Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

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However, consider the following scenario:
 
However, consider the following scenario:
 
* An explorer lands on a remote island and spends weeks carefully searching the entire island for signs of habitation.
 
* 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.
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* Finding no evidence, the explorer concludes that the island is uninhabited.
* 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.
 
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.

Revision as of 12:46, 9 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.
  • Finding no evidence, the explorer 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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