My Take on the Burden of Proof
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22-10-2012, 01:02 AM
My Take on the Burden of Proof
In the theist vs. atheist debate, who has the burden of proof? This is a question that comes up a lot, and then promptly turns into a game of hot potato. The goal is to make sure that the OTHER person is stuck holding it. I'd hazard to guess that most members here would say that theists have the burden of proof, and that most theists would say the burden lies with atheists. Oddly enough, I've rarely heard much analysis of WHY the burden of proof lies with one party or another, beyond simple one-liners or phrases like "self-evident". (I'd have thought skeptical atheists, at least, would try to support their position.) So I thought I'd try my hand at it, and came to a... somewhat unusual conclusion.

As an ignostic, my first impulse is to ask, "What is the burden of proof?" Not, what is its threshold set at, but what does the concept itself actually mean? A basic and naive answer is that the burden of proof is an evidenciary standard that must be met by a claim's proponent in order for it to be proven. If the proponent meets the burden of proof in arguing for something, she wins, otherwise, she loses. But what does it really mean to have proven something? Religious debate isn't mathematics. We don't have rigorous standards of deductive proofs accepted by all. Nor are we (usually) engaged in a formal debate format, with an outside authority like a panel of judges awarding points. So what does it mean to win? What does it mean to lose? How do we know when we've done any of these things, and what are their consequences?

I think the last question -- What are the consequences? -- is the key. On the one hand, if there aren't any consequences, or we have no clue what the consequences are, then why should we care? On the other hand, If we know what the consequences are and register that they've been triggered, then we know if and when the burden of proof has been met. And while I can think of several other reasons to debate (venting at one's opponents, being silly and drawing laughs), the two I most associate with "proving" are: persuading others to our own stance; and subjecting our own stances to a trial by fire (ie, a proving grounds, or peer review). Both have the same manner of consequences. Either persuasion fails/the fire is withstood, and the existing belief system is maintained, or the persuasion succeeds/the fire prevails, and someone's beliefs change.

This suggests the following idea: The burden of proof is that measure of persuasion that causes a person's beliefs to change, and it lies with whatever persons might effect that change. If Atherton wishes to persuade Cristi of the validity of atheism, then the burden of proof lies with Atherton, and is met if and only if Atherton succeeds at persuading. Similarly, if Cristi wishes to persuade Atherton of the merits of Christianity, then the burden lies with her. If they simultaneously try to persuade one another of their position, then there are two burdens of proof in play, one which Atherton must meet and another for Cristi. And if they are both attempting to persuade an audience, then there are two burdens of proof per audience member: one that Atherton must meet, and one which Cristi must meet.

This burden of proof might seem vacuous, overly complicated, or utterly subjective, but consider its merits. Its meeting is a claim that is both falsifiable and verifiable. Meeting the burden of proof has practical outcomes beyond patting yourself on the back or cussing out the opponent who won't listen even though you've "won". It is impartial, by which I mean it has a certain air of legitimacy by not deliberately giving one side or another the advantage, and may well be acceptable to all. It is entirely in keeping with a skeptical mindset, in which we demand evidence before we change our minds. It meshes well with the scientific concept of the null hypothesis. And it accommodates the current... disagreement about the burden of proof very nicely. Each person saying the burden of proof lies on one side or another, and is set this high or that high, is actually expressing what they gauge is needed to shift their own opinion.

Now, some people might object that no, claims about the burden of proof are less factual statements and more positive statements. They are less claims of what is, and more claims about what SHOULD be. By arguing that the burden lies with Atherton or Cristi, we aren't trying to make a claim about the truth of the situation, but rather trying to establish a format or convention. All of which would be fine in my book, IF a consensus with our opponents seemed likely to emerge on the topic. Since it doesn't, such claims are both high-handed and immature, akin to the "Bang-bang you're dead" "No I'm not you missed!" of playground antics.

The most oft-quoted line on this subject is Carl Sagan's "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Now I fully support this attitude in general, but its applicability towards the burden of proof is... laughable. It's putting the cart before the horse. Consider a providential Christian like Cristi, one who believes that the sun rises and sets, the crops grow and the leaves fall and the tides ebb and flow all with God's active intervention and providence. Cristi DOES see God in her everyday life. The idea of a world without God is so alien to her view of the world that she must view it as the extraordinary claim. Contrast this with Atherton, an atheist who sees the world as an ongoing interplay between matter, energy, and forces constrained by unthinking physical laws. Atherton does NOT see God anywhere in this, and so regards God's existence as the extraordinary claim. They're not going to agree WHICH claim is extraordinary until someone's mind changes, and so Mr. Sagan's quote is inapplicable to this problem to them deciding, between themselves, where the burden of proof lies. In order to get any consensus on which claim is extraordinary, we must first have some agreement on how we view God's role (or absence of role) in the universe. And that's the very thing we want the burden of proof for. Again, without a consensus, setting a standard is both doomed to failure and not worth the attempt.

Anyhow, I've pontificated enough and more than enough on the subject. Thoughts?

"If I ignore the alternatives, the only option is God; I ignore them; therefore God." -- The Syllogism of Fail
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Messages In This Thread
My Take on the Burden of Proof - Reltzik - 22-10-2012 01:02 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 04:51 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Vosur - 22-10-2012, 11:19 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 12:54 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 01:35 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 03:25 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Ghost - 22-10-2012, 07:08 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 01:43 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Ghost - 22-10-2012, 05:05 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 05:16 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Vosur - 22-10-2012, 05:26 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Vosur - 22-10-2012, 05:54 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Vosur - 22-10-2012, 06:38 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Vosur - 24-10-2012, 11:15 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Vosur - 24-10-2012, 02:20 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Ghost - 22-10-2012, 07:20 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 07:28 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Vosur - 22-10-2012, 07:36 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 22-10-2012, 08:02 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Ghost - 22-10-2012, 08:58 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Chas - 23-10-2012, 06:28 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Ghost - 23-10-2012, 12:14 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Ghost - 23-10-2012, 09:51 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof - Ghost - 25-10-2012, 06:47 AM
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