Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Burden of Proof

This post turned out rather long, so I am going to put some of the suggested arguments here at the beginning.

"And you can't prove that Harry Potter doesn't really exist but that doesn't make believing in him any less crazy."

"I don't have the burden of proof because I am not claiming to know anything except that you have clearly failed to make your case even though you have had centuries to do so."

 "How can believers rely on faith to reach their conclusion and still have the audacity to claim they do not bear the burden of proof?  The mere fact that they rely on faith shows that they know they can't prove their case.  You don't rely on faith when you have facts."

"The lack of evidence for god, or any supernatural thing, meets whatever burden of proof that I might have."

Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it so eloquently:

 "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."

One of the tactics theists use when arguing against atheism and for their delusion is that atheists can't prove that god doesn't exist.

One of the things you can say is:

"And you can't prove that Harry Potter doesn't really exist but that doesn't make believing in him any less crazy."

Many atheists use a variation of the first part of that sentence mentioning fairies or Santa Claus, but it doesn't have the same punch if you don't finish the thought, because, frankly, many of them just don't get it unless you spell it out for them.  I recommend using the Harry Potter analogy with anyone who might know the story because it is more closely analogous to the god hypothesis.

Those books are about fictional sentient beings using magical powers to hide their existence from those without magic powers.  Any sentient being with magical powers could do that, so even if someone actually devised a test to prove or disprove the infinite variations of god, the results would not be conclusive because we mere mortals would have no way of knowing whether god used his magic powers to make us think the test showed he didn't exist.

Of course, feel free to substitute fairies or Santa Claus if you like, just remember to make sure that the theist understands that they are sentient beings with magic powers and the implications of that fact:  It makes it impossible to disprove their existence.

In order to buttress their argument that atheists have to prove god doesn't exist the theists have successfully planted two false notions in the public consciousness:  1. That to be an atheist one must have a positive, 100% certain, belief that god does not exist, and 2. that the burden of proof does not rest upon them to prove that their god exists because it is so "obvious".

Their basis for both assertions is that there is no other explanation for the existence of the universe.  That may not be as obvious with regard to the first as the second.  The second notion is, however, clearly based on that assumption.  The first notion grows out of their confusion regarding the fact that the existence of god is not the same issue as the origins of the universe.  The fact that they can't see this is complete proof of the circularity of their thinking.  I will speak more to these points in tomorrow's post.

Generally, the person making the assertion has the burden of proving it.  So, unless atheists are making a positive assertion, then it is difficult for the theist to argue that the atheist has the burden of proof.  They know that they must somehow shift the burden of proof to atheists because they know that they cannot meet the burden of proving god's existence.

Unlike the atheist, the theist could, theoretically, prove god's existence.  It really wouldn't take much.  Just one undeniable miracle (which, of course, does not include alleged miracles from 2,000 years ago) or even just one study showing that praying for sick people worked.  I would happily believe if there were a good reason.  I don't want to be an atheist; what I want is to know the truth.

The whole idea behind trying to box all atheists into the 100% certainty corner is that then the religious have a basis for arguing that atheists have the burden of proof.  Such a claim of 100% certainty simply cannot be proven and thus can be more easily de-legitimized.  Such an atheist is claiming to know something he cannot know:  the secrets of the universe.  This is what the theists claim to know and likewise cannot know.  We should refuse to join them in this intellectual gutter.

You can say:

"I am not claiming to know anything except that you have clearly failed to make your case even though you have had centuries to do so."

You can also make the point I made in a previous post:

"Being agnostic regarding the origins of the universe doesn't make me agnostic regarding the existence of god.  Those are two separate questions."

A rational, logical seeker of truth acts much like a judge in a court.  He looks at the proposition before him and determines what proof should be brought forth in order to determine its truth.  In the case of god, the proposition is infinitely malleable and thus can never be disproven--only an infinite number of experiments could do the trick assuming one could devise the right experiments and instruments.  Furthermore, the proposition is quite extraordinary, given that it concerns an invisible magic man in the sky with infinite magical powers, and thus one would like to see some shred of proof of any of this before proceeding any further, such as proof that invisible men exist (without the use of mere advanced technology), that magic exists, etc.

Not only do the desperate efforts of the believers to force us all into the positive atheism camp show that they are aware of the intellectual poverty of their position, so too does their reliance on faith.  Faith is nothing but the imaginary fig leaf over their nakedness, the willing suspension of disbelief that gets them past the logical hurdle presented by the absence of evidence for their invisible friend.  If the burden of proof argument comes up one of the things I recommend saying is:

"How can believers rely on faith to reach their conclusion and still have the audacity to claim they do not bear the burden of proof?  The mere fact that they rely on faith shows that they know they can't prove their case.  You don't rely on faith when you have facts."

You can follow up with a version of this:

"Accepting a proposition on faith and then daring any challenger to prove you wrong--denying that the burden of proof is on you--is the same as having no standard and worse.  It is a perversion of logic and all norms of intellectual integrity."

There aren't that many atheists who define themselves as "one who believes there is no god" or "one who is sure there is no god".  I think that most of them do so only because they have looked the term up in a dictionary with such a definition. I think this is a clear example of a straw-man argument that has been slipped into dictionaries by religious lexicographers. At worst, this is manipulation of the marketplace of ideas on an outrageous scale. At best it is a reflection of their own muddled thinking because, like most religious people, they confuse the question the origins of the universe with the question of the existence of god (clear proof of their circular reasoning).

Although usually the burden of proof is on the one making the assertion, in the case of god's nonexistence, I am no longer certain that this should be the case.  Perhaps a better way to look at it would be to say that in such instances, a person who has assumed this burden of proof can meet that burden simply by showing that there is no evidence for the opposite proposition. For most purposes, however, this distinction would be lost in translation and called a distinction without a difference. I think it may be correct, however. It is just a reformulation of something I have long maintained: That the lack of evidence for such a proposition gives rise to a rebuttable resumption that the thing doesn't exist. In other words, the ball is in the theist's court. If they have evidence to offer in rebuttal, I will be happy to listen, etc. (Of course, if they had such evidence, we would all be long since aware of it and would not be here having this discussion.)


The best way to get this point across would be to say:

"The lack of evidence for god, or any supernatural thing, meets whatever burden of proof that I might have."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment