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:
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?
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.”
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?