If you spend much time in certain parts of the Internet you’re likely to come across the hot topic of the Burden of Proof. By which I mean people like to pass it around like they’re playing hot potato. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the right part of that part the Internet, you will occasionally see my friend Eve Keneinan put on her oven mitts, reach into the oven, and pull out a second hot potato and stuff it down the pants of someone who was trying to pass the first hot potato to her. Her wording varies, but usually it looks something like this:
You say that the burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim. That itself is a positive claim, so by your own principle you now have the burden of proof to prove that it’s true. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
There’s a very interesting reason why she does that, but before we can talk about it we have to talk about what the Burden of Proof is. So, what is it? There’s no one answer because people have borrowed it and come up with variations of it, but it’s primarily a concept in courts of law and (by imitation) in debating clubs. It exists to solve a specific and big problem which courts have: what do you do when there isn’t a clear answer?
And what courts do varies. In American courts there is, at least in theory, the presumption of innocence for the accused so that if the prosecution does not meet the evidential criteria set forth at the beginning of the trial, the accused gets to go home like he wants to. This is the prosecution having the burden of proof. However, courts are not always set up this way. Many courts have been set up under the assumption that if the police or crown or what-have-you have gone to the trouble of arresting a man for a crime, it’s for good reasons, and so the accused must prove that the competent authorities are in fact wrong. Should he fail to meet the evidentiary threshold of proving them in error, he can’t make the police not put him in prison. In this case, the defendant has the burden of proof. Even in the American legal system, once convicted a person is presumed guilty and the burden of proof shifts to him on appeal to prove that something very wrong has happened.
So what is the unifying theme in all of this? It’s this: the person who most wants something to happen must demonstrate to the people he wants to do it why they should do it.
Which results in numerous conversations that go something like this:
Atheist: If you want me to believe in God, you have to prove God to me.
Theist: I’m fine with you not believing in God, but you now have the burden of proof to show me why I should treat you like you’re mentally competent.
Atheist: You awful, terrible person. You must treat me like I’m a genius, for some reason. It would be rude not to. Didn’t Jesus tell you to treat all atheists like they’re perfect?
Theist: No, and I’m a generic theist anyway, so why are you lecturing me about Jesus?
Atheist: If I’m honest, because of daddy issues. Officially because all theists look alike to me.
Theist: Am I supposed to pretend it’s for the official reason?
Atheist: It would be offensive of you not to.
Theist: Why? You just explicitly contradicted yourself, and for some reason I’m suppose to not notice?
Atheist: I didn’t make the rules. Don’t shoot the messenger.
Theist: I’m pretty sure you just did make that rule up.
Atheist: OK, maybe you did, but if you take everything I say seriously, we’d have nothing to talk about. I mean, I don’t believe in free will. For Christ’s sake, I don’t even believe that thought is valid! I will say, with a straight face, that all of our thoughts are just post-hoc explanations for warring instincts. If any of us took what I say are my beliefs as my actual beliefs, I’d make the guys who think that they’re Napoleon look sane!
Sorry, I get carried away with dialogs sometimes. It’s just so refreshing to talk with a self-aware atheist for once! The problem is that it’s not a stable position—self-aware atheists tend to cease being atheists after a while. It’s like my friend Michael’s question about why there seem to be no atheists today who really take Nietzsche seriously. There are, but typically then they stop because they’ve become Christians. Nietzsche was a unique case because while he could see the stark raving irrationality of the atheist position, he couldn’t escape being an atheist. So he ended up dancing naked in his apartment and telling his Jewish landlord that out of gratitude for the landlord’s kindness he would wipe out all of the anti-semites. (I forget whether he was going to personally shoot them all or wipe them out with a mere thought.)
Please pardon the stream-of-consciousness of his post, but, after all, the subtitle of this blog is “Quick Observations on a Variety of Subjects”. You can’t fault me for truth in advertising, at least.
Anyway, getting back to the point, there are a great many people who were raised in a particular sort of mostly secular way peculiar to a christian heritage which I will call social hedonism. It is probably a kind of practical utilitarianism, but its basic tenets are very familiar to anyone who grew up among non-christians with a christian heritage: fulfill your emotional needs, primarily with human relationships, and have fun, constrained by being at least halfway decent to the people around you, especially with regards to having arguments and disputes. It’s a stage in societal decay, so it is not stable and there will not be many generations of people who think like this. (If you prefer the term societal transformation to societal decay, I won’t argue it with you.) It is almost accidentally atheistic, but the real point is that it is a definite set of beliefs which people are raised with and therefore never considered. Most people never ask themselves whether the things they were raised with were true unless they run into someone who asserts something contrary. That’s why religious belief is often on the wane in pluralistic societies: it gets challenged more than other beliefs, some more true some less true, do. And now, we’re finally able to get to the question that this post started with.
So why does Eve ask people to prove where the burden of proof lies? There are several answers which are suggested not infrequently by the people she gets into this particular argument with, all of which are wildly off the mark. They’re also good examples of why knowing a person really helps in understanding what they say.
She’s an idiot.
In fact, she is extremely intelligent. That does not mean that she’s right about everything—intelligent people are very capable of making huge mistakes and in fact are more likely to stick to such mistakes far longer than a less intelligent person because their intelligence allows them plug holes in their theory for a long time. What it means is that she’s not trying to avoid the burden of proof because she can’t handle it.
She doesn’t have any reasons for what she believes.
In fact she is exceedingly well read, and could off the top of her head articulate at least 5 proofs for God and explain them in great detail. She has probably read another half dozen or more, as well as a great many arguments against God. Also everything Nietzsche wrote. And sometimes it seems like half of everything else that was ever written in philosophy. She says that her personal library contains over 10,000 books, and I believe her. I also suspect her library card has gotten a fair amount of use too. She reads Attic Greek and has studied Chinese philosophy. She’s probably seen 99% of the argument anyone has made for or against God, ever.
She’s never considered whether the religion she inherited from her parents is true.
First, she is American Orthodox, which neither of her parents ever was. Second, she spent many years as an atheist and then as a platonist, only finally coming to Orthodoxy. Each step was only after about ten thousand times more consideration than the average internet atheist puts into anything at all.
OK, so why, then?
Because being a philosophy teacher is not just what she does for a living, it’s who she is. Real philosophers aren’t content to know things, they must understand them, as well. Philosophers ask what everything is, and this includes mundane and ordinary things. She doesn’t want to shirk anything, she wants people to ask themselves what the burden of proof is, and whether it’s relevant.
She wants this because the burden of proof is a practical thing for certain cases where uncertainty is not a viable answer and so a mistake is preferable to indecision. This isn’t all of life, or even most of it. If you’re going to hang a man, you need to come to a decision whether to hang him or let him go, then you have to move on. Most of life does not have this urgency coupled with this finality, and this is especially true of big questions like, “is there a God” or “is there anything better in life than sex and drugs then kill myself quickly when they stop being fun?”
Just because we inherited an answer from our parents or rebelled as children against the answer we inherited from our parents does not mean that we may not think about these things any more. Just because we were told that there is nothing more important than getting along with friends, family, and co-workers does not in fact mean that these things are our highest good or even that they will make us happy. The thing which should be unquestionable is reality itself, not what we’ve been assuming all along.
The point—the real point—is that in the truly important things of life, no one has the burden of proof. We all have a duty of investigation. Every man that lives has a burden of proof for the things he believes and denies. When it comes to the truth, no one may be a rider. We must all be our own beasts of burden.
Appendix A. Authority
Nothing I said above is meant as a disparagement of authority. Life is short and it is impossible to live without trusting. The key is to trust where it is appropriate. Like how helping people and accepting help are good, but adults should still blow their own noses. And all trust of human beings should be done with the fallibility of all human beings never forgotten.