(Originally published 05 February 2009)
“The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” ~ Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace
“Theists have not yet grasped the concept of the burden of proof, apparently. It’s really simple, so I find it astounding that it is so easily dismissed-the one who makes the positive claim (ie-god exists) is the one who has to prove that claim, not the person who is in the default position of suspension of belief due to lack of evidence (ie-as far as we know, god does not exist).” ~ How to Respond to a Supercilious Christian, Kelly O’Connor,
This burden of proof question is one that has always bothered me. Atheism has positioned itself as being stated in the negative. For this reason, in formal debate, atheism claims never to have the burden of proof because the rules state that that burden belongs to the positive position.
Formally, I understand the burden of proof rule with regard to other kinds of subjects. A universal negative is difficult if not impossible to prove. Take the negative statement; “There are no two snowflakes exactly alike.” That statement cannot be proved without exhaustively searching the universe in all places simultaneously to prove that twin snowflakes do not exist. Conversely, the positive is easy; just show a single example of twin snowflakes.
The atheist claim isn’t anything like that though. It’s a positive claim in disguise. No atheist is claiming simply that there is no evidence for God, rhetorical posturing to the contrary notwithstanding. If that were the case then we could just unpack our evidence and that claim would no longer stand. The Atheist claim is that God is not a necessary hypothesis to explain life, the universe and everything as per Ockham’s Razor.
Effectively, the atheist claim is that life can come from the universe spontaneously, a positive claim. Or that complex systems happen by simple systems gradually becoming more complex over time, contrary to the second law of thermodynamics, another positive claim. Or that complexity=life. Or that matter is eternal. Or that right and wrong has a biological basis. Or any myriad of other kinds of claims that are positive in nature.
Greg Bahnsen dealt with this problem head on in his debate with Gordon Stein, calling it “the pretended neutrality fallacy.” He explained:
“In advance, you see, Dr. Stein is committed to disallowing any theistic interpretation of nature, history or experience. What he seems to overlook is that this is just as much begging the question on his own part as it is on the part of the theists who appeal to such evidence. He has not at all proven by empirical observation and logic his pre-commitment to Naturalism. He has assumed it in advance, accepting and rejecting all further factual claims in terms of that controlling and unproved assumption.”
So in a formal debate scenario, where the question is, “Is there a God?” the more jejune Atheist says “no” without definition or dealing with the implications of their response, hoping to then sit back and wait for the Christian apologist to fail or succeed. And failure is foreordained, because the naysayer can simply say, “I’m not convinced.”
That simply doesn’t work. This is a totally different kind of question than the garden-variety claim of something’s non-existence. Saying, “there is no God” carries with it a host of implication that saying, “there is no Santa Claus” does not carry. Santa Claus’ existence has no impact on our worldview’s ability to account for logic, morals, design, right tuning of our senses to the universe, the mind/body distinction or any of many questions like it. Saying there is no God, on the other hand, demands positive claims in each of those areas. It amounts to a variation on the complex question fallacy.
There are some apologists who are pleased to bear the burden of proof solely on the Christian side and build a probabilistic kind of argument for God’s existence. The difficulty here is in determining when that burden has been met. If it has only been met when Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, et al agree that there is a God, I think we have set an impossible standard. Not all people who understand an argument find it cogent.
That smart people disagree is not a defeater for any proposition. There are many reasons that even intelligent people who understand the arguments have for not finding something particularly compelling. Those reasons aren’t always given when they disagree with a position “on its merits.” Smart people convert, and not usually because they suddenly get some piece of information they never had before that puts the puzzle together for them. Often it is because some pre-commitment loses its force for them personally.
So what about the day-in-day-out apologetics of our everyday life? Surely the rules of academic debate don’t encroach here. It’s just friends and family members gathered around the questions that unite us all, right? Yet even here we find that an unhelpful attitude about burden of proof stymies real dialog.
The fact is, when two people come together to discuss God, they BOTH have a burden. Neither one has an option to simply shrug and say, “I’m not convinced by your Kalam Cosmological Argument, so I win.” They must account for their worldview just as you must account for yours. Lacking that, all they’ve done is bamboozle you with the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument and lived to bamboozle another day.
So what of the two quotes that started this article? Is Laplace correct in claiming that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Let’s test this idea.
If I claim to be able to ride a bicycle, what proof is required? My riding of the bicycle. This is an ordinary claim and the corresponding ordinary evidence.
If I claim to be able to operate that same bicycle without a rider by the power of my mind, what proof is required? My operation of the bicycle with the power of my mind. This is an extraordinary claim, but the evidence is the normal kind; the demonstration of the claim.
I do not deny that we go about providing evidence in different ways for different things (Bahnsen’s “crackers in the pantry” fallacy). I am merely pointing out that there are not separate standards of evidence in evaluating worldviews. Each worldview is subject to the same standard of evidence.
The result of adopting Laplace’s notion is that it is absolutely arbitrary. The strangeness of a claim is a predilection of the one receiving the claim. Furthermore, what level of evidence is required is also arbitrary and usually results in the bar being set to “whatever convinces me.”
What of Kelly O’Connor’s spirited quips? Does she have the default position as she claims? On what ground does this claim rest? It rests on her arbitrary and unproven presumption of Naturalism.
An evidential apologist may claim that something like a mind must have preceded the universe, and continues to support it and its law-like functioning. O’Connor may claim that nothing like a mind was necessary.
The evidential claim is philosophical. It must stand to philosophical rigor. But so must O’Connor’s claim. She may object that she’s agnostic on the question of cosmic origins; she simply doesn’t know and so carries no burden. This is simple obfuscation. An Atheist saying there is no God is saying that universes begin themselves spontaneously or has some other cause. She may come up with a strong reasoning that underlies this positive assertion, but it is a positive assertion that must be supported. O’Connor’s claim of having the “default” position is without merit.
We don’t come to a discussion to win for winning’s sake. We come together to talk about these questions so that all might know the truth. Stacking the deck with an unfair burden of proof is anathema to this end.