Now, I’m sure I could go research any number of authorities on the subject of who owns the burden of proof in debate, but not every exchange is a debate, and going around to everyone who makes any kind of statement saying saying “Oh yeah? Prove it!” strikes me as rather untoward, anti-social, even childish. Perhaps the issue is not so much who has the burden of proof, but when is the very notion of a burden of proof even relevant to begin with. Dwelling on who has the burden of proof in a discussion (rather than a debate) can be anticlimactic and even counterproductive to the goals of a discussion. Contention for contention’s sake will only close doors that would be better off if left propped open. So some wisdom is certainly due here.
From the theist’s point of view, expecting him to prove the existence of the god he worships is almost like expecting him to compose a four-movement symphony on the spot. Who can do that? This is not to provide the believer with a ready excuse of being saddled with too tall an order, but rather to appreciate the enormous complexity of what may in fact be involved in religious devotion for a believer who has invested himself emotionally, psychologically and philosophically in his faith. There’s just a lot of detail to be managed there.
Then again, many composers both big and small have demonstrated the ability to compose symphonies, so it’s not as though the non-believer were calling for a feat of super-human prowess, given of course allowance for time constraints, creativity, careful analysis, a desire to do so, etc. This is where apologists come in: haven’t those who have taken on the challenge of defending the faith taken on the burden of proving the existence of a universe-creating consciousness and settled the question of “God’s existence” once and for all? Indeed, if there were such a thing as a supernatural consciousness which could create matter simply by thinking it into being, and some human beings had discovered and validated such a discovery, should this really be so difficult, this onus of proof, this burden to prove the existence of “God”? One would think that after all the hundreds of thousands of man-hours poured into vindicating theism, by now we’d have seen some sort of insurmountable proof. But we haven’t. In fact, I’d say there’s an argument to be made that the centuries of effort devoted finding a once-and-for-all knock-down proof of the existence of such a being, sort of speaks against the goals of such efforts in a very profound and humbling (if not humiliating) way.
As for who has the burden of proof in a conversation (mind you, not a formal debate as such), my view is pretty simple: is there a desire to persuade one’s audience, or not? If so, then be prepared to defend your position. If there’s no expectation or insistence that others accept the claim, then why bother?
For example, if I made the claim that I have a million dollars in my bank account and I want to convince someone that this is the case, I have the burden of proof – it is incumbent upon me to produce evidence in support of this claim. If I claim that I can pass through locked doors without opening them and I want to convince someone that I can do this, I have the burden of proof – I need to provide a demonstration of such an ability. If I claim that Bernie Sanders’ “democratic socialism” would be good for the future of America, and I want to convince someone of this, I have the burden of proof – I need to present solid arguments and stable definitions and produce an economic and political analysis to support such a claim. Get the picture? It’s not simply having a position that inherits a burden of proof; it is not merely affirming a claim that automatically bestows a burden of proof – though doing so can get very close! Rather, the lynchpin here is the expectation that someone accept the position or claim in question when they don’t already accept it.
Take another example: if my co-worker says to me, “My husband and I vacationed in Reykjavik over the weekend,” I am perfectly at liberty to ignore it and go about my business; I’m not immediately demanding proof that this might have happened. I am at liberty to ignore the statement and go about my business, and very often I do just that. And I probably would in this case: after all, I just saw her the Friday afternoon before – when she said nothing of such plans for her weekend when we exchanged small talk about our upcoming days off, and here it is Monday morning on the west coast of the USA; they must have flown out Friday night, arrived there sometime late Saturday and pretty much immediately boarded a plane back to show up at work on time. I kinda don’t think it’s true. But if my co-worker insists and says, “No, it’s really true! You gotta believe me!” Well, I’m not inclined to simply *believe* something that on the face of it seems outlandish – and yes, I reserve the right to judge what strikes me as outlandish as, well, outlandish! Firsthand testimony is not entitled to indiscriminate acceptance. Now, if she shows me pictures, airline ticket stubs with appropriate dates, stamps in her passport showing her entry into Iceland, and also provides a plausible explanation about the nature of her whirlwind trip, then she’s doing her part to meet her burden of proof, a burden she clearly accepts given the tall-order nature of her claim.
Of course, none of this prevents anyone from challenging a person who makes a claim that is not readily accepted, but I’d advise some prudence in determining when and how calling a person’s assertions and positions into question. There are times when views should be challenged, and there are times when it’s best to just leave them be. Numerous variables would factor into such determinations, such as the nature of the claim, the impact it might make in a social or political context, the circumstances in which the claim has been offered, even the relationship one has with the individual making the claim. If a stranger standing in line behind you at the grocery store insists to the person with him that the earth is flat and that the rest of us are all deluded into thinking it’s spherical (I actually heard this at a 7-11 earlier this year), why insert yourself and say, “Oh yeah? Prove it!”? I tend to treat such conversations as private and really none of my business; if people want to advertise their stupidity in public, they have that right and I will not violate it. Everyone needs to learn to let other people be wrong.
With that as prologue, I recently came upon a blog entry from some years ago, a piece of writing addressing this topic from a theistic perspective. Simply titled The Burden of Proof, the entry is even tagged with a label devoted to yours truly, though it’s not clear why.
The author of the entry begins as follows:
Most atheists will affirm the burden of proof lays on the christian since he or she asserts a positive claim, namely God exists. However, no claims can be made in a vacuum. Both the atheist and christian make truth claims either explicitly or implicitly. For example, the atheist affirms metaphysical naturalism and the christian affirms metaphysical supernaturalism. Therefore, both stand in positions of taking on a burden of proof.
Meanwhile, given that there was a conversation that led up to the dispute, it should be obvious that both believer and non-believer both accepted many assumptions mutually, assumptions even more fundamental that the believer’s god-belief, as part of a common ground that, up to that point, neither party had questioned. One could enumerate these, but what’s the point? Wouldn’t that just invite the manufacture of more debate? If, for example, I pointed out that both I as a non-believer and my believing sparring partner accepted implicitly the fact that existence exists, would the believer – in his zeal to contend – react with, “Nope! Existence doesn’t exist!”? Well, it has been said (see for example here). If I pointed out that both I as a non-believer and my believing sparring partner accepted implicitly the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so, would the believer contest this? Bring it on, I says!
But theistic apologists are notoriously uncomfortable with this analysis. Rather than playing the good sport and acknowledging, “Yes, I do affirm something which you don’t accept and which I think you should accept it, therefore I’m going to assemble some proofs in the hope of convincing you of the truth of what I have asserted and see where that leads,” apologists instead seek to jerry-rig a debate of sorts in which the atheist shoulders at the very least an equal burden in the give-and-take of ever-calescent exchange. The believer, you see, doesn’t want to go down alone; he insists on taking others with him. That’s evidenced by any instance when a non-believer might say something to the effect of, “Well, you might believe that, but I don’t,” hoping to stave off an unwanted conflagration, only to find the theist insisting all the more that his beliefs are true.
The theist can be expected to make an effort to define the terms of the debate in an effort to give himself an advantage, for all things being equal, he has the toughest uphill climb and the most to lose. After all, if he cannot persuade the non-believer, he risks a blow to the security of his faith, and if the non-believer ends up walking away even more convinced that his non-belief in theism is philosophically unassailable, then the theist suffers a defeating blow that will likely reverberate in his conscience for months. “I should have said X!” will repeat in his mind over and over and gnaw at any joy he might be capable of experiencing.
What a waste!
by Dawson Bethrick