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  1. #1
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    Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    The lack of evidence that something is impossible does not constitute evidence that it is possible. This also means that it is incorrect to consider something possible just because there is a lack of evidence that it's impossible.

    The argument is presented in the form of a fun little dialogue (credit to Tracie Harris). I invite you to read along, imagining that you are one of the parties (doesn't matter which one).

    A: I hold in my hand a standard & normal six-sided die. Have you ever seen or used dice like this before?
    B: Yes, I am familiar with six-sided dice. You roll it and the number showing on top once it stops moving is the number you get, or "rolled".
    A: Good. Based on what you know about such dice, is it possible to roll a 4?
    B: Yes.
    A: How do you know that?
    B: Because we know that there are six sides, and that any of them could possibly come up when the die is rolled. I've rolled and seen others roll a 4 in the past.
    A: Alright. Is it possible to roll a 5?
    B: Yes, for the same reasons.
    A: Sure, and it's possible to roll a 7 too, right?
    B: No.
    A: Why is that not possible?
    B: Because there are only 6 sides, labelled 1-6, a roll of 7 would require rolling more than one six-sided dice.
    A: Ok, well then let's try this another way. I have here this small coin purse/bag. Do you know or can you see what's in the bag?
    B: No, I don't. You just pulled it out of your pocket.
    A: Good. Now watch, as I take the six-sided die and put it in the bag. You are now unable to see the die, and the contents of the bag remain hidden.
    B: Ok.
    A: Now, is it possible to roll an 18 with whatever is in this bag?
    B: I don't know.
    A: Well, if you don't know, then it must be possible.
    B: No, not necessarily.
    A: Why not?
    B: Because for all I know it could just be the one die in the bag, and the possible outcomes for a single die are only 1-6.
    A: But this bag is big enough to hold at least 3 dice, in which case a roll of 18 is possible. So is it possible to roll an 18 with what's in this bag?
    B: Well, I don't know what's in the bag apart from the 1 die I saw you put in, so I can't say that it's possible to roll an 18 with what's in the bag. What I could say is that if there were 3 dice in the bag, then it would be possible to roll an 18 with what's in the bag.
    A: Ok, so not knowing doesn't mean that it's possible?
    B: Correct. Not knowing also means that I can't say it's impossible.
    A: Oh? Well, if it's not impossible, then surely it must be possible.
    B: Again, not necessarily. While it might make sense to someone with the same information to say that since the bag is big enough to hold at least 3 dice, that it's possible to roll an 18 with the contents of the bag, they wouldn't be justified in believing or claiming that it's actually possible to roll an 18, because they don't know whether there are 3 dice in the bag.
    A: But if you don't know whether there are 3 dice in the bag, how can you say that there aren't 3 dice in the bag?
    B: I'm not claiming that there aren't 3 dice in bag, just that there's no reason to think that there are.
    A: Ok. So, since you don't know how many dice are in the bag, there could be tons of them - hundreds even, right?
    B: Uhh no, there couldn't be hundreds of dice in the bag.
    A: But you just admitted you don't know how many are in there, so how can you say it's not possible for there to be hundreds?
    B: Well, assuming we're talking about dice of the size you showed me, and judging by the size of the bag, then I can still estimate that you couldn't fit hundreds of them in that bag.
    A: And you base that on what you know about the apparent volume of the bag and the approximate volume required to fit hundreds of dice?
    B: Yes.
    A: Ok. So somebody might say that it's possible to roll an 18 with the contents of the bag because we don't know what's in the bag, but you're saying they're not justified in claiming that.
    B: Yes.
    A: Alright, let me just open the bag and dump the entire contents out onto the table here. There, now the bag is empty, and we can see that 2 dice have dropped out of the bag onto the table.
    B: Yes, I see just two dice have dropped from the bag.
    A: So if somebody would say that it's possible to roll and 18 with the contents of the bag, they would, in fact, be wrong?
    B: Yes. And it's not just a matter of them possibly being wrong when they said that, it's a matter of them actually having been wrong when they said it was possible, because it was actually impossible already when they said it?
    A: Right, so it seems that what they were doing is calling something which is impossible, possible, is that right?
    B: It would seem that's what they did, yes.
    A: But you didn't do that. You said that it wasn't possible, but you also said that it wasn't impossible, even though we know that it was impossible.
    B: That's right. Since I didn't have enough information at the time to determine whether it was possible or impossible, the logically correct choice for me was to conclude that I didn't know whether it was possible or impossible, and reject your claim that it was possible. To make such a claim is to commit an argument from ignorance fallacy, which is a situation where someone doesn't have information about something, but they say that because there's no reason to think it's false, they go ahead and claim it's true. But as we just learned, that can lead to incorrect conclusions.
    A: But I didn't say it was true, I said it was possible.
    B: Oh sure, but that just means you're claiming it's true that it is possible.
    A: Okay, but what if there turned out to be 3 dice in the bag? Then it would be correct to say that it's possible to roll an 18, right?
    B: It would be correct to say so only after you have the information, not before. Just happening to be right after the fact doesn't make it rational to claim something before the facts are known.

    So that's it. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts. I think it's is a great exercise for teaching youngsters how to correctly apply rational skepticism, and can be modified for various apparatus (socks & marbles, pockets & cards).

    If anyone would like to argue that since something hasn't been proven to be impossible it therefore is or even just should be considered possible, I'll gladly discuss the matter in the context of the above scenario, but only after you correctly identify each separate instance of the argument from ignorance within the dialogue.

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  3. #2
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    Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    That’s all well and good when your playing with a cooperative actor. What happens if you never find out what was in the bag? Then you’ll never know that the original claim was flawed from the get go. (Asking for a friend)

  4. #3
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by SharmaK View Post
    That’s all well and good when your playing with a cooperative actor. What happens if you never find out what was in the bag? Then you’ll never know that the original claim was flawed from the get go. (Asking for a friend)
    Well in the dialogue, they do find out what's in the bag, which is why the dialogue serves as a demonstration of the skeptical principle behind not claiming to know whether it's possible or impossible when you don't have information of either. What you're really asking is: "What happens in a situation where someone doesn't have any information?" And the answer is that claiming it's possible or impossible is not justified, since doing so can lead to making the wrong conclusion, as demonstrated by the example in the dialogue. It's why using fallacious reasoning such as the argument from ignorance is not a reliable pathway to truth.

    You should tell your friend that, if they want to demonstrate the possibility of something unknown, then they need to do so by addressing the actual possibility, not by appealing to the absence of evidence of the impossibility. An absence does not constitute proof of anything. Nothing can be derived from nothing.

  5. #4
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    The lack of evidence that something is impossible does not constitute evidence that it is possible. This also means that it is incorrect to consider something possible just because there is a lack of evidence that it's impossible.

    The argument presented in the discussion however, is fallacious because it conflates making a claim that is absent any substantiating point (a bare assertion fallacy) with a claim about the logical construction of an argument. Or, to be more formal, it tries to apply an informal fallacy (argument from ignorance) to a discussion of validity (formal fallacies).


    Accepting an agnostic position on the outcome of what is in a bag is an entirely different category of argument from the discussion of logical possibility.

    The discussion presented is about the soundness of the argument. IE Can I actually roll an 18? To answer that question you need to understand both the validity of the argument and the truth value of its claims, ie its soundness. Thus, informal fallacies like arguments from ignorance, bare assertion fallacies, etc. come into play.



    However, the discussion of logical possibility is about validity (at least in the structure it has been discussed of late). Something may not actually be true and still be valid. For example:

    If A then B.
    A
    Therefore B.

    This statement could be totally false. Maybe A doesn't mean B. Maybe A isn't the case. It doesn't matter, the argument is still valid.


    Now, it might not be sound because we don't know what A and B are, but that doesn't mean it isn't valid. Here is where formal fallacies such as affirming the consequent or affirming the disjunct come into play.

    Likewise, something being logically possible is a discussion of validity, does the structure of the words create a conflicting statement or are the arguments structurally unsound. Are we affirming incoherence (married bachelor) or does the conclusion not follow?

    Those are, categorically, a different set of concerns than are being raised in OP, which is why the OP comes to the incorrect position that logical validity is related to an informal fallacy.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


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  7. #5
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Squatch347 View Post
    The argument presented in the discussion however, is fallacious because it conflates making a claim that is absent any substantiating point (a bare assertion fallacy) with a claim about the logical construction of an argument. Or, to be more formal, it tries to apply an informal fallacy (argument from ignorance) to a discussion of validity (formal fallacies).

    Accepting an agnostic position on the outcome of what is in a bag is an entirely different category of argument from the discussion of logical possibility.

    The discussion presented is about the soundness of the argument. IE Can I actually roll an 18? To answer that question you need to understand both the validity of the argument and the truth value of its claims, ie its soundness. Thus, informal fallacies like arguments from ignorance, bare assertion fallacies, etc. come into play.

    However, the discussion of logical possibility is about validity (at least in the structure it has been discussed of late). Something may not actually be true and still be valid. For example:

    If A then B.
    A
    Therefore B.

    This statement could be totally false. Maybe A doesn't mean B. Maybe A isn't the case. It doesn't matter, the argument is still valid.

    Now, it might not be sound because we don't know what A and B are, but that doesn't mean it isn't valid. Here is where formal fallacies such as affirming the consequent or affirming the disjunct come into play.

    Likewise, something being logically possible is a discussion of validity, does the structure of the words create a conflicting statement or are the arguments structurally unsound. Are we affirming incoherence (married bachelor) or does the conclusion not follow?

    Those are, categorically, a different set of concerns than are being raised in OP, which is why the OP comes to the incorrect position that logical validity is related to an informal fallacy.
    Please explain how any of this supports the claim that if something is not proven to be impossible, it therefore is or can be considered possible.

  8. #6
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    Please explain how any of this supports the claim that if something is not proven to be impossible, it therefore is or can be considered possible.
    It refutes the argument made in the OP.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  9. #7
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Squatch347 View Post
    It refutes the argument made in the OP.
    The argument from the OP is "something isn't possible just because it hasn't been proven that it's impossible". Nothing from your post supports the claim that if something is not proven to be impossible, it therefore is or can be considered possible. This makes no difference whether we're discussing things that are physically possible or logically possible, the law of excluded middle still applies.

  10. #8
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    The argument from the OP is "something isn't possible just because it hasn't been proven that it's impossible".
    Well...that isn't an argument, its a claim. You then offered an argument for why that claim should stand. My response is a rebuttal of that supporting argument as fallacious. Thus the claim can be rejected as unsupported. Since it is your OP, it is your burden.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  11. #9
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Squatch347 View Post
    Well...that isn't an argument, its a claim. You then offered an argument for why that claim should stand. My response is a rebuttal of that supporting argument as fallacious.
    Your response was about the difference between formal and informal fallacies, which is irrelevant to the argument that something is not X just because it hasn't been proven to be not-X. For a rebuttal to be valid, it would need to address why the example doesn't demonstrate that something is not X just because it hasn't been proven to be not-X, or offer support that something is X just because it hasn't been proven to be not-X.

  12. #10
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    Your response was about the difference between formal and informal fallacies, which is irrelevant to the argument that something is not X just because it hasn't been proven to be not-X. For a rebuttal to be valid, it would need to address why the example doesn't demonstrate that something is not X just because it hasn't been proven to be not-X, or offer support that something is X just because it hasn't been proven to be not-X.
    If I were creating an OP to that effect, I would agree. But that isn't the tack your OP took to undermine the statement. Rather, the discussion in your OP was to argue that this was an argument from ignorance fallacy, which conflates validity and soundness as detailed.

    If you would like me to address that seperate topic, please feel free to posit an argument towards that end. However, given that you've already seen why that position holds elsewhere, I'm not sure it will go anywhere.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  13. #11
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Squatch347 View Post
    If I were creating an OP to that effect, I would agree. But that isn't the tack your OP took to undermine the statement. Rather, the discussion in your OP was to argue that this was an argument from ignorance fallacy, which conflates validity and soundness as detailed.
    None of this refutes the fact that it's an argument from ignorance to say that X is true because not-X is not proven.

  14. #12
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    I think any statement of "its possible" or "it's impossible" should be taken with the implicit understanding that it means "given what I know I think it is impossible/possible".

    The whole exercise of the possible or impossible is made practical in situations where we make predictions about situations with an, as of yet, indeterminate outcome. It just isn't that means talking about what is possible when what simply is, remains largely self-evident. Is it possible this post exists... um ya, obviously. Given what we know, it is possible I will make another, it is also possible I won't. Once I make another, the speculation in the possibility of the event is meaningless.

    So the exercise above is playing with our implicit understanding of what possibility means, but juxtaposing it with a reveal of the information we didn't have and trying to apply the same statement. But if you rob the phrase of its implied but not explicitly stated meaning, then you really change its understood meaning and the contradiction disappears.
    Feed me some debate pellets!

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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Sigfried View Post
    I think any statement of "its possible" or "it's impossible" should be taken with the implicit understanding that it means "given what I know I think it is impossible/possible".
    That's all well and good, but when one wants to involve such rigorous standards as truisms based on our core logical foundations, "given what I know I think" just doesn't make the cut.

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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    None of this refutes the fact that it's an argument from ignorance to say that X is true because not-X is not proven.
    Because that was not the argument the OP made. The OP made a fallacious argument by comparing a formal fallacy with an informal fallacy. It seems as if you want to move past the OP into a different position, sort of moving the goal posts ;-).

    That's fine. Setting aside the OP, we can move to your new point, which is whether or not it is a fallacy to assume coherence absent evidence. Let me ask a question first. Do you assume this statement to be coherent? "None of this refutes the fact that it's an argument from ignorance to say that X is true because not-X is not proven."

    If not, can you show it to be coherent?
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  17. #15
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Squatch347 View Post
    Because that was not the argument the OP made. The OP made a fallacious argument by comparing a formal fallacy with an informal fallacy.
    The OP makes no comparison of different fallacies. Here is the first sentence from the OP:
    The lack of evidence that something is impossible does not constitute evidence that it is possible.

    The argument in the form the dialogue demonstrates why it's an argument from ignorance to say that something is X just because it hasn't been proven to be Not-X.

  18. #16
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    The OP makes no comparison of different fallacies. Here is the first sentence from the OP:
    The lack of evidence that something is impossible does not constitute evidence that it is possible.

    The argument in the form the dialogue demonstrates why it's an argument from ignorance to say that something is X just because it hasn't been proven to be Not-X.
    Can you demonstrate that these are coherent statements?
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  19. #17
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Squatch347 View Post
    Can you demonstrate that these are coherent statements?
    This has nothing to do with coherence. Something is either X or not-X, based on your own statements, and the lack of evidence for not-X is not evidence for X.

  20. #18
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    This has nothing to do with coherence. Something is either X or not-X, based on your own statements, and the lack of evidence for not-X is not evidence for X.
    I don't understand what this means. Is this even a coherent argument? Can you demonstrate that it is?

    [Feel free to acknowledge when you get the point I'm making here.]
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  21. #19
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by Squatch347 View Post
    I don't understand what this means. Is this even a coherent argument? Can you demonstrate that it is?
    [Feel free to acknowledge when you get the point I'm making here.]
    No, I don't get the point you're making here, but it doesn't seem relevant to the question of whether it's an argument from ignorance to say that something is X just because it hasn't been proven to be Not-X. In any case, to quote Mican, your inability to understand an argument has no bearing on whether it's correct or not.

  22. #20
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    Re: Applying rational skepticism to claims of possible or impossible

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy View Post
    it's an argument from ignorance to say that something is X just because it hasn't been proven to be Not-X
    Yes or no, is this statement coherent or self-contradictory: I don't get the point you're making here

    If yes, then why didn't you offer support of its coherence?
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


 

 
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