One commonly hears from online atheists that if you don’t accept the principle that the burden of proof is on the one who makes the claim, then you have to believe everything that you hear. So I helpfully present an alternative—thinking rationally. You can of course also watch it on YouTube:
The following is the script to my video, A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic.
I got an email from an (I presume young) man by the name of Ken who said:
What you say about the burden of proof is very interesting to me, especially about engaging with [the] question and not just saying “you have to prove it to me; I don’t have any burden of proof so get busy proving your idea to me”: I think part of why so many atheists, and I am an atheist at this time say the burden of proof is on the one making a positive claim i.e. god exists or god doesn’t exist is because so many Christians respond to questions of how do you know god exists with ‘”well, can you prove god doesn’t exist?” “I’m going to continue to believe god exists until someone proves to me he/she/it doesn’t” Have you heard of Matt Dillahunty? He said something about burden of proof I find very compelling: He talked about the game of guessing how many [whole gumballs] are in a clear glass jar. Matt said that before you even begin to try to figure out the answer there is one thing you absolutely know and that is that the number is either and odd or even. If someone asserts that the number is even and I say I don’t believe that, that is not the same as saying I think the number is odd. The default position before you find out the answer is “I don’t know yet’. He said a god either exists or it doesn’t exist. For clarity we need to keep god exists and “god doesn’t exist” separate and examine them separately. if I say you have failed to meet your burden of proof that your god exists I am not saying your god doesn’t exist but that you have not established that it exists. It seems to me that if the burden of proof is on atheists to prove YHVH does not exist then Christians have the burden to prove that the thousands of other gods do not exist and if you set about trying to prove all those gods/goddesses don’t exist those believers will use the same defenses Christians use to defend their god claim [and will say] you failed to prove their deity doesn’t exist. I am wondering what you would say I am missing here?
This video will answer this question.
I’d like to preface my video by saying that the Christians who respond to questions about how one can know the faith is true with “how can you know it’s false” are simply not the people to talk to. Most people—regardless of belief system or topic—are simple people and simple people are not good at explaining things. This is true whether you’re talking about religion, engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or anything else. Only some people are good at explaining things and these are the people you should seek out when you want an explanation. But, unlike in engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or just about anything else, Christians who are good at teaching will happily teach you about the truth of Christianity for free. There are tons of free apologetical materials online and plenty of excellent books available at basically the cost of printing—and plenty of Christians will happily buy books for people who are sincerely seeking the truth.
With that out of the way, there’s one other thing which will help for us to establish before we proceed: every positive claim is convertible to a negative claim, and vice versa. This is because a double-negative is equivalent to a positive. You can say that a man is dead or not not-dead, and they mean the same thing. If you want to make it sound better, just give not-dead a name, like “alive”. This will come up in a bit.
So the first thing to say about Matt Dillahunty’s jar of gumballs is that his explicit conclusion is entirely true. To not come to a conclusion and to conclude a negative are not the same thing. To not be convinced that somebody is right and to be convinced that they are wrong are not the same thing. To not accept the truth of a proposition and to accept the truth of its negation is not the same thing.
Here’s the thing: no one ever thought that they were the same thing. What he is saying is true, but it is also trivial and irrelevant to the subject of whether God exists as it is discussed by human beings. And, to be clear, by God I mean the uncreated creator of all that is; the unchanging source of all change, the necessary source of all contingency, the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. I don’t care about big guys with hammers or worshipping the sun. If Thor exists, at most he is a more powerful creature than I am but still just a creature; this is utterly unlike the source of every moment of my—and if he exists, Thor’s—existence.
Matt Dillahunty’s example is about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. Now, within the example, the number of gumballs has no practical consequence, and whether the number is even or odd has, if possible, even less significance. It doesn’t matter in the slightest to anyone. This is not true of whether God exists, however. There is nothing that matters more, and nothing of greater practical consequence, than whether God exists. It affects every aspect of life in every moment of life. And everything you do is going to be consistent either with God existing and having created the universe on purpose and with meaning, and therefore with a nature out of which flows a particular morality, or it won’t be. I talked about this at length in my video Atheist Morality, but the short short version is that morality either flows out of human nature, which can only have been given to us by a rational creator, or what you call morality is just a name for people doing whatever they want—which needs no name. The short short short version is that you can’t know whether you’re using or misusing something until you know what it’s for. In Dillahunty’s made-up example, you can ignore the question and the question goes away. But real life doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.
In a moment I’m going to present a much better analogy for the situation human beings find ourselves in, but first, I want to point out that you can see this flaw even in Dillahunty’s example just by looking at where he stops: he ends the example before he writes his name and contact info and a number on a piece of paper and puts it in the submission box. The jar of gumballs is part of a contest (if you look up the video where he first presents this analogy, it’s explicitly part of it). And yet in the analogy he never enters the contest. He apparently just loses by not trying. Of course he couldn’t enter the contest in his analogy because if he did, the number he wrote down, being a specific number, would have to be odd or even. The only way he can remain uncommitted is by not playing the game for which the jar of gumballs was set out. Let’s be really clear here: this is a strategy to guarantee that you lose. This is, literally, a loser’s strategy.
But even if you include the parts which were left out of his analogy, a jar of gumballs just isn’t much like real life. So let’s take a different example which has the same point that the gumball example does but like real life involves skill and effort, and the results actually matter:
Suppose you are the umpire in a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning in the last game of the world series, there are two outs, and the score is tied. A ground ball is hit and the runner on third base dashes madly toward home plate. The short stop initially fumbles the ball but the third baseman ran behind him and picks up the ball, then throws it home. The catcher catches the ball and tags the runner as he slides into home plate.
Now, one thing you know for sure is that the runner is either out or safe. The runner says to you that he’s safe, but doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. The catcher says that the runner is out, but also doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. If you simply announce that you don’t have enough evidence to make a call and so you’re going home now, this is definitely very different from calling the runner safe because you believe he’s safe or calling the runner out because you believe he’s out. For one thing, you’re going to be fired from your job as umpire and may well be hanged from the nearest lamp post by outraged fans before you make it home.
And now we come to the big problem with the umpire who refuses to come to a conclusion if the players don’t prove their case to his satisfaction. Why is he being so damn lazy? As the umpire, it’s his job to know whether the runner is safe or out. That’s the whole reason he’s on the field at all. It’s not the players’ jobs to prove they succeeded in their goals, it’s his job to pay attention to the game closely enough to know who succeeded and who failed. If he spends the entire baseball game in a closet playing video games and then throws up his hands when a call is necessary, he’s not nobly committed to intellectual honesty, he’s just neglecting his duty.
But bear in mind that this example does prove, just as much as the marble example, that there is a difference between refusing to commit to a side and committing to the negative side. Does anyone wonder why Matt Dillahunty picked his jar-of-gummballs example and not this umpire-in-a-baseball-game example?
But throwing up one’s hands and going home—in the real world this is the equivalent of freezing motionless or perhaps committing suicide—is not what people actually do. Atheists like Matt Dillahunty define some course of action as the default—they never, of course, explain why it’s the default, since they can’t, since there’s no such thing as a default when it comes to morality—and then do that if the contrary isn’t proven to them. So let’s look at that.
Suppose you decide to define “safe” as a positive claim and “out” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually out—call him “out” since the runner didn’t satisfactorily prove his positive claim. So what? You are still calling him out. That you don’t really believe him out changes exactly nothing about what you’re doing. The game will go into overtime just as much as if you actually believed your call was correct.
Suppose that you did the contrary and defined “out” as the positive claim and “safe” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually safe—call him “safe” since the catcher hasn’t satisfactorily proven his positive claim. Again, so what? The runner is still just as safe, the run counts just as much, and the team has won the game to exactly the same degree as if you actually believed that your call was correct.
Incidentally, I’ve heard it claimed that there is a rule in baseball that “the tie goes to the runner”. Several things need to be said about this. First, if you look this up, it refers not to uncertainty on the umpire’s part but to the case when the ball and the batter-turned-runner reach first base at the exact same instant such that neither arrives ahead of the other. Second, this is not a rule in baseball but rather an interpretation of the rules—which not all major league umpires subscribe to. And third, let’s ignore those first two and suppose this actually was a rule for there being a default to resolve epistemic uncertainty. Find me a case in real life where the following happened:
In a situation like above, bottom of the ninth, etc. where the umpire wasn’t paying attention and doesn’t know what happened at home plate, so he follows the default and calls the runner safe. The team manager from the team who has now lost comes up to the umpire, screaming at him that he must be incompetent, stupid, blind and on drugs. The umpire calmly tells him, “Sir, I wasn’t actually looking when the play happened and so I went with the default call of safe.”
The team manager, clearly taken aback, stammers and says, “Oh man, I’m so sorry for what I said. I thought that you actually thought that the runner was safe. Oh man. I didn’t realize that you had no idea what happened and just went with a default call. I take back everything I said about you being incompetent. Please accept my most sincere apologies for insulting your umpiring. You are a credit to your profession.”
Find me that. Preferably in video. But I’ll accept newspaper reports.
If an umpire makes a bad call because he was going with some default because he didn’t know what happened, this is not better than making a bad call because he was mistaken. It’s still a bad call, and it’s still his fault because he didn’t take the trouble to make a good call.
If you cheat on your wife with her sister but “don’t really mean it,” you’ve still cheated on your wife. If you cheat on your wife with her sister and father a bastard, that child exists just as much and has the same needs whether or not you actually believe that you should have cheated. This whole project of trying to do things without having them count is just pure cowardice. There’s no honor in doing things without thinking that you should do them and there’s even less in—if you don’t know what you should be doing—not spending every waking moment of your life trying to find out what you should be doing.
The Matt Dillahunties of the world are busy trying to say that if I shoot you in the head because I believe you are a zombie, I’m crazy, but if I shoot you in the head because I haven’t been convinced that you’re not a zombie (that is, that you’re alive), I’m the pinnacle of rationality. (And since this is the internet, don’t take this analogy literally. Shooting someone in the head symbolizes, say, fornication, and “because they’re a zombie” symbolizes sex being purely about pleasure.)
Now, to come to the crux of the matter: the only reason anyone likes this irrelevant gumball example is that it sneaks in the assumption that it doesn’t matter whether God exists. Just like a stage magician getting you to focus on the hand that’s pretending to have the coin when the coin is actually in the hand that you’re not looking at, this example is purportedly about whether or not indecision is identical to disbelief, but in reality is about whether disbelief matters.
I talked about this before, but to go over it again because it’s so important: there is no truth more important to human life than whether or not God exists. I’ve also covered the practical importance of the question of whether God exists in my video Atheism Changes Everything, but just consider for a moment that if a rational, loving God created the world, we have a nature out of which morality flows so morality is not merely the arbitrary question of what people happen to approve of. We have a soul which can live past the death of the body and live with the consequences of whether we acted in accordance with our nature or against it, that is, it is possible we will go to some sort of heaven or some sort of hell, with justice actually being enforced in the end. There is no such thing as a hidden deed; it is not possible to get away with something merely because no other human beings know about it. Having a common creator all human beings are a sort of sibling; we can have duties to strangers and even to enemies. The good things in life like beauty can be true and not merely meaningless preferences.
Someone who thinks that whether these things are true is like whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even has to have replaced his brains with rat droppings. Then taken the rat droppings out and burned them. Then used a hose to suck even the air out of the empty cavity in his skull so that in place of his brain there is now only vacuum.
The idea that it doesn’t really matter whether God exists is not even within spitting distance of a reasonable position. It’s not within sight of a reasonable position. It’s not on the same planet as a reasonable position.
And even on just a mundane, nitty-gritty level, practicing religious people are less likely to smoke ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28667475 ), to abuse alcohol ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/charlie-sheen-circus-and-_b_836934.html ), and to divorce ( https://shaunti.com/2014/06/marriage-month-daily-tip-12-go-church/ ), just to name a few things (in the studies showing this, practicing tends to mean regularly attending church). Correlational studies should always be taken with a grain of salt, but does your position on whether there are an odd or even number of gumballs in a jar have that sort of effect, or even just correlate with that sort of effect?
And yet, you see this from atheists all the time. They say, “I don’t believe in God and I’m able to go on living without any problems.” Perhaps, but how do they live their life?
Just take a look at the lives of the atheists who make these arguments about how their life is unaffected by disbelief. It’s not a pleasant thing to have to point out, but when they say this, then take a look. Do they refrain from excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, pornography, fornication, adultery, gossiping, backstabbing, and so forth? Do they further spend their own time, energy, and money being generous to people who can’t repay them? Do they constantly strive for greater self-control, that all they do may be upright and good? Is their life marked by a sense of gratitude for all of the good things they’ve received, including existence, intelligence, and the opportunity to see beauty and help others?
Now, Christians fall short of these things all the time. It is a terrible shame, but it is true, that not all Christians are saints. But are any atheists saints? Just take a look at them. Is there a single atheist anywhere who hasn’t noticed that the world being a meaningless accident that only has the meaning they give it (that moment) has the implication that whatever they find hard isn’t worth doing and whatever temptation they want to give into is justified? Especially over time? Atheism is, I fear, a degenerative disease.
So take a look at the older atheists. How many of them have any sort of remarkable virtue or self-control? How many ascetics practicing self-denial do you find? How many of them have dedicated their life to helping people who can’t contribute to their patreon account? How many of them have forsworn sex so that they may dedicate all of their time to service? Heck, how many of them spend even one hour a week set aside for appreciating that existence exists and being grateful for it? Most of the atheists I know talk about how going to church once a week is such an unbearable burden that you would think they were talking about being woken up at 2am to spend 14 hours in a hot standing cell without food or water.
So yes, there is theoretically a difference between acting as if God does not exist because you believe that he does not exist versus because you merely assume that he does not exist. There is not, however, a practical difference between these two things. The difference doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Someone who believes he knows that God does not exist is justified in not spending time trying to find out whether God exists, since he already has an answer with which he is satisfied. Someone who claims to not know—and therefore to have no idea whether what he is doing is good, evil, or indifferent—had better be spending all of the time and effort he can spare from immediate necessity trying to find out the answer.
Consider a man holding a gun. If he knows that it is unloaded because he verified it himself (including checking the chamber), it is fine for him to wave the gun around or even to point it at someone and pull the trigger—since he knows he will certainly do no harm. A man who has no idea whether the gun is loaded is grossly irresponsible for doing the same thing and no amount of him saying that it has not been proven to him that the gun is loaded changes that he is being a bad man.
Men who exist in the world will act or not act in each moment they continue to exist. It is their first responsibility to find out what they should do and what they should refrain from doing. And there is nothing more important to answering that question than whether a rational God created the world and, if so, what purpose and nature he gave it.
Someone who tries to answer that question, even if he comes up with the wrong answer, is at least trying to be a decent human being. Someone who merely ignores the question isn’t even trying to be human.
Ironically, though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, it’s that latter group who seems to spend the most time boasting about how rational they are.
Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.
God’s blessing to you on this the seventeenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.
I’m thinking about doing a video about the topic of the burden of proof. This is something of a pet peeve for my friend Eve Keneinan, who has a hilarious post on The Burden of Proof Fairy and the You Have To Believe Everything Monster. The topic under consideration is usually phrased, “the person making the claim has the burden of proof”. Which, as Eve rightly points out, is a claim, so she immediately invites the claimant to abide by their own principle and shoulder the burden of proof for that claim. For some reason she attracts a lot of stupid atheists on twitter so the results can be funny. The best are the people who add “this is not a claim” to the end of their claims, as if they’re children saying, “no tag-backs” in a game of tag.
I’m not sure what direction I want to go in my video. I’m thinking of starting out talking about the burden of proof in law, which is where one man (the prosecution) claims the right to punish another man (the defendant). The prosecution must meet some threshold of evidence for his claim to be granted, while the defense may try to poke holes in the prosecution’s attempt to demonstrate this. The thing is, the threshold for what evidence the prosecution must bring varies widely. In some places merely alleging the guilt of the defendant is meeting it, and the defendant must work very hard to show that the prosecution is in error. In other places, at least in theory, the prosecution must work hard to show that he’s correct beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense does not need to prove the prosecution mistaken, only to cast doubt that the prosecution is correct. Whoever has the harder job is said to have the burden of proof, though in truth the prosecution always must meet some threshold in order to prosecute, and a defense which merely rested without saying anything will virtually never win.
Now, ordinarily no fool ever thought that courts of law provided epistemological certainty. I think many people—possibly not just fools—thought courts generally reliable. But no one ever thought the courts infallible. I’m not sure who ever thought to try to make this practical principle an epistemological one, but certainly one meets people who try to establish it as such. (Epistemology is the study of knowledge.) Of course, no one consistently applies this as an epistemological principle. I’ve yet to hear of the man who replied to, “Hi, my name is Brian” with “Prove it.” Or, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” with “Where’s your evidence that it’s a nice day?” No, in general the burden-of-proofers will just look up, investigate the natural world for themselves, come to their own conclusion, and then share it. That is, they’ll say, “yes it is” or possibly, “for now, but it looks like it’s going to rain”.
Of course what’s going on is that this isn’t a principle at all, it’s more of a heuristic. When it isn’t just an excuse to get out of thinking, that is. I wrote about that in We Are All Beasts of Burden. And that is really my main critique of the concept of the burden of proof as it is commonly used. It’s an attempt to avoid thinking while retaining the respect accorded to one who thinks. That’s almost a theme of the modern world. What is divorce but the attempt to retain the respectability of marriage while breaking the vows of marriage? As Chesterton said, our world is one wild divorce court, divorcing all things from each other but pretending not to.
And it’s that last part that I think is so especially troubling. A society which is pretending it is doing something other than it is doing is very far from recovery. On the other hand this is just restating the truism that the first step in solving your problem is admitting that you have a problem.
In any event, it is amusing to ask somebody who states the burden of proof is on the person making the claim if they have any evidence that they’re not a moron. In my experience the will stutter and be outraged that you would transgress the social norm of assuming that they’re not. It’s always amusing when people are angry with you for following their principles.
Glory to God in the highest.
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.