I love this popular little mantra: the absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence, also known as the fallacy of the argument from ignorance. If you’re not already familiar with it, it claims the opposite of my title. In short, it means that just because you don’t have any evidence for a thing happening doesn’t mean it didn’t actually happen. It could have happened but the evidence hasn’t survived, or maybe we just haven’t found it yet. Maybe we wouldn’t know it if we saw it because our understanding of the situation is off.
There are lots of possible explanations for why we 1) don’t have any evidence for X but yet 2) can still hold out that X might have happened or exists. And if we don’t have any evidence whatsoever, no evidence either for or against, then a thing is only as likely as its prior probability.
Well, except in some cases…
In some cases an absence of evidence can be damning. If we don’t have any evidence for a thing happening or existing we can sometimes use that very fact, that very absence of evidence, as evidence itself. Let me give you two examples.
The Master Thief
To introduce the idea, take the case of the master thief. You’re a detective and were just called to a crime scene, a museum. You arrive and find out that the such-n-such jewels were stolen! This tells you nothing of who did it, of course, except that it was someone skillful enough to steal them and get away from the scene. But there are hundreds, even thousands, of people like that. So you look for further evidence to pin it down on one person over the others.
So you begin the search for evidence. You look for finger and footprints, DNA, ask the guards if they saw anything, check the cameras, and search for any sign of a tell-tale style or habit which some thieves have. You interrogate various criminal elements to see if any word has been drifting around. You even sift through the traffic and security cameras for a 15 block radius. But you find nothing. Not a scrap.
You have found no evidence that will allow you to separate the wheat from the chaff and determine which thief it is from the hundreds of possible ones.
But wait! There are only a small handful of thieves who could possibly have the skills to pull off such a spotless heist! The very fact that no evidence whatsoever was left behind is itself a clue to who actually did it. Or, at very least, you can now rule out the lower and middle rungs on the criminal ladder who don’t have anything approaching this kind of skill.
This ‘evidence’ isn’t 100% absolutely, perfectly conclusive. No evidence ever is. And “lack of evidence” wouldn’t hold up in court. But, given what you know about the thieves who could have committed such a crime, 95% of them would have made some small mistake along the way and left some scrap of evidence. So sometimes lack of evidence can in fact narrow your options.
The God with a Plan
The most conspicuous example of all of this is the God of Abraham. The fallacy of the argument from ignorance is often invoked after dismantling some argument, i.e. evidence, for God’s existence. Basically, just because the argument fails and God doesn’t provide any other evidence does not mean that you can now assert “God doesn’t exist.” Even if all Christian arguments fail in the end, it is certainly possible, so it is claimed, that God may still be somewhere out there.
If God were like most things, this would be true. But it turns out that God is more like the master thief. In the master thief example, an absence of evidence is evidence for presence. This is because we expect only master thieves to leave no evidence. For God, it is the reverse. An absence of evidence is instead evidence for absence. This is because, contrary to the thief, we expect God to leave evidence.
Why? Well, it’s important to note that I’m not talking about all Gods. Some possible Gods maybe just want to trick silly humans and so they cover their tracks to make it look like they were never there. But for the Abrahamic God, or any other omnipotent God who wants us to know Him, they would leave evidence for us. First, a God who wants us to know Him would try to make it more likely that we would come to know Him. In other words, He’d give us evidence. Second, being omnipotent, He can guarantee such evidence exists and will cross our paths.
In addition, St Paul spells it all out for us in Romans 1:18-20.
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
A ‘Hidden’ God?
However, maybe we should expect Abraham’s God to ‘hide’ himself, as some like William Lane Craig argue? I’m sure a few Christians at this point are exclaiming to themselves the importance of faith. Unfortunately, this patchwork doesn’t work out for a few reasons – in addition to the fact it contradicts passages like the one above. I’ll be brief.
First, if there are multiple Hidden Gods, and why not, then how do you decide which one to follow? It’s an extremely pragmatic question. Who do I put my faith in? You have the hidden Allah in one corner and the hidden Yahweh in another (and the hidden Brahma in another and…). Unless you just pick at random or stay with what you inherited, you need some impartial evidence. But by ‘hidden’ people Craig have already defined such deities as not having any evidence for them. There is, by definition, no way to decide between such hidden gods.
Second, Craig and others may simply reply ‘you must have faith!’ God will somehow guide your evidence-less decision if you’re pure of heart, genuinely searching, or whatever else. Matthew 7:7, “seek and ye shall find” is pretty clear. However, this implies that those that follow other religions do not have a pure heart and aren’t genuinely searching. If they really sought, then would have found Jesus. So since they didn’t find Jesus, as Matt 7:7 implies, they didn’t really seek.
Now we’re back to looking for empirical evidence! Do pure-hearted genuine-searchers, i.e. real seekers, all converge on the same God? The uncontroversial answer for anyone with a bit of diversity in their pool of friends is a resounding “no”. There are open and searching Christians, certainly. But, as I’ve seen time and again, there are also open, honest, and searching Muslims, Hindus, Humanists, and so on.
Paul Chiariello (Managing Editor, Rutgers & Yale University) Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philo Curriculum for Camp Quest. Paul has a MSc in Sociology of Edu from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on religious identity conflict. He also spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship. He has worked with research organizations and schools DC, the UN, Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.
If I follow your argument I would say there is evidence impacting your Master Thief analogy. Mainly that of historical and/or anecdotal evidence that such thieves exist. In keeping with the jewel analogy, religion would be akin to disingenuous men leaving a ransom note for a jewel that never existed to exploit the museum/jewelry store. Everyone knows proofs or disproofs of “gods” is a fool’s errand. I hope to read some thought provoking content soon from this group, this article provokes dissapointment from this truth seeker.
What you’re referring to is evidence that would establish prior probabilities, which is different than what I am discussing here.
I hate it when they end a comment with Cheers, I find it passive agressive.
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For the Master Thief you forgot to mention another possibility, There is no evidence of a thief so how do we know there was even a thief or that there were even jewels stolen? Maybe the person reporting the crime is lying and trying to defraud an insurance company or something. Maybe they’re delusional and only thought they had jewels in the first place. Or there also exists the intriguing possibility that the person in imagining the whole thing and everyone and everything, the jewels, the thief and even the detective are merely figments of this unfortunate person’s imagination?
Base rates. Most times jewels go missing, someone stole them.
For your first option, the false report, that just means the owner was in on the theft. Second option, expensive jewels are usually kept track of by multiple parties, e.g. buyers, sellers, prospective buyers. Lastly, we’re talking about the real world, so the thought experiment asserts the ppl are real.
There’s some problems that I see with your “Master Thief” analogy. You make it appear that everyone is a/the detective and we all can use the lack of evidence as an indicator of who might be the thief. But the truth is that very few people have the knowledge, training, and innate ability to actually use the lack of clues to point to possible thieves. It’s the information that the detective brings to the case that helps him to determine who might be responsible.
Secondly he still might be wrong. Let’s say that the jewels were made of a highly unstable substance that evaporated without leaving clues unless the detective had the knowledge to test for some extremely rare residue that the evaporation would leave behind. And what if the residue was something no one had encountered before so there was no test.
The problem with your whole argument is the idea that the detective is infallible. That he can’t be fooled or mislead by either clues that he doesn’t recognize or the lack of any clues. While the truth is anyone is capable of misunderstanding what they see or don’t see, can prove or can’t prove.
You then support your “Master Thief” concept with your “Hidden God” concept. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever encountered the hidden 3D image posters? The ones where you have to look at them all most cross eyed for the image to appear? Or have you ever looked at a “Where’s Waldo” book? If you have did you notice how hard it was to find the little bugger when you first started? But once you figured out where to look and how to look for him it became easier?
The fallacy of your “Hidden God” concept is the idea that God is hidden unless he’s in your face and makes his presence something you can’t ignore. Like some how it only makes sense if that’s how he does things if he really exists. Maybe God is there for all to see, but many of us choose to ignore him, for whatever reasons we choose. Why couldn’t that be God?
In fact to me it’s much more logical, if God want’s us to evolve as spiritual beings, that he’s only visible and knowable if we seek him out.
Have you ever done any mountain climbing? It’s not a activity to take lightly. But there’s something about cresting the final rise. Being above the cloud cover and seeing the sun as it dips below the cover. It’s a beautiful sight, and well worth the effort. It’s also something that a photo just doesn’t do justice. You need to go through the struggles of climbing the mountain before you really appreciate the view. That’s kind of what God’s like. you’ll never know him unless you seek him.
A couple of thoughts:
1) Your contention that the Detective ‘might still be wrong’ and that the Jewels might simply have evaporated ignores all of the evidence available to support the fact that this does not happen (at least not outside of a laboratory, or say, a volcano). You could similarly posit that Ghosts, gem loving fairies, or even God did it – but why would you do this? We know that thieves exist, or that people sometimes just lose things, so why would we need to look at unnatural solutions?
2) You use the example of magic eye or where Waldo (Wally herein the UK), but again your analogy is misplaced. We KNOW that there is something hidden in the picture (unless the artist is lying). There’s a certain amount of fun to be had in the looking, but we don’t actually have to search to know that they are there. You could argue that this is exactly like God, and I suppose it is if you just ‘feel it in your heart’ , but this isn’t evidence of anything other than your faith and that’s entirely fine. You don’t have to prove God’s existence ) if she does exist (and in the absence of evidence no argument will convince me that she does) I’m pretty sure she gets on fine without any help from us.
First off, your making a major assumption when you say that you know the jewels couldn’t evaporate. How do you know this is fact other then because as far as you know it’s never happened before so it can’t happen now. It’s the same assumption that is so often made when someone refuses to even entertain a possibility. For example when scientists proposed the existence of atoms. There were many naysayers stating that where are these atoms? If we can’t see or feel them they can’t exist, and we all know the final result.
As for your assertion that with where’s waldo you already know that he’s in the picture because you trust the author isn’t lying to you, is again an assumption on your part, and doesn’t really do anything to prop up your shaky argument. Init fact does nothing to answer the question I posed. Why does God HAVE to be in your face for him/her to exist? Why can’t God be hiding in plain site just like Waldo?
Your whole argument is based on your rules which you apply as you wish to apply them and really do nothing to prove your point. For an argument to be valid it needs to consider all sides of the question without bias. And that’s where you fail, your bias is defiantly showing.
Now I’m not saying that I don’t have bias, I do. But I find it really funny how dyed in the wool Atheists are just as bad as born again proselytizing Christians. I really have problems with both. I’ll give you an example of how bad it can be.
There was a recent scientific theory that we all might be living in a matrix like construction created by superior being/s and they might find evidence to prove it. I postulated in a forum that wouldn’t if be really funny if not only the theory was true, but that it directly related to our spiritual lives and that our God was in fact this superior being that created the “matrix” we live in. While I’ll admit I did get some fairly heated replies from religious posters, by far it was Atheists that not only disagreed, but actually attacked me in any way they could. I found it really funny that even though it was a “scientific” theory and it dovetailed so neatly with peoples spiritual beliefs but many Atheists were so anti religious that they couldn’t even see the obvious.
I personally feel sorry for anyone that’s so entrenched in their beliefs that they have zero flexibility. And that goes for both Atheists and Religious people. There’s an answer out there that is complete and resolves all questions for everyone. But some people are so close minded that they refuse to even entertain the notion.
Lets assume I have a huge diamond, and I leave it out on a table, I nip off to the bog and when I get back, lo and behold the diamond is gone. Should I (in the spirit of keeping an open mind) assume that it spontaneously evaporated?
The master thief goes to prove the statement true though. The absense of evidence of the thief I’d not evidence that the thief doesn’t exist.
Though I had some reservations with the Master Thief portion of your argument, it really breaks down when you start applying it to God. Similarly to your argument that a God figure, specifically the God of Abraham, has to be treated differently due to the change in stakes, so too does the idea of evidence itself have to change.
The Master Thief argument MIGHT apply because the thief is human. The thief follows the rules we all have to follow, and the situation the thief creates is possible to analyze because it’s a sequence of human actions in a human setting being addressed because of the expectations of humans. Everyone and everything in this situation has to do with an 8 pound finite brain viewing a limited selection of an incomprehensibly massive universe and network of possibilities.
The assertion that God is unknowable fits here. If we accept that humans are finite, and the mind of God is greater than the mind of a human, then we start to lose our footing. We have to question the very nature of what we consider evidence and how we string it together. God doesn’t have to play by our rules, and He wouldn’t even have to play by rules that we could begin to comprehend–it’s similar to saying that a 4-dimensional object protruding into 3-dimensional space must obey the rules of all other 3-dimensional objects.
I think the issue at stake for Paul, and many other followers of the Abrahamic religions, is how we understand our limited natures in the face of a infinite God. The main thrust is that this God wants to be known under specific conditions, but this same God does not want to be known under other conditions. This jives with other passages that allude to how God befuddles human knowledge and preconceived notions of the universe. Though we’ve obviously made massive technological and scientific advances since the biblical era, we’re still limited by our mental and physical limits. I don’t fall into the fallacy of arguing that we can’t know anything at all, but we really have to be mindful of how very much more there is to know.
Just some thoughts.
Sounds like you’re arguing for a hidden god. Do you believe one can decide between the various versions of god? Like the Christian vs Muslim variety? If so, that’s all I need for my argument.
Well, not really. It becomes a hasty generalization at that point, and I don’t think all theology agrees on that point. The Muslim and Christian faiths certainly don’t, and the diversity of interpretation within those faiths is quite rich.
I don’t need all theology to agree, and a rich tradition of interpretation is irrelevant to my point.
Since I would reply to your last comments by copy-pasting from above I’ll leave it at that, since i don’t want to spend too much time replying to comments.
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Surely in the Master Thief the assertions are actually the reverse of your proposition. The evidence that there is a thief is that there is evidence of absence, that is, the jewels have been stolen. If there was an absence of evidence that the jewels had existed in the first place, this absence cannot be used to assert there is a thief.
in your example, even with a sub-par criminal they can get lucky. There could be a bumbling fool of a theif that somehow lucked out and managed to leave no evidence, or left plenty of evidence but a freak magnetic storm damaged the tapes and the open window at the crime scene closed by the maid on her arrival blew away the finger prints and hair follicles.
I believe the analogy would be better if you said the detective were called to the scene of a crime, but nothing was stolen. The jewels not being there have a different explanation, the owner took them to wear and left them somewhere. Combining multiple lines of conflicting evidence with other explanations that are more likely is certainly evidence for absence.
I’m not really sure the author is even trying to compare the two situations in a greater sense than these are two situations that share a theme. The absence of evidence doesn’t have to mean evidence of absence. However, it doesn’t follow that these situations are exact in every manner.
With the master thief argument, the author asserts there was evidence that a diamond existed. That it was placed in a room and monitored.Then some time later the diamond vanished, where did the diamond go? There is evidence the diamond existed in the first place.
In the god is absent situation, the obvious difference the author points out is that god is absent already, “hidden.” Also, god can do what he wants, when he wants, because god can work 4D miracles. Never mind the rules of 3D, god is all powerful and can trick your senses and distort the world as we know it at his choosing to fool those of his choosing. God can work 10D miracles and we would never know. One could go on. The christian apologist would have you believe that god only speaks to people who are completed devoted to its god self, the diamond wouldn’t mistreat you so.
Yet, one can’t compare god to the diamond. How does one know if the god you believe in was there in the first place? It’s a matter of faith. One doesn’t have to have faith to believe a diamond exists. Diamonds are mundane occurring in nature. But god is super natural as the Christian apologist will point out. Thankfully the author knows these situations have glaring differences despite the connection of the ‘absence of evidence.’ Empirical evidence and 3D thinking will help a detective find the diamond as the author illustrates. I’m still not sure what kind of evidence leads those who crave the idea a god to their varied destinations. There must be more than one god then surely if yours exists?
Paul I’d love to discuss this more with you — great, thought provoking work! Thank you for posting this.
What if God exists, and cares about our “hearts” (inner thoughts, how well we treat all people, our values, sacrificial love for others, etc) more than anything else? Does that change things? For example, would that enable a Master Thief, completely hidden from any “reasonable”, logical approach or evidence, yet in plain sight if we were actually humbled enough to “know” (i.e. believe with total conviction) we needed a God?
Court is now in session, the Honorable Judge Spunkmonkey presiding. Please be seated.
Judge Spunkmonkey: Counsel, I have read your briefs and listened to the arguments. I will now rule from the bench on Plaintiff’s Motion in limine regarding whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial on the charges of theft of jewels by Third-Party Cross-Defendant Mr. Yaweh.
As I understand the posture of the case, ultimately, the Third-Party Cross-Complainant, Mr. Believer, seeks to prove that Mr Yaweh stole the missing jewels. But before we can put that issue to the jury, the Plaintiff, Mr. Rational, has filed this Motion in limine challenging the identity of Mr. Yaweh, and asserting that there is insufficient proof to proceed to trial against him. In sum, Mr. Rational asserts that Mr. Yaweh is a fictional character and that the person standing before the court is simply an actor hired by Co-Defendnant Church, Inc. to distract the jury from the real issue, which is the ponzi scheme. Mr. Rational argues that Mr. Yaweh should be dismissed from the action because there is no evidence that he is who Mr. Believer says he is. Mr. Rational says the case should proceed against the real Defendnant, Church, Inc.
Mr. Believer asserts that there is sufficient evidence both that Mr. Yaweh exists and did the deed and that we should go to trial because: 1) someone stole the jewels, 2) there is no evidence about how he did it; 3) there are “hundreds perhaps thousands” of master jewel thieves who could have stolen the jewels without leaving any evidence about how they did it; 4) Mr. Yaweh is one such non-evidence leaving master jewel thief; and 5) therefore the fact that there is no evidence that Mr. Yaweh could have done it IS evidence that he could have done it and therefore we that we can put it to a jury.
I’m going to address my next comment to Mr. Chiariello, Counsel for the Plaintiff: Are you kidding me?
Where is your evidence that there are a bunch of non-evidence leaving master jewel thieves running around? You have shown me no evidence of any one person being able to steal jewels without leaving a trace much less evidence of a whole set of them. Assuming that there is sufficient evidence to identify a set of non-evidence leaving master jewel thieves, from which one must have committed the crime in question, is simply compounding the evidence problem. You are just kicking the evidentiary issue back a step in the proof. You have produced not one shred of evidence of the existence of such people and are simply asking me to assume not only that they exist but that Mr. Yaweh is one of them. You have, by rhetorical sleight of hand, changed the absence of proof into a positive assertion. Saying that there are several of them and therefore Mr. Yaweh could be one of them does not pass the red-faced test. Either there is evidence of people with that magical ability or there isn’t. If there is evidence of such people, then such evidence exists and we are not actually dealing with an “absence of evidence is proof of absence” situation because there IS evidence. If there is no such evidence that such people exist in the first place, then there is no basis to assume that they or Mr. Yaweh had anything to do with the jewels.
Tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll hold my ruling in abeyance for one week. We will reconvene next Monday at 8:15 and at that time you will either provide me with the evidence that supports your claim that there are a bunch of magical master jewel thieves out there or I am granting Mr. Rational’s Motion and dismissing Mr. Yaweh from the case and we will proceed with the trial against Church, Inc. as the sole Defendant.
Let me be perfectly clear: You don’t get to waltz in here and act like you have proved something by demonstrating an absence of evidence. You most certainly have not demonstrated an absence of evidence. All you have done is failed to show the evidence that your proof requires you to produce. Your proof depends on a mountain of evidence: that magical non-evidence leaving master thieves exist in the first place. That is evidence. What you are doing is the kind of boot-strapping that would flunk you out of first year law school. How ever did you manage to pass the bar? Stop this nonsense or I will hold you in contempt.
Court is dismissed.
I enjoyed reading your post. It’s a little maddening to have to even consider arguing with people about religious fantasies, and logic usually fails to convince, no matter how high its quality. I’ve given up, bit have been honing a needle-meme for a long time…. how to rapidly get doubt and skepticism inserted into adjacent brains in a form they cannot forget because of its simplicity and brevity.
So far, my most effective barb, used with religious folks i know who have had a chance to evaluate my character and like me, is to await the eventual proselytization attempt, and respond. “Thanks. I understand and appreciate your consideration and am happy this works for you, somehow. For me, god doesn’t work. Can’t do anything with it. Can’t change a tire, cure an amputation, fix a problem, defeat hunger/fear/evil. Can’t do anything worthwhile, in fact, and certainly nothing reliable enough to trust. God just doesn’t work. As a problem solving concept, it no longer has any value.”
Sometimes, I just shorten it to “God doesn’t work…not just for me, but for anyone. It’s not a concept we need in the modern world, and in no form has it been proven to solve problems. On the other hand, Science works. God doesn’t work. At all. Ever. Never has.”
You usually only get once chance.
Absence of evidence is evidence of absence if and only if one has conducted an exhaustive search of the problem space.
This sounds right. Isn’t the result of that exhaustive search itself “evidence” in the sense that it defines the background against which the “absence” must be measured?
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It is an interesting article, and I even like the argument, not that it is valid. For me I have not found a better concept than quantum mechanics, showing the impossibility of anything supernatural.
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Wow! No offense but your argument sucks ass.First your detective analogy fails flat on it’s face.1.) Your”brilliant” detective just assumed that there is master thieves behind it without any evidence thus confirming the idea of absence of evidence not being evidence of absence.and ultimately defeats the purpose of the analogy.2.) He never suspects that this might be a inside job.or that the museum’s curators might have misplaced it.So while he looking for possibly non-existent thieves the curators gets away with the jewels.Because your detective is a gullible turd and thus proving that atheists make bad detectives. Since a good detective don’t rule out possibilities until they find proof suggesting the contrary.
First, cursing isn’t needed for a civil discussion. Second, those objections are about the form of the story and not its content, i.e. i could easily add the stipulations that they’d thoroughly vetted the staff and searched for a lost jewel, thus leaving it being stolen the most likely option. Ruling out possibilities one doesn’t want to focus on in a thought experiment, like you’re suggesting I’ve overlooked, is easy to do.