The Epistemology of Christmas

wise men, epistemology, Christmas, JesusGod came quietly. The arrival of the divine on earth was much subtler and cloaked than most of us would expect, or demand. It’s worth asking, “Why?”

I could launch into a theodicy about the strategicness of God’s particular mode of infiltration. How God values seekers more than mere believers. In other words, if God just wanted maximal belief in his existence, he would have come differently. But the subtlety of his visitation leaves the path home only partially traversed. He waits for us somewhere in the middle, sending word of his presence. Only those who sincerely want to meet him and set out on the winding path will find him waiting, smiling.

Instead, I think it’s worth pointing out another reason for God’s humble advent. It seems to me that God didn’t want to resonate with the rich, powerful and famous. The Kings, Generals and Politicians.  He wanted to identify and clasp hands with the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. Jesus’ kin are those born as he was: in obscurity, in weakness.

Mary recognized this from the moment Gabriel came to her. The fact that God would send his salvation through her–a small, Jewish girl–instantly set the tone for God’s work. In her now-famous prayer, she highlights this tone:

“He has done mighty deeds with His arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty-handed.”

God’s Connection

So if you’re baffled by God’s seemingly counterproductive means of announcing his existence to humanity, then remember where God’s heart is–with the small and brokenhearted. He not only wanted to become human in order to connect with our humanity; he wanted to become poor to connect with our poverty, to become abused to connect with our suffering.

Perhaps you think “that’s nice, but he should have done more for the suffering!” I understand the frustration. But that is another discussion. I am only pointing out here that there is a beautiful reason for God’s unwillingness to trumpet his arrival among the rich and powerful, to take a throne rather than a cross. If you’ve ever felt disenfranchised, abused, or exploited, then you are Jesus’ brother or sister. He is nearer to you. Christmas is for you.

Burden of Proof, Pt. 2

beer, bar, burden of proofAn atheist, an agnostic and a Christian walk into a bar. For real. I sat in the Bird Dog Bar in Lawrence, Kansas with my fellow panelists from the “Beliefs Matter” event at the University of Kansas. Friends of various religious and secular persuasions surrounded our table. The event, completed only an hour earlier, featured three distinct perspectives on meaning, justice and morality. We each presented a short sketch of our view, followed by about an hour of Q&A. Now we continued the conversation over drinks. But what is the take away from all this, and how is it relevant to the burden of proof?

One thing I hope people take away from such an event is this: everyone has a worldview, and every worldview must stand or fall on its own merits. No worldview gets a “pass;” there is no true “default” view. What is a worldview? A worldview encompasses a set of beliefs about reality—a set of answers to the big questions. Is there a God? Are humans more than physical matter? Are there objective moral truths? Do human beings have objective value and purpose? Why is there suffering? What is justice? Each of the panelists at our event answered these big questions from their unique perspective and defended the coherence and rationality of their answers.

The Playing Field Is Level

So if all worldviews stand on equal footing, then where does the notion of “burden of proof” come from? I think it comes into play when one person tries to persuade another. (Or perhaps when you are called to give a defense of your view!) So here’s another plausible principle:

If you are trying to persuade someone of something, you (probably) have a burden of proof.

sweetener, burden of proof(I add ‘probably’ because there are exceptions.) If I’m trying to convince you that artificial sweeteners are bad for you, and you say, “Why do you believe that?” it would be inappropriate for me to reply with, “Well, why do you believe they aren’t?” But if we were chatting with a mutual friend who brought up the issue of net neutrality, and you and I took opposite views, we could both be expected to explain the reasons for our positions. Or better yet, if you and I were wondering whose worldview was more coherent, we would both need to provide a reasoned defense. The last two examples don’t involve just one person trying to persuade another. Only in the first example does there seem to be a burden. I’m relying here on intuitions about what seems appropriate in conversation.

Positive Claims

Some people think that the burden of proof lies with whoever has the “positive claim.” But this is clearly not the case. If I hold the view that trees exist, and you hold the view that they don’t, the burden of proof would still be on you. Why is this? I think it reveals another relevant principle:

If you hold a view which goes against common sense or against the consensus of experts, you (probably) have a burden of proof.

trees, dendrologists, burden of proofTree-denial is both against common sense and against the consensus of relevant experts, which I assume to be dendrologists. If you think evolution is false, the burden is on you, since the consensus of biologists are against you. Theism would not receive a burden of proof on this principle, because it is neither against common sense (the vast majority of people who have ever lived have been theists), nor against the consensus of relevant experts. Who are the experts? Philosophers of religion would be the natural answer, since they study reasons for belief in gods and need not assume theism in their work. A recent survey (2009) among philosophers of religion found that 72.3% accept or lean toward theism.

Additionally, (in the case of trees) the burden of proof is squarely on the tree-denier, despite the complaint that “you can’t prove a negative.” Remember that we’re using the term ‘proof’ here very loosely. Nothing can truly be proven outside of mathematics, geometry, and symbolic logic. You need not “prove” your view—you only need to construct a solid argument for it. And this can certainly be done for negative statements. For example, “there are no dinosaurs in this room,” or “no triangles have four sides” are both easy to argue for.

What I’ve said so far is intended to answer the “Is atheism the default view?” question. It should be apparent that I don’t think any view enjoys true “default” status. Everyone should believe according to their evidence—the total evidence they have now, including inferences and experiences. There’s nothing neutral or default about atheism. The only view that might be considered “default” would be to withhold (sometimes called agnosticism).

Not Enough Evidence

So what about the other questions from my last post? Let me tackle one more and save the last two for another post.

  • Is “not enough evidence” a good reason for atheism?

scales, evidence, balance, burden of proofIt depends. On my view, you should only believe a proposition when you have more reasons in favor of it than against it. The greater the imbalance, the higher your confidence should be. If you have equal reasons on both sides, then the correct position is to withhold—neither believe it nor disbelieve it. So, if you have lots of reasons against theism (the problem of evil, for example), and you have no reasons for theism, then the “not enough evidence” claim is appropriate. But if you don’t have good reasons for theism, and you don’t have good reasons for atheism, then you can’t use the “not enough evidence” defense for your atheism.

Burden of Proof

genes, microbes, evidence, burden of proofMatt, a PhD student, studies how microbes influence the immune system. Matt is also an atheist, and since he’s exceptionally smart, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his beliefs. I wondered about the “whys” behind his atheism. During our conversation, the concept of the “burden of proof” came up. Matt believes that in the dispute over God’s existence, it is the theist who bears the burden of proof. In other words, atheism is the simpler, more natural position, and the theist has a lot of extra work to do in defending claims about gods. After all, “extraordinary” claims about supernatural entities and miracles should require extraordinary evidence.

Is this right? I pushed back a little on this claim in my interview with Matt, but I needed more time to think and research a bit. So, now after further reflection, I’m blogging my thoughts on the subject. I want to challenge, maybe even “debunk” this assumption that theists bear a burden of proof. I think that even if there is a burden of proof, theists have already satisfied it. But, in matters like theism/atheism, I don’t think there is any such thing as a burden of proof to begin with. This means that theists and atheists stand on equal footing, and both viewpoints must offer reasons to support their position.

Setting the Table

setting table, burden of proofNow, if you’re an atheist, don’t flip out here. I’m not trying to “shift the burden of proof,” as they say. We all want our beliefs to be rational, and we all want the same standards of rationality to apply to everyone—that’s fairness. So, to set the table for this discussion, bear with me for two quick bits of epistemic silverware:

  1. A proposition is a claim about reality, expressed by a declarative sentence.
  2. There are three (doxastic) attitudes one can take in considering a proposition: belief, withholding (undecided), and disbelief.

Here are some examples of propositions and my attitude toward each:

PROPOSITION MY (DOXASTIC) ATTITUDE
The earth has two moons. Disbelief
The universe contains an even number of stars. Withhold
All triangles have three sides. Belief

children, teacher, burden of proof, beliefsFor any given proposition that you’ve thought about, you “take” one of these three attitudes, sometimes without even realizing it. If someone asks you why you take that position, you ought to be able to say something in response if you want to be considered rational. Even if everyone in the world holds the same attitude as you, you still ought to be able to offer some reason (unless, perhaps, the belief is “basic”—see below). I think we can all agree that saying, “Well, that’s what everyone believes,” or “that’s what my teacher told me,” is no good unless you can explain why those are reliable sources of knowledge on the matter. Easy answers like those are fine for children, but once you begin an adult inquiry about the rationality of your belief, they will no longer do.

So let’s agree to endorse this principle of epistemic fairness:

Whatever attitude you take toward a proposition, you ought to have some good reasons for taking that attitude.

(Exception: some beliefs may be “basic,” which is to say that they are special in not needing the support of reasons to be rational, such as my belief that I exist. I may have reasons for this belief, but even if I didn’t, I’d be rational in believing that I exist.) This isn’t a trick, or some kind of apologetic sleight-of-hand. And I’m going to set aside the possibility that belief in God is basic, just for argument’s sake.

Applying the Principle

reasons, atheist, burden of proofSo, according to our principle, theists ought to have some good reasons for their belief in God, right? Fair enough. What about atheists? Do they need some good reasons for their atheism? Some argue that atheism is not a “belief,” but merely the “lack of belief” in gods. Well, that could be true, but atheists do take some attitude on the proposition “God exists.” They disbelieve it. So, in all epistemic fairness, they should possess some reasons for their position. This means that theists, atheists, and “agnostics” (those who withhold–neither believe nor disbelieve*) are all on even epistemic ground.

In my next post, I’ll address several questions and objections.

  • Is “not enough evidence” a good reason for disbelief?
  • Is atheism the “default” position?
  • Should we consider theism an “extraordinary” claim?
  • Is atheism simply “lack of belief” in gods?

*I know this use of the term ‘agnostic’ is controversial. But this is inconsequential.