Burden of Proof

One of my guilty pleasures is watching youtube videos of Christians explaining why Atheists are wrong.  I don’t watch reasonable Christians, I watch the one’s who give really, really bad arguments.  One good thing that does come of this though is it makes me really think about why their arguments are flawed – they make me explain myself to myself.  One common communication barrier between atheists and Christians is the concept of the burden of proof, which I find a wonderfully simple idea until I have to explain it.

What is ‘burden of proof’, who has it, and why?

I would put my initial definition like this: ‘whenever anyone makes a positive assertion, they have the responsibility to justify their position to challengers.’  However, when I reflected on this definition I realized that there were some ambiguities to it.  It is fairly easy to change any statement into a grammatically positive or negative statement (e.g. ‘I don’t believe in god’ becomes ‘I believe there is no god.’)  It also seems to me that in conversation it is rare for one person to make an assertion and someone else to merely challenge the assertion, most conversations instead seem to be people making counter-proposals to each other.

To resolve these ambiguities, we need to delve into the philosophical framework upon which ‘burden of proof’ is based.  I propose that the idea of ‘burden of proof’ is fundamentally based on us believing in a rational world, or a singular interconnected reality that we can learn about through experience.  Within this framework there are an infinite number of things in which we can believe, but we are in pursuit of singular truth.  Our only access to this truth is experiential evidence.  A positive assertion is an assertion of something existent – the statements grammatical structure is irrelevant.  Negative assertions become byproducts of positive assertions.  With every positive assertion that we make, we also make an infinite number of negative assertions – we negate everything except our specific claim.  No evidence can be offered for a negative assertion except that which exists in its place (the only demonstration I can make that there is not a plane in the sky is to point out the air.)  The reason for this is that the only evidence that exists for anything is experience.  To say something does not exist is, in essence, to say ‘that is not my experience.  Within the framework ‘burden of proof’ can be defined thus: whoever makes a claim must provide evidence to demonstrate why their claim is better then the infinite alternatives.

In every day conversation, however, it seems uncommon that one person makes a claim and the other person listens to the evidence.  Usually the sceptic makes a counter-claim.  A counter-claim is an idea that theoretically is mutually exclusive with the claim of the first speaker.  In this kind of scenario, both conversationalists have a burden of proof for whatever it is that they are claiming.  If someone says that the earth is flat, for example, I can either ask them to justify themselves or I can say the earth is round.  In the first case only the other person has a burden of proof, in the second we both have a burden.

Unexplored in this examination is the thorny issue of what makes evidence better or worse.  I plan on exploring this in my next post.

Let me know what you think.  Thank you for reading.

Ryan Workman


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