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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22-10-2012, 02:00 AM (This post was last modified: 22-10-2012 02:14 AM by fstratzero.)
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
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22-10-2012, 02:08 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
can I get a tl;dr summary? Preferably 1 or 2 sentences max.
I'm being lazy tonight.

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22-10-2012, 04:24 AM (This post was last modified: 22-10-2012 04:56 AM by Marco Krieger.)
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
Is this really so hard?
I cannot see how this is a burden, for religious people it should be an obligation to solve the question.
As an atheist, i say, i don't belief in god or the supernatural.
This is an opinion of mine.
I could be right, i could be wrong, but i am not closing the case by saying, there is a god and that's flat!
And i don't say it to make religious people get angry.
I have done everything i could to be a believer, i was in church and i prayed, i have confess my sin's (Catholic, you know), but the little Marco didn't catch fire in that matter.
Maybe later in Hell, but i am a heating engineer, so dear Evil_monster, enjoy the challenge.
So, i see the burden of proof, as far as it is one, on the site of the one who makes a positive claim and thats not me!

Update!
Sorry, i have lost an entire paragraph of your post and i wish to address this.
You say, if i as an atheist try to convert a thiest, the burden of proof is on me, right?
And vice versa?
I think, if this is the case, i am all in with that.
But, to what in the world could i convert an theist? In a none-beliefer? An Atheist?
Why should i do such a thing in the first place?
You cannot indoctrinate someone to have a lack of belief, people has to find it out by themself.
As far as i have learned, it moves the other way around.
The theist ask us, how not to belief and where are our morals come from and so on. They try to convert us, because they have the obligation to left no one behind, who not have heard the good news of salvation.

If atheism is a religion, then not playing football is an Olympic discipline.
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22-10-2012, 04:51 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
He who makes a positive claim bears the burden of proof.

Skepticism is not a position; it is an approach to claims.
Science is not a subject, but a method.
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22-10-2012, 07:08 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
Hey, Reltzik.

My take would be this.

Proof is only one path to understanding, but it is a path that demands empirical evidence in order to be satisfied. Thus, whomever makes a claim needs to provide empirical evidence in order to prove the validity of their statement for all.

If a Theist says there is a God, then the burden of proof, of providing empirical evidence, falls to them.

Atheism is a more confused term. In it's simplest form it means lack of belief. A lack of belief requires no evidence. No one has to prove that they disbelieve something, they just have to state it. But there are Atheists who believe that there is no God. That statement requires empirical evidence and in that case, the burden of proof falls to the Atheist.

The terminological problem is that Atheism refers to both those who lack belief and those who think there is no God. Some have tried to repair this by introducing the notion of strong Atheists and weak Atheists, but that has yet to take off; thus, people still get very confused when the term Atheist is thrown around; and rightly so in my opinion.

Furthermore, if a Theist says that they believe in God, not that there is a God, but that they believe in God, then there is no burden of proof. They don't need to prove that they believe something, they just have to state it.

However, if either a Theist or Atheist who either have or lack a belief in God tell me that I should share that belief, I have no reason to. There is no empirical evidence. If they persuade or convince me to believe or disbelieve in the absence of evidence, then that is the reason I adopt their stance. Maybe they're influential, charismatic, an authority figure or perhaps I trust them. They're all reasons to believe what they believe but in the final analysis, it's just credulity. Nothing wrong with it, but it is what it is.

If either a Theist or an Atheist provide me with empirical evidence proving that God either exists or doesn't exist and I ignore it, then that makes me functionally retarded; or a victim of cognitive dissonance at the very least. But at the end of the day, there will never be empirical evidence for an immeasurable and therefore untestable phenomenon like God.

If God reveals shklerself to someone, then that person would know the answer; however, they wouldn't have any empirical evidence to show someone else. Thus they would have to rely on persuasion to get others to believe them. This is the great tool of organisations like the Catholic church (and of little Timmy in the Disney movie where he sees something spectacular but has no proof and exclaims, "Gee whilickers, Mister, ya gotta believe me, ya just gotta"). The Catholic church's entire argument for the existence of God is based on the notion that shklee revealed shklerself. They use authority, influence, coercion and charisma to persuade about a billion people to believe them. That isn't nefarious in and of itself because they might very well be right about God's revelation, but I have no reason the believe it. But beyond doubt, persuasion can most certainly be used to get otherwise sane people to do some pretty insane shit. And beyond doubt, hierarchical civilisation would be impossible without persuasion.

So both Theists and Atheists deal exclusively in credulity. That's why I'm an Agnostic Cool

Peace and Love and Empathy,

Matt
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22-10-2012, 11:09 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 04:51 AM)Chas Wrote:  He who makes a positive claim bears the burden of proof.

Yes, but depending on whether you are a strong atheist, or weak atheist depends on whether you are making a positive claim or not. You can do the same for a Theist, though people usually don't. In a given conversation both or neither could be making a positive claim. Then what?

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22-10-2012, 11:19 AM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 11:09 AM)Dark Light Wrote:  Yes, but depending on whether you are a strong atheist, or weak atheist depends on whether you are making a positive claim or not. You can do the same for a Theist, though people usually don't. In a given conversation both or neither could be making a positive claim. Then what?
We're talking about debates, not "conversations". If neither side makes any claim, there's nothing to argue about.

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22-10-2012, 11:20 AM (This post was last modified: 22-10-2012 11:30 AM by TheJackal.)
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
Technically Atheism wouldn't even exist as a concept or response without first the claim of a GOD's existence..Thus the responsibility of proof rests with the person claiming the existence of a GOD as you can not honestly push that burden on to the person denying your claim or the person who doesn't believe your claim.. Worst yet, the concept of GOD, regardless of how it is defined, is nothing more than a title and concept of pure opinion.. And that is regardless if the object of worship to which is claimed to be a GOD exists or not. In fact, opinion alone makes the concept moot because under opinion, everything and anything can be considered GOD or given that title, or even rejected as such to where either all things are GODS or there are no such things as GOD's at all. And you can't move the GOD goal post any further than Reality, or Existence itself to which again makes the concept moot. Hence we won't see Christians converting to Pantheism while they need that GOD to even suggest that their GOD even exists. Some see the cow as divine, but I see it as a tasty burger. Thus proving something is a GOD is a pointless endeavor..

So if a supposed entity exists to which a theist claims is GOD, and they demonstrate its existence, is it really a GOD? What reasons would a theist use to try and make me believe the supposed entity is a GOD, or anything at all for that matter when I see the concept entirely irrelevant and nonsensical. Hence I don't worship anything as a "GOD".. I don't worship power and control, I don't worship Ego Centric Narcissistic elitism, or some entity that thinks itself is a GOD.. Such a thing is nothing more than a delusion of Grandeur, and nor would I care what kind of threats or magic tricks it tries to use to convince me.. So what is a theist or supposed deity to do when simply denied any such worship or title?
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22-10-2012, 11:52 AM (This post was last modified: 22-10-2012 02:02 PM by Aseptic Skeptic.)
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 01:02 AM)Reltzik Wrote:  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.

Nope, not even close.

This definition means that you can't even assign burden of proof unless someone changes their belief, then, retrospectively, you can say "ah, so that other guy had the burden of proof and it effect this guy's beliefs".

Nonsense.

This is really much simpler than you make it out to be.

If you claim something, then support your claim - you have the burden of proof. You have to support your claim with some kind of proof to justify that claim, regardless of whether it effects any change in anyone else's beliefs.

However, if someone claims something and fails to support it, but then you argue back and defeat their crappy claim, that doesn't put any burden of proof on you, even if their beliefs change as a result of your arguments - all you're doing is deflating their poor, unsupported claim.

(22-10-2012 01:02 AM)Reltzik Wrote:  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.

The cleverness of your naming convention is quickly lost in the falsehood of your assertion. There is no "validity of atheism". Atheism is not a belief system, it's not a religion, it's not a claim, it's not valid or invalid. It is simply the lack of acceptance of theism.

Therefore, a theist is making a claim about god which may or may not be a valid claim. An atheist is rejecting that claim on the grounds that the claim is invalid, but the atheist is not taking some counter-claim and asserting that atheism is something that needs to be claimed, supported, validated, or proven.

Which means the burden of proof remains on the only person making a claim, the theist.

(22-10-2012 01:02 AM)Reltzik Wrote:  Similarly, if Cristi wishes to persuade Atherton of the merits of Christianity, then the burden lies with her.

Correct, but I am pretty sure everybody knows this.

(22-10-2012 01:02 AM)Reltzik Wrote:  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.

Nope, because again, no atheist is trying to prove atheism. It cannot be proven. Nobody can ever prove the non-existence of anything, and only an idiotic atheist (or an idiotic anything else) wouldn't know this.

Atherton does not need to prove atheism. He is not claiming atheism or validating atheism. Instead, he is simply invalidating Cristi's theistic claim. She made a claim, she has the burden of proof. Atherton is merely disproving her proof.

(22-10-2012 01:02 AM)Reltzik Wrote:  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.

Still wrong; see above.

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