Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Burden of Proof is on the Atheist Redux

I’ve gotten enough comments from colleagues, blog responders, and students to say some more about this, although a full treatment would take many pages.

First, my view is that while in the end I clearly think atheism is the reasonable conclusion to draw, and that anyone who hasn’t yet, should, the starting points for different people and the standards by which they evaluate evidence are highly variable. There simply are no universal standards of reasonableness whereby it would make any sense to say that anyone who doesn’t accept atheism is unreasonable or irrational.

My claim is not that theists have no work to do to justify their positions. Ultimately, everyone can do better than they are doing with regard to having a well-justified, coherent belief system. And ultimately, I think that anyone who doesn’t draw the atheist conclusion has probably gone off the tracks somewhere.

My position is that the burden of proof is in large part a socially determined entity.

It is naïve to think that the Cartesian model applies to human reasoning whereby we start with nothing and then build up a network of justified beliefs one at a time. That’s neither an accurate picture of how we come by our beliefs, nor is it a plausible goal for how we ought to proceed in assessing our beliefs. Wittgenstein got this much right—he said that belief comes first, then doubt second. What he meant was that as a person matures through childhood, everyone acquires a vast network of interconnected expectations, predictive principles, and beliefs about the world. The character that this starting framework of belief takes depends largely on the historical, social, and epistemic context that that person finds themselves dropped into. That context may provide them with beliefs that are false like, “Fever causes demon possession,” and inference rules that are faulty. One nineteenth century logic textbook endorses the Gambler’s Fallacy, for instance. I have a very difficult time convincing some introductory logic students that it’s a mistake. If someone has been surrounded by (authoritative!) people who endorse it, and it appears to be supported by one’s experience, and even your textbooks recommend it, how could a person possibly be held epistemically culpable for not seeing what we now know is a mistake. That would be as foolish as faulting Heraclitus for not knowing the implications of research from 21st century particle accelerators for atomic and subatomic theory.

So it’s the epistemic context that frames out the starting position for everyone as to what’s prima facie reasonable. Even during the same historical period, that will vary from context to context. Common sense to someone born and raised in the jungles of Borneo will be radically different than common sense to someone born and raised in the same era in urban San Francisco.

The fact that so many people in American culture are religious and profess to believe in God allows us to make some generalizations. The general situation we find ourselves in is one where for the vast majority of people it is completely intuitive and obvious that God exists. Many, maybe most, Americans never paus to consider seriously that there might not be a God. And for the ones who did, the implications as they see it for a meaningless, ammoral, nihilistic existence quickly make it evident that such musings are dangerous and/or preposterous. Many of them have heard of atheists and atheism—but such a prospect seems unnatural, ugly, counterintuitive, and remote. Everyone believes in God, afterall. What could be more obvious?

For the most part, these are all normal, reasonable, mentally healthy, cognitively functioning adults. The atheist who scoffs that anyone who believes in God is stupid, foolish, unreflective, or in the grip of a psychiatric disorder simply hasn’t been paying attention and has been shirking their own epistemological responsibilities. This atheist is little better than the sulking and immature teenager who pouts that “Everyone is soooo stupid. They are such conformist sheep. I hate them.” I’ve been there, and I like Bauhaus and Joy Division as much as the next guy. But atheists and atheism as a movement has got to grow up. (Unfortunately, I think some of Richard Dawkins evangelical, anti-theist vitriol may represent some backsliding. Nevertheless, I sure enjoy it.)

To be fair, there are unreflective and even dumb theists, and they need to be shaken up and challenged just like we all do. But it would be a gross and irresponsible over-generalization to be dismissive of theism altogether. And now I’m making two points: one, for most Americans, theism (Christian) is the default backdrop against which any worldview they ultimately settle upon must be tested. Second, there are some powerful, interesting, and challenging arguments for the existence of God out there, and no atheist who has taken the issue seriously can claim to have secured justification for their view until they have considered those arguments carefully and figured out what’s wrong with them.

So like it or not, atheists find themselves in this hostile, or at least contradicting, environment. And that environment sets the framework of principles, rules of evidence, and beliefs from which every person has to start. Since the atheist conclusion is so deeply contradictory to the context they find themselves in, the lion’s share of the burden of proof will be on them.

The alternative view, like Flew’s, seems to be that the belief that there is no such X is always the justified, default starting point, and that anyone who wishes to conclude anything different than just having a blank slate must provide adequate proof to motivate the belief. This is outrageous for a number of reasons. You haven’t done that and probably can’t do that for a great many (maybe most) of the reasonable beliefs you have. You didn’t populate your head with all of your beliefs by deliberately and consciously starting from a blank slate and then only after acquiring sufficient reasons accepting a belief into a special circle of sanctioned views. Becoming a conscious, reflective adult capable of thinking about your reasons already required that you had a full set of beliefs about your world that you inherited from your environment and that came to you naturally. We do not have a blank hard drive for a mind, despite the popularity of that metaphor, that are written onto by experience. A web of beliefs is consciousness—they are what make a worldview possible at all. Without the context of belief you’d have nothing to doubt, no questions to ask, nothing to wonder about.

And just like reasonableness depends on so many subjective factors, evidence is not a clean, objective logical notion. It’s not that people who disagree with you have no evidence at all. What do you think you were the first person to see this singular, unambiguous phenomena in the world because you’re so much smarter than all of them? And you were the first 15 year old to think that everybody is a conformist too, weren't you? Evidence, for the most part, is what a person takes it to be. Evidence doesn’t just exist out there on its own. Some phenomena only becomes evidence in virtue of being taken to be indicative of some conclusion by some person. And obviously, different people can take the same phenomena as evidence to contradictory conclusions. Or they can appear to be observing the very same phenomena, but they are actually taking note of very different details and drawing the same or different conclusions from it. We have discovered that there are better and worse ways to gather and evaluate evidence. But it’s not that when someone draws a mistaken conclusion or one you don’t like that they have no evidence at all. What you disagree with them about is what evidence is relevant and how best to evaluate it. So atheists need to get out of the habit of dismissing all believers as “having no evidence at all.” The believers don’t see themselves that way, and you just come off as dogmatic and irrational for saying it about them. Wouldn’t you think it was laughable if they said about you, “Well, he’s got no evidence and no reasons at all for what he believes.”


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

...atheists need to get out of the habit of dismissing all believers as “having no evidence at all..." you just come off as dogmatic

...shirking their own epistemological responsibilities...

I completely agree. Upon reflection many of my theist friends have evidence for the existence of god, albeit strange interpretations of phenomena and various arguments that indicate design and direction, but evidence nonetheless. Dogmatic athiesm is tempting and fun, but like most things, has a down side.

I could imagine a great many ills being alleviated by dogmatic atheism, such as marching around with signs that say "God hates fags" and thinking that Jesus wants you to cut down all the trees and burn more coal. I could also imagine a dogmatist's unreflectiveness being dangerous, as reasoning would just not be part of the package and there would still be many other decisions to be made beyond and more pressing than whether god exists. I think Dr. Mccormick's point is that, "yes, we have no god, however, that is not the issue. It is how we arrived at this conclusion that is of importance."

Ahh grasshopper, you think that it is to stand on the peak that is important, but that is only the product of the climb. A parrot can say "I am an atheist." I do all the time, and I rarely mean it the way that I should. It is very hard to change in any meaningful way, especially when it comes to things laid down in childhood and reinforced throughout life; I try all the time and just show myself lacking. This seems to be the burden of proof, a burden that, while imposed by society, is also one that should be fulfilled in order to be genuine and truthful to oneself, one that once fulfilled will show the opposition to be reasonable as well, if lacking in approach and/or environment. Being an atheist is not a choice or something you just say, if I am understanding, but is rather a bi-product of weighing the available arguments and testing them against experience, of being rational for a long time in the right setting. I'm pretty tired. This may not make sense. If not, I will try not to make sense when I am less tired.

Chris said...

Appreciate the follow up post and nice comment Wesley.

The sort of Atheist described in McCormick's post is probably more common than we would like to admit. The sort of evangelical atheism that develops a kind of blanket disregard for all evidence in favor of the existence of any particular deity is prevalent in sizable quantities across atheist/free thought groups and clubs. When present at events at the Secular Student's group at Sacramento State, I regularly found myself attempting make charitable suggestions towards theistic positions in an effort to steer discussions away from the traditional "preaching to the choir" syndrome (appropriate analogy...).

McCormick raises a good point about the need to really get clear on one's own ontology. Theists and non-theists would benefit greatly from a sense of epistemic accountability with regard to the solidity of their beliefs. The kind of arrogance that many in the evangelical camps (on both sides) tout reflects a rather juvenile understanding of the arguments on both sides.

Wesley said
Being an atheist is not a choice or something you just say, if I am understanding, but is rather a bi-product of weighing the available arguments and testing them against experience, of being rational for a long time in the right setting.

I think that this may be a rough description of how we would ideally align/ascribe ourself with any beliefs. Unless of course you are drawing a distinction between a choice and an "informed decision." I think the main point here is that in most cases, rationality and evidence are not at issue. Atheists don't agree with the interpretation or the quality of evidence, but the majority of those that believe in God, believe in God on the basis of what is compelling evidence to them.

Your description also postulates that "being rational for a long time" is distinctive (separating) property of the atheist decision. This idea may fall prey to the very argument that McCormick was making in his post.

Jon said...

As to the 'social burden of proof' premise: My good friend who watches Bill O'reilly, the news (fOX), the history channel, and movies only - He has a particular epistemic viewpoint of the world. He does not believe that humans have played a role in global warming. He probably got that advice from O'reilly (authoritative figure) who once said that "I am not convinced that global warming is human caused, and warming may be positive for humans anyway". I advised my friend to also look into the view's from the scientific community, because they are supposed to be the objective experts with no political motive. It seems that people in general enjoy listening to evangelizing which helps to shape their outlook.

Anonymous said...

These are separated to correspond with the separations in Chris's posting regarding my last blog comment.

I'm not quite sure what you mean, but I'll give a shot at a reply. True, it does seem like a rough description. You're right about it being compelling evidence to them (unless you mean that the reasonable theist's evidence is of the same value as the reasonable atheist, by which I would reply that it would then be no more more reasonable to be an atheist over being a theist as being reasonable is a process of weighing the value of one set of evidence over another), but given that belief in God is either rational or irrational, and for the sake of this discussion it has been deemed rational, evidence and rationality are central. If it takes R (reason) to get to a belief in G (God) or A (atheism) and reason is directed by E (evidence), then believing A or G would be wholly determined by R and E, unless of course believing A or G is not a product of R (but it is) and R is not directed by E as to what is reasonable. R is clearly directed by E as to base a decision on E is better than basing a decision on not E. So belief in A or G is determined by R and E. R and E are central and so are at issue.

No, I wasn't thinking that it is a distinctive characteristic of atheism in general, but rather a necessity of anyone diverging from the dominant train of thought around them. I thought maybe it would make sense that way in the context of my posting itelf but apparently I should have been more clear. The following is actually less clear. If one believes x and changes her belief from x to y in a situation r that reinforces x it will take time t, with t being proportional to the amount of reinforcement and strength of the belief. Given that there are churches everywhere and God is written into the pledge of allegiance and just about every form of entertainment it is going to be a big value of t, which I call a long time. If one were to change x and y to Islam and Judaism it would still take awhile. It isn't anything exclusive to atheism but a characteristic of holding beliefs against the popular view, beliefs that one has adopted to replace the popular view. In American society atheism happens to be a y.

Anonymous said...

Bending over backwards to please the theists. That's what I see here.

Wesley 192 said...

To anonymous-
Nah, not really. Actually I was trying to analyze the implications of saying that it is not unreasonable to believe in God. Even if I or anyone else was trying to please theists it doesn't matter much, as questioning someone's motives is fallacious. Maybe you have a crystal ball; mine tells me that you don't. Why not attack what was said? I'll debate you if you want. You won't even have to use your name. If you win, it'll be better than an ad hominem.

Wesley 192 said...

To anonymous-
Nah, not really. Actually I was trying to analyze the implications of saying that it is not unreasonable to believe in God. Even if I or anyone else was trying to please theists it doesn't matter much, as questioning someone's motives is fallacious. Maybe you have a crystal ball; mine tells me that you don't. Why not attack what was said? I'll debate you if you want. You won't even have to use your name. If you win, it'll be better than an ad hominem.

uk said...

In my experience, atheist bloggers tend to be angry and use their blogs to vent. This does not seem to be confined to bloggers, however. Dawkins, Hitchens, and, to some extent, Harris appear in their writings to be feverishly propelled by personal needs to release years of pent-up frustrations over religiously motivated irrationality and its resulting destructiveness.

I am guilty of venting as well. In fact, in my humble opinion, I am a master of religious sarcasm, and, truth be told, impressing friends is probably largely why I continued for so long. However, I find that I have to agree with you that "atheism as a movement has got to grow up." I would add that this must begin with individual representatives of that movement.

I have recently resurrected my blog and my intention is to stick to the facts (and theories, mostly) and stay away from humor, or at least sarcasm, as much as possible. Like some of your readers, I am not convinced that reason will, at the end of the day, matter when dealing with faith, but my intuition is that even faith is bound by a reasonable conception of some object of belief, which can be analyzed.

Anonymous said...

Dean 192
Wesly, would please expand on your below comment (mostly, "weighing the value of..,")

"reasonable is a process of weighing the value of one set of evidence over another),"

wesley 192 said...

Well, I was thinking that if you are going to reason about beliefs and which ones to hold, then you have to have some measure of which beliefs are better and which are worse. Say that you hold belief A. If that belief is reasonable then it is held because of some reasons that are (presumably) backed by evidence. To change from belief A to belief B is done by changing which evidence is found to be reasonable. The evidence of belief B is weighed against belief A and found to be better, so when we reason we use whatever evidence we have and weigh it against other evidence. I mean, there is reasoning like if A, then B, A, so B, (I guess you could call A obtaining evidence), but really I meant- "Someone drank my milk (Belief A). The carton is empty, I bought it today, and I don't remember drinking it (evidence) but then again, no one has been here as I've been here all day and the doors are locked (evidence), so I guess I must have drank it and fogotten (Belief B). Evidence for A is weighed against B, and since it is more reasonable to conclude that I drank the milk rather than someone else, belief B is preferable given the evidence.

Anonymous said...

Dean 192
(Wesly, good-stuff)

Thinking about belief and evidence. The theist thinks they have evidence for their belief, but do they have a justified true belief to have knowledge. Their evidence can be in various spiritual (subjective) events, but how can they convince me that they have knowledge of their belief based on this type of evidence? How can we ever really know or even understand the theist-knowledge based on their judgments of their empirical events (we do not share minds). I am wondering if this in fact hinders the sharing—or even the expression—of knowledge of their belief.

With this in mind, if some of our knowledge is based on the collective, how can we even consider that we have truthful knowledge without verifiability? Granted we cannot exist everyday with a blank slate and prove everything, and yes we have to take some knowledge for granted (and as fact), but when there is a belief that influences, controls and manages society—in its fashion—those that are of a different persuasion, have the right to request that we be fully provided with the evidence that so requires our following.

S D Owen said...

I think we need to draw an important distinction between various types of "evidence" and reasons/causes for belief.

I agree that theists have plenty of reasons/causes for their beliefs, but it doesn't follow that their reasons/causes constitute evidence.

When we use the word evidence, we presuppose a truth relation.

If I claim that victim V has a headwound, and you ask me what my evidence is, I point to the headwound, or a picture of it, and say, look, objective empirical evidence.

Or, if V's body is missing, but I was witness to his headwound, I may present testimonial evidence at trial. However, my testimony only counts as evidence if I am considered a reliable witness.

Now, let me ask this question, what sort of "evidence" do theists have?

No objective empirical data at all.

Testimony and Literature? Yes, but it comes from enthusists who have been programmed by their culture to believe. If there is a personal "religious experience," it comes with a huge load of cultural baggage.

So why do we want to call justified false beliefs "evidence?"

Why do we want to call cultural programming "evidence?"

Why do we want to call majority belief "evidence?"

Let's be specific: What sorts of "evidence" do theists have that is anything other than inherited cultural memes?


Should the theist be held culpable for their false beliefs? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but why would atheists ever want to concede the debate and so easily expand the definition of "evidence?"

What purpose does it serve except to hand theists an easy and unnecessary victory?

If we're looking for common ground with theists, let's start with the definition of "evidence," and let's argue that real evidence must have some kind of verifiable/valid truth relation, whether it be empircal data or incredibly reliable, objective testimony.

Carlo said...

I believe my initial reaction was based on the atheist bias I carry. It in fact appears that the atheist does have the burden of proof upon them. Think for example all the sceintist through out history who had to disprove old claims. In every case we would say the burden of proof is upon the sceintist (which it was). We atheist are like scientist in a sense trying to prove to others that we have done our homework on the god notion. What we concluded is that god does not exist.

Also, the notion that legal matters are similar to claims of god isn't tenable. In one case you are invoking the precautionary rule to prevent harm being done. In the other you are dealing with a depiction of reality. These are clearly two different situations.

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