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When I argue with someone whether something is true, I often have to counter an argument like

"If that were true, somebody would have proven it.".

The premise of the other side is that there are people/organizations with enough data/resources to make an experiment.

Is that argument from silence? How do I counter it?

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That person is using the hidden premise that everything which is true is also proven. This is incorrect, which can be pointed out in at least four ways:

  • If everything that is true is proven, research and universities (esp. in math and friends) would be useless. However, they are still used. Therefore, there are unproven truths.

  • Every proof in history shows that before that proof there was an unproven truth (the thing proven). So, to say that there are no unproven truths any longer at this point in time is making a very arrogant claim, which can't really be argued. Why would we be at such a special moment in time that exactly now there are no unproven truths?

  • If everything that is true is proven, that implies that everything that is true can be proven. However, there are some things for which no proof exists for either the positive or the negative claim (think about the God question, P=NP? and others).

  • There is a possibility that some things are neither true nor false, but can also be 'unknown' or even 'unknowable' among true, false and unknown. The argument assumes that these two other possibilities don't exist, without providing a reason for that.

Of course, this just considers the most general form of the argument. If you were discussing something which has been extensively studied and it can be reasonably assumed that everything which is true is proven in that field, his argument may actually be reasonable. However, in a strict sense it won't be correct.

By the way, an argument from silence usually considers (the absence of) historical documents, not of proofs. What you have is an argument from ignorance. The argument from silence does not always have to be a fallacy. For example, we might claim that since there is no mentioning of the exodus in Egyptian sources (while Egyptians kept very good records), the account in the book Exodus is probably historically incorrect. The argument from ignorance is always a fallacy.

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  • Great answer. Can you tell me in what particular field of philosophy one would learn this? And from what book or books you learned this from? Feb 12 '16 at 11:02
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    @DannyRodriguez to be honest, this is mostly common sense. However, countering and recognising fallacies is aided by logic. Also, you might be interested in philosophy of science, for example Popper discusses falsifiability which connects to the question when something is proven.
    – user2953
    Feb 12 '16 at 11:04
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    There is a similar fallacy in economics punctured by a simple joke: quora.com/…
    – Jeff Y
    Feb 12 '16 at 14:55
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    @DannyRodriguez Douglas Hofstadter has at least one (or maybe two) chapters dedicated to discussing it in I am a Strange Loop from a strictly mathematics perspective, and then he uses it for much of the philosophy which follows later in the book. I like giving him as a reference because he has a surprising ability to make difficult concepts accessible.
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 12 '16 at 15:28
  • @DannyRodriguez the field of philosophy concerned with knowledge in general (its justification, ...) is epistemology. You can check out this introductory video: m.youtube.com/… Feb 12 '16 at 20:19
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Logically, if you haven't proven it, and nobody else has proven it, then you don't know that it's true. "If it were true, then someone would have proven it" is not necessarily true. But "Nobody has proven it", that is an argument that you can only refute by proof.

Sometimes we find statement that we believe to be very likely to be true, but that we also believe to be very hard to prove. "If it were true, then someone would have proven it" is not true at all, because it looks very hard to prove. "Nobody has proven it" is true (until someone proves it), so you are stuck with "I believe it very likely to be true". Sometimes it's so likely to be true that it is unreasonable to think it is false.

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