Bearing the Burden of Proof

I was in third grade when I had my first serious debate about God. It was in the lunchroom at Alanton Elementary, the year before desegregation, not that it had anything to do with the discussion. My opponent was a kid name Mark, a fellow Roman Catholic, smart as a whip and prim as a priest, with slick short dark hair and button up shirts. I liked button-up shirts, too. I had a holy aversion to pull-overs. Don’t ask me why. I was eight.

Mark was the same kid who started the only lunch riot in which I have ever taken part. “We want milk!” we demanded, slamming our fists in unison against the table top. We had our whole area going along, a couple dozen kids. The rebellion was stamped out swiftly and efficiently, however, the lunch monitor turning into a veritable Crassus crucifying the offenders against the wall for the rest of the period. But the stares that came our way were not stares of derision or jeering. They were looks of awe. We felt like heroes.

Heroes of the Mess Hall

I wonder what ever became of my friend Mark.

We debated the nature of God and the brotherhood of man (yes that antiquated, sexist concept). I don’t remember what our claims were or how we thought we knew what we were talking about at that age, but I remember we were pretty intense. I had a tendency to cow other people quickly with the force of my convictions. It gave me a sense of superiority that probably compensated for my pronounced lack of physical size or strength. But Mark, who was smaller even than me, would have none of it. I recall the pleasure I drew from having someone with which to argue. Because in the end, that was all we were doing.

As I learn more about atheists against theists and vice versa, I am becoming more convinced that arguing for its own sake tends to characterize a lot of the discourse. I mentioned something about this tendency before, I think. It’s almost as if either side is more interested in scoring imaginary points in an imaginary boxing match than they are in arriving at a faithful truth or two.

Toward the end of the second chapter of his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins takes the theists to task for sliding out from under their obligatory burden of proof. For those who don’t know, the Burden of Proof, as it is called, refers to the responsibility carried by the person opposing the status quo, or “the way things are.” The side that attacks the status quo is the side required to prove its case. In a court of law, under the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra, the assumption is in favor of the defendant (in most cases). In other words, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, not with the defense. In fact, the defense usually recommends that the defendant keep his or her mouth shut in order not to give the prosecution any ideas. The prosecution must prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt” in jury trials. This is common knowledge.

What is not so common knowledge is where to locate the burden of proof in debates that deal with abstract issues (All men are created equal) or questions of value (Captain Crunch is better than Fruit Loops) or questions of disputed fact (more than one person was involved in JFK’s assassination). The problem in these kinds of debates is that the status quo is under just as much debate as any of the other assumptions.

Dawkins wants to wrestle the status quo from the Theists. If they are going to declare that God exists, the burden of proof is on them. They have to prove it. So there. The status quo is that there is no deity, that the infinite universe bespeaks no such being and the assertion that some supreme intelligence put the stars out there is merely so much pop delusion. Pop delusion, by definition, cannot claim the status quo. Ding ding! Score a round for the atheists!

“Words, words, words,” to quote Hamlet, my favorite impotent fury.


Hamlet and Words

In the other corner, the theists claim that since God is unprovable, there is no need to prove His existence. Right to the gut, yeah, baby! Deal with that!

The fact is, in this debate, the status quo cannot be reliably located. The Burden of Proof rests squarely, not on one side, but on both. Theists do have to prove God’s existence. And Atheists do have to prove that the universe exists independently (Naturalism–or whatever they want to call the idea that scientifically observable stuff is all there is).

But can they? Is either side up to the task? The Noncognitivists (or ignostics–somewhat new to the scene) assume that neither side can prove its claims and that the entire discussion is therefore meaningless. Are these outsiders correct?

It does seem awfully easy, taking one side or the other, to dismantle the arguments presented by either one. The inherent absurdities, contradictions and general incoherence of the Naturalists have been dissected beautifully by people far more able than I (see C.S. Lewis Miracles, and Alvin Plantinga’s address on the topic.). And the arguments of the Theists are just as easily shown to have enormous gaps and leaps of logic. Get them in a corner and they resort to the “God is unprovable” chant.

What then? Is it just that neither group has discovered the silver bullet, the ultimate combination of ideas and proofs that will convince even the most doubtful?

The elephant in the room is the verifiability/falsifiability problem. The Noncognitivist claim is that what cannot be verified is meaningless. This smug assertion would be laughable if people weren’t so serious about it. It represents a classic case of abstraction obsession. The truth is that there is very little in our lives and in the universe at large that can be verified or falsified. Even propositional statements, which seem to form the core foundation of the “unknowing” philosophy, are merely symbolic representations of something else–achingly close to and desperately separated from reality itself. The “existence” of every proposition is perilously contingent, lacking its own quiddity. The artificial objectification and dissection of propositions (such as “God exists,”) is sorely misdirected at best and a sterile undertaking at worst. This is getting pretty technical here, and I apologize, so I’ll try to get back to more general thinking.

We are left with having to prove our positions as best we can. And so the debate goes on. And will continue to go on, because that is what we humans do. Those who seek conclusive proof one way or the other, however, will find themselves caught in a labyrinth with no exit. That labyrinth has proved to be the undoing of many people who have gone crazy in their search for certainty.

Is it possible, however, that the uncertainty is the key? Can we build on evidences that do not demand or bring us to certainty, but that bring us to a very real and exciting “probably”? I think so. But next I have to deal with the whole probability issue.

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4 thoughts on “Bearing the Burden of Proof

  1. In this case, wouldn’t “probably” amount to a partial voluntary acceptance of the burden of proof with the right to resort to “God is unprovable” if/when the need arises?

    The funny thing is that if the burden of proof is on the party challenging the status quo, that’d be Dawkins in this case, much as he might not like it. He even acknowledges a predisposition to religion (though claiming it as a sort of evolutionary leftover from tribal psychology), so he’s the one trying to change things, not the theists.

  2. Dean

    By status quo for the purposes of this discussion, Dawkins is referring to the empirical necessity of the belief in God. Dawkins early on quotes the apocryphal story of Lapalace’s answer to Napoleon about a certain system and God’s place in it. Laplace answered, “Sire, I have not needed that hypothesis.”

    The status quo in explaining natural phenomenon is at present, that God is “not needed” in our hypotheses. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t or can’t play a role, it’s just that so far, we can do very well on our own researching and explaining disease, rainbows, social behavior, all without needing to resort to God as an explanation.

    In the past, whenever individuals have resorted to God as an explanation for an empirical event it was at worst premature, and at best, an amazingly gross over-application of God.

    This is the status quo that Dawkins hands theists the burden of proof. Dawkins wants to know what, in his experience, in this universe, can be explained by the theist’s god.

    From this perspective, the theist is bust. The best arguments for god point to a “something rather than nothing” notion. And no aspect of General Revelation points to Jehovah specifically–something I learned from my undergraduate Christian Thought course!

    Finally, I find that you’ve misrepresented Theological Noncognitivism. Noncognitivism says nothing about falsifiability. Instead, it says that the concepts (sin, God, gods, heaven, hell, etc.) themselves are definitionally meaningless. While the question “Does God exist?” is syntactically correct, it is meaningless without an operative definition of what “God” is and what it would mean for him to exist. Theological Noncognitives like myself see the question as a double-barreled, loaded question.

  3. You’ve done a great job framing the current state of conversation between atheists, theists, and noncognitivists – a boxing match. Trouble is, we’re all just waiting for someone else to bite an ear and be ushered out of the picture in shame. It’s easier than proof.

    If you can’t bear the burden of proof until you’ve officially located the status quo (which is becoming increasingly difficult here), and the argument then centers around who owns the status quo (an even bigger can of worms), what are we left with? Belief.

    What do we believe? Do we believe in logic? Do we believe in faith? Do we believe in meaning? All three? Only one?

    To ignore one of these aspects is limiting to one’s perspective and hampers conversation.

  4. Matthew Melton

    Even though I believe Dawkins is resorting to a classic (if not always effective) debating bluff known as “shifting the burden of proof,” I agree with Dean that, in this case, Theists cannot afford to rest on their popular laurels and assume they have nothing to prove. I don’t agree, however, that the Non-Theist has an easier road as a result. The Non-Theist assumption, “we can do very well on our own researching and explaining disease, rainbows, social behavior, all without needing to resort to God,” is far from given, granted or othewise immune. A serious burden of proof lies with that stance as well.

    I think Dean is more bothered by the conclusion I draw from Non-Cognitivism. I do understand that they prefer this “definitional” stance, but it is not as simple as it appears. Like Laplace, they have no use for an idea of a “God” about whom nothing more than nonsense can be claimed (their assumption, not mine). It is nonsense in the literal sense of the term, in that when a person makes a statement about something that is inherenty unverifiable (and therefore not subject to falsification, either) then the statement has no sense, and is therefore worthless. Dawkins claim that most of the Founding Fathers would have been atheists had they been living today falls into that nonsensical category. Any statement I might make about the Mayor of the Moon would fall into the same category. The Non-Cognitivists assert that most, if not all, statements made about God, including most importantly the very description of who God is supposed to be (which differs from person to person), fall into that no-sense category. As I understand it, they aren’t even getting to the issue of God’s existence. They cannot even credit the concept. They are not so much Non-Cognitivist or ignostic as they are Neo-Nominalists. I rate myself as a more traditional Nominalist.

    I don’t want to make this response another blog, so I’ll leave it at that, but I do think the N-C argument walls itself within symbol-driven parameters of denial. I’ll be happy to address that more later.

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