Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Burden of Proof is on the Atheist

To some extent, what’s rational to believe depends upon what everyone around you believes. A great many of the things that we think are true, we learn from our environment. Our parents, teachers, friends, and people around us give it to us. And we’d be positively irrational if we were to ignore or reject all those sources. They have served us well for lots of things. They’ve been reliable. And we trust them. If you’re going to go against the tide on something that all of those sources believe, then you had better have some really good, compelling reasons. If you are going to conclude that the earth is flat and contradict what everyone around you has so much justification for, then your justification needs to be so good, then the likelihood that it is right needs to be greater than the likelihood that all of them are wrong.

So for any moment in history and a person’s epistemic situation in it, there will be a long list of beliefs that are prima facie justified. Once you’re exposed to those and you become aware that so many people around you believe them, then the mere fact that so many people believe them itself counts as some evidence that those beliefs are justified and correct. That’s not to say that they are correct, of course. In lots of cases, the vast majority of people believed something that is dead wrong. They thought that fever was caused by demon possession and they thought that the earth was flat. The point is that these were justified beliefs. If you had lived in some remote village in France in the 13th century with no education, unable to read or write, and if your primary sources of information about such matters were friends, family, and priests, then it would have been clearly irrational for you believe that fever was caused by a person’s immune system fighting off infection of a virus. What possible grounds could such a person have that would make this belief justified? It would be a true belief, but anybody who believed in that epistemic situation would be crazy. If your culture is full of ideas about spiritual entities and magical forces that are active in everyone’s daily lives, then the claim that fever is caused by demon possession would make perfect sense.

The implication of all of this is that for the modern American atheist, there is an enormous burden of proof. The vast majority of people around you believe that there is a God. They think that God is active and present in every facet of their lives. They think there are lots of very good reasons for thinking that there is a God.

So you can’t just ignore all of that background. You can’t just opt to believe otherwise at will and be epistemically inculpable. Even if everyone around you believes something completely mistaken like “The sun orbits the earth,” their believing it, and so many of them believing it, puts an tremendous burden of proof on you if you are going to break ranks and form a contrary opinion.

Some atheists—consider Antony Flew’s famous “presumption of atheism”—think that since it’s the theists that are asserting the positive claim, and since the default position is not to believe, then they burden of proof is on them, not on the disbelieving atheist. I think the above considerations show that it’s the prevailing set of beliefs in one’s epistemic environment that establish the default beliefs, and the burden of proof is shifted to anyone who wants to deviate from that.

But all that’s ok with me because there’s more than enough justification for us to show that there is no God. It’s just that we are going to have to deal with a lot of flat earthers before our own beliefs have a secure justification.

17 comments:

Chris said...

In my somewhat frequent discussions with theists that are close to me, this issue comes up rather frequently. While I see that there is mountains of evidence in support of the claim that god does not exist, such evidence does not seem universally compelling.

Your point is a very practical one. For the time being it seems that any educated athiest is going to hold a view that is positioned in stark contrast to the majority of their peers (whether or not that norm be horrendously mistaken or not), the means and willingness to discuss one's thinking and reasoning should be readily available and accessible.

However, it would seem that in practice many discussions that eventually flow into this vein, have theists arguing that the burden of proof is on the atheist to show why is isn't possible for God to exist. While I generally tend to venture into tea-cup and complexity of ontology style arguments, a great many theists feel that the inability for atheists to deductively prove the impossibility of their beliefs to be positive evidence in favor of them.

Soam Oratsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AndrewBerg said...

From my view, the debate between the "atheist" and the theist is futile. These are two different logical systems. One based on truth, the other based on faith. The two, in a debate, are by definition contrary to one another, failing to allow for any substantial agreement. Both can be rational, but the believer's base of rationality is on something--faith in God--that contains no logic. So in the end, they can live life with contradictions, just so long as it is in the realm of their religion.

The essence of faith are beliefs that are unproven/able. The attempt to confront the believer with philosophic/scientific rationale contrary to their belief utterly useless, it is not a logical system up for argument, it lies in the passions--an emotional belief.

The "attack on religion" is edging itself away from Philosophic discourse. The methods of philosophy have, in my mind, reached as far as they can go the attempts to disprove God/religion. Developments in scientific methods have almost removed the question of God from the philosophers thought experiments to the scientists lab experiments (most notably, cognitive science)

What is useful to discuss is the nature of religion. Are Christians truly Christians? Or are they as Kierkegaard would say cattle: Christians hang out together, they believe and assert what other people believe, but they do not think about it, and most important, they do not feel about it. Christianity is not about doctrines, or about social belonging. To be a Christian is something that one does all by oneself.

Eric Sotnak said...

I suspect there is some unclarity in the notion of the "Burden of Proof". It seems to me that it may be enough to point out that (at least most) theists simply don't have very good reason to believe as they do. This doesn't give reason to believe that theism is false, but it does give reason for an honest reassessment of the position.

S D Owen said...

Theists have no evidence; evidence presupposes a truth relation. They have historical and cultural beliefs which are not factual.

So theists, if we can say they have any evidence at all, it's false evidence.

Testimony is not objective just because because you eat a large dose of it -- lots of testimony is just INTERSUBJECTIVE evidence.

All testimony, for it to be taken seriously, has to come from reliable sources.

The only sources for the origins of theism are holy books which are really only cultural narratives -- and biased as HELL.

What believer ISN'T biased?

So how can any theistic testimony be taken seriously?

I don't see how it can.

So why do atheists have any special burden except to educate the ignorant?

Carlo said...

My intuition tells me that something is very wrong with the notion that people can have justified false beliefs. Sure, I can think of situations where people can be fooled like in the Gettier examples but the term "justification" is the wrong adjective to use. It is a mitigating circumstance that one is to be fooled by a donkey painted zebra stripes or barn facades. And a culture in which the majority believes in a god is no differ. To elaborate further consider the follow replacement of the word "justified" with the following synonyms.

"justified" false belief

"correct(ed?)" false belief

"righteous" false belief

"proper" false belief

"lawful" false belief

By accepting the notion that a false belief can be justified the burden of proof can then be placed on the atheist. I believe Flew is correct in where the burden of proof lies - on the person who is making the assertion. The majority has no right to force the burden of proof merely because of its number. The fallacy ad populum argumentum directly forbids this very thing in argumentation. Just think how it sounds to say that the people who instituted slavery were "justified" in their belief.

So, I propose to accurately attach the term "mistakable" to false beliefs when appropriate . Thus the theist has a mistakable false belief. In this case the burden is still upon them.

Nicole Reese said...

I'm just not sure a lot of theists would feel that it is possible to prove their belief in the existence of God and I don't think this puts even the slightest damper on spiritual excitement for them either. So much of religion and its practice is caught up in the non-rational side of human life; by its very nature it exempts itself to being held accountable to empirical proofs. Take religious theorist Mircea Eliade, who designated what he thought were two very real and distinct realms of human religious life: the Sacred and the Profane. He said that religious rituals are established as a way of escaping profane/everyday life and time--thus subsequently all notions of proof and science--and entering the world of the sacred. This is where the magic happens, where God truly resides, etc., in his estimation.
Rudolph Otto, a Christian religious theorist, and not a little biased, proposed that religion had thus far--in about 1917--been way too focused on the rational side of religion. He write an entire book dedicated to the non-rational side of religion.
So how can a person prove empirically, a non-empirical experience? Experience counts as proof, doesn't it? If this sacred realm is where the theist finds God, atheists are locked out of the room without a key. It's all terribly convenient for the theist.
Is there a way to prove something without using scientific evidence?

J.May said...

Nice post and comments. Some thoughts:

To S D Owen:

It's good to keep in mind that the term "theist" encompasses not only the standard religious people (such as Christians, Jews, and Muslims) but also people who just believe that there is a god. Many philosophers, for example, are non-religious theists---they simply think that there is an entity that is (at least) perfectly good, powerful, and knowing (i.e., the philosophical omni god). And the debate over the existence of the omni god need not concern faith.

So, while I understand the frustration many atheists have with theists who play the faith card, there are many theists who don't. There are many theists who base their belief in god on reasons/evidence. One might argue that these theists do not have enough evidence or good enough reasons, etc. However, it is simply wrong to to think that theists are all illogical, faith-crazy idiots. A theist is merely someone who believes that god exists. I think many people want to direct most of their frustration toward fideists (people who "base" their belief in god on faith and take the god issue to not concern reason at all). Many Christian theists are fideists (or at least slip into fideism in "arguments" with atheists). But not all theists are fideists.

To AndrewBerg:

Likewise, I think you're thinking that it's futile to argue with fideists, not necessarily theists. However, while it may be futile to argue with fideists on the god question, I think we should recognize that one can still argue with a fideist about fideism itself. Presumably fideists do not go for faith all the way---that is, presumably they don't think all beliefs are immune to rational criticism or don't require reasons/evidence. So, I don't think it's entirely futile. One can still perhaps convince the fideist that her belief in god is not impervious to epistemic norms.

Additionally:

To come back around to the original post, if many of the people out there in the world who are supposed to be theists are fideists, I submit that the fact that there are a lot of them should not contribute to the argument that the burden of proof is on the atheist. I say this because if the fideist holds her belief in god without regard for reasons/evidence, then why would anyone on the opposite side be concerned about such an epistemic notion/norm as burden of proof? The fideist isn't even playing that game, so I think that lots of fideists holding an opposing theistic belief shouldn't count against the atheist.

Presumably the reason that the burden of proof is supposed to be on the (vast) minority view as opposed to the (vast) majority view is because the (vast) majority view is assumed to be based on some sort of evidence/reasons of which the (vast) minority view might be unaware or dismissive. But with fideists, that is not the case.

Wesley said...

There have got to be atheists who are not burdened epistemically to prove that there is no God. It doesn't seem like a stretch of the imagination (well, maybe a little) for there to be children born to atheist/scientist type parents who belong to a community of like minded individuals. Given that most people would come from theistic/religious backgrounds however, it doesn't seem like there would be very many, but it's kinda nice to imagine.

pam said...

I would like to tie in an interesting idea about human cognition and the way the mind works from philosophy of mind to McCormick's posit that the burden of proof lies with the atheist in large part due to the consensus of society being rooted theistic belief.

Paul Churchland suggested that because humans are social creatures and have a well-formed language system we also have an external discursive "cognitive scafolding." As I understand it, part of what is accepted as a personal cognition is actually a type of parallel neural network that is built from and stored within the members of societies. Thus the more people there are believing a construct the heavier the weighting in the network.

Churchland suggests that bodies of extracortical social-cogntive scaffolding are found in the legal and economic systems of modern countries and that they are vast and well-tuned in comparison to those from Biblical societies. To illustrate this idea he asks that one consider the deficit of either a Commandment or regulation regarding the proper care and treatment of children in the Bible. Yet in today's societies we devote entire departments of our governemnts to child protection services.

Barring a catastrpohic brain injury, altering the weighting of internal neural structures rarely occurs. Yet when some loss of function in one part of the brain does occur the brain remaps itself to accomodate function. It can certainly be argued that the notion of god has lost much of its original functinoality as a means for explaining mysterious events.

Perhaps losing the idea of god will require a similar type of remapping to allow the social nature of humans to continue proper functioning.
Then this remapping, so that god is given a nearly null weighting in many current roles of societal functioning, must be the responsibility of the atheist since the atheist already represents, in some sense, a functioning member in a disfunctional social network. Networks are built, they don't just happen.


For anyone interested in reading the article by Paul Churchland to which I make reference it is:

"Rules, Know-How, and the Future of Moral Cognition." It can be found in his book 'Neurophilosophy at Work.'

Anonymous said...

"Once you’re exposed to those and you become aware that so many people around you believe them, then the mere fact that so many people believe them itself counts as some evidence that those beliefs are justified and correct."

I disagree with this. Take a trial, for instance. The jury can come up with a unanimous, innocent verdict. But all members of the jury thinking Susan is innocent is not evidence that she is in fact innocent. Everybody in the audience, the lawyers, and even the judge can think she's innocent -- and you'd be justified in believing that she's innocent, as all are the aforementioned people -- but the opinions of the many still can't count as evidence for something, regardless of how many people think it. If you took a poll of how many people pre-Ptolemy thought the sun revolved around the earth, they'd all say 'yes, it does.' But of course, that's not evidence for the sun revolving around the earth, nor can it be, since the opposite is true.

--Josh Cadji

Anonymous said...

S D Owen said...
Theists have no evidence; evidence presupposes a truth relation. They have historical and cultural beliefs which are not factual.

*We do have evidence (especially the Genesis flood), but as soon as you see it... should i even explain? You know the answer.*

So theists, if we can say they have any evidence at all, it's false evidence.
*likewise i can say all evidence you atheists have is false.*

Testimony is not objective just because because you eat a large dose of it -- lots of testimony is just INTERSUBJECTIVE evidence.

All testimony, for it to be taken seriously, has to come from reliable sources.

*Have you read the Bible? There's tons of historical evidence! Also many manuscripts have found and are in agreeance with eachother, that's reliable. Or maybe other cultures that prove many things the Bible teaches will change your mind. This link shows the Bible is right without the Bible being mentioned except to relate the according historical events. http://christiananswers.net/q-abr/abr-a009.html*

Original Post

...the mere fact that so many people believe them itself counts as some evidence that those beliefs are justified and correct. That’s not to say that they are correct, of course. In lots of cases, the vast majority of people believed something that is dead wrong. They thought that fever was caused by demon possession and they thought that the earth was flat. The point is that these were justified beliefs. If you had lived in some remote village in France in the 13th century with no education, unable to read or write, and if your primary sources of information about such matters were friends, family, and priests, then it would have been clearly irrational for you believe that fever was caused by a person’s immune system fighting off infection of a virus. What possible grounds could such a person have that would make this belief justified? It would be a true belief, but anybody who believed in that epistemic situation would be crazy. If your culture is full of ideas about spiritual entities and magical forces that are active in everyone’s daily lives, then the claim that fever is caused by demon possession would make perfect sense.

*You must learn to distinguish between what God says through the Bible, and what humans say (whether in the church or not). You are right by saying that most people were illiterate. You fail to mention that the Catholic church of the time was corrupt. They took advantage of people's illiteracy saying you would go to heaven if you went to the crusades, or if someone bought you indulgences. You also fail to mention that the church does not always prefer teaching what the Bible says because

Flat earth - There was no varying word for a "sphere" - a three-dimensional circle. It is not that the Hebrews or anyone else lacked the concept of sphericity (for obviously, they could conceive of it plainly when, for example, they ate pomegranates for breakfast!), but that they simply did not create a second word for it.

fever or demon possession - Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons." (Matthew 10:7-8 RSV)
This implies demon possesion is different than fever. Another poor teaching by the Catholic church of those times, NOT the Bible.*

Nicole Reese said: Is there a way to prove something without using scientific evidence?
Actually there is! 1 Logic (not a good way sometimes) 2 Observance (like video cameras or human witnesses etc.) 3 Historical (Do you believe Romans conquered much of europe?) 4 Mathematics (what science lies in figuring out the number PI?) 5 Reconstruction (like attempting to redo something that has been claimed to have happened. Example. Theory of evolution has still not been proved because a cell has NOT yet been reconstructed)
Note that science has very little to do with mathematics, and more on observations (like labs). Science is simply the art of observing and recording.

The classic question that is an unanswerable paradox to atheists, but which is easily and logically answered in the Bible: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The answer?

God created chickens, then chickens laid eggs.

Anonymous said...

One correction to make on my previous statement, the catholic church was the only church around.

There's lots of proof for God's existence. How else would someone make such perfectly accurate prophesies (sp?)? My favourite : Isreal shall be born again, in one day! Isaiah 66:8.

Shelby said...

Religion can be neither proved NOR disproved. Instead of being bitter to those with Faith, maybe you Atheists should calm down about all the "proving" and "evidence". Some things are beyond scientific knowledge. God is in your heart. So the question for us is: do you follow your heart, or only trust things that you can "make sense of" in your head? I choose to follow my heart.


I pray that you guys will some day find Jesus, and stop pretending you're smarter than "religious nonsense". God bless.

ed said...

I'm atheist and I'm not "trying to prove anything" to anyone. I don't care about your beliefs, and I don't want you knocking on my door shoving your religion down my throat either!!! I don't need a "higher power" to have good morals. Most people would agree with what's right and wrong, as most people would agree a red sign with 8 sides at an intersection is probably a stop sign. Personally, I don't need the threat of an angry, jealous, neglectful, spiteful, and abusive god "to put me line". Religions change all the time, because they don't have the answers either. The biggest fallacy most Christian religions share is the belief that god grants us "free-will" and that he is "all-knowing". These cancel each other out, it is plain to see. If he is "all-knowing" then he already knows whether I will go to heaven or not, regardless of my Earthly actions. In about 200 years, they will find this error and correct their religious propaganda as usual.

Andreas Geisler said...

The burden of proof is on the maker of a claim.
Atheism, in the most simple form, is a rejection of the positive claim of theism.
As such, formally, the burden is on theism.

HOWEVER: The burden of evidence for atheism is trivially easy to lift:
There is no evidence for any gods or for the universe being volitionally created.

And absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
In short, since gods do not seem to exist, it is rational to disregard claims that they do.

Fidem Turbāre said...

This is bizarre because atheism is exempt from the "burden of proof" since it is merely an "absence of belief in deities."

http://www.define-atheism.com/