Today I spoke with a student about the existence of God. He had read an essay I put together last year concerning the Damascene Cosmological argument. His ultimate response was, “Well this is just the argument of ignorance.” In other words, even though I had shown naturalism to be illogical and unreasonable, his response was, “Well we haven’t discovered everything about the universe yet.” Now, there are three problems with such a thinking: (1) it ignores the importance of disjunctive arguments, (2) Cosmological arguments aren’t arguments from ignorance (unless purely evidential), and (3) pleading ignorance in order to justify atheism is tantamount to a giant leap of faith (to be fair, the student is a Deist and not an atheist, but he argues that one cannot prove the existence of God, something I partially agree with if we are speaking about purely evidential proof).
First, we must understand the importance of disjunctive propositions when dealing with cosmological arguments. In logic, a disjunctive proposition deals with alternates, generally in scenarios where it is necessarily either/or. Imagine we are looking at a ball and I say, “It is either red or it is blue.” This is not a strict disjunctive because it could be neither red nor blue, but green. If we say the ball isn’t blue, that doesn’t automatically mean it is red, for it could be another color. There is another option available. A true disjunctive would be if we looked at a cat to determine if it is dead or alive. If I prove the cat is not dead, then by necessity the cat must be alive. If I prove the cat is not alive, then by necessity it must be dead. There is no third option. Thus, we have a true either/or.
When we approach cosmological arguments we are dealing with pure disjunctives. The ultimate question of “What caused all things to exist” will either be a natural answer (that is, nature did it and there is no God) or a supernatural answer (that is, God did it and atheism isn’t a proper position). This is a strict either/or and cannot allow for a third option. Thus, if one is shown to be irrational or false in all possible worlds, then the alternative is necessarily true even in the absence of physical evidence. That is what is meant by “disjunctive propositions.” Thus, in cosmological arguments for the existence of God, if it can be shown that naturalism is logically untenable in all possible worlds and it’s impossible for it to work as an explanation for the origin of everything, then by default Theism must be true, even if we have no evidence to prove Theism.
With the above in mind, we can proceed in the argument, showing that cosmological arguments aren’t arguments from ignorance. Sadly, due to pseudo-philosophers writing atheistic articles, the argument of ignorance (or argumentum ad ignorantiam) has been misapplied and misunderstood as to what it covers. The incorrect understand and application has generally used the argument under a de facto epistemology of empiricism. The argument has been applied that to believe in x even if there is a lack of evidence for x and to attempt to have others believe in x without evidence for the validity of x is an argument from ignorance. But such an application is silly, for we have no way to prove (empirically) that what we are experiencing right now isn’t a dream.
Assume that a mad philosopher has found a way to put all humans in to a trance-like state, but cause us to dream together. Thus, we’re in a Matrix-like situation where we think we’re experiencing reality, but in reality we’re actually asleep. Any empirical arguments used to disprove this theory would, in fact, be circular. Therefore, not everything we believe has to have an empirical foundation. Or, as Paul Boghossian argues in Fear of Knowledge,
“Not every belief needs to be supported by some independent item of information that would constitute evidence in its favor: some beliefs are intrinsically credible or self-evident. Philosophers disagree about the range of propositions that they think are self-evident in this sense, and very few believe that their number is large. But ever since Descartes first formulated his famous cognito argument, philosophers have been persuaded that at least some propositions are self-evident. What non-circular evidence could one adduce, for example, for the believe that one is currently conscious?”
What Boghossian is arguing is if we say, “Well I currently see, I currently think, and I currently feel” all assume that such phenomenological experiences aren’t, in fact, illusions. Thus, the empiricist must assume that life as we know it isn’t an illusion in order to prove that life as we know it isn’t an illusion! This would fall under how many atheists have defined the “argument of ignorance.”
A better understanding and how the argument should properly be understood is when people say, “Well you can’t prove x wrong, therefore it must be true.” The fallacy is that just because x can’t be proven false doesn’t necessarily mean that x is true. To use Bertrand Russell’s famous example, we can imagine a China tea cup in orbit between the earth and the moon. Anyone utilizing the argument of ignorance would say that because we can’t prove it’s not true we must therefore assume that there is an actual tea cup orbiting the earth. Now, it could very well be that a tea cup orbits the earth, but our ability to know so wouldn’t be based upon the fact that we can’t disprove it. For instance, I can’t disprove there is an invisible gnome living in my backyard, but that doesn’t mean there is actually an invisible gnome living in my backyard.
How, then, do cosmological arguments fall under the argument of ignorance? The reality is that they don’t. To assert that we know certain things about logic, physics, mathematics, and physical science and that all of these discoveries lead us to believe that naturalism is false isn’t the argument from ignorance. If it were then our entire judicial system would collapse as often times we are simply left with the probability or likelihood of a person’s guilt based on the evidence, though there is a possibility that at a later date evidence could pop up that exonerates the accused. Does this mean we shouldn’t vote for his guilt? Of course not; we must make decisions on the evidence (not just physical evidence, but logical evidence as well) before us.
The same is true when it comes to the cosmological argument; when we point to the improbability of naturalism, or how naturalism is an unlikely explanation (or, logically speaking, an impossible explanation), and conclude that God must exist, we are not making an argument from ignorance. We’re looking at what is currently available to us and making a decision. Likewise, when it comes to logical impossibilities, it is doubtful that we will discover something that overturns what is logically impossible (we’ll never find something that can violate the law of non-contradiction). Thus, if an actual infinite regress of events is impossible, then naturalism can never be a proper explanation, therefore God necessarily exists.
Finally, to say, “Well one day we could discover how the universe occurred naturally, so there’s no reason to believe in God” is akin to a six day creationist saying, “Well someday we could find out that carbon 14 dating and all of evolutionary theory is wrong.” While that is actually possible, it’s not probable or likely. The same is true when atheists say that one day all of physics, mathematics, and logic could be overturned in order to give credence to naturalism; certainly it could occur, but it’s just not likely.
In other words, at such a level atheism becomes an irrational leap of faith, a belief that defies all the evidence against it and keeps on going. While such leaps are sometimes justified, when your entire belief system is a leap of faith then your entire belief system is irrational, that is, most likely not based in reality.
Hopefully the reader will now see that cosmological arguments are not always arguments from ignorance (though some poorly constructed arguments can fall into this category, it is not true that cosmological arguments are necessarily categorized as arguments from ignorance). If they are not arguments from ignorance then they are still logically valid arguments, free from a fallacy, and therefore should be properly dealt with rather than tossed aside.