Bad Ideas, God(s), Ideas, Logic, Philosophy, Religion

The Burden of Proof in Philosophy (Logic)

(About a 6 minute read)

The eternal conversation between theists and non-theists is often marked by humorous claims.  Such as when some theists claim that all non-theists are non-theists merely because they are angry at their god.  Or when some non-theists claim that all theists are irrational.  Sadly, the humor seems to escape a lot of folks on both sides.

In recent weeks, I’ve come across a claim by theists that, at least, is new to me.  I also find it humorous.  I wonder, however, whether it is not a growing fad.  I first saw it two or three months ago, and I have seen it twice again since then.  Could it be the latest craze in the eternal conversation?

The claim is that theists don’t have the burden of proof since when they make a claim, it falls to non-theists to prove them wrong.

To me, that’s a funny claim — in all senses of the word “funny”.  It’s not only rather “peculiar”, but as humor — while it’s not knee-slapping stuff — it does make me smile and sometimes chuckle a wee bit, as many “philosophical” jokes do.  Admittedly, that might be an acquired taste.

The burden of proof is different in law and philosophy.  In law, the burden is the obligation of one party in a dispute to produce evidence that will substantiate their claims against the other party.  But in philosophy, it is the obligation of the party in a dispute that asserts a state of affairs to provide warrant (i.e. justification) for their claim.

To assert a state of affairs is to claim that something is the case.  So, for instance, if I claim the sun will rise tomorrow, then I — and not you — have the burden of proving my claim is true.

When you think about it, the reason I have the burden is both logical and psychological.  It is logical because, among other things, the alternative is absurd.

If the burden of proof lay with anyone but the person asserting a state of affairs, then we’d have the burden of proof no matter how ridiculous a claim struck us as being. Someone could tell us, “Cats are shaped like perfectly square cubes”, and we’d be logically obligated to accept that claim as true unless we actively disproved it.

Psychologically, anyone who makes a claim that they want to be accepted by others is better off if they can provide reason and evidence for believing it.  Simply saying, “Cats are shaped like perfectly square cubes”, won’t inspire most people to believe you unless you give them some pretty good reasons to believe you.

An old folk saying goes, “The burden of proof lies with the person making a positive claim, as opposed to a negative claim.”   That happens to be false for a handful of reasons, most of which I won’t get into here.

A main reason, however, is that any positive claim can be restated as a negative claim, and vice versa.  “The sun will rise tomorrow”, can be restated as, “The sun will not fail to rise tomorrow.”  “Cats are shaped like perfectly square cubes”, can be restated as, “Cats are never shaped in anyway except as perfectly square cubes.”

It would be ridiculous to say that the burden of proof fell on the positive formulations alone since that would mean that the burden did not fall on statements that were logically identical to the positive statements.

Since both positive and negative claims assert a state of affairs, both incur the burden of proof.

The new claim of some theists that the burden of proof rests with anyone who challenges their beliefs amounts to a violation both of logic and psychology.  Suppose, for example, a theist made the claim that god necessarily exists because there must be a first cause to everything in the universe, and god is the first cause of the universe.  Further suppose a non-theist — or even a skeptical theist — were to challenge that claim by asking the theist to prove that there must be a cause to everything in the universe.

Now, if the burden of proof rests with the theist, then he or she must now produce reason and/or evidence to substantiate their notion that everything in the universe must have a cause.  But if the burden of proof rests with the non-theist (or the skeptical theist), then the theist gets a free pass.  They can simply sit back and say, “Well, you have not actually disproved my point, so my point must be true.”

This is like saying, “Cats are shaped like perfectly square cubes, and unless you can disprove it, you must consider it true”.  Not only is that illogical (i.e. it commits an informal fallacy of presumption called an “Argument from Ignorance“) but it also ignores psychology.  “Oh, you don’t want to prove it to me?  Fine, go stew in it!  I’m not believing you without any reason or evidence to do so.”

Obviously, the new claim of some theists that the burden of proof lies with anyone who questions their beliefs is funny.

In recent decades, there have been two new, widely accepted innovations to the burden of proof.  First, Carl Sagan, back in 1980, popularized the notion that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, although it was the physicist Philip Ableson who originated Sagan’s phrasing of the aphorism. Moreover, the core idea goes back to the late 1700s or early 1800s when both Thomas Jefferson and Pierre-Simon Laplace expressed the idea in various ways. But since Sagan popularized it, it’s often called the “Sagan Standard” these days.

Second, Christopher Hitchens introduced what has come to be called “Hitchens’s Razor”.  This is the notion that, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”.

It might be noted that the Sagan Standard is purely psychological, rather than also logical.  That is, by strict logic, a claim can be demonstrated by any sufficient weight of reason and/or evidence.  No matter how extraordinary the claim, the only reason for requiring extraordinary means to prove it is because people tend to be far more skeptical of extraordinary claims than of ordinary or plausible claims.

On the other hand, Hitchens’s Razor is both a logical and a psychological reason for the burden of proof to rest with the party making the claim.  It is logical because if we were logically forced to admit as true any and all claims that were unsupported by any evidence, then all sorts of ridiculous claims would need to be admitted as true.  And it is psychological because the human tendency in dealing with unsupported claims is to say, “Go fiddle!” — or today’s equivalent of “go fiddle”, which — as a hip 61 year old — I believe to be “Go fish!”.

In sum, there are both logical and psychological reasons why the burden of proof in philosophy lies with the person who asserts a state of affairs exists.  Which, of course, makes it all the more amusing that anyone would think otherwise.

Questions?  Comments?

6 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof in Philosophy (Logic)”

  1. I think I at least partially agree with you. I would say that the burden of proof rests with someone who makes a claim. That someone could be a theist. It could be an atheist. It could be a Democrat. It could be a Republican. However, it has nothing to do with what kind of claim it is. That is where we might disagree. That claim could be “God exists” or “God does not exist”. The side initiating the argument with a claim wants to be heard. The other side, assuming they are willing to listen, listens to whatever evidence there might be and then has the “burden of rejoinder”. I think that falls under something called “argumentation theory”, but in the real world I don’t think anyone cares.

    I do agree with the Hitchens quote: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. However, that goes for both theists and atheists. They can both take advantage of it. The problem is neither the theist nor the atheist think the other side has any evidence worth listening to. When someone says, “There is no evidence for something,” what they often mean is “There is no evidence that I am willing to accept for something”. When the claim, “there is no evidence I will accept”, gets distorted into “there is no evidence whatsoever”, it is tempting to use that to claim the other side is “irrational” because they believe something (theism or atheism) without evidence.

    Best wishes and thanks for giving me something to think about today.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, Frank. I’m glad you found the post thought-provoking.

      One clarification: If you believe the burden of proof has nothing to do with the kind of claim, then we agree. As I put it, the burden of proof falls on someone asserting a state of affairs, But as I point out, any positive claim can be turned into a negative claim and vice versa. Both positive and negative claims assert a state of affairs. I should have made that much clearer, however, and I might edit the post in an effort to do so.

      Thanks for the comments!


  2. Personally, I do not understand how theists can even play in the philosophy sandbox. For instance, if a theist were to use logic in this manner “God made the universe, and so the universe must be good because God is good” the logic is there, but it all depends upon there being a God, and God being good. Which one must take on faith, and which all the telescopes, microscopes, EEGs and double blind placebo controlled studies in the world cannot prove. And cannot dis-prove either, but that argument (for there being a God) is laughable, as you state.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find such arguments as curious as you do, Carla. I agree with you that matters of deity must ultimately be taken on faith, which to me is a perfectly legitimate grounds for them. What compounds it all for me is that, so far as I was taught, faith is what God, should he exist, has revealed is what he wants from people.

      Liked by 1 person

I'd love to hear from you. Comments make my day.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s