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.

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