Rush Not into the Forest of Absence of Evidence Logical Fallacy

Absence of Evidence is not the proof you are looking for.

Absence of Evidence is not the proof you are looking for.

I often point out to people that “absence of denial proves nothing” when dealing with some of the more ridiculous arguments people make about what they want to find in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. For example, you might believe that Tom Bombadil is one of the Maiar (the angelic companions and servants of the Valar, the great angels who were given the responsibility of watching over the world). To date no one has found any note, letter, essay, or narrative passage where J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the equivalent of “Tom Bombadil is not one of the Maiar”. Thus on the basis of the absence of denial some people say that Tom Bombadil could be one of the Maiar.

The argument is impossible to refute only because there is no definitive statement from Tolkien about what Tom really is. His one comment about including Tom in a future Hobbit book, where he calls Tom the vanishing spirit of the Oxford countryside, does not define what Tom is in the story that Tolkien eventually wrote (since there is no Oxford countryside in The Lord of the Rings). Technically, without any definitive statement from Tolkien about what Tom Bombadil is within the context of the story there is no way to determine what Tom’s true nature is. Hence the “absence of denial” argument is irrelevant because the whole point is moot. It is an unsettled question, although in my article “What Is Tom Bombadil?” I pointed out that Tolkien called him an “aborigine”.

Using the “aborigine” label is a kind of philosophical cheat because Tolkien did not apply it to Tom or anyone as the name of a people or group (like the group names of the Valar, Maiar, Elves, et. al.); in other words, instead of using “aborigine” as a racial or tribal designation Tolkien was only describing one aspect of Tom’s nature (that he was there “from the beginning”). Tom was aboriginal to the world of Middle-earth, having been there from its beginning (near its beginning). We don’t know anything more about him and so we cannot associate him with any of the groups or characters in the story, including Iluvatar (another popular hypothesis for “who Tom really is”).

Absence of denial is a form of the more widely used absence of evidence argument, which is often raised by atheists against the proposed existence of God. However, anyone familiar with basic probability theory should have at least heard that “absence of evidence” in the probability distribution for a specific value constitutes proof of absence. But this is a special case where absence of evidence has contextual meaning. In order to compute a probability distribution you must have a complete set of scores; you know everything that goes into the distribution. Anything for which there is no evidence in your data cannot have a probability in the distribution across the known data.

That special case does not carry over into general logic. In other words, if you have an absence of evidence outside of probability theory you do not have a proof of absence. Evidence proves nothing. To prove something you must collect all available evidence and show how it works together to (dis)prove a given hypothesis. The hypothesis itself has the best chance of being correct if it is based on all available evidence.

Any argument for a (dis)proof that excludes any available (relevant) evidence is a flawed argument and therefore it fails automatically in a logical analysis. You might still win your case in a court of law but legal proofs are less demanding than logical proofs. Logic is the harshest mistress of all when it comes to (dis)proving anything.

Science and Logic Demand Strong Definitions and where many people on both sides of the arguments about God(s) err is in using colloquialisms either to build their cases or to challenge others’ points of view. In both science and logic this approach fails completely to accomplish anything other than to waste time. For example, what is “religion”? Many people equate it with the existence of God (or associate it with the existence of God). However, you can devise a religion around a false god (one you know does not exist) named “Hector” and the religion itself is completely valid because religion is an organized system of faith and worship. Religions don’t need real gods any more than real gods need religions. Even the Bible depicts God interacting with men before there were religions.

A God might demand worship but one should not argue that a God must demand or rely upon worship (this is a common idea among role-playing gamers, though). To be the kind of universe-creating God that we speak of today you should have the ability to create a universe that functions without worship because, so far as we can observe, our universe exists in spite of worship, not because of it. Worship is therefore not a causal factor in the relationship between Man and God. Unless we discover a universal principle of how worship contributes to the function of everything in the universe we can say with confidence that God (if he exists) does not need our worship, at least not to create a universe such as the one we have.

Hence, any arguments against the existence of God have to ignore religion. And when you take religion out of the equation people begin to fumble because they don’t see God separated from religion. If you cannot have God without religion then science only needs to determine if religion exists; seeing that it exist would be proof enough for science of God’s existence. However, science acknowledges the existence of religion but remains silent on the existence of God.

Science Demands a Testable Hypothesis in order to make determinations, but science itself is not a process (that would be the scientific method). Rather, science is our organized collection of knowledge based on careful observation and testing of everything that we can observe, record, and analyze. In order to determine if God exists science must devise a testable hypothesis about God. Until we have such a hypothesis there is absolutely nothing science can say about the existence of God. Hence, all arguments for or against the existence of God are unscientific.

Science may or may not lack evidence about the existence of God. The fact that everything science has observed fits into a universe explained by science does not in any way negate the existence of a creator of the universe. If science today cannot explain God in any human comprehensible terms then what are we to make of the attempts by the ancients who lived thousands of years ago to explain God? They actually don’t try to explain much at all. There are the myths that all religions tell but myths are not (by definition) stories that are untrue. A myth is simply a story that seeks to explain something. The explanation may be unscientific (and therefore technically wrong) but the explanation exists because the phenomenon it attempts to explain exists.

That’s not proof of God(s)’ existence. That men have passed on stories about God(s) only proves they shared stories about them. For all we know many of the ancient Greek philosophers thought of these stories as nothing more than entertainment. Look at how we engrave images of fictional characters on everything we make today. We tell stories about them, dress up like them, quote them, and do everything that ancient storytellers did; but we recognize that we are honoring fiction and those who create it. How much did the ancients who made up the stories know they were creating fiction, which only became recognized as something else generations later?

Fiction passes into rumor, which passes into folklore, which becomes fixed in mythology every generation. We never stopped mythologizing the world around us. Even scientists create mythologies. Their mythologies are called hypotheses and theories. But the difference between a scientific mythology and a non-scientific one is that the scientific mythology can evolve without people tearing down temples and churches or threatening war. Science demands a flexible mythology so that our perception of the universe can change over time as we acquire more knowledge and experience.

Until someone devises a testable hypothesis for God’s existence there will be no scientific evaluation of the proposition. And as happens so often in science we may have to wait until God makes himself known in a way that science can distinguish the event from plausible explanations. Plausible explanations do not disprove anything. You can offer all the plausible explanations in the world for any observable phenomenon but you’re not actually explaining the phenomena (although if you insist the plausible explanations must be true you are mythologizing).

Mythologization is an essential part of science and forensic investigation and so it should be dismissed out of hand. Mythologization is an intermediate step between the proposal of a hypothesis (making a conjecture based on collected evidence or observations) and the establishment of the truth of a hypothesis (proving that it is correct). Many scientists and forensic investigators use the scientific method to test their conjectures only to find that they lack sufficient proof to show their conjectures are correct; and yet there are no other conjectures which appear to be more correct. And so we proceed on the belief that these conjectures may be true, seeking additional evidence, and thus the mythologies are born.

When you realize that mythologization is a fundamental part of human rational thought you stop fearing it. Fear of mythology leads people to make faulty logical arguments (which, ironically, is another form of mythologization). You cannot help but mythologize and it is healthy for you to recognize you do that in just about every aspect of your life.

Our mythologies seldom lack evidence but they all lack proof, for a mythology proven true is no longer a mythology: it is established fact. But the establishment of fact is a human vanity for the universe exists as it is regardless of what we believe that “is” to be either through our mythologies or our facts. Human knowledge is rarely incontrovertible. We simply refine what we know and understand so that we know some things better, understand them better, and see more deeply into the mysteries that surround us.

But is the evidence truly absent? In any matter where the absence of evidence is raised as an argument against an idea we must accept that the absence itself may only be a misperception; science may one day find the evidence that is absent, and this happens all the time. So when one argues about the existence of God(s) the mere absence of evidence means nothing for we do not have complete knowledge of all things and lacking that completeness of knowledge we cannot use the laws of probability to assert that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

In short, what science does not investigate cannot be debunked (proven false) by science or by attempted logic that appeals to science as an authority. And what science does investigate may lead to conclusions which await further investigation before they are finally rejected by science.