How to Think Critically IV

Falsifiability and the Burden of Proof

“Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there.”

—from the famous editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus”, published in 1897 by the New York Sun

Today’s post on critical thinking concerns a fundamental principle of rationality, yet one that many believers get wrong, to their detriment. That is the principle of burden of proof: the person who makes a positive claim has an obligation to support it if they wish others to believe them. It is not the responsibility of others to prove that claim false. Closely related to this is the principle of falsifiability – that is, what sorts of claims it is possible to prove or disprove. This post will discuss both of these ideas.

Even today, there are many who misunderstand the burden of proof. A Christian made the following comment to me last month in an e-mail:

And certainly, unless you have visited an appreciable portion of the cosmos and whatever else, there is at least a reasonable possibility that a creator exists.

My correspondent felt this was a compelling reason not to be an atheist. But this claim has the burden of proof backwards.

Evidence is the sole link to truth. If a person makes an extraordinary claim, we don’t have to search the whole universe to disprove it – we just have to ask that person how they know that, what facts they have that led them to believe in that way. If they can’t produce such facts, then we’re justified in concluding that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and there’s no reason to believe them.

This is why the person who makes the positive claim has the burden of proof to support it. Since we’re not justified in believing something for which we don’t have evidence, a person who claims to be justified in their belief is under the obligation to present their evidence. By contrast, a lack of belief in a given proposition requires no positive justifying evidence, only the absence of evidence to the contrary. Therefore, it is the default position, and does not incur any special burden of proof.

This basic fact is widely recognized in human inquiry. In law, it takes the form of the bedrock legal principle “innocent until proven guilty”. At trial, the prosecution – the side that makes the accusation of guilt, which is the positive assertion – has the burden of proof to support their claim. Similarly, in science, the “null hypothesis” is the default assumption. A researcher who defends the positive claim of a causal connection between two phenomena is obliged to present evidence supporting that hypothesis. Even in medicine, any diagnosis should be supported by observations of symptoms – not the silly claim that you can’t disprove a diagnosis of what the patient might be suffering from.

The notion of burden of proof is linked to the concept of falsifiability, or whether it is possible to disprove a given idea. There are many propositions that aren’t falsifiable. Take “Last Thursdayism”, the idea that a devious deity created the world and everything in it only last Thursday, but with perfectly misleading false evidence of a much longer history – radioactive isotopes that have decayed the appropriate amount, history books recording events that never happened and people who never lived, and all of us implanted with false memories of earlier events. (Carl Sagan’s equally well-known example was “the dragon in my garage“, while Bertrand Russell proposed the celestial orbiting teapot).

A proposition is falsifiable if there is at least one definitive test that could refute it. If there are no such tests – if, like Last Thursdayism, the proposition is compatible with any state of evidence we could possibly find – then it is useless to consider or believe. There are an infinite number of unfalsifiable propositions that can be imagined, many of them mutually contradictory. If we’re willing to give assent to ideas that cannot be verified by testing or evidence, then we’ll either be lost in a hopeless morass of confusion, or else choose arbitrarily and hope that somehow we’ve hit on a true idea out of the infinite number of wrong ones.

As above, evidence is the sole link to truth, and the only path out of this impossible epistemology. The existence of unfalsifiable claims further underscores why the person making the positive claim has the responsibility to support it. If it were otherwise, we’d be obliged to believe an infinity of mutually contradictory, unfalsifiable ideas – fairies on the lawn, dragons in the garage, teapots orbiting the sun, the universe created last Thursday, and many more – just because we can’t disprove them. Clearly, this is absurd. It’s futile to believe unfalsifiable propositions, and merely asserting that an idea can’t be disproven is pointless. The only propositions to which we should give our assent are those that are falsifiable and for which the burden of proof has been met.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Another great post. I get really tired of theists’ persistent efforts to shift the burden of proof. Good discussion of falsifiability – I love Popper.

  • prase

    In law, it takes the form of the bedrock legal principle “innocent until proven guilty”. At trial, the prosecution – the side that makes the accusation of guilt, which is the positive assertion – has the burden of proof to support their claim.

    I think that this is not only a question of positive/negative assertion. I think the mentioned legal principle exist mainly because it is agreed that it’s far more unjust if you imprison or otherwise punish an innocent person than if you let a criminal go.

    Imagine police investigating a murder commited in a way that resembles modus operandi of a well known recidivist. Also, the police finds that the recidivist was not far from the crime scene in appropriate time. In such situation, it is far more probable, that the recidivist has commited the crime, since the contrary would imply that there is another yet unknown criminal with similar murdering technique, which seems as a more possitive assertion. But still, the principle says that the recidivist should not be found guilty unless other proofs are found.

  • OMGF

    I find it humorous that so many theist shrug off the burden of proof, preferring to believe in their deity without any proof simply because you can’t disprove it. Yet, they are more than willing to turn around and disbelieve evolution, global warming, HIV causing AIDS, etc because they claim there is not enough proof for those things and it is up to science to prove them, not for the theist to disprove them.

    I also find it humorous when theists try to shift the burden equally on the atheist with claims that the atheist is making a positive assertion that “There is no god.”

    To the court example, there are times when the defendant is required to prove him/herself, like in the case of a positive defense (like the insanity defense). In this case, we see the same sort of example where the defendant says, “I’m not guilty because of (insert positive assertion).” It is still up to the person making the assertion to bear the burden of proof.

  • terrence

    “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

    Happy birthday, Mr. Twain!

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    And certainly, unless you have visited an appreciable portion of the cosmos and whatever else, there is at least a reasonable possibility that a creator exists.

    The key word here is “reasonable”. Based on all the evidence so far, there is a possibility that there is a creator, but it is not a reasonable one. At best it is minute, probably infinitesimal, so small as to be virtually non-existent.

    Possibilities are not measured in terms of reasonableness, they are measured on a scale of likely to unlikely.

    A creator is unlikely. Highly unlikely.

  • James Bradbury

    Great post, all fantastically well explained! I feel better able to explain my own reasoning as a result of reading things like this.

    I agree Karl Popper deserves a mention.

    This also made me think of a bad moves post which might be of interest.

  • Karen

    You lay out your argument very well and I happen to agree with it. But from the point of view of a former fundamentalist Christian, I can tell you that this kind of logical explanation won’t fly with many religious people. At least not without a major paradigm shift like the one I experienced.

    The problem is that the religious believer has been indoctrinated with science-phobia and thus doesn’t understand the proper definition of “evidence.”

    To them, they have all kinds of great “evidence” for belief in the god of their particular sect. The fact that atheists can’t see that evidence, or don’t count it as proper evidence, completely baffles them and saddens them.

    For instance, they have the miracles and answered prayers they’ve experienced. They have the “testimony” of miracles and answered prayers and supernatural healings they’ve heard every Wednesday night at prayer meeting for 20 years. They have the centuries of belief of other members of their sect or denomination all over the world.

    All this, to the theist, is powerful evidence for believing in god. It’s far more powerful than any scientific tests done by someone they don’t know and someone they have been told wilfully rejects god from the outset. To suggest that their personal experience is not valid evidence seems ludicrous to them, and they can only conclude that the “proof” is there, but it is the atheist who is refusing to acknowledge it by “closing their heart.”

    I bring this up only to say that theists (particularly fundamentalists) need a lot of education before they can follow this kind of argument and acknowledge its validity.

  • http://realevang.wordpress.com/ The Professor

    Good post. I’ve also responded to this argument by pointing out that you don’t have to be able to solve complex calculus equations to know that “2+2=77″ is wrong. Whether or not there is the theoretical possibility of some hidden deity on some unknowable planet, we can know that the Christian gospel, at least, has got it wrong. Like “2+2=77,” a God who allegedly loves us enough to die for us, and yet plainly does not even care enough to show up and say “Good morning,” just doesn’t add up.

  • OMGF

    Good point Karen. I read a letter to the editor of some paper recently where someone actually wrote that atheists can not prove there is no god, therefore atheism is refuted. (Sadly, this is perhaps not the worst thing she said to be honest.) People like that think they have all kinds of evidence for god, which is why posts like Ebon’s are good, because I think he explains well how to tell these people how wrong they are. Most won’t listen, but some will (hopefully).

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Spanish Inquisitor said:

    Based on all the evidence so far, there is a possibility that there is a creator, but it is not a reasonable one. At best it is minute, probably infinitesimal, so small as to be virtually non-existent.

    Even if one grants this (and I concede that deism may be a somewhat reasonable position to hold, though I myself do not hold it), it does nothing to advance the claims that the creator is anything like the concepts that have been advanced by numerous religions. Those extra characteristics are only reached via large leaps (or heaps) of imagination and/or faith.

  • Entomologista

    I really wish that this was emphasized more in the sciences. Obviously we learn about null and alternative hypotheses very early on, but it would be super if more professors would say “You know, this works for more situations than just experiments.” I was really lucky and I had a good animal behavior professor who taught us about the nature of evidence and what it means, and why we use statistics. Empiricism should be drilled into the head of every science student, but I don’t think it is taught effectively or something. This is why I have fellow grad students in entomology who believe in ghosts, think Russians have mind powers, and are creationists. I kid you not.

  • DamienSansBlog

    OMGF, has there been any follow-through in your local editorials? Another non-theist (or, dare I ask, you yourself) refuting the refutal?

    (Is refutal even a word? Well, it ought to be.)

  • Karen

    I think the word is “refutation” :-)

  • Alex Weaver

    It is now.

    This ties into something I’d definitely do if I were teaching a science class: when feasible, refuse to answer direct questions about laws, but rather insist that students at least mentally construct an experiment whose outcome will determine the answer to the question they’re really wondering about, and then ask me about its outcome. I may try that somewhat with my daughter, too…

  • OMGF

    DamienSansBlog,
    Here’s the original if anyone wants to see the splendor that is this letter.

    It’s a college paper (Eastern Kentucky) so I doubt that they put out too many issues. I’ll keep an eye out to see if anyone debunks the original bad arguments.

  • Alex

    Dear colleagues,
    There is no way to prove anything to someone who relies on supernatural forces.
    A passed by writer’s citation:
    “Religion offers the absolutely incomparable opportunity to explain everything not understanding anything…”
    Here is a real life example. 20 years ago, a colleague of mines replaced the experimentally proved coefficients in a production control microcomputer programme as He gave this believer in his sleep explicit instructions to help me. This same Almighty one solved a set of nonlinear partial differential equations and the idiotic numbers granted messed it all up.
    There is no need to understand! He knows and guides! Just believe and you will be saved!

  • rob

    >deism may be a somewhat reasonable position to hold

    Well not it a “forever hidden” creator plans to penalize people that believe in things that are not proven.

  • Steve Bowen

    This is great and the timing co-incidental as I was having this discussion with my eight year old daughter yesterday. “Luckily” her grandad is in the habit of telling her there is an invisible herd of elephants living in his garden, so I got her thinking about what she would expect to see if that was really true;elphant poo, footprints, broken trees, trampled fences etc. she worked her way through the thought experiment and finally I asked her “so does grandad have elephants in the garden?” she said “No, I don’t think so…but let’s not tell grandad”

  • DamienSansBlog

    OMGF, thank you for the…I suppose we have to call it a “letter”, even though it hurts my eyes to look at it for more than two seconds.

    Oh, dear. “What are they teaching in schools these days?”

  • OMGF

    Yeah, it doesn’t say much for the quality of education that student is receiving does it?

    I’m still monitoring to see if any new issues come out, but I don’t think any have yet.

  • John Nernoff

    Ebonmuse has written a very clear exposition of the burden of proof issue and ways to reply to many a theist’s claim that the failure to disprove a God means that the God exists. This issue is sometimes phrased as, “one can’t prove an unrestricted existential negative, therefore the burden lies not on the denier but on the positive declarant.”

    Nevertheless, this is too easy in the eyes of many of the faithful, as has been implied here. Therefore there remains something to the insistence that the doubter and skeptic need to bear some responsibility for providing proof in their case. This is not to say a scoffer just can’t simply walk away from the God claim, saying, “No evidence for God allows me to remain an unbeliever.”

    But when an positive atheist (cf negative atheist, re Michael Martin’s classification) says there is no God, then he should provide evidence for that belief (or denial if you will). Of course, this has been manifoldly done by numerous arguments and the logical debunking of all the God arguments proposed by theists, from Aquinas and Augustine to Craig and the Pope. All I’m saying is atheists have the burden of proof as well as theists, and putting forth those logical arguments may well go a long way to educating theists more than simply walking away from the problem.

  • OMGF

    Nevertheless, this is too easy in the eyes of many of the faithful, as has been implied here. Therefore there remains something to the insistence that the doubter and skeptic need to bear some responsibility for providing proof in their case.

    This is fallacious. Simply because theists believe that we bear the burden of proof does not make it so.

    But when an positive atheist (cf negative atheist, re Michael Martin’s classification) says there is no God, then he should provide evidence for that belief (or denial if you will). Of course, this has been manifoldly done by numerous arguments and the logical debunking of all the God arguments proposed by theists, from Aquinas and Augustine to Craig and the Pope.

    Debunking the claims of theists is not the same as providing “positive proof” unless we can claim that no conception of god is possible. I would not go so far as to say that. Most conceptions, especially the popularly held ones, are impossible, but one can always come up with an unassailable god – generally of the deistic stripe – that will evade all attempts at refutation. This, however, doesn’t make that god real, since it still remains for the believer to prove that this god exists.

    All I’m saying is atheists have the burden of proof as well as theists, and putting forth those logical arguments may well go a long way to educating theists more than simply walking away from the problem.

    No, what you are saying is that we should show theists where their positive arguments are lacking and why they don’t constitute arguments for their god’s existence. This is different from presenting positive evidence or bearing the burden of proof.

  • Tomas S

    Karen wrote: I bring this up only to say that theists (particularly fundamentalists) need a lot of education before they can follow this kind of argument and acknowledge its validity.

    As a former Thumper myself, I fully agree. We could also say that Atheists need education to be able to see the side of the believer (and thus avoid “straw man” arguments.)

    It would be interesting to have a list of “baby step” arguments against belief. That is, if a believer can’t swallow the whole argument laid out above, what can they swallow? I don’t know the answer, but as a starter, I’ve been trying the “how do you know the earth is round” question. (A common answer is “well they have pictures” – to which I say “yes, but do YOU have pictures — how do you know they’re not fake?”) From here we can talk about critical thinking, testamony, and evidence without all the baggage.

    A word on “burden of proof”, Atheists often do indeed make positive claims. “The Bible is of earthly origin” is an example of one.

  • Jim Baerg

    Hi Tomas:
    I got in a discussion with a fairly polite Bible Thumper, & in response to my statement that ‘it is the idea of taking things on faith that I reject in religion’, he brought up ‘don’t you need a lot of faith to believe in evolution?’. I immediately changed the subject to how do I know electrons exist to keep the discussion to something that doesn’t have a lot of baggage.

  • Tomas S

    Jim,

    The idea that science requires “faith” is a pulpit staple. You’re sure to hear that one again. For the most part, I never understood the argument, but I think there is an extent to which we accept quite a bit “on faith.” A perfect example is the comment that “they” have pictures taken from space proving the earth is round. This is a statement of faith, since most people never try to verify that the pictures are not fake, nor spend a lot of time trying to find otherways to corroborate the roundess of the earth. This is understanable, since if we questioned everything, we’d never have time to get anything done.

    The diference between “faith that the earth is round” and religious faith is that if I wanted to, I could make a prediction based on the idea that the earth is round and test it myself — often in my own back yard. I can also ask for contrary opinions and test a few predictions about that. Until we can agree on the methods, it’s probably fruitless to try to apply them.

  • OMGF

    A word on “burden of proof”, Atheists often do indeed make positive claims. “The Bible is of earthly origin” is an example of one.

    Sigh…no that is not correct. This claim is a logical conclusion of rejecting the claim that god exists. Because I do not agree that god exists, then I also don’t agree that the Bible is from this god.

  • OMGF

    Update on the atheist debunking letter….

    I saw another editorial with ignorance in the title, but it was about another subject. Alas. It seems that no one wrote to correct the student’s shoddy arguments.

  • Tomas S

    Hello OMGF,

    In what way is “the Bible is of earthly origin” not a positive claim? How is it different from a claim such as “the Bible was written in the middle-east” or “the Bible was written in 1947 in Miami, Florida”? By that token, why do you equate a claim (true or false) that the Bible is “of earthly origin” as being the opposite
    of the claim that it was written by a god?

    I would say that we’re mixing up two different things in this discussion of “burden of proof.” First is the difficulty in proving a universal negative (e.g. “there are no purple swans”). Second is the idea that extrordinary claims require extrordinary proof.

    Consider something like “there is no crocodile in this pond”. This is a negative statement, and according to the orginial post above, the burden of proof should be on anybody who says that there is a crocodile there. If we were in an area where crocodiles are common, I’d like some evidence before I jumped in. What if one person asserted “there is a crocodile” and the other said “the water is safe”? Both are positive statements.

    The burden of proof is on the believer, not because he makes positive statements, but because his statements are extrordinary.

    Finally, I hope that someday you will recognise that starting off a reply with “sigh” is neither respectful nor constructive. It adds nothing to your credibility, yet is likely to awaken various pejorative assumptions (intended or otherwise) in your reader.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Tomas,

    The bible is of earthly origins is a simple claim. Every book that has been written has been written of earthly origins; we don’t have a single counter-example. Since the bible is a book on earth, we can assume it has earthly origins until shown otherwise.

    As for the crocodile example, how you phrase the claim is simply a matter of semantics. Every claim can be made either positive or negative, depending on how you phrase it; it’s a matter instead of prevailing evidence. As you mentioned, you’re more likely to take someone’s word that the water is safe if it’s an area that isn’t known for a crocodile population over one that is. Of course, that get’s into the whole philosophical debate of “how can you know there will still be/not be crocodiles there”, which leads to everything being thrown into relativity in the discussion.

    This of course is completely unhelpful.

    But in science, the burden of proof is on anyone advancing their own claims, and in that sense, the burden of proof is on anyone making a postive claim. People can believe or think whatever they want in the absence of evidence, but if you actually want to make a truth claim or find out facts about the world, regardless of your claim you need evidence. The difference is you can’t prove a negative, so you have to prove the positive reverse claim. The claim also needs to be falisible, otherwise it’s worthless.

    And I think sighing during a debate can be helpful in expressing frustration that would otherwise take a lengthy rant to make. I don’t think it’s ment to be respectful either – respect is something earned, and if their argument doesn’t deserve respect it shouldn’t be given.

  • Tomas S

    The bible is of earthly origins is a simple claim. Every book that has been written has been written of earthly origins; we don’t have a single counter-example. Since the bible is a book on earth, we can assume it has earthly origins until shown otherwise.

    I don’t disagree. My point, however, is that Ebon’s original claim above is that burden of proof follows from whether a claim is positive or negative. I think you and I agree here — that burden of proof follows from our sense of what is reasonable.

    And I think sighing during a debate can be helpful in expressing frustration that would otherwise take a lengthy rant to make. I don’t think it’s ment to be respectful either – respect is something earned, and if their argument doesn’t deserve respect it shouldn’t be given.

    By that token, anybody interested in earning my respect will be as polite as possible at all times – especially when introducing themselves to me. They will also make explain why they disagree with me when the disagree, and not simplly state that I’m wrong. From whence cometh this frustration? Why should OMGF be frustrated that I disagree with Ebon on a point that both you and OMGF himself seem to disagree with him as well?

  • Mrnaglfar

    Tomas,

    It’s not a frustration with you in particular, it’s a frustration with the idea about who has the burden of proof. Saying that the atheist has some burden in proof in proving the bible isn’t the word of god in accurate in this case. Both claims are indeed positive that “the bible is of earthly origins” and “the bible is the word of god”, but the evidence does not fit both of the claims. The frustration is from people claiming that atheists have to somehow prove the bible isn’t the word of god, because they claim it isn’t.

    We agree on the main point I think, it’s just an issue of semantics.

  • Tomas S

    Mrnaglfar (and where do some of these screen names come from) wrote: Saying that the atheist has some burden in proof in proving the bible isn’t the word of god in accurate in this case.

    [I assume you meant "... is inaccurate ..."]

    I agree. Indeed, I didn’t say that the atheist has the burden of proof. In my original comment, I said that Atheists make positive statements. By saying this, I meant to say that I disagree that people making positive claims always have the burden of proof.

    When I made this comment, by the way, I hadn’t noticed that OMGF had already written: I also find it humorous when theists try to shift the burden equally on the atheist with claims that the atheist is making a positive assertion that “There is no god.”

    Isn’t this a “negative” assertion — there is “NO” god?

    Mrnaglfar: We agree on the main point I think, it’s just an issue of semantics.

    Certainly, although it’s worth keeping in mind that with many issues surrounding belief, semantics can be crucial.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Tomas,

    My name actually comes from what a guy in my local cd store called me one day. I thought it sounded fun enough to hold on to.

    and yeah, I seem to have lost my ability to type today. I did mean is inaccurate

    I would say anyone making a positive assertion does need evidence if he expected people to believe him, even simple ones. Of course, some are easier to back up than others, and most people don’t differ on most assertions. Working on the strictly atheist/theist level, the claim “there is no god” is indeed a negative assertion, and what bothers OMGF so much is that theists try to twist that around (I think). All that is though is ignorance in action, when theists either radically or purposefully misunderstand even the basic idea of burden of proof and positive assertion. Philosophically, people can doubt just about anything that isn’t their own existance, since doubt doesn’t require proof, but that line of thought stays very firmly in the philosophical realm, since most claims that follow that are ones that lack falsifiability, and are thus worthless.

    What it all ends up coming back to is that theists are taking their ideas completely on faith, yet trying to prove them using methods that don’t actually prove anything (Which is also completely contradictory to the idea of faith in the first place). The classic line in this debate is the “you can’t DISPROVE god, so that must mean he stands an equal chance of existing or not”.

  • OMGF

    Tomas,

    In what way is “the Bible is of earthly origin” not a positive claim? How is it different from a claim such as “the Bible was written in the middle-east” or “the Bible was written in 1947 in Miami, Florida”? By that token, why do you equate a claim (true or false) that the Bible is “of earthly origin” as being the opposite
    of the claim that it was written by a god?

    The framework I’m working under is that the Bible is the word of god or the Bible is man-made. If I don’t have to prove the god doesn’t exist, why would I have to prove that the Bible comes from man?

    I would say that we’re mixing up two different things in this discussion of “burden of proof.” First is the difficulty in proving a universal negative (e.g. “there are no purple swans”). Second is the idea that extrordinary claims require extrordinary proof.

    The burden of proof is on the believer, not because he makes positive statements, but because his statements are extrordinary.

    You are possibly contradicting yourself and mixing your ideas most certainly. The burden of proof isn’t based on how extraordinary the statement is, but on whether the person making the remark is making a positive statement or not. As you say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” The extraordinariness of the claim might demand more proof, but the burden of proof lies on the positive assertion.

    Finally, I hope that someday you will recognise that starting off a reply with “sigh” is neither respectful nor constructive. It adds nothing to your credibility, yet is likely to awaken various pejorative assumptions (intended or otherwise) in your reader.

    And I hope that someday you will look at the comments in a thread before repeating stuff that I’ve already argued against, hence the sigh. Perhaps you did read it and perhaps you thought your argument was different in some way, but it doesn’t appear so to me. To me, it looks like the same old BS where proof is demanded of atheists for denying theistic claims.

    By that token, anybody interested in earning my respect will be as polite as possible at all times – especially when introducing themselves to me. They will also make explain why they disagree with me when the disagree, and not simplly state that I’m wrong.

    Which is why I explained why you are wrong. Perhaps you missed that too?

    Why should OMGF be frustrated that I disagree with Ebon on a point that both you and OMGF himself seem to disagree with him as well?

    Because I don’t disagree with him, as I’ve pointed out multiple times now. What gives you the idea that I disagree with him? Are you being dishonest or are you simply mistaken, because this is the first comment I’ve made since I first answered you, so I haven’t made any comments that hint at my agreeing with you in any way.

  • Tomas S

    OMGF,

    I believe you have wildly misunderstood what I have said and are asking me to defend positions that I do not hold – so apologies in advance if I don’t answer each individual question you posed. A few comments, however.

    You wrote: The burden of proof isn’t based on how extraordinary the statement is, but on whether the person making the remark is making a positive statement or not.

    I could claim that I do not have a heart beating in my chest. Nobody would believe me. Furthermore, nobody would ask you for proof if you made the positive statement that I do. Maybe this isn’t science, but it is common sense. Here the claim “I do not have a heart beating in my chest” carries the burden of proof not because it’s positive, but because it’s extrordinary.

    so I haven’t made any comments that hint at my agreeing with you in any way.

    I didn’t say you agree with me. I said you disagree wih Ebon. Actually, I said that you “seem” to disagree with him. I drew this conclusion based on what I read above – specifically, Ebon’s claim that positive claims always require proof and negatives never do coupled with your suggestion (perhaps unintentional) that “there is no God” is a positive statement.

    I will acknowledge that I might not be expressing myself clearly. It is also possible that I am misunderstanding you. That said, it should be clear that you have been reading into my posts from the beginning. I said that “the Bible is of earthly origin” is a positive statement, and from that you concluded at least two things that are not true:

    1 – That I believe that Atheists need to prove that statement.

    2 – That the inverse of this statement is “the Bible is written by God”.

  • OMGF

    I could claim that I do not have a heart beating in my chest. Nobody would believe me. Furthermore, nobody would ask you for proof if you made the positive statement that I do. Maybe this isn’t science, but it is common sense.

    That would be because it has already been proven beyond any reasonable doubt (even for very unreasonable people) that humans do have hearts in their chests. Before this was proven, however, it was the positive claim that needed proving. Before we knew what the insides of people looked like, if you had said that I have a “heart” inside of me and showed me a picture of a human heart, I might very well have been skeptical.

    I didn’t say you agree with me. I said you disagree wih Ebon.

    Nice semantic evasion, but you did say:

    Why should OMGF be frustrated that I disagree with Ebon on a point that both you and OMGF himself seem to disagree with him as well?

    In plain English, hopefully you can see how someone would get the idea that the point you disagree with Ebon on would be the same one that I allegedly disagreed with which would lead to you claiming that I agree with you. For the record, I don’t agree with you. It is simply not the case that the burden of proof lies on extraordinary claims due to their extraordinariness.

    Actually, I said that you “seem” to disagree with him. I drew this conclusion based on what I read above – specifically, Ebon’s claim that positive claims always require proof and negatives never do coupled with your suggestion (perhaps unintentional) that “there is no God” is a positive statement.

    What I said was:

    I also find it humorous when theists try to shift the burden equally on the atheist with claims that the atheist is making a positive assertion that “There is no god.”

    How you could turn that into me saying that “There is no god” is a positive statement is beyond me.

    I said that “the Bible is of earthly origin” is a positive statement, and from that you concluded at least two things that are not true:

    1 – That I believe that Atheists need to prove that statement.

    2 – That the inverse of this statement is “the Bible is written by God”.

    OK, I may have misjudged number 1, but I explained the rationale behind number 2. If you aren’t going to pay attention, then at least admit it.

  • Tomas S

    OMGF,

    I’ll pass on the “I said; you said” game this time.

    That would be because it has already been proven beyond any reasonable doubt (even for very unreasonable people) that humans do have hearts in their chests.

    Okay, then I could claim that I’m not human. That’s a negative statement, isn’t it? If you were to state that I am indeed human, then you would be making a positive statement. Does this suggest that you have the burden of proof?

    Perhaps it would be constructive if someone would define what a positive statement is.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Alas. It seems that no one wrote to correct the student’s shoddy arguments.

    OMGF, have you considered writing in yourself? It could be that the editor’s just choosing not to publish any letters that do come in; if your letter is rejected, we’ll at least know what’s going on.

  • OMGF

    Tomas S,
    Of course you are going to pass on the “I said; you said” game, because it’s quite clear that you are either not following what people are saying and inputting your own arguments onto them (as you so blithely accuse others of doing) or you are completely unable to keep up.

    Anyway, we could come up with all kinds of weird what-ifs, and I’m not going to try and rebut every single permutation you have of the same question. (Why am I reminded of the guy in physics during general relativity that had questions about going in a train at the speed of light and throwing a flashlight forward and other such variations?)

    A positive statement is a declaration. Whenever one makes a declaration, then one is making a positive assertion and that statement must be proven. Merely negating that positive assertion is not a positive statement in itself. For instance, “There is no god,” is really shorthand (for those who don’t make straw man characterizations of the atheistic position) for “I deny the assertion made by theists that there is a god.” Thus, it needs no proof.

    “The Bible is an Earthly book,” is similar in that in the context of religious discussion, the Bible is a book from god, a god that is not shown to exist. Therefore, I deny that the Bible is from god, making it an Earthly book. If you wish to assert that it comes from god (or space aliens), then prove it, otherwise I am perfectly within the bounds of reason to accept that the Bible has its origins here on Earth unless you can prove to me otherwise.

    “I am not human” can indeed be a declarative statement if one is asserting that one is an alien. However, it can also be a statement denying the positive assertion that one is human. That statement, however, has generally met the burden of proof, so to deny it is to be irrational and foolish. Perhaps you are getting it now? Please, no more examples of the exact same thing. I’ve explained it now numerous times and I’m loathe to think that you could be so thick as to not get it by now, except by willful ignorance. Extraordinariness does not make a claim bear the burden of proof. It is that a claim is an assertion that it bears the burden of proof. We take many things for granted and assume that certain things need no proof, but that is a mistake. When an assertion is first made, proof is needed. When the burden of proof is met, then we go on about our lives, but that doesn’t mean that we should forget that we only accept those positive assertions because the burden of proof has been met.

  • OMGF

    DamienSB,
    This is a college paper we are talking about from a small town in the Midwest, and I bet they’d be surprised to receive a letter to the editor from someone living in the NE! I’ll think about it, but I would bet that a more local voice would be more accepted than mine. If anyone here is from that area, perhaps you could write something? If not, then maybe I’ll put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and see what I can do. It’s almost too easy though, isn’t it?

  • Tomas S

    OMGF,

    I am passing on the game because experience has shown me that it serves only to annoy people (participants and onlookers) and is rarely constructive – especially since so far you seem quite interested in making assumptios about me and calling me names. Let’s try to keep it constructive.

    I reject your definition of “positive statement”, but fully accept your claim that the negation of a positive statement does not become another positive statement.

    As I understand what Ebon meant by “positive claim”, the following can both be seen as positive claims.

    - I have a heart.
    - I can survive without a heart.

    Adding “don’t” or “not” would make them negative.

    We sense the burden of proof here, not based on whether the statement is positive, but how the idea fits with other things we know. Many negative statements can easiy be rephrased as positive and/or imply other positive statements. I contend that the idea that burdon of proof follows positivity simply is not useful.

    I have made two simple claims on this page.

    1 – Atheists do indeed make positive claims.
    2 – Burden does not necessarily follow from whether a claim avoids negatives like “not” or “no.”

    Do you really disagree with me?

  • James Bradbury

    I think Tomas S may have a point here and there is a need for some clarification of what a positive statement is (with non-contentious examples?) and whether it is relevant to the burden of proof, if indeed there are any reasonable consensus for determining burden of proof.

    Well, I’m confused anyway!

    Surely the burden of proof is only as strong as your desire to get others to agree with you?

  • OMGF

    No, Tomas, I don’t agree with you since those are not the only claims you have made. Your claim was that burden of proof follows the extraordinariness of a claim. This is simply incorrect.

    I do agree that atheists make positive claims in the sense that all people make positive claims from time to time. It is not true, however, that atheists make positive claims in regards to the debate over religion, except maybe a few that think that they can disprove god. (It should be noted that this does not include the disproofs based on falsifying the attributes of god that have been positively asserted by theists.)

    I would change your second statement to read that positive statements don’t necessarily follow from whether a claim avoids negatives like “not” or “no” at least in the context of the OP. In the OP, it is quite clear that Ebon was speaking about statements that match the definition I gave. If you disagree with that definition, as you say you do, then you are arguing under terms that Ebon and I are not using. You might want to get on the same page. (Note: Ebon, if I am wrong, feel free to correct me.)

    I’d also like to know what names I have called you. Please provide some support for your positive claim that I have called you names, because even though it isn’t an extraordinary claim, you still bear the burden of proof. If you insist on making this personal, that’s up to you, but I see no need to go down that road. That I disagree with you doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily attacking you personally and you would do well to remember that.

  • Tomas S

    Please provide some support for your positive claim that I have called you names

    At the risk of sounding like I’m avoiding the issue, I think I’ll pass on this on the grounds that to comply would be annoying. Feel free to think that you have been polite and respectful through this discussion.

  • OMGF

    Tomas
    (paraphrasing)I can’t back up my claims that you are being mean to me, so I’m just going to keep insinuating that you are.(/paraphrase)
    Whatever. If you can’t back up your accusations, then perhaps you should withdraw them?
    Also, I’m not going to say that I’ve been polite and respectful, because honestly your comments/arguments haven’t merited respect. If you want to whine and complain about what I write without understanding the context behind it, then don’t be surprised when you don’t gather respect. If you want respect, I suggest that you stop with the crying, make some decent arguments, and stop denying saying things that you’ve said (and that I quote back to you to prove you said them).

  • Tomas S

    In case anybody is wondering, I’m perfectly willing to back up what I say. What I am not willing to do is to back up something I didn’t say, or split hairs such as the difference between “not being polite or respectful” (which OMGF freely admits) and “calling someone names” when there are more interesting or more important things to discuss.

    James Bradbury:

    I think Tomas S may have a point here and there is a need for some clarification of what a positive statement is (with non-contentious examples?) and whether it is relevant to the burden of proof,

    Last night I did two Google searches: “burden of proof” (with the quotes) and the same search with the word “postive” included outside the quotes. There were many interesting hits, and a good number of them had to do with the God/NoGod debate.

    The first few I looked at were about “the falacy of Burden of Proof”, and I must say that I found these the least inspiring. They seemed to be saying that this “falacy” is requiring more proof for one side than the other. Isn’t that “special pleading”?

    The one explicit definition of “positive claim” was on an Atheist site and was “anything to which a truth value can be assigned”. The author explicitly included “there is no God” as a positive claim (or did he say Leprichaun instead of God?) but then went on to explain why this side doesn’t have the burden of proof.

    I think it was the same essay that included an interesting discussion about the “presumption of guilt”. With such a presumption, a person would not be able to defend against absurd claims such as “you are a witch who magically removes all evidince against her” or “you are the cause of all unexplained cancers.” A “presumption of truth” would require us to believe a potentially infinate number of undisprovable nonsense, like the celestial teapot.

    One of the more reasonable discussions of “burden of proof” is about.com:
    http://atheism.about.com/od/doesgodexist/a/burdenofproof.htm
    (I’m including the link this time becaue it’s the one that I still have open on my computer.)

    Here’s the concluson:

    The “burden of proof” is not something static which one party must always carry; rather, it is something which legitimately shifts during the course of a debate as arguments and counter-arguments are made. You are, of course, under no obligation to accept any particular claim as true, but if you insist that a claim isn’t reasonable or credible, you should be willing to explain how and why.

    I think this touches on James’s comment that the burden of proof is only as strong as your desire to get others to agree with you .

    BTW, to anyone not familiar with about.com, I recommend the atheism pages there.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Tomas,

    “There is no god” is not a positive claim for a number of reasons.
    1) There is no accepted definition of what god is.
    2) It’s worthless to make a claim about the existance of something that lacks falisifability.
    3) It’s a claim doubting the existance of a different proposed idea.
    4) There is no existing evidence for god

    In case that doesn’t make sense:

    Similiar to the heart question, OMFG was indeed correct in saying that the claim one does not have a heart is not the same argument because there’s a well established body of evidence already existing that there is such a thing as a heart and all people have one. There is, however, no existing evidence or definition for god, so the claim there is no god is not going against any body of evidence.

    I think of positive claims in the manner of the legal system; Innocent until proven guilty. If someone is making a claim against another in court, the one making the claim needs to back up their idea with sufficent evidence. There is no god is a statement similiar to the prosecutor claiming the defendant did not commit a crime, or perhaps to prosecutor claiming a defendant did commit a crime, but failing to prove any evidence.

    If that’s murky, I can clean it up.

  • Tomas S

    Thanks Mrnagalfar,

    I’m not necessarily inclinded to disagree with you, but I’ll point out that even as you listed several reasons why OMGS’s example (“there is no God”; my original example was “the Bible is of earthly origin”) is not a positive claim, we’re still without a definition of “positive claim” (if you don’t count the two possible ones I listed.) I think you’ve listed good reasons why it’s reasonable to believe that it’s a “true claim”, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I remain agnostic on whether it’s a “positive” one.

    BTW, regarding the definition I mentioned yesterday, I wonder what the difference is between a “positive claim” and just any old “claim.”

    I think there would be plenty of reasons not to believe me if I said that I did not have a heart, but these reasons (or most of them, anyway) do not hinge on whether “I do not have a heart” is a “positive claim” or not. I will also agree that there is a lot of evidence that a functioning heart is a universal posession for all earthly beings able to type at a keyboard, but I will not go so far as to say that it’s not necessary to make reference to this evidence when asked a question like “why don’t you believe that I don’t have a heart?”.

    I hope you will read the about.com article I linked to above. Even in court, a good defence will indeed make positive claims and attemt to prove them – for the very purpose of providing “reasonable doubt” about the prosecutions own claims.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Tomas,

    Even in court, a good defence will indeed make positive claims and attemt to prove them – for the very purpose of providing “reasonable doubt” about the prosecutions own claims.

    A defense will likely involve countering claims and evidence presented by the prosecutor. However, in the case of Bible earthly vs. Not, it would be similiar to two different trials; one in which the prosecution presents no evidence, and one where both prosecution and defense are offering evidence. That’s a more adequate analogy.

    I think there would be plenty of reasons not to believe me if I said that I did not have a heart, but these reasons (or most of them, anyway) do not hinge on whether “I do not have a heart” is a “positive claim” or not.

    The reasons not to believe you have nothing to do with positive claims, but instead available evidence. If one seeks to make a claim about the existance of something, they need evidence. At one point “I have a heart” was a positive claim, and it still is, except now it’s backed up by mountains of evidence. A negative claim would be “I do not have a heart”, positive and negative in this case merely meaning whether you’re talking about the object in terms of existing or not. However, it would need to be supported because of the overwhelming evidence against the possibility; all in all though, it’s an easily testable claim.

    Evidence is the sole link to truth. If a person makes an extraordinary claim, we don’t have to search the whole universe to disprove it – we just have to ask that person how they know that, what facts they have that led them to believe in that way. If they can’t produce such facts, then we’re justified in concluding that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and there’s no reason to believe them.

    This is why the person who makes the positive claim has the burden of proof to support it. Since we’re not justified in believing something for which we don’t have evidence, a person who claims to be justified in their belief is under the obligation to present their evidence. By contrast, a lack of belief in a given proposition requires no positive justifying evidence, only the absence of evidence to the contrary. Therefore, it is the default position, and does not incur any special burden of proof.

    The claim “The bible is of earthly origins” is a positive claim, as is “The bible is not of earthly origins”; “the bible is not of earthly origins” is not simply doubting that claim that it is, it’s posing an alternative possibility. Both are making claims as to specific qualities of the book.

    Take the claim the bible is of earthly origin. We can even go a step further, claim that books are of earthly origin.

    That is the principle of burden of proof: the person who makes a positive claim has an obligation to support it if they wish others to believe them. It is not the responsibility of others to prove that claim false. Closely related to this is the principle of falsifiability – that is, what sorts of claims it is possible to prove or disprove. This post will discuss both of these ideas.

    Knowing nothing about the book, one could make the claim it’s an earthly book, and others could be free to doubt that claim and believe it’s a non-earthly book; others remain agnostic about it, so we start from there.

    The claim itself a relatively beign one. By believing that books are of earthly origin, little if any impact is made on one’s life. There’s plenty of evidence to show books can be created, from the processes of harvesting and processing materials, and then through writing. There’s a history of written documents, and it can be seen how it began and evolved from simple cave paintings to modern day printing presses. In no step along the way has anything other than an earthly origin been observed, nor verified through any test. All this is able to be verified through testing that is both repeatable and observable by others. So far we’re in good shape.

    Now, one claims the bible is of earthly origin. We have evidence of countless different books that share the same themes as parts of the bible; we have evidence of different cultures living under some of the same sets of rules as described in the bible; perhaps not all in one particular place, but overall the bible doesn’t offer much new. We could look into the history of other mythic story telling and see parallels in different versions of the same story as it changes through oral tradition. In short, any test we could run on the bible or evidence we could examine from different prospectives all points to there being nothing intrsinically special about the bible, in part or in whole.

    Likewise, there has never been a test determined to figure out supposed non-earthly origins of books or inspiration for books. While it’s not entirely impossible that some extra-earthly source of books exists, if it can’t be tested it’s worthless as a claim. So given this large body of available evidence using any book, we can safely assume it is of earthly origins; we have never been able to find a counter-example.

  • Mrnaglfar

    I suppose I should add something real quick. In the debate between the bible being divinely inspired or not (which is what the question is really referring to), in that case it’s a different story. The claim the bible is divinely inspired is a positive claim, the claim that the bible is not divinely inspired is simply a doubt of that claim.

    The bible is of earthly origins is not needing to be proved, even though as I posted above, it could be. It’s not trying to be proved because it holds little bearing on the reality of things; it’s merely not a concern. However, the other possibility, that the bible is not of earthly origins, or divinely inspired, is still being posed, and it still lacks any evidence.

    In short, the atheist doesn’t share the burden of proof because, as far as I’ve seen the debate go, the atheist never tries to prove the bible is of earthly origins (even though one hypothetically could), merely points out there’s no evidence available to suppose it was divinely inspired.

    I feel that answers your question a little faster.

  • Tomas S

    Heya Mrnaglfar,

    I know you didn’t say anything against this, but I suddenly feel the need to spell out that I am an atheist and have been one for about 15 years. I mention this because you seem to be putting a lot of energy into specific arguments about whether the Bible is true or not, when what I’m trying to ask is much more general. Surely I will not disagree with your conclusions, but I’m curious about the rules of engagement, if you will.

    We’re not (at least I think we’re not) really talking about court cases, but about real life interactions with our friends, co-workers, and loved ones. If it should happen (as happened just this week) that I should mention in the course of an amusing personal anectote that I am an atheist, and a co-worker should see that detail as a show-stopper worth derailing my story to ask about my belief, should I laugh in his face and tell him that the Burden of Proof is his and to go away? FSM forbid! No, I tell him about my mother who is slowily fading away from Alsheimers. What is mind, soul, or spirit if it can be lost piece by piece? He asks why I’m an atheist, and I answer.

    It is very easy to imagine a conversation where a believer might ask if there’s no God, where did life come from — what about the eye. The atheist says that it was designed by natural selection – and bang, there’s a claim and the burden has shifted.

    I still don’t see the difference between just a claim and a “positive claim.”

    I also must disagree with you about “available evidence.” It doesn’t matter whether information is “available”, only whether it’s known or presented. When I ask people how they know the world is round, they often answer that “they have pictures.” Sure, “they” have pictures, but do you have pictures, I ask them. How do you know they’re not fake if you didn’t witness how they were taken? They usually blink and change the subject. People aren’t used to thinking and questioning their assumptions. This is good to a point, because otherwise we’d spend all our time reinventing the wheel. Still, if asked to, we should be able to step back and think about what we would need to do to verify something we believe.

    If I claimed not to have a heart, and you responded that everybody has one, I could ask you to support that claim. You could mention that hearts are vital (no pun intended) for getting oxygen to the cells, and then ask how I manage this without a heart. You would have shifted the burden of proof back. (Although, perhaps your best move would be to dismiss me as a loonie and move one.) You cannot argue, however that “everybody knows”, since “everybody” has been wrong many times in human history.

    If (proverbially speaking) your mother asks you why she should give up the beliefs she was raised with, would you tell her that the burden is on her to prove that she shouldn’t? Perhaps ultimately, yes, but not until you’ve had many converations and discussed many claims on both sides – presenting evidence or explaining why other evidence should not be counted. To state categorically that either side (in any debate) has the entire burden of proof is overly simplistic.

  • talamini714

    Evidence is the sole link to truth.

    That’s quite a hefty claim. To make that claim, you have to establish a definition of ‘truth’, which would probably include a definition of ‘mind’ and ‘reality’ (My functional definition of ‘truth’ is “Whenever something of mind matches up with something of reality” – But that’s tricky, because what does ‘matches up’ mean? I have to go into a lengthly discussion of ‘form’ to explain it.)

    You also have to have a definition of ‘evidence’, and you would probably also want to establish the trustworthiness of your senses. I haven’t ever believed that my senses were trustworthy.

    When you make the positive claim that there is only one link to truth, BAM! the burden of proof is on you. I mean, I make that claim too, about Jesus, and when I do it the burden of proof is on me.

  • James Bradbury

    talamini714,
    Unfortunately, in my experience making definitions is fruitless as it leads to an infinite regress.

    Evidence is popular because it is so far the most consistent and reliable method of working things out. By which I mean that independently examined evidence leads both parties to the same conclusion. The same cannot be said of faith.

  • Tomas S

    Ok Talamini, I’ll bite.

    There are a few things which I take to be true without evidence. I reject “Last Thursdayism” and the idea that the universe is a The Matrix-like simulation without any evidence. I do this because they are essentially meaningless. If life is a simulation, I can use “evidence” to find out how this simulation works. Even if I’m not finding “truth”, I’m finding out something useful and which I want to find out.

    I do not always trust my senses, but I trust them more than any alternative I can think of. What alternatives did you have in mind?

    We could imagine… hypothesize, if you will… that God created the universe leaving no trace of himself which can be found empirically, but that he wanted to be known, so he sent the Bible. (If you don’t believe the Bible, fill in your own blank here.) The Bible (or Blank) has no benefits which can be demonstrated empirically, but if you follow it, God will restore your mind in an alternate universe, or perhaps let you come visit this one in the future.

    (In case this isn’t obvious, this is *not* what most believers are suggesting. It also negates the atheist’s claim that a god with no empirically detectable effects is good for nothing.)

    How could we establish this as truth? I have no idea. We can’t rely on any empirical evidence, and any internal evidence should be suspect as well. — consider the following legend:

    “In the beginning was King Lumos, who created many lords to help him. Lumos created the universe and made humanity to enjoy it. By his own willpower the universe continues to exist. One day the lords decided to overthrow king Lumos, lead by the chief Lord Vortamort. Lord Vortamort then revealed himself to humanity claiming to be the creator and spreading the lie that King Lumos was the Angel of Light and author of lies. King Lumos will eventually stop sustaining the universe for all but those who have rejected the claims of Lord Vortamort, who claims to be the Word of God made flesh.”

    How can we ever confirm that this is blasphemy and not truth?

  • talamini714

    Tomas,

    Here’s my position, which I think is true Christian doctrine: The truth about God is obscured. It’s covered up, and can’t be seen by empirical evidence. To people who have faith, it gets uncovered (this ‘uncovering’ is the greek word ‘apocalypse’). This faith is faith in Jesus – But the uncovering uncovers all sorts of other spiritual truths – So it’s not like the uncovering is useless because it only uncovers what you already believe through your faith. For instance, because of my faith in Jesus, He’s given me certain insights into the nature of the Holy Spirit – things that I didn’t know before.

    Anyway, it’s impossible to disprove this position, because I can say about any argument you offer me: “That only seems true to you because for you the truth is still ‘covered up’. For me, however, there has been an uncovering of the truth.” In essense, I can say that I understand something that you can’t understand, and you can’t understand how I understand it. I can say it’s like you’re a person who’s been blind from birth, and you’re telling me that there’s no such thing as the color red, or telling me that the burden of proof is on me to prove the existence of the color blue.

    My position is utterly unscientific, since it posits an essential epistemological difference between Christians and non-Christians. Any claim the sighted man makes is ‘unfalsifiable’ by the blind man – Of course. He can’t see, and he can’t experience what sight is, so he isn’t in a position to either confirm or deny anything concerning colors. For him to be able to see and know about red or blue, there has to be a change made to his physical body. Nobody can prove color to him – The only thing to do is heal him.

    Of course, in making such a claim, I find the burden of proof is on me: To prove this claim, I would have to show that there exists such a difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. However, this is an interesting kind of claim, because part of the claim is that I cannot under any circumstances prove it to you. That would be to prove to you the claim that says that I cannot prove anything to you. If I really believe my own claim, I won’t even try. I’ll just describe my position, and leave it at that.

    So… Sorry. (And sorry this post ran so long)

  • OMGF

    talamini,

    Here’s my position, which I think is true Christian doctrine: The truth about God is obscured. It’s covered up, and can’t be seen by empirical evidence. To people who have faith, it gets uncovered (this ‘uncovering’ is the greek word ‘apocalypse’). This faith is faith in Jesus – But the uncovering uncovers all sorts of other spiritual truths – So it’s not like the uncovering is useless because it only uncovers what you already believe through your faith.

    The obvious question here is: what about former Xians? Certainly, those who have had faith in Jesus would have had all this revealed, so how do you explain those who leave their faith behind?

    I can say it’s like you’re a person who’s been blind from birth, and you’re telling me that there’s no such thing as the color red, or telling me that the burden of proof is on me to prove the existence of the color blue.

    If you wish to assert that god exists, the burden of proof is on you to back it up, especially if you wish for anyone else to take you seriously. Otherwise, we should all believe in every god that has ever been posited.

    My position is utterly unscientific, since it posits an essential epistemological difference between Christians and non-Christians.

    If this difference is at all measureable, then it is something that can be scientifically investigated. Unfortunately for you, no study has ever revealed such a difference.
    Of course, in making such a claim, I find the burden of proof is on me: To prove this claim, I would have to show that there exists such a difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. However, this is an interesting kind of claim, because part of the claim is that I cannot under any circumstances prove it to you.
    Ah, but we do have ex-Xians here (myself included) who can be used to verify your claim that Xians who have faith in god are somehow different and able to see the truth of god. Owing to the high numbers of atheists on this board who are former Xians who have said (in other threads) that there is no difference and there is no truth to god, I find your claims sorely lacking both in evidence and in credibility. Further, if you can’t prove this claim to us, then you’ll understand when we don’t believe your claim has any validity. I do wonder what proof you think that you have that you are correct. Personal experience perhaps? How can you prove that this was actual contact with god?

  • Jim Baerg

    I can say it’s like you’re a person who’s been blind from birth, and you’re telling me that there’s no such thing as the color red, or telling me that the burden of proof is on me to prove the existence of the color blue.

    A blind person can talk to people who claim to have this sense that he doesn’t. He can set things up a certain way in a room, then bring them in & ask them to say where those things are without feeling around. In this way he can confirm that they have some way of sensing things that really exist that he does not. He can confirm the existence of some of the things sighted people talk about by the use of the senses he does have.

    Humans have determined the existence of radiation we cannot see directly by their effects on things we can detect with the senses we have. Read about the discoveries of X-rays, radio, neutrinos etc.

    The blind person can in principle build instruments to detect light & eventually determine that what sighted people call red & blue correspond to types of light that his instruments can distinguish.

    I think your analogy between the non-Christian & the blind man is defective.

  • Tomas S

    Yes, it’s a completely defective analogy.

    A sighted person could take two disks differing only by color and hand them both to a blind man. The blind man could then ask another sighted person which one is blue. Even if a blind person can’t visualise color (who knows), he can very easily believe it exists since he can witness sighted people using color to affect things which he can check empiricaly.

    I have no idea what it’s like to be a dog on a scent trail, but I can be sure they exist.

    I am familiar with the idea that being born again is like receiving a new spiritual sense (believing is seeing), having believed it myself. What good is it, though, if this sense doesn’t let you know anything remotly verifiable, and how can a person possibly know that Satan didn’t create the world and Jesus is the Father of Lies?

  • Andrew

    I have to disagree here: the burdon of proof isnt on the ‘positive’ claim, but on THE PERSON WHO IS TRYING TO CONVINCE SOMEBODY. An athiest who couldnt care less what other people believe has no burdon of proof, the person trying to convert him does. However an athiest who trys to ‘de-convert’ people(yes, it happens I’v personally seen it), had BETTER show some proof, at least if he wants to succeed

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I have to disagree here: the burdon of proof isnt on the ‘positive’ claim, but on THE PERSON WHO IS TRYING TO CONVINCE SOMEBODY.

    So, if you tell me that unicorns exist and I decide to try and convince you otherwise, the burden of proof is on me? And, it’s perfectly rational for you to continue to believe in unicorns until I can disprove them? Really?

  • Andrew

    Yes, although I would imagine most people probably wouldnt care if somebody else believes in unicorns at all.

    Let me ask you this: How else would convince somebody unicorns dont exist? Or for a more mundane example, that the US wasnt involved in 9/11?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Andrew,
    Yes, how would one convince another that unicorns don’t exist? How would you convince a Muslim that Allah doesn’t exist? That’s why the burden of proof lies on the one making the positive claim (that unicorns exist, that Allah exists, etc.)

    Let’s try a different example. The police come to your door and say that you are guilty of murder. You wish to convince them that they are wrong and you have committed no murder. Is the burden of proof on you to do so? According to what you’ve written you’d be guilty until proven innocent (or at least, they are justified in believing that you are guilty until you prove otherwise). This is why logic, rationality, and our justice system don’t work this way.

  • Andrew

    Yes, how would one convince another that unicorns don’t exist? How would you convince a Muslim that Allah doesn’t exist? That’s why the burden of proof lies on the one making the positive claim (that unicorns exist, that Allah exists, etc.)

    That doesnt answer my question.

    Let’s try a different example. The police come to your door and say that you are guilty of murder. You wish to convince them that they are wrong and you have committed no murder. Is the burden of proof on you to do so?

    Yes, if they are arresting me, they must have some reason for thinking I did it. Or do you think police arrest people at random?

    they are justified in believing that you are guilty until you prove otherwise).

    And they would be. Again if they arrested me, they must have some reason for thinking I’m guilty. It’s my job to show them wrong. Particularly in high profile cases such as murder, the police will almost never arrest a suspect until they are certain they can prove it in court.

    Actually, its not even my job to convince the police, I have to convince the Jury, who(in theory at least) know nothing about the case and have no vested interest in the outcome of the trial.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    There are well-known cases where people have been arrested falsely for very serious crimes, such as murder and rape. The police might have a reason, but luckily for us, we understand that the state owns the burden of proof. Your way of thinking leads us to have to accept that leprechauns, invisible pink unicorns, and anything else that anyone can conjure up are acceptable beliefs unless we can disprove them. And, how does one disprove gods or other ideas that are completely beyond falsifiable? Sorry, but you are simply wrong, because rationality would not work under your scheme.

    You are also wrong about how the justice system works, and we are all better off for it. You don’t have to convince the jury you are innocent, the prosecution has to convince the jury that you are guilty, because they are making the positive claim.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Andrew,
    Thinking about this more, I think I understand where the problem lies for you with the police example I put forth. Suppose that the judge also thinks you are guilty, or the jury members. You would go to jail unless you could prove your innocence, regardless of what the prosecutor says or does. Yet, this is not how our justice system works, is it?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Andrew

    I have to disagree here: the burdon of proof isnt on the ‘positive’ claim, but on THE PERSON WHO IS TRYING TO CONVINCE SOMEBODY.

    On the face of it, this seems reasonable; but it is just flat wrong. For example say you walk into my office and I say “Sorry, there’s nowhere to sit”. You can see a chair so say, “Yes there is”. You have made the positive claim and the burden of proof is on you. This is not a problem though because you have the chair and can further empirically prove your case by sitting on it. On the other hand, you and I walk into a Church. I say, “Sorry Andrew but there is no god here”. You say “Yes there is, He’s all around us”. You again have the burden of proof. I await the empirical evidence…

  • thinker

    Ebonmuse’s two points remain intact: The only propositions to which we should give our assent are those that are falsifiable and for which the burden of proof has been met.” But several posts dance around an issue that should be explained more: How MUCH proof satisfies the burden? In criminal law = beyond a resonable doubt. In much civil law = the lighter standard of preponderance of evidence (51%). In the court of public opinion, whether someone feels the burden has been met depends on whether they used the critical-thinking skills explained in these posts, especially #1, which I paraphrase as: When an issue is in dispute, and the outcome of following an alternative has a [reasonable] likelihood of causing a [significant] harmful consequence, then the burden of proof should be higher.


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