Arguing what we don’t know and what we know about life after death?

By | May 10, 2011

In a recent review of John Gray’s book, The Immortalization Commission (Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death), Clancy Martin (professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City) praises Gray for an interesting account of the weird and fascinating search for evidence of life after death. But Martin is bothered by what he claims is a basic fallacy in Gray’s dismissal of the likelihood of any positive results from the on-going search for life after death. Quoting Professor Martin:

… Gray’s account is undermined by the fact that he clings to an undefended premise, which he believes to be Darwin’s great idea: “Humans are animals, with no special destiny assuring them a future beyond their earthly home.” . . . . No reasonable person would disagree with the idea that human beings are animals. But very little follows from this fact, especially given that we know little or nothing about the subjective experience or capacities of any animals other than ourselves. Whether we are talking about morality or mortality, my observation that dogs are not so very unlike human beings does not allow me to conclude that human beings have no greater capacity for morality than dogs, [or] that we have “no special destiny” or “future beyond our earthly home.” Gray is committing the logical fallacy known as argument from ignorance: we can’t argue from what we don’t know to what we know.

The problem is that Professor Martin is wrong. This is not the fallacy of arguing from ignorance. The only basis for charging Gray with committing a fallacy is the mere possibility that “humans have a future beyond our earthly home,” as Martin expresses it. In other words, all that Clancy Martin can reasonably claim is that it is possible that some aspect of personality extends beyond the death of the body. But the mere possibility that something might be fact does not show that any conclusion to the contrary is based on ignorance. For example, it is possible that undetectable aliens from outer space control the thinking of the great evangelist, Billy Graham; but most rational, sane persons do not believe that, believing instead that Graham’s convictions result from his religious training and experiences. Our belief is not one based on ignorance, although we cannot prove that Graham’s thinking is not controlled by aliens. We have not committed the fallacy of argument from ignorance.

To make this clearer, let me delve a little more into this issue.

Do we commit the fallacy of arguing from ignorance every time we point to ignorance or a lack of evidence as basis for a conclusion? No, we do not. For example, we do not commit this fallacy when reject the conclusion that Muslims secretly plan to overthrow the U.S. government because there is no evidence given for such a conclusion. Given that no evidence is forthcoming and given that if such an event were likely there would be evidence for that event (or at least some indications of that event happening), then it is a valid to conclude that most probably the event is not a fact. Sometimes our best information on a specific claim is that there is no evidence to support the claim (or even to show the probability of the event at issue), and when we point this out we are not committing the fallacy of “argument from ignorance. The mere possibility that there could be a Muslim conspiracy does not allow us to conclude much of anything.

To get a better sense of the fallacy of argument from fallacy, let us consult the logic text (Irving M. Copi, Introduction To Logic, 6th edition). When we do we read the following:

Argument from ignorance: ..illustrated by the statement that there must be ghosts because no one has ever been able to prove that there aren’t any Generally, the fallacy occurs when it is argued that a proposition is true because nobody has ever proven it false; or when one argues that a proposition is false because nobody has ever proven it to be true. An example of the latter: It is false that there are ghosts because nobody has ever proven that there are ghosts.

The idea is that ghosts might exist although nobody has demonstrated that there are such entities. We could commit the fallacy of arguing from ignorance if we concluded that absolutely there are no ghosts because nobody has ever proven that ghosts are real. Our ignorance of any proof demonstrating the existence of ghosts is not proof that such things do not exist. However, Copi goes on to note that

….in some circumstances it can be correctly assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence as positive proof of its non-occurrence. .. the proof here is not based on ignorance but on our knowledge that if the event had occurred it would be known.

This qualification means that when I argue that belief in an afterlife is not supported by any objective evidence and therefore likely false, I have not committed the fallacy of arguing from ignorance. The possibility of an afterlife is weakened by a complete lack of evidence to support that thesis. I do not argue that this lack of evidence proves the impossibility of an afterlife. I simply make the reasonable assumption that, if an afterlife was reality, there would be some neutral, objective evidence to indicate that reality. Given the lack of any such evidence, it is obviously a rational position to hold that most probably biological beings such as humans do not have an afterlife.

I submit that this is what Gray has done. His study of the efforts to demonstrate life after death indicates a complete lack of neutral, objective evidence for the belief in existence after death. He also knows that all the relevant sciences (e.g. biology, evolutionary biology) indicate that human beings are physical, biological beings whose existence is strictly a mortal, biological existence. The conclusion that there is no identity beyond death is not one based on ignorance. It is based on knowledge of evolved, biological life and knowledge of the rational, scientific inferences that intelligent beings are entitled to make.

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