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Meditation 1146
Burden of Proof revisited

by: John Tyrrell

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The issue of "burden of proof" has come up several times in the past on this site. (You can do a quick search  at the left and come up with several articles.)

Who is responsible for making the case for a god - the believer or the non-believer? While I think it is a fool's game to try and make the case, either for or against a gods existence, for those who do choose to take it on, I think I've been fairly consistent over the years in placing the burden of proof on the one who wants to change the other's mind.

That means that if I want to convince a religious believer that his or her beliefs are wrong, I have the responsibility of proving it. I cannot simply assert "You cannot prove your position, therefore you are wrong."

And if a religious believer wants to change my agnostic views, then the believer has to prove his or her point, the burden of proof lies upon the believer. He cannot say to me, "you cannot disprove god, therefore you must believe."

Now Paul Draper (of the Department of Philosophy at Purdue) has a different view, placing the onus completely on the believer. His position, constructed as an apparently logical argument, is outlined here (a pdf webpage):


His conclusion is:

d. Therefore, theists but not atheists bear the burden of proof.

How did he get there?

He starts by "clarifying the question." He does this by providing non-standard definitions of "Theist", "Atheist" and "Agnostic." I don't agree with any of the three definitions (nor does my dictionary), but I can accept them for the purpose of working through the argument. I'm also not comfortable which his definition of "Proof", but it does fit within the range of options in the dictionary.

But his fifth definition leaves me scratching my head. He defines (or equates) the question "Who has burden of proof" as the question "Who needs evidence in order for their defining belief to be rational?"

My view is that the vast majority of atheists, agnostics, and theists all believe they have sufficient evidence for their particular positions on god to be regarded as rational. Who stands outside and rules on what is objectively rational?

Quite simply his definition of "Who has burden of proof" clarifies nothing.*

Moving on, he provides four possible answers to the question of who has the burden of proof and decides that to answer the question depends on "the intrinsic epistemic probability of God’s existence."

I won't argue with his criteria for assessing intrinsic probability. Nor will I argue with his case for intrinsic probabilities of naturalism and supernaturalism, even though I'm not comfortable with his definitions of supernaturalism or naturalism nor his conclusion that "naturalism and supernaturalism are equally probable intrinsically."

And that brings us down to the final section which seeks to identify the intrinsic probabilities of theism and atheism. It starts with:

Theism is a very specific version of supernaturalism and so is many times (i.e. at least 10 times) less probable intrinsically than supernaturalism.

For the sake of following his argument, I'll accept the first eight words (challenging them in a footnote**), but where on earth did "many times (i.e. at least 10 times) less probable" come from. Draper has provided nothing to establish this. Perhaps theism in its multitude of varieties can be viewed as as subset of supernaturalism - and there are non-theistic views of supernaturalism, so it is not a 100% subset. But still, considered as a subset, it could range from 99.9999999......% of the overall probability down to an infinitesimal percentage. There is no intrinsic way I can see to establish what that percentage would be.

Secondly Draper argues:

Naturalism is a specific version of atheism and so is many times less probable than atheism.

One could quibble*** over the opening seven words but I'll accept them for the sake of following the argument - however I won't accept without proof (and the onus is on Draper) "many times less probable than atheism." Again, there is no intrinsic way to establish this.

From these two extremely questionable probabilities, he decides that atheism being true has an intrinsic probability of over 90% and theism being true has an intrinsic probability of less than 10%.

And so to the "desired" atheistic conclusion:

Therefore, theists but not atheists bear the burden of proof.

I'm sorry, I'm not a professional philosopher and perhaps don't understand the finer points to Draper's argument, nor do I have a full grasp of philosophical terminology, but in spite of those limitations, I'm calling intrinsic bullshit.

As far as I'm concerned the burden of proof still lies with the one who wants to change the other's mind.


* What Draper is trying to do, I think, in using the word "rational" is to tie it in with "intrinsic probabilities" and then essentially say the position with the higher intrinsic probability does not need defending, and it is rational to put the burden of proof on the lower probability. Why he does not spell this out is beyond me.

** My problem with "Theism is a very specific version of supernaturalism" is that it only addresses a subset of theism - primarily that of creator gods. It does not address gods (or any other forms of the supernatural) that are believed to have come into being after the material universe began. And that is entirely because of the way Draper defines supernaturalism and naturalism. When you consider non-creator gods, it becomes possible to suggest that the probability of theism may actually be greater than that of supernaturalism (at least as Draper defines supernaturalism), or even that the probability of the supernatural is greater than that of supernaturalism.

*** Does one really have to be an atheist to accept naturalism? Is naturalism really just a subset of atheism?

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