Atheism and the Burden of Proof

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 23, 2009 in General Atheism

Reader cartesian asked me:

Do you think that, in the absence of compelling arguments either way, we ought to favor atheism? That is, do you think that atheism is the default position, and that the burden of proof is on the theist? If so, why do you think that?

The burden of proof is NOT on skeptics of flying spaghetti monsters, cosmic teacups, fairies, etc.

But the burden of proof IS on skeptics of other minds, the external world, the reality of the past, the uniformity of nature, etc.

Do you think that atheism is in the former category, instead of the latter? If so, why?

That’s an excellent question, cartesian. Here is a brief answer:

I think the burden of proof falls on whoever makes a positive claim.

If I claim the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, it is not your duty to disprove me. In fact, that might be impossible. Rather, it is my duty to back up my claim with reasons and evidence.

If you claim that Yahweh exists, it’s not my duty to disprove Yahweh. 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.”

Now, what about “other minds, the external world, the reality of the past, the uniformity of nature, etc.” Who has the burden of proof?

Other minds

Again, whoever makes a positive claim has the burden of proof. Let’s consider other minds as an example. The existence of other minds may be demonstrated by argument to the best explanation. In thousands of ways we see each other do and say things after which, we think “If I was in that situation, I could have done the same thing.” It looks very much like other bodies are controlled by minds that function quite similarly to our own. Our own scientific studies have found that the mind seems to arise from the brain, and our brains are very similar. For these and other reasons, the existence of other minds seems to best explain what we experience in the real world.

So, arguments for the existence of other minds carry the burden of proof just fine. The skeptic is, of course, justified in saying that the existence of other minds has not been proven 100%. But he has been shown that the existence of other minds is the best explanation of our daily experience.

Now, if the skeptic wants to put forth an alternative positive claim, he bears the burden of proof for that assertion. For example, if he says, “I am the only one who exists, and you are all figments of my imagination,” he must give some reasons to believe that is the case, and they should be better than the reasons given by the believer in other minds if we are to accept this claim.

Similarly, we can make a successful argument to the best explanation for the existence of the external world, the reality of the past, and perhaps the uniformity of nature, depending on what cartesian means by “uniformity.”

Atheism

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.

But, this does not put the “God” hypothesis on equal ground with the “no-God” hypothesis. It’s not like, before we start arguing, there’s a 50% chance God exists, and a 50% God does not exist.

Think about it. Would you say that, before we start the argument, there is a 50% chance that Vahiguru exists, and a 50% chance that Vahiguru does not exist? That there is a 50% chance the external world exists, and a 50% chance it does not? That there is a 50% chance that Krishna exists, and a 50% chance he does not?

Of course not. Most hypotheses are, at first glance, highly probable or highly improbable.

So, is the hypothesis that God exists, at first glance, highly probable, or highly improbable? Is it more like the hypothesis “Odin exists” (highly improbable), or more like the hypothesis “other minds exist” (highly probable)?

This might be what cartesian really wants to know, for he asked “Do you think that, in the absence of compelling arguments either way, we ought to favor atheism?” That is, “If we find none of the arguments on either side compelling, which is more probable?”

Well, that’s a topic for another post. Today I’ve only discussed the burden of proof.

In the meantime: Readers, do you agree? I think we all agree that believers have a burden of proof, but do atheists have a burden of proof as well? Do intellectual atheists really just “lack” a belief in God, or do they positively believe that God probably doesn’t exist?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

DW February 23, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I think you bring up a good question, but I don’t necessarily agree that atheism itself is a claim to know anything, and I don’t think that it requires belief. Belief itself tends to be inherently dangerous-it leads quickly to pseudoscience and alien abduction and witchtrials. I don’t actively believe that there are no leprechauns or unicorns-I simply don’t have sufficient reason to believe they exist. If a leprechaun rode up to me on a unicorn, and I had no reason to doubt my faculties, I would certainly reconsider. And if there was sufficient evidence for it, I wouldn’t need to believe it, I would simply know it. There is no need to believe in things that we know and experience firsthand, only things for which there is no evidence, or for which the only evidence is secondhand. So it’s not a matter of choosing which concept to believe in, atheism of theism-it’s only a matter of choosing whether to believe anything at all.

The more personal and interactive a believer claims his god to be, the greater the onus on that believer to support his claims. I have a couple of close friends who are deists that just use some vague impersonal god concept to plug scientific holes-not that i agree, but it’s a far cry from claiming to be be on a first name basis with a ‘wish-granting invisible friend’ as you say, and i don’t think they require quite the same proof. When it comes to belief in god in general, I personally like the standard answer of–capital ‘A’ Atheist for specific gods and lowercase ‘a’ atheist for the concept of god in general. Having said that, I think we should always be open to the idea that evidence for god would change our minds (no matter how remote the possibility). And if such sufficient evidence were made clear, there would be no need for belief.

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Kevin February 24, 2009 at 6:59 am

All views make truth claims. All truth claims bear the burden of proof. Naturalism is a truth claim (under which atheism resides). Naturalists/Atheists therefore share the burden of proof as to worldview options.

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DW February 24, 2009 at 8:08 am

hi kevin. i’m not sure i understand your argument-or maybe what you mean by ‘truth claim.’ are you suggesting that truth claims about naturalism require belief? It is not much of a burden to prove the existence of things that we observe, touch, taste, hear or smell (or have substantial scientific evidence for, i.e. black holes, quarks, the ‘god particle’). Proof is only required when one is asked to go beyond this realm. I would suggest that an acceptance of the truth claims of naturalism, loosely defined, (maybe i should say a belief in the existence of the natural world) is the starting point for any Western worldview– I don’t know of any theists or supernaturalists who deny the existence of the natural world, they just add to it. So in that sense, it’s not really a matter of one option or the other, naturalism or supernaturalism, but more a matter of whether you want to stop at what we know, or continue on to add what you believe-which is where the burden of proof becomes important. If you have sufficient evidence for god, evidence that i can experience first hand, i would love to see it and would gladly accept it as true. even then i wouldn’t need to ‘believe’ anything, because if there were evidence for god, than he/she/it/they would simply fit into a naturalist viewpoint. i guess i’ve rambled a bit, sorry about that

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Crazy Religious Nut February 24, 2009 at 8:16 am

Most atheists I’ve encountered on the internet are strong atheists right up to the point where they are asked to prove their claim that God does not exist. Then they suddenly convert to agnosticism.

As far as I know, the only way to completely avoid the burden of proof is to avoid making positive claims. Agnostics do this quite well. But if you claim to know something (such as whether God exists or not) then you should be willing to provide supporting evidence.

I disagree with you on the probability of any given hypothesis. If I claim there is a refrigerator at the summit of Mount Everest and you claim there is not, then technically each hypothesis is equally likely BEFORE we consider the evidence. Of course once we start doing that, THEN we can weigh the probabilities of each, and I am probably going to lose.
Of course the topic of theism vs. atheism will be much more complicated than checking the top of a mountain for a fridge, but you get my point.

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Aaron February 24, 2009 at 5:22 pm

good post. interesting topic. insightful questions. fair and well supported answers.

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Jason February 24, 2009 at 6:30 pm

I believe that Atheism is now just as much of a religion as every other religion. It’s a belief of no God, just as there is a belief of a God, therefore, there must be a burden of proof to back up what you believe in. But, if the person doesn’t want to back it up, they shouldn’t need to. Also notice many people of a religion was just brought up that way, they don’t even know that many things about that religion. They blindly follow, which is the same for Atheism. I think those people should look at other religions for themselves.

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Kevin Harris February 26, 2009 at 9:14 am

are you suggesting that truth claims about naturalism require belief? It is not much of a burden to prove the existence of things that we observe, touch, taste, hear or smell (or have substantial scientific evidence for, i.e. black holes, quarks, the ‘god particle’).

Naturalism is the view that nothing is beyond nature (time, space, matter, and energy). As such, it is a Worldview and makes a truth claim about the universe.

Atheism is a subset and, again, makes truth claims about the universe.

So, the atheist shares the burden of proof concerning which Worldview best accounts for the data of the universe.

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Jared February 26, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Both the theist and atheist share the burden of proof. If the atheist claims a merely “lack” of belief (mostly attributed to “insufficient evidence”), then agnosticsm is the more correct position.

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cartesian February 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Hi Luke,
Thanks for the thoughtful post about that question.

I’m not sure what you mean by a “positive” claim? Do you mean one that implies the existence of some thing or things?

To say that the burden of proof lies on anyone who makes a claim with existential implications strikes me as wrong.

I meet a flat-earther. I say “The Earth is spherical.” He says “That’s false.” My claim implies the existence of the Earth. Is the burden of proof therefore on me?

I meet a skeptic of the Apollo moon landing. I say “Humans have landed on the moon.” He says “That’s false.” My claim implies the existence of humans, the moon, and a (past) moon-walking by humans. Is the burden of proof really on me in this case? That seems like the wrong result, but your theory of burdens of proof seems committed to saying that it is on me. So I’m very skeptical of your theory.

Later you say that some atheists make a “positive claim,” since they “positively believe” that there is no God. But then I’m really at a loss as to what you mean by “positive claim.” Is any proposition a “positive claim” on your view? If so, that leads to the bad results I discussed above. I believe that the Earth is spherical, that humans have walked on the moon, that the world wasn’t created five minutes ago with the appearance of age, that 2+2=4, etc. Is the burden of proof really on me to defend all these claims? I really can’t see how.

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Also, you say that the burden of proof is on the believer in other minds, and not on the solipsist. I think that’s pretty obviously false. The solipsist is the one with the crazy, extraordinary view, not me. I think that’s another reason to reject your theory of burdens of proof.

But in any event, you try to bear that burden of proof. You try, that is, to offer an argument that there are other minds. Now the history of arguments for other minds has been really, really sad. The philosophical consensus, as I understand it, is that there is no argument for other minds that would persuade any rational person. That is, there is no proof of other minds. (You should read Plantinga’s “God and Other Minds” for a thorough demolition of arguments for other minds.)

You offer an argument for other minds, but I don’t think it’s good.

You said: “It looks very much like other bodies are controlled by minds that function quite similarly to our own.” The problem, Luke, is that things would look this way even if the solipsist were right, so you have an undercutting defeater for your belief in other minds. The solipsist thinks that everyone else is just an unconscious automaton, or a figment of his imagination. The world would appear the same even if he were right; other bodies would behave the same even if he were right. So you can’t point to the behavior or function of other bodies as evidence for your view over his. The evidence is perfectly consistent with both views.

You also say “Our own scientific studies have found that the mind seems to arise from the brain, and our brains are very similar.” Assuming that there other minds, you’re right that science has shown that the mind is intimately related to the brain. But if we’re wondering whether there are in fact other minds, science won’t help us at all. All we’re in touch with, scientifically, are brains. And of course the solipsist will allow that. He’ll say he’s in touch with the information processing part of unconscious automata, or he’s in touch with a certain part of some figments of his imagination. All the evidence you could gain from current brain science is perfectly consistent with solipsism. And so that evidence cannot count in favor of your view over solipsism.

You say that the existence of other minds is “the best” explanation? Why think that it’s the best? Because you’re most attracted to it? Because you prefer it? Our evidence counts in favor of the existence of other minds only if the evidence somehow makes the existence of other minds MORE PROBABLE. But the evidence you’ve pointed to fails to do that. So your argument for other minds fails.

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Also, you might want to consider just how SIMPLE solipsism is. I know you like simplicity in your theories; that’s why you favor atheism over theism, for example. So I’m interested to hear why you reject solipsism even though it is as explanatory as belief in other minds but far simpler, given that you accept atheism because (you believe) it is as explanatory as theism but simpler.

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lukeprog February 27, 2009 at 9:37 pm

I meet a flat-earther. I say “The Earth is spherical.” He says “That’s false.” My claim implies the existence of the Earth. Is the burden of proof therefore on me?

Yes. But in this case you will meet your burden of proof quite easily, since there is tons of evidence that the earth is spherical. Likewise with the Apollo landing.

You seem to think the burden of proof is on whoever is making a claim that is unpopular at a given time. I have no idea why that should be. It also requires that we measure the popularity of all beliefs to be evaluated for whether or not it must carry the burden of proof.

I’m simply saying that if somebody makes a claim, they should back it up. (If their aim is argument, anyway.)

The solipsist thinks that everyone else is just an unconscious automaton, or a figment of his imagination. The world would appear the same even if he were right; other bodies would behave the same even if he were right. So you can’t point to the behavior or function of other bodies as evidence for your view over his. The evidence is perfectly consistent with both views.

…I’m interested to hear why you reject solipsism even though it is as explanatory as belief in other minds but far simpler, given that you accept atheism because (you believe) it is as explanatory as theism but simpler.

Yes, these are good points that must be answered by anyone who rejects solipsism. I’ve already planned a post on Why I Reject Solpsism, so stay tuned. :)

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cartesian February 28, 2009 at 8:14 am

So you say that the burden of proof is on me were I to disagree with a flat-earther. That seems wrong. He’s the one with the crazy view, not me.

I guess you’d say the same about people who think Obama is the anti-Christ. I say “Obama is not the anti-Christ.” That implies the existence of Obama; that is a ‘positive claim’ on your view. So the burden of proof is on me! That seems crazy.

Also, doesn’t it seem that in debates there can be only one burden of proof? I think so. But your view says that there are sometimes two. My crazy neighbor says “Obama is the anti-Christ.” I say “Obama is not the anti-Christ.” We’ve both made ‘positive claims’ on your view, and so we BOTH have the burden of proof. But that’s clearly wrong: at most one of us has the burden of proof. Therefore your view delivers the wrong result, and should be abandoned or revised.

“You seem to think the burden of proof is on whoever is making a claim that is unpopular at a given time.”

No, that’s not exactly the criterion. I don’t think I’m working with any theory. I’m just taking these things on a case-by-case basis.

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Math Geek September 20, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Thanks for directing me here, LukeProg.

I am really of the opinion that that the argument between theism and atheism is a binary option at least at the outset of the argument.

I am of the opinion that claims about ultimate existence (why are we here?, how were we made? is there a god?) need to be subjected to the same rigorous, unbendable absolutes that dominate both science and mathematics.

I don’t know of any philosophers who make this argument, but I lean toward the idea that all logical claims are positive in their very nature. Maybe I need to rethink this particular claim, but every claim that comes to my mind (regardless of linguistic negation) are positive. If I say that I don’t believe in god to somebody else, they are going to ask why. Therefore, I must provide reasons to that end. If I say I prefer mathematics to philosophy, then I am obliged to provide reasons to that end to who are my audience at the time.

I may be wrong here, but I think claims about a deity’s existence are taken to be positivistic at face-value. If I say one way or the other, I am obligated to provide evidence since I am making a claim. This is how mathematical argumentation is basically structured, and I think philosophical argumentation might be considered in the same way.

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Flourishing_bloom December 23, 2009 at 2:27 pm

The fact is that all positive claims of knowing that something does not exist need arguments, they can not be assumed just because of the absence of evidences.

This would hold true for all popular examples of the new atheists: there is almost certainly no teapot around Mars because teapots are the product of intelligent human beings and no man has been ever there, a Spaguetti monster could not exist because Spaguettis are a recent human (delecious) invention, they are an inert stuff which could not possibly have the properties we associate we life.
If unicorns existed on the earth, after all the knowledge we have accumulated over the centuries, they should have let evidences like bone remains.

Now, they are many things about which we have no evidence at all that could well exist: unicorns on an other planet somewhere in our vast universe, intelligent beings looking like lizards, a paralell universe with laws radically differing from our owns and I could imagine lots of further examples.

Certainly, everyone claiming we can be pretty sure none of these things exists would look completely silly, at least to my mind.

Defined as an intelligence at the origin of all things, God is not improbable as the three popular icons of atheism: his existence would be compatible with all our knowledge, and many very clever folks like Albert Einstein would be led to believe that there is an intelligence being the universe transcending our universe.

In fact, the three most virulent horsemen of theism, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchen, each recognize that it is very likely there exists a whole reality beyond our understanding conditioned by a biological evolution only caring for useful beliefs.

Nevertheless, they would go on to argue that the primitive, anthropomorphic God given by the Coran and Bible is entirely at odd with the wonderful things we may observe in the cosmos.

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UnclGhost August 9, 2011 at 11:03 am

I know this is old, but I think part or most of the difference in viewpoints might be from where you learned to discuss/debate/argue ideas. Once I talked to someone who had taken a lot of debate in school, and was convinced that not just in debate, but in other forms of discussion, you should be able to state your case without any sort of support and then it would be the responsibility of the other guy to prove you wrong. This sounds kind of like cartesian’s view.

I can see how this would be a time saver for commonly accepted beliefs, so you didn’t have to explain why you thought the United States constitution existed every time you brought it up, but I don’t think that means that the actual, epistemological burden of proof falls on people who disagree. It’s just that practically, if you disagree with a majority opinion it’s up to you to say why.

The flat-earther’s views in the example are only crazy because oblate-spheroid-earthers have already met the burden of proof, to an overwhelming degree.

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