The Myth of the Burden of Proof

In the argument over God's existence, which side has the burden of proof? It is common for skeptics to suggest that the onus probandi lies with the theists, suggesting that atheism should be a sort of "default" metaphysic from which other worldviews must diverge. Any divergence is seen as intellectual suicide, because (as Carl Sagan said) "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." (This quote is plagiarized from Laplace's principle that "the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.") In effect, this position treats theism as an assertion requiring "extraordinary" evidence and atheism as a standard non-assertion.

Of course, this is completely asinine. The truth is that atheism asserts a closed, rational, physical reality existing alone and independent of anything else. Atheism does not merely deny the existence of God (as its name so misleadingly suggests), but also posits a natural universe that (somehow) explains its own existence. It is a physicalism in which the laws of physics explain everything and themselves. In my (diseased) mind, it is no less "extraordinary."

Furthermore, the very idea of "extraordinary claims" is completely subjective and non-philosophical. It is an egregious misuse of logic known variously as begging the question, circular reasoning, or (my favorite, because it sounds like a spell from Harry Potter) petitio principii. "The assertion that God exists is extraordinary, because God does not exists." Thank you, Carl Sagan. Why don't you smoke some more pot?

If anything, the burden of proof lies on physicalists, because they would deny humanity the undeniable spiritual benefits of faith. (This is a sort of corollary to Pascal's Wager.) We often ignore this consideration, but it is extremely important to acknowledge the human aspect of this discussion.

Regardless, in terms of proof alone, no burden of proof exists. To suggest otherwise is stupid.


Spaceman Spiff said...

I don't think it's fair to assert that atheism means anything more than simply denying the existence of God, though individual atheists can be materialists.

I think it's fair to say that atheists agree that the world exists, but it isn't fair to say that atheism necessarily entails a conclusion as to how or why, though again often enough atheists might offer attempts at that (which do bear a burden of proof).

But, would you accept agnosticism as a more honest "neutral" position, thus indicating that both theism and atheism have a burden of proof to bear?

Speaker for the Dead said...

I would say that almost all (if not all) modern atheists are physicalists by necessity. That is what they mean by atheism. (I don't even want to bother with the postmodernists...)

You've addressed some important distinctions, which I didn't have time to cover (but should have).

The first one is the whole thing about proof and belief. In one sense, there is no burden of proof, because the assertion ("God exists" ) can neither be proved nor disproved. But what I mean here by "burden of proof" is that theism requires some higher standard of evidential backup (even though that concept itself is completely subjective). And that's the main idea I was attacking in this post.

But belief is something different. Belief is often not based on proof at all, and it is not something we can control intellectually. So atheism doesn't necessarily entail a conclusion as to why, or even an attempt at such a conclusion. Most people intuit some form of an explanation, however, plausible or not.

What I would say about agnosticism is that we are all, in a sense, agnostics. I don't intellectually "know" or "prove" God. But as I said earlier, belief is something much more intuitive, subjective, and (dare I say) spiritual. Perhaps we are not completely certain of the proof, but, in our heart of hearts, we either believe or don't.

I also think it's erroneous to frame the question as one between atheism and theism. I would frame it as one between physicalism and the alternative to that. So agnostics might not know what exactly is out there, but they would agree that there is something out there.

I think agnosticism may be more "neutral" and "honest" in purely intellectual terms, but in terms of what we feel, it is far less honest than either atheism or theism.

Karen Kovaka said...

Good, good, good!

Either atheists/agnostics make affirmative truth claims which they must support, or they are total skeptics. And skepticism is generally self-defeating, and incredible difficult to live by.

"All those words - rights of the people, rights of man, social contract, French Revolution, republic, democracy, humanity, civilization, religion, progress - were very nearly meaningless to Grantaire. He smiled at them. Skepticism, that dry rot of the intellect, had not left one idea in his mind. He lived in irony." ~ Victor Hugo, Les Mis

Spaceman Spiff said...

I don't agree that agnosticism is less honest or that all of us are agnostics. Agnosticism refers to belief, not proof, so you can't believe theism and agnosticism.

But can't someone simply not have a belief about the existence of God? Moreover, can't one believe in God without being a theist? There's always deism, pantheism, and panentheism, so that an agnostic does not have to decide simply between atheism and theism.

I share your position on belief, but proof and evidence are convincing others. Showing that a belief is true or likely to be true. In this regard, it does to me that agnosticism does not involve positing a belief. Atheism might be said to posit a belief, but not to the extent that you claimed above. Theism does seem to me to make the strongest claim, and so I do agree that from a social perspective it requires a stronger argument.

For example, lets take unicornism and aunicornism. I don't have to explain how the universe exists without unicorns in order to provide a convincing case for aunicornism. We all agree the universe exists already, so I don't have to prove that. The unicornist (or even the dogist or catist) seems to be the one with the burden of proof.

As you say, proof is not directly related to belief, so I would simply say that Carl Sagan and his ilk are epistemologically silly. They're stuck in the 17th century, unfortunately. It can be true that the theist has more of a case to build from a perspective. That seems intuitively true to me.

Spaceman Spiff said...

But of course, I also want to note again that atheism does not necessarily entail physicalism. You can posit metaphysical stuff without positing God. You can believe the spirit is real without believing in God, for example. Or you could be an absurdist, or something. There are plenty of options under "atheism" and conflating atheism and physicalism is not really fair. You can feel free to offer your critique against physicalists though.

Speaker for the Dead said...

Agnosticism, in my experience, is basically diluted atheism. There may be people who truly do not know, however. But agnosticism tacitly deals with the proof, because it implies that the proofs for atheism and theism are insufficient.

Simply not have a belief? I've thought about that. Leaving a kid on a desert island and seeing what he would think...

I get what you're saying about unicornists. I used "atheists" instead of "physicalists" because "physicalists" is starting to sound pedantic to me. The truth is that most atheists are physicalists, whether or not they know it. Obviously, the two are not logically equivalent, and so I wasn't really trying to conflate them. I did really mean physicalists.

So if you want me to be thorough, I guess the point is that theism's claim is no more "extraordinary" (and perhaps less so) than physicalism's. The difference here is that unicornism is not seeking to explain anything other than the existence of unicorns, while theism and physicalism (atheism) relate directly to the existence of the universe.

I just get frustrated with the circular reasoning.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Sounds good to me. I think you're right that in the vast majority of cases, atheists are physicalists. In my experience, some agnostics are basically atheist while others tend to believe in the supernatural, and simply aren't sure about theism.

But by and large, most people's belief systems (theists included) are not very well thought out or coherent. Which is perhaps related to why such discussions are rarely an important of how someone comes to believe in something or the other.

In any case, I hope I'm not being too nitpicky. I just think it's the Christian thing to do to defend other people's positions when they're not around. Of course, I do the same thing in the other direction and perhaps get a little more passionate since I am after all a committed Christian.

Speaker for the Dead said...

No, thank you. The reason I post these things is so that they can be refined.

Anonymous said...

Logically, neither side has the burden of proof. There's no reason to assume one side is the default over the other.

Practically, burden of proof usually rests on the side that doesn't have to prove a negative.