Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

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"'''Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'''" is a rebuttal to an [[argument]] of the form "there is no evidence for X, therefore X does not exist." This objection may be valid or invalid, depending on circumstances.
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"'''Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'''" is a rebuttal to an [[argument]] of the form "there is no evidence for X, therefore X does not exist." Logically, the latter argument is invalid; however, a similar, more careful line of [[inductive reasoning]] can nevertheless lead to a [[reliable]] [[conclusion]].
  
For example, imagine an explorer who lands on an island. seeing no buildings or other signs of human habitation, he concludes that the island is uninhabited. This is an unwarranted conclusion: there might be inhabitants on the other side of the island. In this case, absence of evidence of habitation is not evidence that there are no inhabitants.
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==A simple example==
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* An explorer lands on a remote island and sees no buildings or other signs of human habitation.
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* The explorer therefore concludes that the island is uninhabited.
  
But if, a few weeks later, the explorer has explored the entire island and has still not found any signs of habitation, he is justified in believing that the island is uninhabited. In this case, inhabitants should have left signs somewhere; if there are no signs where there should have been some, then it is likely that there are no inhabitants.
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The conclusion here is unwarranted. There may be inhabitants on the other side of the island or in dwellings that are otherwise hidden from view. In this case, absence of evidence of habitation is not evidence that there are no inhabitants.
  
The two aspects of this phrase might therefore be summarized as "when presented with some proposition P, we should initially keep an open mind. But if a diligent search fails to produce evidence that P is true, then we can rationally conclude that P is false."
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However, consider the following scenario:
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* An explorer lands on a remote island and spends weeks carefully searching the entire island for signs of habitation.
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* He does not find any such evidence.
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* The explorer therefore concludes that the island is uninhabited.
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In this case, the explorer's conclusion is justified. If there were inhabitants on the island, there ''should be'' some evidence of their existence somewhere on the island. If there are no signs where there should have been some, then it is likely that there are no inhabitants.
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The two aspects of this phrase might therefore be summarized as: "When presented with some proposition P, we should initially keep an open mind. But if a diligent search fails to produce evidence that P is true, then we can rationally conclude that P is false." Note that the "diligent search" '''must''' be of a kind that could realistically be expected to produce positive results if P were indeed true.
  
 
==Absence of evidence for God==
 
==Absence of evidence for God==

Revision as of 13:31, 8 October 2008

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" is a rebuttal to an argument of the form "there is no evidence for X, therefore X does not exist." Logically, the latter argument is invalid; however, a similar, more careful line of inductive reasoning can nevertheless lead to a reliable conclusion.

A simple example

  • An explorer lands on a remote island and sees no buildings or other signs of human habitation.
  • The explorer therefore concludes that the island is uninhabited.

The conclusion here is unwarranted. There may be inhabitants on the other side of the island or in dwellings that are otherwise hidden from view. In this case, absence of evidence of habitation is not evidence that there are no inhabitants.

However, consider the following scenario:

  • An explorer lands on a remote island and spends weeks carefully searching the entire island for signs of habitation.
  • He does not find any such evidence.
  • The explorer therefore concludes that the island is uninhabited.

In this case, the explorer's conclusion is justified. If there were inhabitants on the island, there should be some evidence of their existence somewhere on the island. If there are no signs where there should have been some, then it is likely that there are no inhabitants.

The two aspects of this phrase might therefore be summarized as: "When presented with some proposition P, we should initially keep an open mind. But if a diligent search fails to produce evidence that P is true, then we can rationally conclude that P is false." Note that the "diligent search" must be of a kind that could realistically be expected to produce positive results if P were indeed true.

Absence of evidence for God

The question of whether God exists is considered very important to many people, and has been for millenia. Thousands of people have assiduously searched for evidence that a god exists. Nonetheless, there is still no good evidence for a god. Many atheists thus feel justified in not believing that any gods exist.

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