Arcane Explanation


The argument proposes an explanation that appeals to unfamiliar causal mechanisms that are rarely or never used in other contexts, e.g. to the activity of entities or beings not generally thought to exist, or to mystical forces whose operation is not understood.



Some typical entities appealed to by this fallacy include such beings as angels, aliens, ghosts and other spirits, or such mystical forces as ESP, pyramid power, animal magnetism, etc.



"We must have a poltergeist in the house. When the dog ran under the table the vase just seemed to jump off the shelf all by itself."


"The loadstone has a soul because it moves iron. This proves that all things are full of gods." - paraphrased from a saying attributed to Thales



If we never proposed new forces or mechanisms, if we never considered the possibility that things might be otherwise than we think them to be, we would never make any progress. When Newton proposed his theory of gravity, the idea that heavy objects could influence each other - at a distance, without any physical contact - was unheard of. Newton himself disliked the idea. Yet the idea that gravity was an invisible and unknown "force" capable of acting at a distance without physical contact (very much like telekenesis), eventually came to be accepted. It would be the very antithesis of science not to keep an open mind. As Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Even so, some explanations are unnecessarily arcane. The fallacy of Arcane Explanation mimics good reasoning by insisting that we keep an open mind about things that we find difficult to believe. However, it errs in proposing an explanation that is outside of normal beliefs, but also adds little or nothing to our understanding of the world. It offers no pattern that might help explain other phenomena. The problem with arcane explanations is that they incorporate all of the disadvantages of appealing to a being or force that we find incredible, without the advantage of appealing to something that is regular and predictable. (Gravity was at least regular and predictable, and the mathematics behind it was undeniably elegant.) Arcane explanations tend to be capricious, arbitrary and mysterious. Their chief advantage is that they are exciting and don't require much intellectual effort. It should be noted that even people who believe in ghosts, guardian angels, or aliens - and such people do exist - would prefer almost any other explanation in most cases, reserving their arcane exception only for those experiences that (they feel) cannot be explained in any other way.


Source: I named this fallacy, but it is described by Francis Bacon in Novum Organum, 1620, as the third of his Idols of the Theater.


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