Science & Faith
10/15/13 at 06:22 PM 134 Comments

How Theists and Atheists Share the "Burden of Support"

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In his insightful article Who has the Burden of Proof? Atheism vs. Theism, Austin Cline, who appears to be an atheist (he writes extensively for atheism.about.com) notes concerning "burden of proof":

A more accurate label would be a “burden of support” — the key is that a person must support what they are saying. This can involve empirical evidence, logical arguments, and even positive proof.

I make this point in my Reasoning (logic and critical thinking) course each fall at The College at Southwestern. It looks like a high-volume Internet atheist agrees with me. In very few academic subjects beyond mathematics is "proof" possible for either side of most specific disputes. Arguments might be very strong, but proof is rare. Cline agrees. Mr. Cline and I also share the following understanding of the theism-atheism dialogue in regard to burden of proof (burden of support). The quotations below are from Cline's same essay quoted above.

  1. "If a person claims something, they are obligated to support it and no one is obligated to prove them wrong."
  2. Anyone "making a claim which they consider rational and which they expect others to accept must provide some support."
  3. Who has the "burden of support" is itself a debatable at many points in the theism-atheism debate.
  4. Burden of support "is not something static which one party must always carry; rather, it is something which legitimately shifts during the course of a debate as arguments and counter-arguments are made."

Let's see how this works in practice. Suppose a theist invites an atheist to consider the evidence for the existence of God. Initially, the theist bears the burden of support in that segment of the conversation. But if the atheist finds the evidence for God unconvincing, he or she may claim that the our universe, precisely fine-tuned for life as it is, could still be explained by naturalistic causes. Suppose the atheist invokes the multiverse (infinite or nearly infinite number of bubble universes, one of which is ours) to help get that argument going. Fine, but in this part of the conversation, the atheist bears the burden of support (and note that other alleged universes are observationally inaccessible to us). And so it goes, back and forth. Cline correctly observes that the burden of support is not static, but is "something which legitimately shifts during the course of a debate as arguments and counter-arguments are made."

That is why in a recent blog on "burden of proof" I wrote:

Regarding burden of proof, the one making a claim shoulders that burden. So, note, again the two claims above:

Claim #1: God as depicted in the Bible is the uncaused cause of everything except himself.
Claim #2: X is the uncaused cause of everything except itself. [X = multiverse or whatever.]

So, when an atheist dialogues with a Christian about ultimate reality, both share the burden of proof. The Christian bears the burden of claim #1, and the atheist the burden of claim #2 (with X filled in with something).

What if the atheist responds: I believe in an infinite chain of cause and effect without there ever being a first cause. The totality of this infinite chain of cause and effect would (roughly) constitute the X in claim #2 above. So when an atheist taking this route ponders their own personal existence, which had a beginning point in time, this atheist might claim something like "my own existence was caused by the multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse is just a brute given." Such a claim would need to be supported by evidence, as I (and probably Cline) see the dialectical situation at this point. Best wishes finding that evidence (other alleged universes are observationally inaccessible to us). Our universe, based on the consensus of modern cosmology, points to a beginning of space, time and matter (by a cause that arguable is non-spatial, non-temporal, and non-material). Remind you of anyone?

I'll say it again: who has the "burden of support" is itself a debatable at many points in the theism-atheism debate. You don't have to just listen to Cline and me to find this statement reasonable. Scholars in multiple fields have likewise concluded something like this in regard to other debates in other disciplines. For example, economist Peter Lewin, in his article "Facts, Values, and the Burden of Proof" Independent Review, 11 (2007):503-517, offers an account of how this happens in disputes about economic theory and economic public policy. Or, if you admire the discipline of cognitive psychology, you might take a look at another approach to burden of proof found here: Bailenson, Jeremy N. and Lance J. Rips. "Informal Reasoning and Burden of Proof." Applied Cognitive Psychology 10, no. 7 (1996):3-16. These two Northwestern University scholars observe: "As an argument progresses, one participant can accrue more burden of proof--will have to do more to prove he or she is correct."

Charles Taliaferro's essay on the philosophy of religion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explores the burden of proof in regard to the God question. Here is another philosopher who leaves the door open to theists and atheists sharing the burden about what ultimate reality is:

Who has the burden of proof in a debate between a theist and an atheist? Antony Flew (1984) thinks it is the theist. By his lights, the theist and atheist can agree on a whole base line of truths (such as the findings of the physical sciences). The question then becomes, Why go any further? Flew wields a version of Ockham's razor, arguing that if one has no reason to go further, one has reason not to go further. (As it happens, Flew has subsequently claimed that there are good reasons for going beyond the natural world, and he is currently a theist; see Flew 2008.) His challenge has been met on various fronts, with some critics claiming that Flew's burden of proof argument is wedded to an outmoded foundationalism, that any burden of proof is shared equally by atheists and theists, or that the theist has an array of arguments to help shoulder a greater burden of proof.

I hope you noticed the parenthetical update about Antony Flew's change of mind, which was issued by Taliaferro in a recent update to this SEP article. Flew, one of the most influential atheists of the 20th century, pioneered the "presumption of atheism," which was an ultimately failed attempt to put all the burden of proof on theists (by the presumption that atheism is the default position of rational people). Flew lived out the last few years of his life as a theist (of the deist kind ... read more about that here). So much for that atheistic presumption! The avalanche of evidence for intelligent design took him over the edge (see this FAQ for more information about intelligent design).

What did SkepticNY mean when he commented as follows on my last "burden of proof" blog? He wrote this about me (its the very first comment): "I find it astonishing that you have a PhD and you have no idea of what the burden of proof means." The very last comment under that same blog is SkepticNY again, completing his thought on the matter:

You seem to have a huge misunderstanding of what the burden of proof means. And your characterization of Hraefn as having a "theory" is disingenuous and misleading. First off you are making the claim that god exists so therefore the burden of proof lies on those making the claim - not the other way around. Why you continue to make this mistake is beyond me. Perhaps it's your association with the liars over at the DI. Other than philosophical meaningless mental gymnastics you have not offered one scintilla of proof that a god or gods exist. Nothing - not a shred of evidence. Gee a trilobite is so complicated is not evidence of "god did it". You understand why that's not science or proof don't you? Because it says so in the bible is not evidence also. You do understand why that's silly don't you? Secondly not believing a claim without evidence is not a theory. You understand this don't you? Just like not collecting stamps is not a hobby. Why you have this massive misunderstanding of science, logic and what atheism is is baffling to me.

I invite my readers to compare this comment with today's blog. I've cited a very active Internet atheist (Cline), the world-class philosopher former atheist (Flew), a philosopher writing for Stanford's respected philosophy encyclopedia, and other scholars. These folks collectively dismantle SkepticNY's complaints. I will return to trilobites and a scientific design argument in my next blog on Stephen Meyer's bestselling book Darwin's Doubt. Meanwhile, today's blog coupled with this FAQ diffuses SkepticNY's rhetorical fireworks.

Okay, here is a question to see if you are understanding "burden of proof" (burden of support). I've developed this for my Reasoning course (the teapot part of it comes for philosopher Bertrand Russell). If someone claims “there is a teapot orbiting Earth," who has the primary burden of support, and is this similar to the God question?

Answer: The burden is on the teapot believer, at least at the outset of this conversation. The teapot sceptic need not have an alternative view on this topic, other than simply not believe in (or be sceptical about) the orbiting teapot. But such is not the case when it comes to the God question. If someone does not believe that God exists, then such a non-theist, at least implicitly, has some other view of how our universe could exist. For example the non-theist might believe: “The multiverse is the uncaused cause of everything else, including our universe and its life.” Thus, the burden of support is shared by atheist and theist in regard to the "prime reality" (or God) question, because both sides have made claims (at least implicitly) about the prime reality. Everyone at least implicitly has a belief how it is possible for our universe (and life) to exist. Somebody who commented under my last "burden of proof" blog misused the teapot illustration (in an attempt to put all the burden on theists). This paragraph sets the record straight.

Dear atheist and theist readership, let's build some bridges together. It's all about sharing the burden of support. Let's also be polite and civil in the process (civil engineering). Judging from some of the comments below my past blogs, both sides need to work on this "being nice" part. We may agree to disagree, but we can still learn from each other. Peace.

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