Why is it a Logical Fallacy to Make an Argument from Silence?

Wes  —  June 15, 2016
  • Sumo

When arguing various sides of issues, we need to make sure our arguments are valid. Most of us are guilty of making fallacious arguments. For instance, an ad hominem argument is one that attacks the person rather than the argument, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just a liberal heretic.” Another type of logical fallacy is an argument from silence, which “occurs when someone interprets someone’s or something’s silence as anything other than silence, typically claiming that the silence was in fact communicating agreement or disagreement” (source). Let’s talk about why this is a logical fallacy and how eliminating this from our thinking will help our biblical understanding.

silence

Why It is a Logical Fallacy

First, we need to understand why this is a logical fallacy. Let’s say you are having a discussion with a co-worker. She says, “I am just not sure I like the new boss. He seems like he is going to be hard to work for.” She looks at you and you say nothing. You just stare at your coffee cup. Later, your friend is talking to another co-worker and says that she talked to you about the new boss and you agree with her that the new boss is going to be hard to work for.

You didn’t say that, of course, and your friend is wrong for interpreting your silence as agreement. But on the other hand, your friend would be equally as wrong if she interpreted your silence as disagreement. She cannot know how you feel about the issue unless you express yourself. Your silence cannot be logically interpreted as agreement or disagreement.

Biblical Arguments from Silence

Let me give you an example of an argument from silence. I’ve heard people say, “I just can’t believe the story of Balaam and his donkey, because Balaam isn’t surprised when his donkey starts talking.” I want to ask, “How do you know Balaam wasn’t surprised?” They are assuming that if he had been surprised, the text would say so. But the truth is, the text doesn’t say he wasn’t surprised. So when attempting to answer the question, “Was Balaam surprised when his donkey spoke?” we cannot interpret the silence as either agreement or disagreement. The text simply doesn’t say.

Another one I hear often when discussing whether or not Christians should serve in the military, “Cornelius wasn’t told to stop being a soldier when he became a Christian.” This argument makes the assumption that if Cornelius (a Roman centurion) had been told to stop being a soldier, that conversation would have been recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. Though I’ve probably used this argument myself, it is actually a fallacious argument. Cornelius might have been told that and he might not have been told that. We simply don’t know. When attempting to answer the question, “Did Cornelius continue serving as a Roman centurion?” we cannot interpret the silence as either agreement or disagreement. That I’m aware of, the text simply doesn’t say.

The Question of Instrumental Music

This post isn’t really about instrumental music, but I believe I need to say a few words about how it applies to the question of using mechanical instruments in worship. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Levites to play instruments in temple worship (2 Chronicles 29:25). The New Testament, however, simply tells Christians to sing praises to God. The New Testament is silent on using mechanical instruments. Those are the facts. But how are we to interpret those facts?

It is a truthful and logical statement to say, “God has not given Christians permission to use instruments to praise Him.” However, it is not logical to say, “God hates instrumental music and anyone who uses instruments is going to hell.” The first statement is a logical conclusion to draw, based on the biblical evidence. The second statement is NOT and is a logically fallacious argument from silence.

On the other hand, the arguments from silence in favor of instrumental music are equally fallacious. When someone says, “God never forbids instruments, therefore they are acceptable in worship,” they are making a logically fallacious argument. The absence of a prohibition cannot be interpreted as permission. 

My position is always that we should, “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” We cannot interpret God’s silence on instruments in the New Testament as permission to use them.

The Bottom Line

When attempting to answer a question with Scripture, we have to be ok with saying, “It doesn’t say.” And when the text doesn’t say, we must NOT assume we can therefore do whatever we want.

There may, of course, be times when we must say things like, “The Lord told us to go into all the world, but He didn’t say how to travel? Can we use a car? a plane? a boat?” This is a matter of understanding expediency. But for the sake of this discussion, I think it is sufficient to say, let us not assume God is ok with us doing something simply because He has not forbidden it. And on the other hand, while we can say their behavior is not authorized, we cannot say with any certainty someone is eternally lost because they are doing something on which Scripture is silent.

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams