Appeal to Mystery


The argument proposes, in place of an explanation, the assertion that there can be no explanation, i.e. that the fact to be explained is unexplainable.



Some common words used to express this fallacy are "mysterious," "inscrutable," "ineffable," etc. Sometimes the fallacy involves invoking what I call "the romance of the unknowable," using sentiments such as, "What a dull world it would be if everything were known!"



"We cannot know why God allows the good to suffer on this earth. Who can fathom the ways of the creator?"


"What caused 500 hats to appear on Bartholomew Cubbins' head? It was just something that happened to happen, and isn't very likely to happen again." - with apologies to Dr. Seuss



Few philosophers claim to know anything with certainty. The more one inquires into any subject, the more one is inclined to accept the wisdom of Socrates: I know only that I do not know. There is good reason, then, that the language of doubt and uncertainty strikes us as wise and reasonable. The fallacy of Appeal to Mystery is often persuasive because it mimics epistemological modesty.

However, there is a difference. A good hypothesis is understood to be provisional. We understand that errors are possible. When any scientist offers any real hypothesis to explain some phenomenon, he would be wise to add, "Of course, I might be wrong," but no such apology is really necessary. We already know he might be wrong. But he might also be right. If he is wrong, we hope his theory will eventually be replaced by a better theory. Real epistemological modesty is an invitation to further inquiry. It is an admission that a better theory may be possible. The Appeal to Mystery, by contrast, is used, not to invite further inquiry, but to shut down further inquiry by claiming that truth (in this matter) is unattainable. No better theory is possible because no theory could possibly be adequate. It says, "This might be wrong," not in order to replace one theory with a better theory, but in order to replace one theory with no theory at all.

Appeal to Mystery is one form of what is often called an "untestable hypothesis." There are various ways in which a hypothesis might be untestable. Some hypotheses are untestable for merely practical reasons, often involving technological limits or budgetary constraints. (For example, the hypothesis that mass is caused by the Higgs Boson was untestable when the theory was first proposed because a particle accelerator large enough to test the hypothesis had not yet been built.) Appeal to Mystery is untestable for a more fundamental reason. It offers as an explanation something that is mysterious, i.e. untestable by definition.


Source: I named this fallacy.


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