12 Days of Scepticism: Day 8 – The Argument From Personal Incredulity

For my next trick I will attempt to explain the Argument From Personal Incredulity. Not to be confused with the Argument From Personal Ignorance, the Argument From Personal Incredulity essentially looks like this:

Person A: I can’t imagine how x could have happened.

Conclusion: x cannot have happened.

The unstated, and false, premise in this argument is that the person in question is some kind of superhuman genius capable of knowing and imagining every possible circumstance. When in reality they fail to imagine the solution they fallaciously conclude that it is impossible.

One very common example is when a creationist says that they can’t imagine how the complexity of a certain biological adaptation arose in a given organism; say the human brain, the eye of an eagle or Donald Trump’s hair; therefore it must have been designed (by God). Frequently they will throw in a straw man for good measure saying, ‘I don’t see how a whole organism can be constructed randomly from evolution.’ The straw man being that no one who understands evolution says that it is random. Mutations in DNA are random but these are filtered by the non-random process of natural selection where only the most favourable will generally be passed on.

The truth is that I can’t imagine how the hair of Donald Trump came about either, every fibre of my being wants to say that in 1993 an otter and a beaver behaved inappropriately on his forehead and he’s been trying to cover it up ever since. The fact that literally no one on earth can imagine the actual answer doesn’t mean it is impossible, his hair is there for all to be horrified by.

Another example is crop circles. Believe it or not there is a name for a person who believes that crop circles have paranormal explanations. No, let’s not be rude; the word is cereologist. If you tell a cereologist that a crop circle is simply a trick created by hoaxers, they will counter that they can’t imagine how anyone could ever achieve such a perfect effect. The geometry, the way the crops are all bent in the same position in the same direction. It is beyond their ken how a human could achieve this and so they substitute in aliens, only they could have the tech to pull off such a thing.

What they have so spectacularly failed to imagine, of course, is two blokes with a plank of wood and some rope.

One example I’ve had to deal with is a time when a certain man in my life gave me a call. Somehow we got to talking about the latest discoveries of the Kepler satellite and its amazing exoplanet discoveries, except that my caller didn’t believe that they were real. They said that they couldn’t imagine how we could see something as small as a planet from so far away, especially when planets don’t give off light. I pointed out that I don’t emit light either but no one has ever had any trouble spotting me as I reflect light reasonably well. I then explained the transit method of exoplanet discovery used by Kepler which is dependent upon bodies being able to simply block light.

As ever, my questioner was not to be moved by the facts, a long running pattern I’m afraid, and simply maintained that he couldn’t picture it and therefore it hadn’t happened. My main problem with the Argument From Personal Incredulity is the sheer breathtaking arrogance of it. Can you imagine the chutzpah required to think that you would be able to reason out every problem ever presented to you, I can’t.

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Image courtesy of Le Petit Poulailler

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