary Moral Issues class, I made a conscious effort to count the number of times my professor said "Religion", "Religious", "God", or "Christian".  Combining all four words together, guess how many times my professor said these words.  To my pleasant surprise, the answer is once.  She said "religious", but only in passing.  She only mentioned it to comment that some people have moral opinions that come from religious beliefs.  The focus of the class is to turn "mere opinions" about morals into "articulate and well-defended" positions on contemporary moral issues.  The four moral issues that we are focusing on are:  pornography, death penalty, doctor assisted suicide/life support, and abortion.

I have a dorm floor meeting soon, chess club, then bed, so I'll keep today's post brief.  I would like to quickly touch on "argumentum ad ignorantiam" (aka argument from ignorance or argument from personal incredulity).  When a theist makes some kind of fallacious claim, this fallacy (if present) is usually the first one I point out in their argument.  What does it mean to call someone ignorant?  Nowadays the term "ignorant" has a strong derogatory connotation.  However, to me, the word simply means a lack of knowledge.  There are many scholastic fields in which I would say I am ignorant of.  For example; Astronomy, Plant Sciences, African and Asian History, Art History, and Women's Studies, just to name a few.  If I call someone ignorant it's not meant to be mean, but rather to point out the fact that you are lacking knowledge in some area.  Now what does this have to do with religious claims?  A common argument for the existence of a god or gods (very similar to the argument from design) goes something like:
  1. The universe is so complicated and vast.
  2. I don't know how this universe could have come into existence by any other means but a god or gods.
  3. Therefore this god or gods must exist.
Wrong!  The minute you say, "I don't know" you're done.  You must demonstrate that this god or these gods exist, not just assert that you can't think of a better explanation.  This is personal incredulity; not personally knowing another way something could happen does not mean that experts in the field have no idea nor does it mean that no explanation will ever be discovered.

As usual, e-mail me at to ask questions, tell me your concerns, express a disagreement, or start up a discussion.  Or, if you would rather, leave a comment below!  Have a great day!

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