Vacuous Explanation


The argument proposes an explanation, but the name for the mechanism proposed does not have a clear meaning, other than "whatever it is that explains this phenomenon."



Appeals to the "nature" of things, or to "forces" that do not have any understood mechanism of operation, such as "destiny," or "fate," are typical of this fallacy



"Opium causes sleep because of its dormative virtue." - Moliere, Le Malade Imaginere (1673), Act III, sc. iii.


"Some species become extinct because they have been around for so long that the species itself becomes elderly. They die of 'species old age'."



The creation of "theoretical constructs" is not necessarily bad reasoning. For example, no one has ever actually seen an electron or a photon. These particles are merely part of a theory aimed at explaining light and other phenomena. However, the theory has been very successful. Most of us now actually believe that these tiny particles of matter exist. Perhaps they do. A good theoretical construct helps guide our thinking about a phenomenon, and leads us to explore the phenomenon more deeply.

The fallacy of Vacuous Explanation mimics the creation of a legitimate theoretical construct by giving a name to our explanatory mechanism, as if it were actually a thing. However, the error is that the name means nothing other than "whatever it is that explains what I am trying to explain." Since no further meaning is attached to the name, it gives us no real guidance on how to procede with further inquiries.

The fallacy of Vacuous Explanation closely corresponds to the Deductive fallacy of Petitio Principii. It is the Retroductive version of merely repeating in the conclusion what was said in the premiss.


Source: This fallacy was described but not named by Francis Bacon in Novum Organum, 1620, as the first of his Idols of the Theater.


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