• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

4 Errors About the Burden of Proof for God

BurdenProof

I used to be a lawyer before entering seminary to prepare for the Catholic priesthood. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that I’m fascinated by questions about the “burden of proof” in religious questions. For example, does the burden of proof fall on the believer or the atheist? What sort of evidence is permissible to meet this burden of proof? Do “extraordinary” claims require extraordinary evidence? Should they meet an extraordinary burden of proof, above the burden required for other sorts of claims? Here are four ways that those questions are answered incorrectly:

Error #1: The burden of proof falls with theists, and not with atheists.

Frequently, atheists will claim that “atheism isn’t a belief,” and therefore doesn’t require evidence, and that the burden of proof falls solely with the believer. This is false. As Luke Muehlhauser at Common Sense Atheism explains, “I think the burden of proof falls on whoever makes a positive claim.” It’s true, this means that believers should be able to provide support for this, but it also means that if you disbelieve in God, you should also be able to support this belief:

“If you claim that Yahweh exists, it’s not my duty to disprove Yahweh. [….] But most intellectually-inclined atheists I know do not merely “lack” a belief in God – as, say, my dog lacks a belief in God. Atheists like to avoid the burden of proof during debates, so they say they merely “lack” a belief in God. But this is not what their writings usually suggest. No, most intellectual atheists positively believe that God does not exist. In fact, most of them will say – at least to other atheists – that it’s “obvious” there is no God, or that they “know” – as well as we can “know” anything – that God does not exist.
 
Thus, if the atheist wants to defend what he really believes, then he, too, has a burden of proof. He should give reasons for why he thinks that God almost certainly doesn’t exist.”

This is the critical distinction. To go from “I’m not convinced from the evidence that Christianity/theism is true” to “therefore, Christianity/theism is false” is a logical leap not supported by the evidence. Alvin Plantinga has a helpful illustration:

“[L]ack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.”

I don’t believe that there are an even number of stars. But I also don’t doubt that there are an even number of stars. Lack of evidence for X isn’t evidence of its opposite, and in this case, the weight of the evidence is perfectly 50-50.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways in which lack of evidence can be probative: if I claim that it’s been raining all afternoon, the lack of water on the ground would be evidence against my claim. So there’s no reason atheists couldn’t argue that, if God existed, we’d see X and Y, but don’t see those things, and therefore He doesn’t exist. That would be a logical proof, but would take actual intellectual legwork. The alternative of pretending to be agnostic (a phenomenon Muehlhauser rightly treats as widespread) is much easier. It just happens to be intellectually dishonest.

Error #2: Christian Beliefs are either scientifically-evaluable or non-provable / non-falsifiable.

Given that the party making a positive claim (either that there is a God, or that there isn’t) has the burden of proof, what counts as proof? Oftentimes, there’s a false dichotomy that truth-claims (like religious claims) are analyzable in the way that scientific questions are, or else they’re nonsense. Here’s Muehlhauser apparently falling into that trap:

“Christians have done a good job of making it impossible to disprove their God. Yahweh used to be hiding just above the clouds, from where he would throw rocks at the Amorites and do other fun stuff. Now he’s some kind of invisible, transcendent being we couldn’t possibly disprove. But we don’t have to. It’s the duty of Christians to show us some reason to think Yahweh exists. Christians have the burden of proof, because they are making a positive claim. The atheist merely says, “I see no reason to accept your claim, just like I see no reason to accept the claims of Scientology.”

If this is any indication, Muehlhauser’s understanding of Christianity and history is a big part of the problem. He assumes that we used to think that God was “hiding just above the clouds,” because he takes Joshua 10:10-11 embarrassingly literally to mean that God was on a cloud throwing rocks. Further, he claims that Christians did “a good job of making it impossible to disprove their God,” as if the transcendence of God was something we invented as an evasion from these brilliant atheist rebuttals (where does God sit on cloudless days? Shucks!).

In reality, Christian theology has been clear about God’s transcendence for the entirety of Christian history. God’s transcendence can also be shown to be metaphysically necessary from the work of pre-Christian philosophers like Aristotle. Further, you can trace God’s transcendence all the way back to Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” not “in the beginning, God sat on a cloud in the heavens and created the earth.” It’s true that, out of necessity, the Bible frequently uses anthropomorphic language to describe God and His actions, but what other language could we use? It’s also clear, from the very start, that much of this language is understood by author and reasonably-smart readers alike to be metaphorical and analogical. When God says in Exodus 19:4, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” no reasonable person takes that to mean that Landroval swooped in and brought the Jews out of Egypt. After all, the prior 18 chapters just finished explaining how the Israelites escaped Egypt.

If you read the Bible by assuming that it is written by and for idiots, don’t be surprised if your Biblical exegesis is idiotic. This might seem like a side point (and admittedly is, somewhat), but Muehlhauser goes on from here to conclude that belief in the Christian God is like believing in a being like Odin, a categorical error only made possible by treating God like an artifact of this universe rather than the universe’s Creator.

So that’s part of the problem. The more important point here is Muehlhauser’s implicit admission that he doesn’t even know how to evaluate the Christian claim of a transcendent God. He needs to imagine that God is a silly rock-throwing cloud monster, because that’s the kind of being he understands how to analyze. Elsewhere, he writes that:

“Skepticism and critical thinking teach us important lessons: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Correlation does not imply causation. Don’t take authority too seriously. Claims should be specific and falsifiable."

Underlying this appears to be an attempt to analyze God the way that one would approach the question of whether or not quasars exists. Even the categories of “falsification” assume a particular approach to rational inquiry, an approach well-suited for the natural sciences, but often ill-suited outside of the realm for which it was invented. Take the principle of non-contradiction, for example: it’s a non-falsifiable, untestable logical axiom, but is true nevertheless. This is true of literally all logical axioms. (By the way, without these logical axioms, science is impossible, so this idea that all truth must be falsifiable can be shown to be false). The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism, while in no way favorable towards religion, acknowledges the incompleteness of this worldview:

“12 times 12 is 144 is something you can establish from the comfort of your armchair by reason alone. You can do this with other conceptual truths. It’s possible, for example, to figure out whether my great-grandmother’s uncle’s grandson must be my second cousin once removed by just unpacking these concepts and examining the logical relations that hold between them. Again this can be done from the comfort of an armchair. No empirical investigation is required. Or suppose an explorer claims to have discovered a four-sided triangle in some remote rainforest. Do we need to mount an expensive expedition to check whether this claim is true? No, again we can establish its falsity by conceptual, armchair methods.
 
So, even while acknowledging that science, as characterized here, is an extraordinarily powerful tool, let’s also acknowledge that other non-scientific but nevertheless rational methods also have their place when it comes to arriving at reasonable belief – including armchair methods. Science is merely one way – albeit a very important way – of arriving at reasonable beliefs.”

Given this, consider the kinds of claims that Christians make about God. Unlike, for examples, we’re not claiming that God is a creature that originated from this universe, came into power, and reshaped the universe. We’re saying that God is an uncreated Being (indeed, Being itself) and is the origin of all created reality. By definition, such a God isn’t going to be confined to the law of nature… laws He created. We’re making metaphysical claims, and Muehlhauser, like many atheists, is trying to evaluate them like physical claims. It’s true that we also believe that this God became man (without ceasing to be God), but this is a historical claim, and history doesn’t permit of scientific laboratory testing particularly well, either.

I’m not here attempting to prove either God’s existence or the truth of the Incarnation, only to say that those propositions aren’t claims that the natural sciences is equipped to handle, just as it’s not equipped to handle claims like “John Quincy Adams was a member of the Anti-Masonic Party” or “When an equal amount is taken from equals, an equal amount results” or “beauty is a transcendental.”

Error #3: Extraordinary claims logically require extraordinary evidence.

Carl Sagan was fond of quoting Marcello Truzzi’s saying (alluded to above, by Muehlhauser) that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If this is meant as a description of the way we normally approach truth-claims, it’s true enough. We tend to hold things we find credible to a much lower burden of proof than things we find incredible. But trying to turn it into a logical rule is a disaster.

For starters, it renders incoherent results. Imagine a murder trial in which three people were in the room with the victim when he was shot, and forensics proves that there were two shooters. All three are brought up on trial. Using Truzzi’s standard, does this mean that the elevated burden of proof is on each of the three defendants (since there’s only a one in three chance that he’s guilty, making innocence more extraordinary in this case) or on the prosecution (because murder is an extraordinary sort of event)?

Worse, almost everything turns on what you consider “extraordinary,” a term that only appears objective (for example, a person who believed that all weather events were caused by the actions of the gods wouldn’t view such divine intervention as “extraordinary). In practice, this is an example of confirmation bias, which refers to “a person’s tendency to favor information that confirms their assumptions, preconceptions or hypotheses whether these are actually and independently true or not.” If something agrees with an atheist’s assumptions, it’s ‘ordinary,’ and held to one standard. If it disagrees, it’s ‘extraordinary,’ and held to a much higher standard.  All of us are prone to confirmation bias, but the “extraordinary claims / extraordinary evidence” mantra only serves to entrench it.

Error #4: Religious claims should be held to a higher burden of proof than other claims.

The final error I want to address is a permutation of the third one: it’s the idea that, as “extraordinary claims,” religious claims should be held to a a higher standard of proof than ordinary claims.

The normal standard for believing in something is what’s called a “50+1” standard. If you think of assent as balance between “belief” and “disbelief,” any tilting of the scales, however slight, points to the proper outcome. And this is how we normally use “belief,” to the point that it appears illogical and incoherent to do otherwise. G.E. Moore’s famous paradox is that statements like “It is raining and I don’t believe that it is raining” don’t mean anything. You’re affirming two contradictory statements. So, too, to say that “God probably exists, but I don’t believe He does” doesn’t appear to mean anything. And if the likelihood of God’s existence is above 50% (however slightly), then He probably exists.

Although apparently incoherent, this error actually points to an important feature of religious belief. Faith isn’t just an intellectual assent to the historical and metaphysical data. It’s also an act of trust, requiring an act of the will. No matter how clear the historical evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection, you can always choose to ignore or deny it. Pope St. Gregory the Great points out that this was even true of the Apostles who encountered the Resurrected Christ, which is why Jesus can still refer to Thomas’ faithful response as “belief” (John 20:29): “Thomas saw a human being, whom he acknowledged to be God, and said: My Lord and my God. Seeing, he believed; looking at one who was true man, he cried out that this was God, the God he could not see.”

This is an important dimension, because it’s easy to pretend that this is all exclusively on the level of the intellect, that belief and disbelief are motivated solely by the weight of the evidence (and that therefore, all wrong opinions in matters of faith are a matter of ignorance or simple mistake). When a person announces that they will choose not to believe in God even if the weight of evidence tips in His favor, they’re announcing something else is at hand.

Conclusions

So there you have it: (1) the burden of proof falls to the party making a claim (whether that claim is that God does or does not exist); (2) this burden should be met in a manner appropriate to the type of claims (so don’t expect scientific claims to be proven in the same way that historical ones are, for example); (3) requiring special evidence for claims you deem “extraordinary” opens the door for confirmation bias [and so you should be extremely cautious about doing so]; and (4) there’s no rational, disinterested reason to hold religious claims to a higher burden of proof than any other kinds of claims.
 
 
(Image credit: Valdosta Today)

Joe Heschmeyer

Written by

Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at joseph.heschmeyer@gmail.com.

Enjoy this article? Receive future posts free by email:

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    How are we to determine the prior probabilities for religious claims?

    When I think of a new scientific theory, typically the more outlandish, the more it denies of previous theories or the less likely the explanation is, the less likely I am to accept it without sufficient compensatory evidence. The most widely accepted cosmology (ΛCDM) along with the standard model seems to be fine tuned to an exceptional degree. It's unlikely. But there's a lot of evidence for it. So much evidence, that most cosmologists find it convincing, even if they still suspect that it's not the final answer.

    It's hard enough to come up with estimates for prior probabilities for scientific claims. Good scientific theories try to avoid arbitrariness or superfluous elements whenever possible, should explain the evidence, should make clear predictions in situations where we don't know the answer, and should be shown false if the predictions don't work out. It should also be consistent with the other theories out there. People accept falsified theories if they are still the least wrong theory (if there's not a clearly better alternative).

    How do religious claims fit into this picture? What prior probabilities do I choose for religious claims?

    How do I choose prior probabilities for different religions? Do I set the initial prior probability to be the same for Mohommed talking with an angel? For pillars of fire guiding the Israelites? For Buddha speaking immediately after his birth? For angels appearing to shepherds at night in Bethlehem? For Ajax slaying numerous Trojans and remaining unscathed? For Xenu bombing a bunch of his own people on Earth 75 million years ago?

    Regardless of whatever evidence is available for each of these claims (and I don't think the amount of evidence is at all the same), the claims don't seem to deserve the same prior probabilities.

    What is a person to do? It seems inscrutable on the face of it.

    • How are we to determine the prior probabilities for religious claims?

      How are we to determine the prior probabilities for religious claims?

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        The specific answer depends on the specific claim. I could only give specific, accurate examples within my own field. What's the prior probability that optical variability of a star indicates the presence of a planet, before looking for the planet? When we leave my field, say to cosmology, then prior probabilities can be set, say, for the distribution of quasars, using a model, and adjusted based on new evidence. I could probably be specific, but I may not be very accurate

        Even farther outside my field, outside the hard sciences, it is difficult to see how these prior probabilities would be set with any real precision. I think though that ranges of probabilities here can be useful. Philip Tetlock's book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction" gives some examples of ranges of probabilities applied to Poker games and political contests. What's the chance for Trump to become president, before looking at further evidence?

        Even farther afield, religion or history, I don't know where to begin, and doubt whether this is the correct approach. But, if we are talking about the burden of proof, well, I don't know a better way to understand the idea. Where should we start, percentage-wise, before we look further at the question?

        There's a much bigger issue, which John Hawthorne refers to (he may not be the first) as Ur-Priors, the probabilities you should use before looking first at an issue. How should these be set? Is their value arbitrary, or is there some right or wrong way to set these priors?

        I'm asking both the small and big questions here. It's nice to say that we should approach this issue without requiring extraordinary evidence, but I don't know what evidence should be convincing. I do know how much evidence it would take to convince me of a miracle, but I'm not sure I'm doing it right, and I'm not aware of any good alternatives,

        • What if every person simply starts out with a different Ur-Prior? (I like that term! I've been saying "universal prior", but that's clunky. "Ur-Prior" makes me think of Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series.)

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Good question. Again, it would depend both on what the Ur-priors were set to, and on how much evidence a particular claim has.

            If there's a large amount of evidence, even a small Ur-prior can be overcome, so if the Ur-priors were set randomly and differently among all people and all considered beliefs, then a very large group of people would end up accepting well-evidenced claims. A small number of people might have tiny Ur-priors for certain well-evidenced claims and remain unconvinced.

            There may be a few considered beliefs that effectively have an Ur-prior of zero or one, meaning that even though evidence could in principle sway someone, practically speaking, no amount of evidence in the world would ever be sufficient.

          • If there's a large amount of evidence, even a small Ur-prior can be overcome, so if the Ur-priors were set randomly and differently among all people and all considered beliefs, then a very large group of people would end up accepting well-evidenced claims.

            How often is there "a large amount of evidence"? I spoke to someone who got his PhD in machine learning from MIT and is now doing his postdoc at Harvard, and he notes that actually, when it comes to machine learning, there is a long period of time where the universal prior has a huge impact. It does not 'wash out' immediately, and sometimes you don't get enough data to have it 'wash out'. Furthermore, you don't always know when it has 'washed out'.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Exactly. It would depend both on what the Ur-priors were set to, and on how much evidence a particular claim has.

          • Hmmm. To what extent is discussion of one's Ur-Prior similar to the discussion of the a priori in philosophy, theology, and related thought?

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      How are we to determine the prior probabilities for religious claims?

      Probabilities only exist in the context of a model. For example, the probability that a heat of steel will contain more than 90 ppm N2 depends on whether you apply a normal model (with such-and-such mean and variance) or some other model. Put more baldly, "you have to have a theory before you can have a fact." (That is, a fact contains meaning only in the context of a theory.)

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        Not relevant to this topic, but: What do you think about superforecasting, where people assign subjective probabilities often using a roughly Bayesian approach? How do you account for the accuracy of certain groups of people who do this?

        Slightly more relevant: What do you think about the work of philosophers such as John Hawthorne, who propose that all evaluation in life either does or should follow something like Bayes's theorem, and that it is rooted in these "Ur-Priors", priors that exist effectively without looking at any evidence (they exist in the same place as Rawls's veil, but are an important theoretical entity for these philosophies)?

        Most relevant: How do you think people should deal with claims of miracles?

        My present method is to apply thermodynamics as the model to inform my priors and apply Bayes's theorem.

        If I don't do this, I'd probably just subjectively guess at probabilities, maybe after practicing some superforecasting.

        Instead, what approach would you recommend?

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I hope you'll excuse me for responding with my own rambling thoughts on this -- I'm sorry I'm not able to engage at the more rigorous philosophical level that you are probably looking for, but I like this question and I can't resist.

          I consider R.A. Fisher's observation that things that have a million, million, million to one chance will happen at a rate of once in a million, million, million, ... times.

          It doesn't seem problematic to me to assume that some types of events happen at a rate of once per universe (or once per multiverse, if you like) and -- if there are such events -- then I might reasonable expect to be aware of one or two of them. If that is true, then by extending Fisher's tautology, perhaps everyone should pick at least one miracle to believe in, though no one should believe in too many miracles (things that happen at a rate of once per universe shouldn't be occurring every day).

          Personally, if I have to pick only one, I pick the Resurrection of Christ because, in an abductive sense, that helps me make the most sense out of everything else.

          In any case, I don't think probabilities are properly assigned in abductive reasoning. Rather, what we hypothesize via abductive reasoning becomes -- tentatively, perhaps -- the unconditional basis for subsequent assignment of all conditional probabilities in an inductive-deductive framework. In other words, we say, well, if I were to believe X_0 with probability one, then that would entail assigning middle-range, or at least not-vanishingly-small probabilities to X_1, ..., X_N, and I believe from my own experience that X_1, ..., X_N are probably true. Therefore, it seems reasonable to treat X_0 as the unconditional root of all of the rest of my (conditional) epistemology. I think something has to be the root though. Your framework has to have something that you eventually -- however provisionally -- accept with probability one. Probability itself is just a model / metaphor -- using our uncertainty regarding the roll of the dice as a metaphor for our uncertainty about something else -- so I don't think it is problematic to accept something "provisionally with probability one". I know this is logically equivalent to affirming the consequent, but I also don't find this to be especially problematic. It seems to me that a lot of scientific reasoning works the same way.

          As a side note (as I'm sure you are aware), if one really wants to frame things in terms of Bayesian decision theory, one needs not only a prior, but also a loss function. Although I dislike Pascal's wager in its traditional formulation, it does put properly put emphasis on the loss function.

          EDITS, minor, for clarity

          • NDaniels

            I consider R.A. Fisher's observation that things that have a million, million, million to one chance will happen at a rate of once in a million, million, million, ... times.

            Perhaps, but then is there any way to know when that once in a million, million, million,...times event will occur unless you know that all of the necessary conditions for that once in a million, million, million,...times event to occur are occurring?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Not sure if I catch the gist of your question, but I would say that miraculous events are, by definition, not predictable.

            The epistemically humble will generally allow that not everything is necessarily predictable (even in principle) on the basis of past events, which is to say that some events may be complete and total surprises from every reference frame except, if you like, The Absolute Reference Frame, a.k.a. "God's perspective".

            As it relates to PBR's question, I think it is impossible to have a prior (in the Bayesian sense) for a completely surprising event, unless one wants to claim, with Inspector Jacques Clouseau: "With me, surprises are rarely unexpected".

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Nothing matters but the facts:

            https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9KsVu11CSrQ

    • D Foster

      I think we can agree that the matter is difficult.
      Still:
      This seems to be straying right back into a scientific model of verification. Whether one is religious or secular, one's answer to the kinds of questions religion answers is not going to be subject to quantifiable probabilities in the way that a scientific theory will be. We need to get away from the demand that any particular set of answers needs to be—particularly when it will be coupled with the unspoken claim that we'll adopt another (equally unquantifiable) set of answers until it can be.

      As a way forward, we could look at the reasons for those views which most interst one (say, Christianity and materialism, or whatever) after comparing the defense of them, and finding one to be superior, we could move onto the next.

      That process would be slow, to be certain, but seems to be the most rational approach. Certainly, it is far more rational than clinging to an unexamined view while asking for adequate proof to change one's mind (which seems to be the only real-world alternative).

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        It's a fair approach, I think, but it becomes difficult to know if you aren't fooling yourself. One of the great things about science is it has mechanisms for making sure you don't fool yourself. Requiring repeatable experiments and observations, consistent theories, (most important) testable predictions, involving careful record keeping, detailed logical argumentation and a peer-review process. They aren't always 100% effective, although they do well in the long run.

        It is difficult to see how in religion, or in philosophy for that matter, we can have the same sort of confidence that we aren't just fooling ourselves. This is especially true for claims of physical events like miracles, events that are both rare and that often conform to our desires about the world.

        This is not to say that such a technique is necessary or even appropriate for these other disciplines. It's more a worry and a curiosity. When we evaluate religious claims, especially miracle claims, how can we make sure we aren't just tricking ourselves?

        • D Foster

          We do the best we can, and there are ways of increasing our objectivity, but there is a much bigger issue here, I think.

          It really doesn't matter how the degree of "fooling one's self" in religion compares to science. The point is that it isn't any more prevalent here than in secular approaches to life. As such, it is no objection to the method I recommend until one can offer a better approach. Otherwise, we'll be back to clinging to one's current life-approach without good reason while we demand that religion and philosophy be made more like science.

          But, to answer the question, the same way one does so with any non-scientific claim. One checks for logical consistency (both internally and with basic metaphysical realities) and exposes one's self to intelligent and well-informed objectors.

          Really, this is the basis on which I tend to reject materialism. I make no claim that it is perfect, but it seems clearly better than any alternative approach I've encountered.

          But I'm willing to admit that I could be wrong. Are you aware of an alternative that you feel to be superior?

    • geekborj

      I think before even prior probabilities are talked about, we have to ask, whether such notion is applicable when it comes to religious claims whose subject are supernatural bodies. In particular, should we talk of prior probabilities when we talk about mathematical statements or arguments?

      Supernatural beings (God and angels, for instance) cannot simply come from basic senses alone but also of the intellect (ratio). As the Faith claims, it is obtained through hearing. On the other hand, the only prior we have here is the acceptance of those revealed truths as axioms (as in mathematics) of the religious system).

  • Darren

    “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

    When read literally, this is indeed false. However, the error lies in a failure to understand what an extraordinary claim is and what makes it extraordinary.

    Extra-ordinary claims _do_not_ require extra-ordinary evidence while ordinary claims required merely ordinary evidence. Extraordinary claims require exactly the same amount of evidence as any other claim, it just happens that an ordinary claim is one for which we already possess abundant evidence in support of.

    If I say that I commuted to work via car this morning, this is an ordinary claim. We have evidence that cars exist, that roads exist, that millions of people use cars and roads to travel between home and work. I may, in fact, be lying, but my claim is already in possession of a great deal of evidence, so I need provide only a small amount of additional evidence to establish that _I_ drove a car _today_, it already having been established that millions of others have done exactly the same thing.

    If I say that I commuted to work on the planet Venus by spaceship, there is little evidence to support this. There is not none, after all evidence does exist for the planet Venus and we do have primitive spaceships, but we have no evidence that any spacecraft capable of routinely traveling between my home and Venus exists, much less that I in particular have such a ship at my disposal. This, then, is an extraordinary claim. It may actually be true, but the evidence that I must provide is considerably greater, extra-ordinary as it were.

    If I go further and claim that I commuted to work this morning, in the future, riding on the back of an invisible time-travelling dragon, returning in the evening to my home in the past, now I have a whole lot of extra-ordinary establishing evidence to provide, time travel, invisible dragons, before we even get to the ordinary question of whether or not _I_ did this thing _today_.

    The recalcitrant materialists, in demanding extra-ordinary evidence for a supernatural explanation for whatever you wish to supernaturally explain, is simply asking for the _same_ ordinary-evidence as for a natural explanation, except for also needing all that background evidence to establish the non-material yet existing, a-temporal and unchanging yet interacting supernatural agent and the mechanism by which this agent interacts to cause whatever effect you think needs to be caused.

    • Rob Abney

      what if your commute suddenly and inexplicably happened to you? you would have a hard time convincing others but would it convince you that it had happened?

      • George

        I'd have to seriously consider that I had hallucinated that experience if there were still no evidence.

        • Rob Abney

          Have you been having hallucinations? If not why is that a better explanation?

          • David Nickol

            Have you been having hallucinations? If not why is that a better explanation?

            If the standard for believing you have had a hallucination is that you have had previous hallucinations, then it would be very difficult for anyone to conclude that anything was a hallucination. If my doctor tells me, "What you describe was a hallucination," I can't reasonably answer, "You must be wrong, because I have never had hallucinations before."

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Maybe the best thing is not to answer at all, because it's probably an hallucination at that point, and you don't want to look ridiculous talking to imaginary people. ;)

          • David Nickol

            I think one of the lessons of the OP is that, whether talking to real people or imaginary ones, never make a positive claim, because then the burden is on you to prove it. Even if you are a staunch atheist, never claim to know God doesn't exist.

            Of course, just because something is a hallucination, that doesn't mean it is false. It may be metaphorically true. :)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            just because something is a hallucination, that doesn't mean it is false

            Like Einstein's trolley dream! Or Maxwell's pure intuition that a theory of dielectric bodies parallels Ampere's theory regarding conducting bodies! Other physicists pointed out that permanent magnets like in children's toys falsified his theory, but he persisted and eventually Hertz and Bolzmann and other followers postulated something called an electron, and then Millikan showed that electrical charge increased in discrete increments and then....

          • David Nickol

            Dreams and "pure intuitions" are not hallucinations, but of course a hallucination could certainly convey some truth. (Freud, I believe, considered hallucinations to be meaningful in the same way as dreams.) However, if you have a hallucination that you have commuted by spaceship to the planet Venus, you have not commuted by spaceship to the planet Venus, otherwise it is not a hallucination!

            It is difficult to imagine that someone would hallucinate a commute to Venus. If someone claimed to have commuted to Venus, it would more likely be a delusion.

          • Rob Abney

            The point is why should George accept that he is hallucinating for the first time, unless there are reasons that he was unaware of, and yet not accept the fact that he commuted inexplicably to Venus. Anytime a first occurrence occurs there will not be the sort of background evidence that Darren was saying we should expect, unless there were reasons that we were not aware of.
            Similarly, in the case of the resurrection of Jesus we will not have the evidence of previous resurrections. And, ironically, one of the rationales for disproving it is that the witnesses were hallucinating.

          • Galorgan

            As Darren stated, we have evidence of cars and transportation already. So, too, do we have evidence of hallucinations, even if not happening to the individual person. As the evidence of cars etc. in general counts as evidence for Darren driving to work, so too does evidence of hallucinations in general count as evidence of he having a hallucination. The same cannot be said for his invisible dragon situation.

          • Rob Abney

            You changed it to hallucinations in general instead of for the first time and inexplicably.
            But this thread is getting away from my first point which is: if a first-time-event occurred why would you just dismiss it as if it couldn't have occurred? Of course then my parallel point will be that Jesus' resurrection was a first-time-event so why would we have background evidence to support it?

          • Galorgan

            So you were actually asking Daren/George what if he did have that experience and hallucinations had never happened to anybody before? That this was the first time a hallucination (assuming it rue) would have happened at all?

          • Rob Abney

            not exactly.
            I was asking if he had never had a hallucination before why would he believe a hallucination had occurred rather than his extraordinary experience.

          • Galorgan

            Right, and that's what I initially responded to. Even if he had never had a hallucination before, hallucinations have happened before, in general. This is unlike the invisible dragon.

          • Rob Abney

            I must not be making a very good point.
            But, I am trying to determine how we should consider an extraordinary experience if the usual order of nature is violated, like considering a miracle. But I was trying to make it more specific and personal, so that if it happened to you and it was obviously miraculous without any natural explanations; then why wouldn't you believe it? Not even considering that you have to convince anyone else of its veracity but just to believe it yourself? Maybe this is how the Church deals with personal revelations vs. public revelations.
            In the end it would come down to whether or not you trust yourself.

          • Galorgan

            I understand that we are just talking about a personal experience and not trying to convince others. In order to demonstrate why you might "not trust yourself," let's focus on Darren's example and not a Christian miracle. I don't know if you've ever had hallucinations before, but I'll assume you haven't had a truly vivid lifelike one. We've all had dreams and maybe the odd fever induced hallucination, but they don't really appear to be real. So, if you had a lifelike experience of riding an invisible dragon (we can ignore the time-traveling stuff) to work this morning, would you be more likely to believe that that happened or that it was a hallucination? From my responses, you can probably guess that I would lean towards hallucination if it happened to me.

          • Rob Abney

            You would lean toward it being a hallucination because you have known of others having hallucinations, I have also; but I have nothing in my personal or medical history to indicate that I would have a hallucination, so assuming that is true why should I accept a physical cause rather than a supernatural one?
            It's safe to say that I wouldn't want either to occur.

          • Galorgan

            It's fine if you don't know what which way you would lean, but could you answer the question (by saying I don't know if you don't know)?

          • Rob Abney

            Yes, "I don't know" would probably be the easiest answer, agnosticism.

          • Galorgan

            Do you think then, that if you had that experience that the likelihood of hallucination and the likelihood that it actually happened were of roughly equal value?

          • Galorgan

            Haha yeah, it's fine though. We're never gonna get through to somebody who thinks that riding an invisible dragon to work is more likely to occur than a hallucination or even that those two things are equally likely. We will get through to the lurkers who realize they are siding more with the atheist than the believer.

          • Lazarus

            Ok, let's take this bit of fun a bit further. What if I ride that dragon, and somehow see me doing so? Or all of a sudden, one day only, they also ride dragons for a day. And we do so together, this strange and impossible thing. And we talk about it. Would we then accept that it happened, that it's true? Is it then more reasonable to assume a mass hallucination? Or can our group then accept that something unique happened?

            Like some people did when their friend and teacher rose from the dead, and talked with them.

          • Galorgan

            Yeah, I don't know how others would answer, but I would find that pretty convincing. Maybe not 100% convincing as I would leave some small room for hallucination, but I would definitely be on the side of it happening. This, of course, assumes that I completely trust the person who says they saw me doing it. If there's a small but legitimate chance that they are egging me on or appeasing me (until the doctors come), then that would be severely diminished [this is true either way, whether I saw them riding the dragon or they saw me riding the dragon].

            Of course, this is completely different that people telling me that this happened to them and even more different than reading accounts of it from 2000 years ago.

            Finally, Witcher 3 won GOTY at the game awards so IN YO FACE, FALLOUTER! (Really enjoying FO4, though :P )

          • Lazarus

            And how exactly am I even supposed to know about Witcher 3 when I spend 23 hours a day on FO4? ;)
            I will have a look though.

          • Galorgan

            Haha, I have 60 hours in FO4 so far, so I understand!

          • George

            I said I'd seriously consider it, not necessarily accept that I had hallucinated. why would I lean very much towards the event actually happening if my spaceship appears to have never existed, my peers all unanimously testify that I spent that entire day with them, with video evidence from a well-known and impartial third party such as the local news broadcast with me appearing in the background.

            "one of the rationales for disproving it is that the witnesses were hallucinating."

            I have no interest in that angle because I don't need it. I only have to ask: what witnesses?

          • Rob Abney

            "why would I lean very much towards the event actually happening if my spaceship appears to have never existed, my peers all unanimously testify that I spent that entire day with them, with video evidence from a well-known and impartial third party such as the local news broadcast with me appearing in the background."

            in that case you shouldn't believe the spaceship happened (or dragon, I'm getting confused).

            but if it was your experience and you didn't have other background pieces of evidence would you disbelieve just because it was out of the ordinary?

    • D Foster

      The problem with these fanciful "commutes" is not so much that we don't have evidence that this happens, but that we have lots of evidence that these things don't happen.

      Now, if a materialist could offer as much evidence that God does not exist as we have evidence that no one commutes to Venus, then this would indeed be a reasonable demand.

      As it stands, however, the average materialist is (by his/her own admission) more in a position like asking whether there are other universes—or whether there is cobalt on Pluto. In that case, we don't have evidence either way, and any evidence leading us to think either "yes" or "no" would be significant.

      Of course, this is all to imply that "evidence" is even the primary concern when trying to learn whether or not God exists. So long as "evidence" is taken to be something that would fit the scientific model of evidence (particularly if it must be physical), then this is simply wrong-headed from the start. That is simply not how metaphysical claims are investigated.

      • Darren

        D Foster wrote,

        The problem with these fanciful "commutes" is not so much that we don't have evidence that this happens, but that we have lots of evidence that these things don't happen.

        I think, perhaps, you are a bit confused about what evidence is and how it works.

        Of course, this is all to imply that "evidence" is even the primary concern when trying to learn whether or not God exists. So long as "evidence" is taken to be something that would fit the scientific model of evidence (particularly if it must be physical) actually exists, then this is simply wrong-headed from the start. That is simply not how metaphysical claims are investigated.

        Now we can both agree.
        Best regards.

        • D Foster

          If you feel that I am confused, please explain.

          I think it pretty obvious that there is a great deal of evidence that people don't regularly commute to Venus, or on a dragon. Are you saying that we don't have such evidence?

          If not, it seems that you're simply disagreeing with my conclusions about evidence, not giving a reason why they are false.

          As to your replacing my phrase "would fit the scientific model of evidence (particularly if it must be physical)" with "actually exists", are you saying that these two things are the same?

          If so, you're simply claiming materialism. As that is a worldview which is 1) unsupported, 2) highly problematic, and 3) rejected by classical theists (and most every other kind of theist), it makes no sense to assume that when evaluating theism.

          If, however, you don't mean that, could you give me a more clear idea of what you do mean. If you feel that you have a better understanding of what constitutes evidence than I do, please share. What definition of evidence are you working with? Do you allow that not all evidence is physical—or are you assuming materialism?

          And, of course, please offer some reason to take this view of evidence, as opposed to one of the many others.

          • Darren

            D Foster wrote,

            I think it pretty obvious that there is a great deal of evidence that people don't regularly commute to Venus, or on a dragon. Are you saying that we don't have such evidence?

            Your point that evidence exists against space trips to Venus is correct. I misspoke. My apologies.

            The existence of interplanetary travel via advanced technology is not a metaphysical claim, though. Sagan's Invisible Dragon, on the other hand, smells a bit of metaphysics and I would be curious if you had evidence against Invisible Dragons that would be more compelling than, say, evidence that crackers remain crackers, no matter how much Latin one incants.

            Do you allow that not all evidence is physical—or are you assuming materialism?

            I was merely amused by your invocation of the big-scary-science, as if science is anything other than the study of what exists.

            I don't a priori assume materialism - you are welcome to present any and all non-physical evidence for consideration.

          • D Foster

            Greetings, best wishes, and otherwise diving right in:

            The existence of interplanetary travel via advanced technology is not a metaphysical claim, though

            I completely agree here.

            Sagan's Invisible Dragon, on the other hand, smells a bit of metaphysics

            It doesn't to me. At least, what I've always taken the word "dragon" to mean is most definitely a physical concept (a non-instantiated one, of course).

            So, if we're going with the typical definition of "dragon", then there is all sorts of evidence that they don't exist. Even being invisible, they (being physical beings) would be subject to quite a few physical tests.

            If, however, we're using a more idiosyncratic definition of "dragon", then we would indeed be getting into metaphysics. In that case, we'd have to move from physical, scientific tests, and get into logic as applied to metaphysical first principles.

            Whatever the results of that discussion, we'd have already left the idea that demanding evidence is terribly relevant.

            Of course, a human being definitely manifests physically, so the idea that such a person is commuting to work on a dragon (however we define "dragon") is still a matter for physical, rather than metaphysical, inquiry. In which case, this would indeed be a place where we have a great deal of evidence that it doesn't happen.

            So, I simply don't see how any of this parallels to a genuinely metaphysical question (such as that over God's existence). I suspect that we may be thinking of God on the model of ancient pagan gods (beings basically like humans, but with more abilities), rather than as the metaphysical entity being proposed.

          • Darren

            D Foster wrote,

            If, however, we're using a more idiosyncratic definition of "dragon", then we would indeed be getting into metaphysics.

            Thank you for the reply. I am afraid that I have led you down a bit of a false path by not specifying clearly. Entirely my error.

            Yes, (Carl) Sagan's Invisible Dragon is a thing (trope, meme, thought experiment?) illustrating, at its base level, God of the
            Gaps and ad hoc rationalizations for the ever increasing intangibility / metaphysical abstraction of God as we get ever better telescopes/microscopes. On a higher level it serves, IMO, to nicely illustrate the incoherence of speaking about something _existing_ when that thing has none of the qualities that we conceptually invoke when we say that something exists.

            I added the time travel bit in tribute to this wonderfully delusional narrative I once read from a man claiming to have spent 20 years working for the US military, stationed on Mars, as a psychic assassin. This man subsequently retired, his age was reversed, and he was sent back through time to the instant after he left, appearing to all observers as though he had never left. More amusing
            still, he was attempting to sue the US Navy for failing to pay the pension he earned with the 20 years on Mars killing commies with his mind and all. God bless the internet.

            Whatever the results of that discussion, we'd have already left the idea that demanding evidence is terribly relevant.

            I believe I understand you. I disagree that metaphysical
            questions are any different than physical questions in their need for evidence prior to our placing belief in them, but I am willing to call that an ideological position on my part that not everyone shares (even though I think they should).

          • D Foster

            Okay, this makes more sense. Let me offer a different response:

            Yes, (Carl) Visit our HTML tutorial is a thing (trope, meme, thought experiment?) illustrating, at its base level, God of the Gaps and ad hoc rationalizations for the ever increasing intangibility / metaphysical abstraction of God as we get ever better telescopes/microscopes.

            But this is simply historically inaccurate. God has been seen as a purely metaphysical entity at least since scholasticism. Aquinas held this, for instance, and was far from alone in doing so. That's a few hundred years before Galileo, and definitely before "ever better telescopes/microscopes".

            More directly, I don't know of any legitimate theologian who believes in a God of the Gaps. Anyone who does should definitely rethink his/her position. My only claim here is that this line of reasoning doesn't affect classical theism.

            the incoherence of speaking about something _existing_ when that thing has none of the qualities that we conceptually invoke when we say that something exists.

            I may or may not agree with this, depending on what you mean by "conceptually invoke". If you mean "imagine", then yes. It probably isn't possible to imagine a non-physical concept, and trying to do so will lead one to incoherencies.

            If, however, you mean "think about", then it is entirely possible to think about something without imagining it as physical. I see nothing remotely incoherent about that.

            The confusion of the imagination with the intellect is, in my view, the chief mistake of Hume's philosophy. And, Hume being the intellectual grandfather of modern materialist atheism, this same mistake might be creeping into these sorts of arguments.

            I added the time travel bit in tribute to this wonderfully delusional narrative

            That's all well and good, but I don't see a point here other than that is is possible to claim anything. I completely agree with that point, I suppose, and don't see how anything I've written would run counter to that.

            But perhaps I've missed something there.

            disagree that metaphysicalquestions are any different than physical questions in their need for evidence prior to our placing belief in them, but I am willing to call that an ideological position on my part that not everyone shares (even though I think they should).

            Fair enough, but do you have any reason for thinking that?
            In particular, do you have any evidence for that position of yours? It is, after all a metaphysical belief, and it would seem contradictory to believe that unless you had evidence for it.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Darren,

          Can you explain what you think evidence is? And what you mean by "actually exists"? (Specifically, are you saying that only things that comport with scientific evidentiary models actually exist?)

          • Darren

            Joseph;

            Not I; nobody home but us Skeptics.

            We could quote at each other if you like, but sooner or later we dig down to Munchhausen and there we stop.

            I will go so far as to say that what appears to exist is more likely to exist(1) than what does not appear to exist, and the _more_often_ something appears to exist the more likely it is to actually exist and that is what some people like to call science.

            (1) Or at least that is a good enough working model to keep me from walking out in front of buses and the like. While buses may not actually exist, they do certainly appear to exist.

  • Darren

    I rather like your murder example, BTW, but think it needs a bit of a tweek to match the case for which you wish to use it as an analogy.

    Now, let us suppose a man was murdered. He was in a locked room with three people. Two of those people were in the possession of firearms. Forensic analysis of the corpse indicates the man was shot twice. Each gun was fired once. Ballistics testing indicates that of the two bullets in the corpse, one matches each gun. The two people who had guns in the room also have powder residue on their dominant hands, supporting the conclusion that each had fired their respective guns.

    Who killed the man?

    The thirst person, with a mental death-ray. A ghost told me so.

    (The supposed physical evidence is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by ideological ghost-deniers)

    :)

    • David Nickol

      I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me

      Joe Heschmeyer's murder-trial example is not a good one. I don't think, in the kind of case he describes, that the state prosecutes three people, two of whom are guilty, and lets the jury decide which one of the three is innocent and which two are guilty. It is the job of the prosecution to determine which two are guilty and to take that to the jury. It might be the job of a grand jury to decide which two of the three should be charged, but even in the case of a grand jury, it is usually making a determination based on arguments by a prosecutor.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        David,

        To be clear, I'm not suggesting that the state would actually proceed with three trials. In real life, there would almost certainly be other evidence (in this example, each of the three people has an interest in testifying against the other two). There's something obviously tasteless about proceeding with three trials, in the sure knowledge that this would result in one wrongful conviction. But those are questions of legal prudence and justice.

        I raise the hypothetical for a very different reason: to show the impossibility of the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" standard.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Darren,

      If this is what you think Christianity claims ("the supposed physical evidence is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by ideological ghost-deniers"), you're tilting at windmills. Nobody here is articulating or defending that ridiculous strawman.

      • Darren

        Joseph wrote,

        Nobody here is articulating or defending that ridiculous strawman.

        [shrug]

        If you say so. Perhaps you have missed the sundry "...you just reject X because you are ideologically committed to Materialism" on this page and throughout SN.

        Best regards.

  • As a former attorney, Joel knows perfectly well what the burden of proof means. It means the person making the claim bears the burden to demonstrate the claim is true.

    If the claimant is saying a god exists, they lose by default if they provide no, or insufficient, evidence to prove that claim. If the claimant is claiming no gods exist, they bear the burden.

    What atheists are doing with the burden of proof argument is making a non-suit motion on theist claims, they are saying theists have provided insufficient evidence to support their position that a god exists. It is no response or defence to such a motion for a theist to complain the atheist provided no evidence of a lack of any gods.

    That is pretty much it.

    • ClayJames

      This whole thing ends up being a semantic difference if we don´t define what we mean by ¨atheist¨. Joe and I would say most people, define atheist as the belief that no gods exist and agnosticism as the lack of belief in the existence of gods. Based on this definition, like you accept, the atheist does have a burden of proof and the theist is warranted to ask the atheist to support his/her claim.

      • What matters is the claim being made, not how it is labelled.

        I use "atheist" to refer to anyone who lacks a belief in any gods. I use the term to distinguish a group of people how hold a belief in the existence of a deity, and everyone else.

        • ClayJames

          Right, and that is not the same definition that Joe is using.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          I use "atheist" to refer to anyone who lacks a belief in any gods.

          Then a turnip is an atheist?

          • Galorgan

            Is a turnip an agnostic instead?

    • As a former attorney, Joel knows perfectly well what the burden of proof means. It means the person making the claim bears the burden to demonstrate the claim is true.

      On whom is the burden of establishing common ground, so the Christian can advance his/her case in the first place?

    • D Foster

      Actually, there's quite a bit more to it.

      That is, everyone has an approach to life, and a set of working answers to the questions that religion answers. Secular people are not somehow immune from this.

      If all the atheist is doing is asking for support from theists, then he/she is not presenting his/her alternative life approach for consideration. Needless to say, that would mean that this secular life-approach (weltanschauung) is not being supported or defended in any way.

      But, for anyone who's seriously asking the question "what is the most reasonable approach to life?", asking for evidence for one view, without presenting a better alternative, isn't helpful.

      So, if there is a set of answers to questions about meaning in life, morality, the nature of reality, etc. that is supported by the kind of evidence being asked of theism, we should take it very seriously. Until then, however, anyone "making a non-suit motion on theist claims" hasn't given us a reason to abandon theism for an undefended secular view.

      • Wrong. If I claim that I have a superior life approach to others, I would bear the burden of demonstrating that. But that is not the claim. The claim is that a deity exists.

        If we take the legal analogy, I may make a claim that John owes me 100$. If I call evidence that I am actually out 100$ But none that I loaned it in some way to John, John is entitled to come to court and argue he should win because I have not met the burden. The reality may be that John does owe me the 100$, but John bears no burden to defend himself if I have failed to bring any evidence or evidence sufficient to show I leant it to John to a standard of probabilities.

        What you are suggesting is that if I have show there was a loan, and named John, John needs to show who I loaned it to that wasn't him, or accept that I did loan it to him. That is not fair.

        Again, it comes down to the claim being advanced. If the case is "who did I loan the money to" then yes, we need to find an answer. But for very good reasons, courts will dismiss such claims who do not name a defendant. Just like criminal cases are not framed as who mrdered person A.

        So if the question is does a god exist, yes, the person advancing the claim needs to advance the evidence and there is no burden on the other side to call evidence.

        • D Foster

          Wrong. If I claim that I have a superior life approach to others, I would bear the burden of demonstrating that. But that is not the claim. The claim is that a deity exists.

          I didn't disagree with this. What I pointed out is that if you are NOT claiming to have a superior life approach, then you aren't doing anything useful in the conversation.

          That is to say, you clearly do think your approach to life is superior to a theistic one, or it wouldn't be your approach to life. Refusing to claim that openly, and thereby refusing to defend or critically examine the life approach you do take, doesn't remotely mean that we should take a secular approach to life until the theist can shoulder the entire burden of proof. Rather, it simply means that no one is defending a secular approach.

          This is where I conclude that, though refusing to defend one's worldview (and staying perpetually in attack mode) is extremely useful in winning debates, it is completely worthless at actually answering the question "which is the more accurate picture of reality?".

          So, yes. If one isn't going to actually present a view, then one doesn't have a burden of proof. But this is a far cry from a reason to accept that view until theism can be proved. Instead, why don't we get it out and look at it right along side theism? Then we will see which comes closer to supporting itself.

          The only reason to refuse to do this, so far as I can tell, is fear that the hidden secular view won't meet the same requirements that are demanded of theism.

          • I see what you are saying. I think you are making a common mistake that because someone is atheist that this lack of belief in any gods is a world view or approach to life. It isn't.
            I would also suggest that the belief in a god is not a world view either.

            The question is whether or not a god exists. The answer to this question (or whether it is reasonable to conclude a god exists) is one that, I agree, would have an enormous impact on people's world view, which is why I am so interested in this topic. But I think it needs to be assessed on its own merit, on the evidence for a god first.

            I am happy to discuss and defend my world view, but that simply is not the question here.

          • D Foster

            No, I'm not claiming (nor do I think) that a "lack of belief in any gods is a world view or approach to life". Rather, I was claiming that you have SOME approach to life, and:
            1. As you are an atheist, that approach will be secular
            2. As you take that approach, you consider it to be superior to those you don't take (including theistic approaches).

            Nor is the question "whether or not a god exists". Setting aside the massive differences between "a god" and "God", the question is "which approach to life is the most rational?".

            The question of God's existence is simply a subset of that question. And, with respect to the matter or burden of proof, it only makes sense to demand certain forms and levels of evidence if there is, in fact some other view which can meet that burden of proof. Otherwise, claiming that theism has not met a particular burden is actually no reason at all to reject theism.

            After all, we live in a world of uncertainties. The question we face is almost never "Can we prove this or that true in a vacuum?". In nearly every case, it is "Given what we know, what is the most reasonable option on the table?".

            Most atheists I encounter think it is reasonable to demand empirical, scientific evidence for God's existence, but this would only be reasonable in the event that there is some other view (of meaning in life, moral truth, etc.) which can provide such evidence.

            So this is directly relevant to the question of God's existence. When every single alternative to theism I've ever encountered fails to provide the sort evidence frequently demanded of theism, it is no good to go on saying "Nevermind that, the question is whether or not theism can provide it, and we should accept a secular view if it cannot".

            I think it's clear that this is a completely wrong-headed way to go about selecting a worldview.

          • Please understand, atheism is not a worldview, it certainly is not my world view. My world view is skeptical empiricism, which is not incompatible with a belief in any gods. So your demand for a worldview that is an alternative to theism is misplaced. I could defend my worldview all I like, but it will not get at this question of theism. Rather, my atheism is a consequence of applying skeptical empiricism. However, if I am ignorant to facts and arguments that demonstrate a god exists, I will become a skeptical empiricist who believes in a god.

            And this is why I ask for the evidence, if it is reasonable to believe in a god, my worldview allows me to be convinced.

          • D Foster

            Okay, but could you please understand this as well:

            I've never claimed that atheism is a worldview. I've never in my life believed that atheism is a worldview. I specifically agreed that atheism is not a worldview in my last post.

            Now that we are agreed that atheism is not a worldview, there is still the fact that you have a worldview (everyone does). It is not atheism, to be sure, but I am curious to know whether it can support itself with the kind of evidence that is demanded of my worldview.

            In fact, you name "skeptical empiricism" as a method which led you to atheism. Personally, I agree that it does. I merely wonder whether skeptical empiricism (which I take to be the position that all truth claims should be supported with empirical evidence) is supported by anything like the kind of evidence that people ask for God. If not, it seems only reasonable to reject it on the same grounds.

            But I know of no empirical evidence that there aren't other ways of discovering truth. In fact, I know of a good reason to think that there are, in fact, other ways (mathematical truths, for instance, are discovered through logical analysis).

            Nor does it allow one to be convinced of any proposed god that isn't an empirical god (the God of classical theism is not). That would require abandoning empiricism. One cannot be an empiricist believer in classical theism. Hence, empiricism does not allow one to be convinced.

            This is why I brought up the issue of worldview in the first place. If one is presuming skeptical empiricism (a non-theist worldview), then of course one is going to reject theism. But the real question is whether or not that world view is really a legitimate starting point when considering theism.

            Like all classical theists, I simply reject the idea that empiricism is valid. It is fine to disagree, but it makes no sense to assume it when requesting support for classical theism.

            It also makes no sense to request support for theism, but give empiricism a free pass. What is the evidence in favor of it?

            And, again, none of this requires assuming that atheism is a worldview. It merely assumes that atheists have worldviews (not that their worldviews are atheism).

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Brian,

            You say,

            I think you are making a common mistake that because someone is atheist that this lack of belief in any gods is a world view or approach to life. It isn't.

            But those who deny the existence of God (or gods) is articulating a worldview. Look at it this way. There’s a world of difference between someone who is ignorant of the Holocaust, and someone who denies that it occurred. And the latter person is articulating a false worldview, whereas the first person is just acknowledging an incompleteness to his own worldview.

            You can't proceed like those two types of people or claims are the same. They're not, and it's thoroughly unpersuasive to pretend otherwise.

          • Lazarus

            I gave you one upvote for this, I owe you another 5 ;)

          • D Foster

            Thanks!

          • David Nickol

            So, yes. If one isn't going to actually present a view, then one doesn't have a burden of proof. But this is a far cry from a reason to accept that view until theism can be proved.

            I think I see what you are saying, but I disagree. It is one of theism's basic tenets (and certainly one of Catholicism's) that it can be proved. In fact, there are some theists who argue here that the existence of God is obvious, and some that even go so far as to argue that everyone believes there is a God, but atheists merely pretend to deny it so they do not have to obey God's commands.

            If it is true that the existence of God is obvious, or that it can be proved, then it is perfectly legitimate (it seems to me) for atheists who do not believe in God to point out what they believe are the shortcomings in the various "proofs."

            Lazarus a quote recently from Fr. Spitzer's book that I found exasperating:

            "When we present the evidence of transcendence to believers, we must always remember that it can never be perfectly definitive—we will all need to take a little leap of faith, a movement of the heart—to get from the evidence to a relationship with the loving God. We will always be able to talk ourselves out of any evidence—proofs of God from logic and philosophy, the evidence of God from physics, the evidence of a soul from near-death experiences, and the evidence of transcendence from the five transcendental desires, the numinous experience, and our sense of the sacred. Why? Because God will not allow us to be enslaved by a miracle; He will not make a relationship with Him dependent on the mind alone, because He wants us to come to Him through our hearts as He has come to us."

            It seems to me to be saying, "What I am offering is admittedly short of being conclusive. In order to believe me, you have to take a 'leap of faith', and if you don't, it's your fault that you don't believe."

            The Bible is, of course, filled with stories of God working all kinds of wonders to pound into the heads of the Israelites how powerful he is, and of course Jesus worked one miracle after another—including rising from the dead. And yet we are told that God is intent on remaining so nearly concealed that it takes a "leap of faith" to believe he really exists.

          • D Foster

            I think I see what you are saying, but I disagree. It is one of theism's basic tenets (and certainly one of Catholicism's) that it can be proved. In fact, there are some theists who argue here that the existence of God is obvious, and some that even go so far as to argue that everyone believes there is a God, but atheists merely pretend to deny it so they do not have to obey God's commands.

            I'll leave those theists who claim that the matter is obvious to speak for themselves. For those of us who do not, this is not a reason to focus solely on theism.

            Nor is any kind of claim that theism can be proved. So far as I understand, the Catholic church only claims that it can be proved within a certain metaphysical framework—not that it can be proved given the metaphysical presuppositions of modern materialists.

            But I'll not speak too much on that, either. I am not a Catholic. Rather, I'm simply going to wonder why we should adopt a worldview on grounds other than that it is the most rationally defensible.

            Which is what this seems to amount to. Something like: "Well, even if Christianity were the most rantional view, I wouldn't believe it because many Christians claim that it is even more defensible than that. Instead, I'm going to hold it to a higher standard than I hold my own view.". That doesn't make sense to me.

            It seems to me to be saying, "What I am offering is admittedly short of being conclusive..."

            Setting aside the theology there, it seems you've provided me with an example of the fact that not all Christians do claim that the truth of Christianity is rationally obvious, or proved beyond all doubt. This seems to counter your earlier argument to the effect that Christians should be taken as claiming absolute proof.

            Personally, I don't claim to have an air-tight argument for much of anything, and I find it completely bizarre that people really think that I shouldn't compare the secular alternatives to Christianity to see which is the more defensible.

            Generally speaking, when someone says "no need to compare these two ideas, let's just look very critically at this one of them", I get suspicious. And I'm sure that, were I to make that sort of argument for my view, the atheists here would (rightly) reject that approach.

            The Bible is, of course, filled with stories of God working all kinds of wonders to pound into the heads of the Israelites how powerful he is

            I definitely question this exegesis.

            And yet we are told that God is intent on remaining so nearly concealed that it takes a "leap of faith" to believe he really exists.

            You can argue that with Lazarus. I'm not claiming that it takes a leap of faith. I'm claiming that it takes a rational look at the alternatives.

            And, frankly, I can't understand the motivation to avoid looking rationally at the alternatives in anything but rhetorical terms. What on Earth is wrong with comparing views in an apples-to-apples way, as opposed to "unless view A can prove itself true in a vacuum, I'm going with view B—which hasn't been defended in the slightest"?

            Now, please allow me to quickly add that this is probably not what you are claiming, but I don't yet see the difference between that and what you are claiming. I've not seen any willingness to seriously consider non-theistic worldviews by the same standards we expect theistic worldviews to be considered.

            So, is it any wonder that this double standard would lead us to a non-theistic conclusion? The only thing left to do, if that is our modus operandi, is give up the pretense that we've chosen our worldview rationally—or have been fair in rejecting theism.

          • Michael Murray

            What I pointed out is that if you are NOT claiming to have a superior life approach, then you aren't doing anything useful in the conversation.

            Are you saying that pointing out deficiencies in another persons explanation of something is useless unless you have a better explanation yourself ?

          • D Foster

            I'm not literally saying that is true in all cases (please forgive the bit of hyperbole there). But I do suspect that pointing out deficiencies is far less useful than the average critic believes it to be.

            This is for many reasons, but the most pertinent is the fact that such challenges usually presume the hidden worldviews (such as materialism) that both presume atheism and are consistently unsupported in these debates.

            And any challenge which presumes that what it challenges is false (such as demanding empirical evidence for classical theism) strikes me as pretty useless.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Brian,

      Muehlhauser points out the intellectual dishonesty of treating atheism as simple agnosticism:

      Atheists like to avoid the burden of proof during debates, so they say they merely “lack” a belief in God. But this is not what their writings usually suggest. No, most intellectual atheists positively believe that God does not exist.

      Conflating atheism and agnosticism allows you to pretend that there are way more atheists than there really are, while holding atheism to the lower evidentiary threshold of agnosticism. But it’s an intellectually dishonest move, and a glaring categorical error.

      You say that “you” define atheism as “anyone who lacks a belief in any gods” isn’t good enough. That’s not what the term means, though, and you can’t just redefine it. It refers specifically to those who deny the existence of God.

      You say that your definition is in order to “distinguish a group of people [who] hold a belief in the existence of a deity, and everyone else.” But the term “atheist” already does that. In fact, it distinguishes atheists from theists and agnostics. By redefining the term, you’re making it less clear and less accurate (and apparently, intentionally so).

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Brian,

      You raise a point that I think requires an important distinction:

      If the claimant is saying a god exists, they lose by default if they provide no, or insufficient, evidence to prove that claim. If the claimant is claiming no gods exist, they bear the burden.

      A lot depends here on what you mean by "lose." If a theist fails to prove theism, it doesn't follow that atheism is true. It could just be that the theist is bad at arguing, or (in theory) that the evidence is lacking.

      That’s why the even/odd number of stars example is important. Neither side can prove their case, but that doesn’t disprove their side, or prove the opposing side. To be clear, I think that there is sufficient evidence for theism (but not of the *type* of evidence that people normally expect or desire), but my point here is simply what the standard ought to be in evaluating these claims.

  • Point 2 seems to be saying it is unfair to complain of a lack of empirical evidence for a god, because god is not the kind of thing that would leave empirical evidence.

    That is fine but it places limits on what evidence a theist can refer to. It means the theist is saying that there is nothing about this cosmos that distinguishes it from one in which a god did not exist.

    You cannot refer to the fact that this cosmos has essences and accidents, or that the universe is fine tuned, or that the resurrection occurred and so on.

    • ClayJames

      There is a diference between God not being contrained by natural law and not having any natural evidence for/against God´s existence.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Point 2 seems to be saying it is unfair to complain of a lack of empirical evidence for a god, because god is not the kind of thing that would leave empirical evidence.

      In a similar way, it is unfair to demand empirical evidence that pi is irrational.

      That is fine but it places limits on what evidence a theist can refer to. It means the theist is saying that there is nothing about this cosmos that distinguishes it from one in which a god did not exist.

      Other than the fact that a cosmos exists. [I am assuming that you are lower-casing God as a Cute Rhetorical Trick. If you actually mean "god" rather than "God," that's another story.]

      • David Nickol

        I think there is a difference between saying "God" and "a god." I would not object to the lowercase g in the latter.

      • Darren

        Ye Olde Statistician wrote,

        In a similar way, it is unfair to demand empirical evidence that pi is irrational.

        Indeed. Why, I was just telling The Tortoise this the other day.
        Or rather, I was trying, but I just couldn't seem to catch him.

  • Extraordinary claims do need extraordinary evidence. This is a bayesian analysis. It simply means that if the background knowledge is very strong, you will need just as strong evidence to overcome it. For example, if a man is on the 80th floor of a building and he claims that he jumped there from sea level, the background evidence is very strong against his claim. It is physically impossible, (though not logically), we have no credible evidence of anything like that happening before. He would need some pretty impressive evidence to justify a claim of jumping 80 stories.

    It terms of the example Joe presents, there is no claim being made, much less an extraordinary claim. The claim could be that one person shot the dead person. There is evidence that it was one of two people, but no evidence on which one of the two it was. To prove it a claim it was one, or the other, or both, there would need to be more evidence. An extraordinary claim in that scenario would be that it was neither of the people in the room but someone in another city.

    • ClayJames

      Extraordinary claims do need extraordinary evidence. This is a bayesian
      analysis. It simply means that if the background knowledge is very
      strong, you will need just as strong evidence to overcome it.

      Claims need evidence to be supported and what you call the strong background knowldge is simply evidence against a claim. So yes, if a man survived an 80 story jump and a man is limited by natural law and biology, then these things are evidence against this event. It has nothing to do with how extraordinary this claim is, it has to do with the fact that starting out, there is more evidence against than for.

      This is a very important point and its not just a semantic one since it allows bringing the actual background evidence into the conversation to be analyzed instead of just calling the statement extraordinary. For example, when a naturalist says that a supernatural claim is extraordinary, they are simply saying that, starting out, the evidence necessary needs to outweight the evidence for naturalism. By talking about the background knowledge that makes this claim so extraordinary, we can point out that the evidence for naturalism is faulty and therefore this claim is not extraordinary.

      Calling a claim extraordinary is just a way to hide behind assumed (often mistaken) notions in order to weigh the conversation one way or the other.

      • David Nickol

        Calling a claim extraordinary is just a way to hide behind assumed
        (often mistaken) notions in order to weigh the conversation one way or
        the other.

        If we are to look at these issues in a lawyerly way, it would seem to me that supernatural claims are extremely extraordinary claims and require extremely extraordinary evidence. Can anyone think of a trial in the 20th or 21st century in which the defense even attempted to have a client exonerated based on a supernatural claim? I doubt that such a defense would even be permissible.

        I think that in the legal system, it makes perfect sense to all but rule out supernatural claims.

        • ClayJames

          I don´t think every single aspect of our legal system should be translated to this situation, because it clearly does not apply. We do not need to believe something beyond a reasonable doubt in order to accept it as the most probable explanation and it makes no sense to assume some form of methodological naturalism in order to have a conversation regarding supernatural events.

    • Lazarus

      As popular a cliche as "extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence" may be, I have to disagree with it. It is just fuzzy thinking.

      All you need for any claim, whether it is a humdrum, everyday claim or an extraordinary one, is .... evidence.

      If I say to everyone here that a UFO landed in my garden this morning that would be a rather extraordinary claim. And yet, my evidence may be as mundane as a cellphone video and affidavits by two friends.

      Evidence may or may not be "extraordinary ", whatever that may mean, but it should not be elevated to this absolute requirement. It simply fails to understand the nature of evidence and proving a claim.

      • David Nickol

        If I say to everyone here that a UFO landed in my garden this morning that would be a rather extraordinary claim. And yet, my evidence may be as mundane as a cellphone video and affidavits by two friends.

        If you said a bear or a fox or an orangutan had visited your garden this morning, then that might be sufficient evidence. But if you wanted to be taken seriously by NASA or the military, you would have to turn over the cellphone video and have it examined by experts. Affidavits from two friends would not be sufficient. You and they would be grilled by experts, and (depending on how seriously the incident was taken) you might find yourselves getting extensive background checks to see if you had other curious incidents in your lives, if you had perpetrated any hoaxes in the past, and so on. No authority on "UFO" would affirm such a claim on the basis of a cellphone video and two sworn statements by witnesses.

        "Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence" may not be the perfect phrasing, but there is a reasonable thought in there somewhere. It might be something like, "When an extraordinary claim is made, there must be good evidence for it, and it must hold up under intense scrutiny, otherwise it is unreasonable to conclude that the claim is true."

        • Lazarus

          Even if I submit to all of those examples of verification that you have mentioned, it will still simply be evidence (or lack thereof). There is no need to insist on "extraordinary evidence".

      • The evidence you cited I would not say is mundane, it is pretty substantial. Mundane would be you saying it to a us with no corroboration.

        The claim is extraordinary, but not anyway near as extraordinary as supernatural claims. There is nothing that suggest any laws of nature were suspended or ignored. Such claims raise the bar enormously.

        But ultimately I would not accept this evidence as overcoming the background information about the unlikeliness of it being a extra terrestrial alien craft (if that is what you mean by UFO). I would want scrutiny of the cell phone by an independent expert and cross examination of the witnesses. After all we have many video of so called UFOs and thousands of people who will testify not only that they have seen them, but that have met aliens and been about their craft. Even with these I would still probably not accept the claim. Because the likelihood of interstellar travel is just so low, especially for a craft that would not have been detected by earth's aircraft radar and so on.

        • Lazarus

          We're now getting lost in the fascinating and fun details of UFO spotting;) and losing my point in the process. My evidence for my extraordinary claim could be you and me standing in my backyard, watching all of this, to your personal satisfaction.

          An extraordinary event need not have extraordinary evidence proving it. The Zapruder film was an everyday piece of evidence. People viewed the moon landing on their TV sets.

          • Not sure what you are saying the claim is now, whether it is extraordinary or not.

            In terms of Christianity, a central claim is that someone was physically resureccted from death by a deity.

            I would call this an extraordinary claim and I need more than a few anonymous ancient and written accounts.

          • Lazarus

            Could you mention the type of specific evidence that would satisfy you, other than being present at the time?

          • I honestly cannot think of any, the prior probability is just too much. I think I would need contemporary evidence of supernatural events and multiple independent attestations from Roman sources. Maybe.

          • Lazarus

            Fair enough.

  • There are various standards of proof which are distinct from a burden of proof. There is certainty, beyond a reasonable doubt, more likely than not, and recourse to the best explanation.

    In discussions like these we should address which we are applying first.

    I think more likely than not (or as he says 50% +1) is reasonably to hold a belief.

    How much evidence will then depend on how the claim fits with the background knowledge. If the claim is that I jumped to the 80th floor, I need more evidence than my testimony. If it is that I had a coffee this morning, my testimony should be sufficient.

  • Lazarus

    I wish that both sides in the religion debates would just stop bandying about the onus as if it means anything in these discussions.

    Firstly, no-one is ever convinced by them, and they simply serve to entrench previously assumed positions.

    Secondly, the proper use and understanding of the legal onus requires such further tweaking as to make it a very pretentious, unwieldy and ultimately useless tool for discussing religion. For example, which onus are we working with? The civil or the criminal one? These have different scales, different strategies and different results.

    The onus further need not distinguish between probabilities to the point of establishing objective truth, it simply needs to, in the case of the civil law onus, establish the most plausible set of propositions. The "winner" may have very little to do with the truth.

    The bearer of the specific onus is also normally easily established in its proper setting, being the legal system and its daily application. For instance, in criminal cases, the prosecution would generally bear the onus, in civil cases the plaintiff. Transposing this rule of legal evidence to religious discussions now leads to all sorts of sophistry as to who is actually alleging what. Are theists alleging the existence of God (which God, how would we assign an onus to that?) or is the atheist alleging a materialist world? We can play this forever, with no way of authoritatively establishing such burden, or even whether it has been discharged or not.

    We are simply using the onus to perform to our respective choirs.
    Our respective arguments should convince or not, without the pretensions of using a legal onus to support such arguments.

    • David Nickol

      Excellent observations.

      Even the legal system requires different standards of "proof" under different circumstances. For criminal trials, it's "beyond a reasonable doubt." For civil trials it is "the preponderance of evidence." Is either of those standards appropriate for deciding whether or not God exists?

      The normal standard for believing in something is what’s called a “50+1”
      standard. . . . And if the likelihood of God’s existence is above 50% (however slightly), then He probably exists.

      How are we to accurately quantify the evidence for God's existence (or, for that matter, for more mundane propositions)?

  • David Nickol

    If the Catholic Church makes the claim to be the "one true faith," is it not in essence asserting all other faiths to be either false or deficient? And is the burden, therefore, on the Catholic Church to, one-by-one, refute each and every other religion?

    • Rob Abney

      I'm most familiar with belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
      Where does one true faith originate from?

      • David Nickol

        I'm most familiar with belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Where does one true faith originate from?

        In my Catholic education (early 1950s to mid-1960s) "one true faith" and especially "one true Church" were very common phrases. Here's an example from the Baltimore Catechism:

        153. How do we know that the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Christ?

        We know that the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Christ because it alone has the marks of the true Church.

        154. What do we mean by the marks of the Church?

        By the marks of the Church we mean certain clear signs by which all men can recognize it as the true Church founded by Jesus Christ.

        (a) Jesus Christ willed that the true Church should have these marks, which would distinguish it from all false religions.

        155. What are the chief marks of the Church?

        The chief marks of the Church are four: It is one, holy, catholic or universal, and apostolic.

        (a) Sacred Scripture teaches that the one true Church of Christ must have these marks.
        (b) The marks of the Church are themselves an indication that God guides the Church.

        Here is a quote from a CDF document (from 2007, if the numbers in the URL are a date) clarifying some issues raised by Vatican II:

        Contrary to many unfounded interpretations, therefore, the change from “est” to “subsistit” does not signify that the Catholic Church has ceased to regard herself as the one true Church of Christ.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      Well, no. If another religion is merely incomplete, there is no burden to refute it, only a burden to show some "value added" over and above what they already believe. "What therefore you [already, correctly, albeit incompletely] worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you".

      Even this need not involve the degree of presumption that some imagine. The Church itself claims to hold the reality of Christ within it and it claims that Jesus Christ was the fullness of revelation, but I would hope that no Christian alive or dead would claim to know Christ completely or with perfect understanding.

      In other words, all of us, whether Catholic or not, are practically deficient with respect to the "one true religion".

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      David,

      Great question.

      If the Catholic Church makes the claim to be the "one true faith," is it not in essence asserting all other faiths to be either false or deficient? And is the burden, therefore, on the Catholic Church to, one-by-one, refute each and every other religion?

      Yes, to advance to the claim, the Church needs to claim that she's the one true Church. No, that doesn't require proving the falsity of each and every other religion, one by one.

      Take oxygen molecules: they bond in pairs. If I can show that molecule A is bound to molecule B in a lone pair, I don't need to individually prove that molecule C, D, E, aren't bound to them. All of that follows logically.

      So with the Church example, if I can show that Catholicism is 100% true, this logically means that anyone or group that disagrees with Catholicism is (to the extent that they disagree) wrong. The negative claims flow from the positive one.

      It's the same thing with atheism. To prove the atheist case, you don't need to go through every religion, one by one, and show why you reject their particular deity... as long as you can somehow show that a God is impossible, etc.

  • David Nickol

    Further, you can trace God’s transcendence all the way back to Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” not “in the beginning, God sat on a cloud in the heavens and created the
    earth.”

    Since we have discussed this before, I will not go into detail, but the contemporary understanding of the opening lines of Genesis does not affirm creation ex nihilo, but rather "creation" by bringing order out of (preexisting chaos). I think it is an extraordinary claim—requiring extraordinary evidence!—that the opening lines of Genesis were intended by the ancient authors to describe creation ex nihilo, or that all of the anthropomorphic language describing God in scripture was always understood to be figurative or metaphorical or whatever.

    When God says in Exodus 19:4, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” no reasonable person takes that to mean that Landroval swooped in and brought the Jews out of Egypt. After all, the prior 18 chapters just finished explaining how the Israelites escaped Egypt.

    A reasonable point, but it seems to assume that the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt is true and Exodus 19:4 contains a metaphor. Why should we not entertain the possibility (especially in the absence of any archaeological evidence), that the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt are themselves figurative or metaphorical?

    • David Nickol

      Of course, Bible-believing Christians can always argue that the biblical authors were writing figuratively even if they believed they were writing factually. So a biblical author might himself or herself have actually believed that God came down to walk in the garden in the cool of the evening, but in writing this, the author was divinely inspired to convey a truth the he or she may not have been personally aware of. It is a fairly common claim that the authors of Hebrew Scripture didn't understand what they were writing, or at least that they did not understand the full import of it.

    • Andrew Y.

      Why should we not entertain the possibility (especially in the absence of any archaeological evidence), that the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt are themselves figurative or metaphorical?

      One can certainly make that claim, but the burden of proof will be on the claimant to prove that the story of Exodus is indeed figurative. This Jewish historian analyzes the four original sources of Exodus to explain why a lack of archaeological evidence is not sufficient to suggest the story was fiction: http://www.reformjudaism.org/exodus-not-fiction

      • David Nickol

        One can certainly make that claim, but the burden of proof will be on the claimant to prove that the story of Exodus is indeed figurative.

        I think Lazarus made a very good point when he said, "I wish that both sides in the religion debates would just stop bandying about the onus as if it means anything in these discussions." Why should anyone care who has the burden of proof? All one has to do in any given discussion is let one's opponent be the first to make a positive claim, and then the burden is on him or her.

        Thanks for the link. I may or may not read it, since I have more than enough on my reading list. But here's a link for you that presents an opposing view.

        • Andrew Y.

          Thank you, that was an interesting read.

          Here’s a quick summary of the link I sent (for you and anyone else who has a long reading list!). The author suggests that only one of the twelve tribes of Israel was actually enslaved by the Egyptians: the Levites. Apparently there are four main sources for Exodus, and only one of them is of Levite origin. By considering the differences between sources of differing origins, one can make some interesting observations, which are explained in the article.

          The author suggests that when the Levites escaped and rejoined the other tribes, they would have been faced with a problem: the Levites worshipped Yahweh; the other tribes worshiped El. It appears that, rather than deciding which “god” was the real one, they concluded that they were worshiping the same god but by a different name. (If only the fighting religious of our time were as wise as these tribes were…). So the traditions and sacred texts of both sides were apparently merged together into a single set of “books”—which accounts for many of the inconsistencies we find in them.

          • David Nickol

            Thanks for the summary.

            Would you be available to summarize articles that others link to as well? It would be a great service to us all. ;-)

  • SJH

    I think the burden of proof argument sometimes gets intertwined with the extraordinary claim argument. I think the burden of proof is on the person making an extraordinary claim. If I state that rain does not exist then it would be up to me to show that my statement is true. If I claim that unicorns do not exist and another person claims that they do then the burden of proof is on the one that claims that they do exist.
    I also feel that atheists often use this argument to shut down the conversation. Its like saying, "either prove it or the conversation is over since I don't have anything to prove." Ultimately, from a piratical perspective, the burden of proof is on anyone that is willing to take on that burden. If I state that God does not exist and I want to prove that then I should try to prove it. If not then I should not expect others to believe me and I should not expect to change anyone's mind.

    • Andrew Y.

      I think the burden of proof is on the person making an extraordinary claim.

      On what basis should we determine whether a claim is extraordinary or not?

  • Mike

    the burden is on the believer bc nature can account for everything by itself.

    the burden is on the unbeliever bc nature can not account for itself.

    • Peter

      Naturalists argue that if nature has lasted forever, then it can account for itself as a brute fact. It doesn't need an external explanation. Of course, in the light of empirical evidence showing the universe has a beginning, the burden is on them to explain why it doesn't.

      In response, they push the theoretical notion of time symmetry where, from within the quantum scale at the beginning of the universe, time goes into reverse. This gives the appearance of an eternal universe, stretching infinitely into the past and infinitely into the future. But it's only theoretical; there is no experimental evidence of it.

      • Mike

        plus there is the issue of the super natural. even if 1 of the millions of reported supernatural events is real their theory is null and void.

        too much of a risk of failure imho to be a plausible theory of reality.

  • bdlaacmm

    As far as "extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence", since 99.9 percent of humanity throughout history has believed in God, and only a tiny sliver of the remaining less than one percent has not, is seems to me that atheism is the extraordinary claim. Therefore, by their own standards, they are the ones who need to cough up the extraordinary evidence.

    • George

      If 99.9 percent still can't give good reasons to believe, it doesn't matter.

      • Peter

        There are claims that the human brain is hardwired to believe in God, in which case the non-believers are the deviants. Has the brain evolved that way? Maybe so.

        But even if the brain has evolved to believe in God, is that not evidence that God, as the Author of nature, has designed the brain to evolve that way so as to seek out it's Maker? Isn't the fact that we are hardwired to believe in God evidence that God exists?

        • George

          Does God also want us to be racist and tribalistic? Does God want us to be superstitious? Does he want us to be polygamous, seeing as the brain doesnt shut off arousal towards non-spouses after marriage?

          • Peter

            We are talking here about our inbuilt drive to seek out our origin, where we come from, why we are here.
            What relevance do racism, tribalism or polygamy have? They are red herrings.

  • VicqRuiz

    The "burden of proof" must certainly escalate based upon the depth or breadth of the claim.

    "There are not and never have been any gods within or without the cosmos" carries a very substantial burden of proof.

    "There is a god who created the cosmos, specifically created humans within that cosmos, and has a specific relationship with every human being in the cosmos" likewise has a very substantial burden of proof.

    "There is some sort of god out there" carries a pretty limited burden.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Did the Big Bang require an extraordinary level of proof before it was generally accepted as true?

      • David Nickol

        Yes, of course.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Really? A theory based on backdating redshifts (mere number crunching) and a confirmation based on background radiation?

          • David Nickol

            Kevin, I suggest you read a good book, or even just the Wikipedia article, before you trivialize the amount of theorizing, research, and empirical measurement that resulted in the acceptance of the big bang theory. It was a process that began in the 1920s (or earlier), and garnered almost near universal support only in the 1960s.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm not trivializing. I'm attempting to epitomize.

      • VicqRuiz

        My impression (as a non-physicist whose knowledge about the Big Bang is derived from expositions of it for non-physicists) is that the Big Bang has not been "proven" but that it has been recognized as the explanation which best fits all the observations, given the assumption that the cosmological principle is valid.

  • On a strictly philosophical basis one cannot entertain the question, ‘Does God exist?’ This is because both the existence and the nature of God are discovered in one and the same conclusion of an argument of discovery, namely ‘Therefore, there must exist a being whose nature and existence are identical’. Initially, ‘God exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ are undefined statements. This post assumes that initially they have meanings, which is false.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Why do you say that God's nature and existence being identical are the conclusion to the question, "Does God exist?" I think the identity between God's essence and existence is a conclusion much farther down the line of reasoning than simply the question of God's existence.

      Also, why is "Does God exist" an undefined statement? Why can't you start with a definition of "God" and a definition of "existence" and work from there?

      • The atheist can deceive himself by starting with the question, ‘Does God exist?’ For the atheist, the definition of God is purely logical. In that sense the atheist’s conclusion is then true because a logical construct is not the nature of any entity. If this is de facto the starting question, the theist is in the same boat. He too, from a philosophical perspective, would have to invent a logical definition for the word, God, because nothing within our experience is God. We begin every philosophical inquiry with what we already know from experience.

        To conceive of the nature of any possible entity is a creative power, beyond the power of the human intellect. This can be seen in that we know the nature of dog, but will never know it completely. Complete knowledge would be necessary for an intellect to originate the nature of dog.

        We often think of creation as an act of God’s will. It is equally an act of his intellect. In contrast, our understanding of the natures of entities is a posteriori and always incomplete. We can’t commence an existential inquiry with premises in which the terms are merely logical.

        The existence of a being whose nature and existence are identical is, in my judgment, the initial conclusion from which all the other
        attributes of God are logically determined in philosophy. https://theyhavenowine.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/st-thomas-one-proof-of-the-existence-of-god/

        Notice that St. Thomas does not conclude, ‘Therefore God exists’. At the conclusion of his five arguments, he says ‘understands to be
        God’, ‘gives the name of God’, ‘speak of as God’, ‘we call God’ and ‘we call God’. This is because the philosophical concept of God is not known before the conclusion which reveals both the nature and existence of a being whom ‘we call God’ based on prior knowledge, which knowledge is viewed as independent of the argument at hand. Summa Q2, A3 http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm#article3

        • Kevin Aldrich

          It is hard for me to understand what you are saying, Bob.

          I'm confident that we can know the nature of a dog because we can "see" the form that every dog shares (to put it in metaphysical form and matter language).

          Aristotle's conclusion that a prime mover exists, like St.Thomas' conclusions in the five ways, are linear, not circular. They start with sense experience and reason to a being that can account for this experience.

          After this supreme being is established, then further reasoning is used to discover various dimensions of this being, like simplicity, or that his essence and existence are identical (unlike us).

          • That we have a prior concept of God, which must be set aside for the sake of the philosophical argument, does not render the argument circular.

            The main difference in our views appears to be your identifying the conclusion of the argument as ‘there must be a supreme being’, in contrast to my identifying the conclusion of the argument as ‘there must be a being whose essence and existence are identical’.

            If the nature of God is 'to be supreme', then the nature of
            God depends upon the existence of entities other than himself in comparison to which he is supreme. If his nature is to exist, then his nature would not depend on the existence of other entities. However, he would have the attribute of being supreme, if he created other entities. Such entities would necessarily have natures distinct from their existence.

            In the cited essay on my blog, theyhavenowine.wordpress.com, I tried to show that each of St. Thomas’ five ways concludes that there must be a being
            whose essence and existence are identical, but each way is from a different facet of existence. In contrast, each entity within our experience has a nature distinct from its existence and, thereby is indifferent to existence, rendering its existence inexplicable by its own nature.

  • billwalker

    " It matters not if my neighbor believes in 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Thomas Jefferson

  • Michael Murray


    Error #3: Extraordinary claims logically require extraordinary evidence.

    Carl Sagan was fond of quoting Marcello Truzzi’s saying (alluded to above, by Muehlhauser) that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If this is meant as a description of the way we normally approach truth-claims, it’s true enough. We tend to hold things we find credible to a much lower burden of proof than things we find incredible. But trying to turn it into a logical rule is a disaster.

    Do people commonly try to turn this into a logical rule ? Or is this just another straw atheist ? It reminds me of all the complaints I read here about new atheists attacking a caricature of real religion.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Michael,

      Did you read the other comments here? There are several examples of people applying it as a logical rule, and saying that extraordinary claims should have to meet a higher standard..

      • Michael Murray

        Joseph my question wasn't can you find someone on the internet doing this. I inserted the word commonly to avoid that objection. You can find people on the internet saying anything. I saw someone a year back, discussing the missing MH370 plane, who thought Ockham's Razor meant that the simplest explanation was what had to have happened.

    • Alexandra

      As Joe said, Sagan popularized it.
      Hitchens called it an elementary rule of logic: "Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

      • Michael Murray

        Thanks Alexandra. That's interesting. I guess when I see "rule of logic" I think of formal things with silly latin names like modus ponens etc. Obviously not what Hitchens was thinking. For me, its a rule of thumb like Ockham's Razor. I can't see how to make it a logical rule without defining "extraordinary" which seems hard.

        • Alexandra

          You are welcome and I agree with you about "extraordinary" and the need to define it.

        • Doug Shaver

          Bayes' Theorem is a logical rule, and ECREE is just an instance of it. An extraordinary claim can then be defined as one with a very low prior probability, and extraordinary evidence is just any evidence with a P(E|H) substantially higher than P(E|~H).

  • Dhaniele

    In these discussions about God, I often feel that we can get lost in a world of abstractions. When Jesus was defending his ministry at in John 10:37-38, he told his opponents to believe the works he did if they didn't believe his words. This seems to me a practical approach for anyone who is looking for the truth on this issue. For example, if one searches for "Zeitoun Mary Halo" he will find that the Egyptian police investigated a famous apparition of Mary on a church roof that went on for months with Mary moving in a perfectly natural way and witnessed by tens of thousands of Christians and Muslims. After investigating, the police concluded that in fact she was appearing -- there was no fraud. Obviously, in Muslim country their jobs were on the line; still, they found this was the only logical conclusion. Thus, the non-believer is confronted with this event (not a theory) that needs some explanation other than the obvious one of yet another miracle.

    • Lana Voreskova

      The appearance of an apparition of any kind, assuming it is not either a trick or a product of mass hysteria; assuming it can be proven to have appeared; proves nothing more than the appearance of an inexplicable apparition.

      • Lazarus

        It is not (just) the "apparition" that must be explained. It is the start of the most unlikely religious movement that claims to have started as a result of seeing that "apparition" . How would you explain that?

        • Lana Voreskova

          I don't claim to be able to explain it. That is the difference between an atheist and a deist.

          • Lazarus

            If you forgive my forwardness, are you a deist? I ask mainly because I think it is a very under-rated position to hold.

          • Lana Voreskova

            No I am not. I am a non believer when it comes to gods of any kind.

          • Lazarus

            Thank you.

  • Frances Janusz

    1. The Burden of Proof:
    Falls on the person who tries to *prove* their proposition. This might be the atheist (if the atheist says they can prove that God not exist) but it is more likely to be the theist, for reasons I shall explain below. Belief in and of itself does not give rise to a burden of proof.
    The odd/even number of stars is a bad analogy. The chances of either being true are exactly equal and we know that. You have no basis for attributing a 50/50 probability to God's existence.
    A better analogy would be the existence of fairies. You do not feel obliged to produce positive proof that fairies do not exist. The lack of evidence that they do exist is enough to render it perfectly rational to disbelieve in them. If this were not so then we would be obliged to be "agnostic" about the existence of every logical possibility, from fairies to Big Foot to Russell's teapot. The reason for this is Occam's razor. This is not a logical requirement but it is a common sense approach which we all instinctively adopt in our reasoning. We prefer parsimonious theories to more complex theories. A universe without God or fairies or black holes is more parsimonious than one with them and so if somebody suggests that they exist, then they must provide evidence of them. (Can you spot which of my 3 examples is the odd one out? Clue: it's not God.)
    Incidentally, it would not be a logical proof [I think you must have meant "argument" rather than "proof", in any event ] if an atheist were to point to x or y as evidence of God's non-existence. It would be an abductive argument.

    2. "Christain beliefs are either scientifically-evaluable or non-provable/non-falsifiable"
    What is the error supposed to be here? You appear to agree that Christian beliefs are *not* scientifically-evaluable. You do not specifically say that they are provable or falsifiable either. So in the end you seem to agree with both parts of the disjunctive.

    3. "Extraordinary Claims Logically Require Extraordinary Evidence"
    Strawman. Nobody has said this. You have inserted the word "logically" which I have never heard anyone claim.
    There is no such thing as "an elevated burden of proof". Either you have a burden of proof or you don't. If you do have the burden of proof, then there is a question as to the *standard* of proof. In criminal trials the burden is always on the prosecution (not the defendants!) and the standard is always "beyond reasonable doubt". In civil cases there is a lesser standard of "on the balance of probabilities".
    An extraordinary claim is simply one which goes contrary to what our experience tells us is ordinary. Murder is a serious crime but it is not extraordinary. If the prosecution were claiming that the victim had dies because one of the defendants, without using any physical means, had simply willed him to die, that would be an extraordinary claim and they would struggle very hard to persuade a jury to believe it, because all our experience tells us that people do not die from being "willed" to die. If they are just saying that the defendant shot the victim, they would need some evidence of course, but the jury are going to be a lot easier to convince. The standard of proof would be the same in either case, it's just that in first case kit is going to be harder to meet that standard.

    4. "Religious beliefs should be held to a higher Burden of Proof than Other Claims"
    Like I say, there is no "higher burden of proof". But I agree that religious claims should be held to the same standard of proof as other claims. That does include the fact that claims which run contrary to human experiences will rightly be treated with more scepticism than claims which are in line with it. That said, yup, my approach to God's existence is as it would be to the existence of any other thing, cats, mountains, the Loch Ness monster. Show me the evidence and if the evidence is good enough, I'll believe it.

    Sent from my iPad

  • dippu dixit

    People accept falsified theories if they are still the least wrong theory

    http://www.lovejyotishi.com/consult-jyotish-online/

  • Lana Voreskova

    This article shows in the first paragraph that the author is contriving to fail to understand what the concept of the burden of proof actually means. It means that the person making a claim has an obligation to prove the truth of that claim. The person who does not believe the claim, usually has no way, and therefore no obligation to disprove it.

    The article also fails to understand what an atheist is. An atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of any deity. Not believing that something exists is not the same thing as believing that something does not exist.

    Its not complicated.

    People who do not believe in God are not some kind of club. We don't all go to some meeting once a week and collectively imbibe the same liturgies. We are simply people who believe all kinds of things, but prefer to take seriously that which has been proven.

    Most of us are not against religion, (as long as its not the kind that kills people for not believing it) any more than we are against Santa Claus.

    I can say that I do not believe in the existence of unicorns. But I cannot logically claim that unicorns do not exist because I cannot prove that negative. Atheism is not a belief. It is the absence of belief.

    Atheism does not make any positive claims about the existence or non-existence of any God.

    Try to keep up - even if its just so people don't think you're stupid.

  • Claire-V

    In the end, religious people are almost as atheists as atheists. They don't believe in the existance of hundred of thousands of gods and magical creatures. I wonder if religious people believe that their god is somehow "superior" and "more real" than all the other fantasies they reject as "ridiculous".

    For example, if I talk to you about my own god, his name is "SuperCoolandFunny" and he is so powerful that he created the whole universe in 14 seconds. Does it put the burden of proof on people who claim that my god didn't create the universe.

    • Lazarus

      Would such religious people somehow be more or better theists if they believed in "hundreds of thousands of gods and magical creatures"? What does the term monotheism mean to you? It seems as if, by this argument of yours, one is either an atheist or a polytheist.

      Why can a general acceptance of a philosopher's God not lead to belief in a more specific God? Why can the presentation of one particular God through the ages not be more convincing to an individual than the presentations of all other gods?

      • Will

        To each his own, but if God exists I'd go with the parable of the Blind men and the Elephant. Or perhaps the Socratic "I know that I know nothing" when it comes to things outside the reach of the any testing and outside the universe.
        I agree, however, that it makes sense to thing that one belief system has a higher probability of being closer to the truth than others, even if it can be hard to support that probability (I'm speaking of gut probability as opposed to true mathematical). Of course, what exactly is in the gut probability if we can't dissect it clearly? Muslim's gut probability puts them cleanly inside their own belief system and there isn't a good way, that I'm aware of, to account for bias.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        Why can a general acceptance of a philosopher's God not lead to belief in a more specific God?

        Agreed. And/or, to approach that question from a different angle, perhaps we too often prematurely foreclose on the possibility that different traditions have different privileged revelations regarding the same underlying reality (along the lines of William Davis's comment about the blind men and the elephant).

        Rather than speculating in a vacuum about "SuperCoolAndFunny", we can look at how real people from different traditions approach this kind of question. For example, are Ala Emit and Elohim one and the same? Consider what a scholar from the Diola tradition has to say :
        http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/32628

  • So lack of belief is a belief itself? There is a difference between believing positively "Gods do not exist" and "I don't find the evidence for any gods compelling." Lack of evidence would indeed be grounds for the atheism that just says "I don't find that gods are proven to exist". Of course, the strong atheism could also be justified by sufficient proof if this was presented.

    Muelhhauser seems to be simply noting how God in the Bible is far more apparent-i.e. he actively and ostentatiously intervenes. From what I've read he was indeed thought to dwell in the sky-"the heavens" originally meant that. I think that the concept of God has indeed changed over time.

    Also, who exactly says they would refuse to believe in a god, no matter what? It's often stated people could refuse to believe, but at that point it would be like them not believing in the sun. A distinction must also be made with belief and worship-as the Bible itself says, when noting that the demons themselves believe in God.

    Edited for clarity.

  • David Hennessey

    I have an issue with the whole presumption that the party making the claim should be making an effort to avoid addressing these "burden of proof" issues. In a court of law, you are defending a client, avoiding embarrassing or difficult evidence is your job, as a seeker of truth, your client is you.

    If you just don't want to answer the question, that's fine, no atheist thinks you will go to hell. If you don't have an answer, fine too, atheists don't attempt an answer. You can question yourself and your claims as rigorously or as lightly as you wish but you are only evading your own examination, you can't evade that of others.

    When you set the "burden of proof" low, the credibility of your truth suffers, you open up the door for anyone to claim anything since there is no standard of proof. The "spaghetti monster" crowd or the Mormons can claim their revelations, their miracles and their truth and you can only judge them by your weak standards where every test is too rigorous.
    Few atheists care whether you lower your standards for yourself but they have to weigh the claims of Mormons, Hindus, Rastafarians and witches, your "burden of proof" would mean accepting all of them.

  • KNH777

    Actually it is the burden of science and all those who oppose Creation to fully substantiate their clam before filing any exclusivity in teaching that claim. Since both are ultimately in the end a belief in the 1st act of creation.

    So its a claim forced through legal process of atheists using a science that at its very beginning is exactly the same as creation by an act of God, or an act of nothing! Boylth have burden of proof.

    Atheists need to prove the nothing or both have equal place to be taught in every place side by side so the student can decide without bias to 1 belief over the other!!!!

    **
    1 - Nothing exists if No-Maximality is exemplified

    2 - Maximal greatness is possible only if Maximality is exemplified.

    3 - Without Maximality, then Maximal Greatness is impossible!

    4 - Since Maximality exists, ONLY those who are made in the image of Maximality can achieve the highest possible Maximum Greatness in the image of Maximality!

    5 - Those who are made in the image of Maximality achieve Maximum Greatness by an ever present goal within themselves, and set before themselves ever reaching for their Maximum Greatness with standards reflective of the image of Maximality!

    6 - The goal to achieve Maximum Greatness can never achieved if Maximality is altered by a lesser image of Maximality in any and every possible world!

    7 - Maximum Greatness is achieved by reaching it's Maximum Potential in it's Maximum Purpose through achieving it's highest possible likeness to an unaltered image of Maximality.
    **