The Personal Incredulity Argument

This essay is a bit of a rehash of an argument that I saw in Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial concerning an argument originally made by Richard Dawkins.  Many of my essays are rehashes of things I have learned from other people over the years.  I write them down because it is my ambition to create an electronic catalog of interesting tidbits and because I think I have something valuable to add.

In his book, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins decries what he calls the “Personal Incredulity Argument”.  According to Dr. Dawkins, many people look at the products of evolution and come to the conclusion that there is no way that such a thing could have evolved step by step over millions of years.  This argument is invalid, according to Dr. Dawkins, because there are many things that are true that will not make sense to us as human beings with a limited understanding of reality.  Despite the fact that I disagree with Dr. Dawkins on any number of issues, this is a valid point.  Our limited understanding does mean that some things that are true will seem incomprehensible to us.

In his book Darwin on Trial, Phillip Johnson turns this argument against Dr. Dawkins by arguing that if personal incredulity is to be dismissed as an argument against evolution it should also be dismissed as an argument against the existence of God.  He talks about the use made by evolutionists including Dr. Dawkins of what Johnson characterizes as the “God wouldn’t have done it that way” argument and notes that this is the “Personal Incredulity Argument” dressed up in another guise.  If the argument from personal incredulity is invalid with regard to evolution, then it is also invalid as an argument for atheism.  Another valid point.

What I think Dr. Johnson failed to point out is that the “Personal Incredulity Argument” is a great deal more valid when applied to unintelligent processes than when it is applied to an intelligent agent.  Dr. Dawkins was not only wrong to use the “Personal Incredulity Argument”, he got it exactly backwards.  Intelligent agents have a much greater capacity to defy our predictions than unintelligent processes.  Let us consider a simple example concerning the motion of a body.

If I fire a gun and the bullet goes straight for a certain distance and then makes a sharp left turn, it would be quite understandable if I expressed a certain degree of surprise.  Bullets going in a straight trajectory have no business making a sharp left turn and this would be an extremely unusual occurrence.  If I am following someone’s GPS signal and I know that they are headed to a certain location, on the other hand, an expression of surprise at a sudden detour would be altogether inappropriate.  Maybe they spotted an accident and wanted to avoid the traffic?  Maybe they realized they had another errand and decided to hit two birds with one stone?  Maybe they realized they were out of gas and detoured for a refueling stop?  The intelligent agent driving the car is not doing what I might expect it to do, but this should not be surprising because that person is aware of facts of which I am ignorant.  In this way, intelligent agents have a much greater capacity for being incomprehensible then purposeless processes.

This difference in the validity of the personal incredulity argument is only increased when one considers an intelligent agent vastly superior to one’s self.  As I pointed out in a previous essay, there is here a significant analogy to the famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke.  He said that  “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Likewise, the results of the thinking process of a sufficiently advanced intelligence with a vastly greater store of knowledge than we have access to is likely to be pure gibberish to us.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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2 Responses to The Personal Incredulity Argument

  1. I find this very interesting because I had the exact opposite view to what Richard Dawkins states. Personally, I found the stepwise process of evolution very believable and found it made perfect sense scientifically; there was no question in my mind as to whether it was possible, probable or true.

    I had a much harder time accepting the idea that there was a God of the universe who created everything and who revealed nothing of His process with us.

    Having turned from atheism to Christianity I have had many Christian friends ask me how atheists believe the earth and life came into being. In the end scientists also chalk it up to process of which we fundamentally know nothing for certain – the Big Bang.

    For me, evolution is a proven process that is operating in biological organisms. You can see it occurring over one or a few generations of an organism with your very own eyes. To me, this proves that the argument of “Personal Incredulity” cannot be applied to evolution, as you have suggested.

    The idea of God creating all things is much harder to grasp and I would say really impossible for our human minds to fully comprehend. This is where we as believers are called to have faith. The evidence that God is our creator is not necessarily physically tangible and we are not given the exact step-by-step process of how He creates, but we as believers are provided with the ability to trust and have peace in our spirits and in our hearts that we cannot explain everything. I am reminded of Phillipians 4:7:

    “Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

    Having said that, God does prove himself in the physical when it is His will to do so, as we can see from how Jesus revealed His physical wounds to a doubting Thomas.

    It was difficult for me as someone with a scientific mind, background and skill set to come to place of peace about not understanding every single thing about God and His ways. As someone who understands the process of evolution, sees it as factual and is also a believer in Jesus Christ I think it is important to say that we are not comparing “apples to apples”. I see evolution as a physical process such as gravity that God himself created. I relate fully to your point about God being an “intelligent agent vastly superior to one’s self”. Just because we are not “allowed” or “provided” with the inside scoop on how God creates, and because it is beyond our understanding does not make it untrue. It is simply a level higher (a great deal higher) than our minds can go.

    My comment has become a mini essay of its own so I will end here…

    • Joyful,

      Given your post, I should have been clearer. Richard Dawkins does say that he finds the step by step process of evolution extremely comprehensible and obvious. He was objecting to an argument made by Christians where someone will point to an astonishing feature in a living organism and say, “How could that possibly have been produced by a step by step purposeless process.” It is in this case and this case alone that he decries the argument from personal incredulity.

      While our views of evolution are strikingly different (I view it as an engineer and you view it as a biologist), I am not going to address those issues here.

      Thanks for your comment,


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