Argument from silence

Argument from silence

The argument from silence (also called argumentum ad silentio in Latin) is generally a conclusion based on silence or lack of contrary evidence. ["argumentum e silentio "noun phrase" "The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English". Ed. Jennifer Speake. Berkley Books, 1999.] In the field of classical studies, it often refers to the deduction from the lack of references to a subject in the available writings of an author to the conclusion that he was ignorant of it. ["silence, the argument from". "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church". Ed. E. A. Livingstone. Oxford University Press, 2006.] When used as a logical proof in pure reasoning, the argument is classed among the fallacies, but an argument from silence can be a valid and convincing form of abductive reasoning. [See the example cited in the article, about which Louis Jacobs says that "the argument from silence is very convincing".]

Textbook examples

Here is an easily recognizable example::Bobby: I know where Mary lives.:Billy: Where?:Bobby: I'm not telling you!:Billy: You're just saying that because you don't know!

Billy's conclusion may not be justified: perhaps Bobby doesn't want to tell him. Consider, however, the following type of argument:

:John: Do you know any Spanish?:Jack: Of course. I speak it like a native.:John: That's good, because I need to know the Spanish phrase for "Happy Birthday".:Jack: Sorry, I don't have time for that right now. Maybe tomorrow. Bye.

Afterwards, Jack continually refuses to give John the Spanish translation, either by ignoring John or by giving excuses. John then concludes, by "argument from silence", that Jack does not in fact know Spanish or does not know it well. In other words, John believes that Jack's ignorance is the most plausible explanation for his silence. Use of argument from silence in this situation is reasonable given the alternatives, that Jack either doesn't want or is afraid to translate, would be unreasonable without more information.

Here is another example using the same argument but in a different context::John: Do you know your wife's e-mail password?:Jack: Yes, I do as a matter of fact.:John: What is it?:Jack: Hey, that's none of your business.

When John repeatedly asked for the password, Jack ignores him completely. Thus, using the "argument from silence", John concludes that Jack does not actually know the password. Such an argument from silence, in contrast, may be considered unreasonable, since a password is a security feature not intended to be shared with a stranger simply because they asked. It may be reasonable, by contrast, to assume that Jack does indeed know the password but refuses to say it for legitimate security concerns.

cholarly uses of the argument

It is claimed that the argument from silence has been used by skeptics against the virgin birth of Christ. According to Daniel Schowalter, such an argument "cannot be determinative, but it is an important consideration for people who see the virgin birth as a feature created within the early traditions about Jesus rather than a historical occurrence." [Daniel N. Schowalter. "Virgin Birth of Christ". "The Oxford Companion to the Bible". Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds. Oxford University Press. 1993.] Saint Paul, for example, does not explicitly mention the virgin birth in these very explicit words, and skeptics, therefore, argue from his silence that he did not know of it. If this argument is used as an attempted proof of Paul's ignorance, it is still incorrect, because ignorance if it could ever be proven to be validly the case would be only one possible reason for Paul's silence if it can also be proven that he actually were silent on the subject; it's also possible that he did not think the explicit use of the expression virgin birth was necessary in his writing, or that he actually does refer to it in texts in other terms that show its logical necessity. For example, in 2 Cor 5:12 “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” and also in Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned”. If we follow the logic of St. Paul Jesus Christ is a man who knew no sin, yet everyone is born in sin under the law, signifying Jesus was an exception. If Jesus is an exception to being born in sin, then it logically follows that his mother who bore him was also an exception since no good tree bears bad fruit, and conversely, no bad tree bears good fruit. Consequently, if Mary were conceived in sin she could never have given birth to a man without sin. However, some have still held onto the flimsy argument from silence insisting it is not incorrect if it is used to prove that Paul "might" have been ignorant. From the fact that Paul refers to the resurrection of Jesus, he demonstrates knowing it. From the fact that Paul does not explicitly use the phrase " virgin birth," it is not certain that he knew of it; therefore, he might have been ignorant of it. However not all skeptics use this argument; some in fact prefer using syllogistic reasoning to argue that Paul specifically denies the virgin birth in Romans 1:1-3 [ [http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/paul_carlson/nt_contradictions.html New Testament Contradictions (1995) by Paul Carlson] ] a position acknowledged or debated by the Lutherans [ [http://web.archive.org/web/20070418124149/http://www.elca.org/questions/Results.asp?recid=36 Telling the Lutheran Story--Do Lutherans believe Jesus was born of a virgin? archive] ] , Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church [ [http://arian-catholic.org/arian/virgin_birth.html The Virgin Birth - Separating Myth from Fact!] ] , and Religious Tolerance site [ [http://www.religioustolerance.org/virgin_b1.htm Common beliefs of many liberal theologians, skeptics, humanists, etc] ]

The argument from silence is very convincing when mentioning a fact can be seen as so natural that its omission is a good reason to assume ignorance. For example, while the editors of Yerushalmi and Bavli mention the other community, most scholars believe these documents were written independently. Louis Jacobs writes, "If the editors of either had had access to an actual text of the other, it is inconceivable that they would not have mentioned this. Here the argument from silence is very convincing." ["Talmud". "A Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion". Louis Jacobs. Oxford University Press, 1999.]

Legal aspects

In some legal systems juries are explicitly instructed not to infer anything because of an accused person's silence; this is known as the right to silence. Thus, the jury may not infer anything from the accused's failure to testify. This in effect bars the use of argument from silence.

On the other hand, statements volunteered by the accused may normally be considered, and in such cases the argument from silence may apply in a limited form. If the accused chooses to testify, the right to silence is forfeited as regards that proceeding. Witnesses also normally have a right to silence as regards any question that is factually incriminating, but that right only bars the jury from making inferences about the witness's conduct. The range of inferences available about the defendant's conduct will vary.

ee also

* Negative proof
* Evidence of absence
* Argument from ignorance

Notes and reference


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