My Take on the Burden of Proof
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22-10-2012, 02:15 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 01:02 AM)Reltzik Wrote:  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?
One way to look at it is a positive is provable while a negative is not. If I want to prove that an apple exists (positive), I could simply show one to you (that would be proof enough for me, but I realize some philosophers will not be satisfied). On the other hand, if I wanted to prove apples do not exist (negative), how could I do this? It wouldn't suffice to say "I can't find an apple anywhere, therefore apples don't exist" because it would be impossible for me to check everywhere in the universe. Also, indirect evidence could be used to prove the positive. For example, I might be able to find animals that require apples to survive and therefore the existence of those animals would be evidence of apples existing somewhere even if I couldn't fine one single apple. But no such indirect evidence is possible with a negative.

I believe the above also refutes Ghost's suggestion that atheists who believe there is no god bear some burden of proving that there is no god. Such proof is impossible.

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22-10-2012, 02:51 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
It's a legal concept. It has more bearing in civil than criminal dispute, in that criminality requires 'reasonable doubt.' In the case of atheism vs theism, there is a core contention of the criminality of god; as there is a preponderance of circumstantial evidence for the non-existence of god, the burden of proof falls to the theist. Undecided

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22-10-2012, 03:05 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 01:35 PM)Chas Wrote:  
(22-10-2012 01:27 PM)Buddy Christ Wrote:  A "strong atheist" and a "weak theist" would both have burdens of proof, because they are both making claims. To claim with absolute certainty that there are no gods is just as irrational as claiming there are, regarding DEIST gods anyways. But in respects to the Judeo-Christian God of Abraham, you can absolutely be a strong atheist, because you can disprove all the assertions for his existence put forth in the Bible, ie. you can disprove him.

I will quibble with both of you.

I believe there are no gods because there is no evidence of existence. I bear no burden of proof because I make no positive claim.

Yes, I realize that YOU don't, but you do not represent an atheist making a positive claim. I am simply saying an atheist that makes a positive claim does have to defend his/her position.

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22-10-2012, 03:17 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 03:05 PM)Dark Light Wrote:  
(22-10-2012 01:35 PM)Chas Wrote:  I will quibble with both of you.

I believe there are no gods because there is no evidence of existence. I bear no burden of proof because I make no positive claim.

Yes, I realize that YOU don't, but you do not represent an atheist making a positive claim. I am simply saying an atheist that makes a positive claim does have to defend his/her position.

You would be right, if an atheist were to say "It is a fact that there is no such thing as god." To such an atheist I would be the first to say "Prove it, numbnutz."

As has been said at least twice on this thread (once by me), that isn't what atheists do, in general, and the ones who do are even more indefensible than the theists who assert that the opposite is true. At least a theist usually thinks he has proof, or that he can get the proof, or at the very least that he has something provable. The "strong atheist" (re: idiot atheist) has no proof, knows he has no proof, knows that he cannot get proof, and knows that he doesn't even have a provable claim.

Such an assertion is indefensible and can be nothing more than a poorly stated version of "It isn't a fact, but nevertheless I think that there is no such thing as a god."

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22-10-2012, 03:25 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 03:05 PM)Dark Light Wrote:  
(22-10-2012 01:35 PM)Chas Wrote:  I will quibble with both of you.

I believe there are no gods because there is no evidence of existence. I bear no burden of proof because I make no positive claim.

Yes, I realize that YOU don't, but you do not represent an atheist making a positive claim. I am simply saying an atheist that makes a positive claim does have to defend his/her position.

The claim that "There is no God"?

Skepticism is not a position; it is an approach to claims.
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22-10-2012, 04:05 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 03:25 PM)Chas Wrote:  
(22-10-2012 03:05 PM)Dark Light Wrote:  Yes, I realize that YOU don't, but you do not represent an atheist making a positive claim. I am simply saying an atheist that makes a positive claim does have to defend his/her position.

The claim that "There is no God"?

"There is absolutely no chance that a force of a deity nature could have been a First Cause, First Domino, or First Event that set existence in motion" requires proof to validate. Right now, we can't know the origin and nature of the Big Bang or if such a thing as "before" a Big Bang existed. So to claim certainty requires evidence.

But since we can't know, we place the idea in the same category as invisible turtle shell earths, invisible teapots, and aliens living light years away. "I don't believe" rather than "I believe not."

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22-10-2012, 05:05 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
Hey, Impulse.

Quote:One way to look at it is a positive is provable while a negative is not. If I want to prove that an apple exists (positive), I could simply show one to you (that would be proof enough for me, but I realize some philosophers will not be satisfied). On the other hand, if I wanted to prove apples do not exist (negative), how could I do this? It wouldn't suffice to say "I can't find an apple anywhere, therefore apples don't exist" because it would be impossible for me to check everywhere in the universe. Also, indirect evidence could be used to prove the positive. For example, I might be able to find animals that require apples to survive and therefore the existence of those animals would be evidence of apples existing somewhere even if I couldn't fine one single apple. But no such indirect evidence is possible with a negative.

I believe the above also refutes Ghost's suggestion that atheists who believe there is no god bear some burden of proving that there is no god. Such proof is impossible.





You cannot prove a negative. That doesn't mean that you're off the hook from all responsibility. It means you cannot prove a negative. So the statement, "There is no God," cannot be proven. The burden of proof still falls to the Atheist making the claim, regardless of the impossibility of the task.

To make it even worse, you won't ever find empirical evidence for or against God. So from am empirical standpoint, it is utterly impossible to prove or disprove God. I never said it was easy, I just said the burden falls on the person making the statement.

If the burden didn't fall to the person making the negative statement, then there would be no ramifications whatsoever when people say, "There is no....." It could be said with impunity.

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22-10-2012, 05:16 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 05:05 PM)Ghost Wrote:  To make it even worse, you won't ever find empirical evidence for or against God. So from am empirical standpoint, it is utterly impossible to prove or disprove God. I never said it was easy, I just said the burden falls on the person making the statement.

We continue to disagree on this. I see strong evidence in the natural world against the existence of a beneficent or even non-evil god. Take, for instance, the Ichneumon wasp which paralyzes its prey so as to provide its larvae with live meat to feed on. Or parasites, prions, and on and on.

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22-10-2012, 05:26 PM
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 05:05 PM)Ghost Wrote:  You cannot prove a negative. That doesn't mean that you're off the hook from all responsibility. It means you cannot prove a negative. So the statement, "There is no God," cannot be proven. The burden of proof still falls to the Atheist making the claim, regardless of the impossibility of the task.

To make it even worse, you won't ever find empirical evidence for or against God. So from am empirical standpoint, it is utterly impossible to prove or disprove God. I never said it was easy, I just said the burden falls on the person making the statement.

If the burden didn't fall to the person making the negative statement, then there would be no ramifications whatsoever when people say, "There is no....." It could be said with impunity.
I don't want to be nit-picky, but you actually can prove a negative. That claim has long been refuted.

"Not only that, but any claim can be expressed as a negative, thanks to the rule of double negation. This rule states that any proposition P is logically equivalent to not-not-P. So pick anything you think you can prove. Think you can prove your own existence? At least to your own satisfaction? Then, using the exact same reasoning, plus the little step of double negation, you can prove that you aren’t nonexistent. Congratulations, you’ve just proven a negative. The beautiful part is that you can do this trick with absolutely any proposition whatsoever. Prove P is true and you can prove that P is not false."

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22-10-2012, 05:47 PM (This post was last modified: 22-10-2012 05:54 PM by GirlyMan.)
RE: My Take on the Burden of Proof
(22-10-2012 05:26 PM)Vosur Wrote:  I don't want to be nit-picky, but you actually can prove a negative. That claim has long been refuted.

Only if you admit the Aristotelian Law of the Excluded Middle. There are contemporary logics and many logic programmers who see a third option: the truth of a proposition might be unknown. Negation is treated as failure to find any support for the proposition within the knowledge base. Whether one treats the failure to find support as logical negation or merely "I dunno" depends on whether the programmer applies the closed world assumption or the open world assumption to the knowledge base. It's the programmer's call, aka Girly's call.

And once again, I find even more support for the proposition that I am, in fact, motherfucking God. Prostate thyselves before the Programmer Gods heathen fuckers lest we send your resources to the Garbage Collector. Evil_monster

I am us and we is me. ... bitches.
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