The Burden of the “Burden of Proof”

“Burden of Proof” is a common rhetorical persuasion tool used by atheists. I have used it myself in the past.  But I have come to think that the atheist’s sacred “burden of proof” has some real burdens of its own: political, economic and rhetorical.

“Proof” is a game and as such takes place in an arena defined by rules, boundaries, penalties, scoring and players.  The arena for ideas is always some market.  But don’t get me wrong, I am fanatically fond of the scientific method.  But it is only one tool in one arena amidst the vast realm of human markets.

In human markets, an idea wins if it has followers.  The number of followers only matters to the seller depending on what the seller values.  A small number of buyers, for instance, may offer the seller enough sustenance in terms of status, pleasure, finances or any number of other benefits  so that seller to consider themselves a winner.

To the seller the only ‘proof’ lies in the market.  And when they are satisfied, they will feel no “burden”.  But if the customers are deciding based on some other proof-method, the seller may decide to care.  Thus, the person making a claim will only enter the scientific realm if they feel winning in that realm will win more followers than they have presently and if the cost of trying to enlarge their market is worth it.

The person selling snake oil or some religious hoccus-pocus may not agree with the “burden of proof” argument because he/she knows that the burden-of-proof that matters is the market, not scientific proof.

You see, they understand that humans are not build to understand truth.  Humans are built to consume and control and multiply.  The market is a means to these fundamental mechanisms.  Truth is a very weak contender.

Science’s burden is to show the profitability (in terms of safety, happiness, finances, health, status) of their idea.  The real arena is the market — that is where the burden is decided.   That is the difficulty behind all dialogue.  Screaming “burden of proof” can show a certain naivety about the nature of human decisions and actions.  It may be useful rhetoric, but it is only rhetoric to those who already agree.  But with out an audience, it is of no use.

For more on “Burden of Proof” try searching for it in this Atheist Search Engine.  I invite your corrections in the errors of my thinking.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

26 responses to “The Burden of the “Burden of Proof”

  1. I have no corrections. Only this to add: the “burden of proof” argument goes out the window when what constitutes proof is different depending on the individual. Since the subject of God/religion is so subjective what constitutes proof for one may fall woefully short to another. So, in short, I agree with you. The proof is in the pudding, not necessarily in the truth. Where religion is concerned, what exactly is truth? How do you go about proving or disproving it? I realize this means the atheist view is that they don’t necessarily need to disprove anything, since they are placing the burden on the religionist to prove their position. But since we all know it’s wholly unachievable some people will remain in their atheist position while others, like myself, will choose agnosticism, and yet others have found what in their minds amounts to enough proof to believe a given religious view.

    Speaking only for myself I find any religion that worships a deity substantially unprovable. Then it comes down to a choice. What will I choose to believe? As of yet, I’m in my sophomore year, so to speak, completely undecided.

  2. Well, I think you’re being a bit dishonest in what is meant by ‘burden of proof’ in arguments about what is true. When the discussion involves providing evidence to support a claim in a scientific sense, then there really is a burden on the person making the claim to inform it with more than assumption and conjecture and wishful thinking. It’s fine to avoid providing this kind of evidence if the topic is simply about opinion. But when the subject is expressed as if it were true in fact then such a burden is assumed by the promoter.

    I would think that more people would be concerned about their level of gullibility… something that the scientific method can help significantly to modify. You suggest that in the marketplace of ideas Truth is a very weak contender. That may be so in the lives of many but you fail to mention that it has the benefit of staying power.

    In highly financed areas of human endeavor, what’s true informs reliable knowledge. It is upon this that our engineering and technologies rely. Bridges and buildings erected only on the opinions of their architects and builders may sell quickly to the gullible but they will not last and the investment will prove to be a poor one.

    I think what’s true usually wins out in the long run, and I think any financial markets – whether personal or social – that ignores this trend loses out in the end.

  3. @ tildeb ,
    I assume you:
    a) value empirically based knowledge.
    b) don’t believe in magic powers.
    c) agree that mind reading is a non-empirically based magic power idea
    d) can’t read my mind
    e) realize that “dishonest” means to intentionally tell a lie
    So, when you said, “I think you’re being a bit dishonest”
    you are showing you believe in magic or you are using the phrase as inflammatory language.
    Both of which are nonstarters. stop.

  4. @ D’Ma ,
    I largely agree. Well said.
    Some quibble about agnostic vs atheist, but the argument is rarely useful or fruitful. People often misunderstand the value of communication and relationships.
    Take your time on your decisions! 🙂

  5. mikespeir

    We might not be built to understand truth very well, but we’re apparently built to value it. And when the discussion turns to what is true, rather than just what is popular, then the burden becomes very real.

  6. @ MikeSpeir,
    You are very optimistic. I think that valuing “truth” is so unnatural that it takes elaborate checks and balances to sort it our from all sort of other competitors. That is why science is so hard!

  7. @ Sabio

    When you write this post in response to my previous comment about burden of proof, and then state “Burden of Proof” is a common rhetorical persuasion tool used by atheists then I do indeed think you are taking this burden out of context. I did not suggest it as a rhetorical device whatsoever but an essential aspect of determining what is true. And that’s why I clarified that this burden has a central importance where what is true is what is being sought.

    The central importance of selling a product is sales volume. In this context, there is no ‘burden of proof’ similar to establishing what is true. The burden is simply sales. To equate establishing what is true to using rhetoric to increase sales volume is hardly an honest comparison of like to like (hence the phrase a bit dishonest). That’s all I meant.

  8. I think to imply less magical mind reading on your part, you should change a phrase like:
    “is hardly an honest comparison”
    “is hardly an accurate (or valid or ….) comparison”

  9. @ Sabio

    Yes, I normally would but I was referencing your earlier admonishment that I was calling you a little bit dishonest so I kept the word for this comment.

    Earlier, I was going to use the word ‘unfair’ but I thought it gave too much credence to the burden of proof as a rhetorical device as if it were in honest competition with burden of proof as a necessary component of a truth claim (because it was used as a rhetorical device). Rarely is this the case. Hence, I selected the term ‘dishonest’ to describe the dissimilar contexts in which the common use of the term by atheists is brought up (typically to point out the weakness of truth claims supported mostly by belief rather than strong supporting evidence).

  10. Your choice of “dishonest” in either case is poor and led to fruitless talks.

  11. As something of an outsider looking in, the “dishonest” back-and-forth made me think, “Wow, Sabio seems to be in a bad mood!”
    Verbal shortcuts are a convention. We stick-in-mud semanticists are right in drawing attention to these. But maybe a little slack is sometimes called-for.
    As to the burden of proof . . . Outside the world of mathematics, the word “proof” is hugely problematic, as I know you are aware. As for the way I interpret the burden of proof argument as commonly used by atheists, it goes something like this:
    “Because a claim can be made and/or has been widely made does not mean we should automatically confer on it serious consideration. If you want me to take your claim seriously, you are going to have to provide reason to do so, of the type I find persuasive (and is most reliably replicable).”
    However, in more of a debate forum — “Does God (x) exist?” — I find the tactic questionable. There are reasons for accepting a proposition; there are reasons for rejecting a proposition. Let’s explore and elucidate and evaluate these.
    This post reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s habit of saying “the market has spoken” when talking truth. The almighty dollar as the final arbiter.
    There is certainly a very important epistemological question at hand. And I applaud you Sabio for raising it.

  12. @ Andrew,

    You said, “But maybe a little slack is sometimes called-for.” Yeah, tildeb comments often recently and his comments consistently lack civility. So, I have to decide if discussing an issue with him is more important that discussing his behavior. I have decided that the behavior is too disruptive to ignore. He has broken my comment policy on this more than once. — you are right, if this was a commentor who rarely does this, I would not care. But I decided to make a choice.

    Concerning the Burden issue. I am stressing that we need to examine how to be effective and realize that “What counts as Proof”, as you say, outside of mathematics varies hugly. We need to be careful not to talk past each other.

  13. I like it, since it is a rebuttal to someone hauling out ‘burden of proof’ too quickly and it also states another state by which importance is placed – the market (ie: societal economy). This (a) fascinates me since I have some background in economics and business and (b) offers another avenue for ‘the importance of life via community’.

  14. @ SocietyVs,

    Thanks. Yes, redirecting attention to the multifacet aspects of communication, negotiations, values and such can be corrective and helpful. Glad you liked it.

  15. “But don’t get me wrong, I am fanatically fond of the scientific method. But it is only one tool in one arena amidst the vast realm of human markets.”

    -amen! i always enjoyed Gloria Steinem’s quote “Reason is in the eye of the beholder.” it was used a a quip to acknowledge all the “science” of the day that men were superior to women and that reason can only take us so far if the particular market is only run by one sex of one race. Which brings me to another quote i love from her, “God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there’s no turning back.”

  16. @ Ghost ,
    Yeah, someone understood!

  17. Philosopher Bill Vallicella discussed this exact issue yesterday, and concluded the same as you did.

    “Burden of Proof” only makes sense within the context of something like a court case, where there is a judge and clearly defined rules. Atheists or theists trying to beat each other up with “burden of proof” are misguided.

  18. @ JS Allen,
    I can’t believe that Bill Vallicella (a professional Christian philosopher), has to steal from Sabio (an armchair philosophizing Atheist) just to get a post — what a sad day. 🙂
    Nah, thanks. And as we know, Bill is offers great debates and the post you mention is actually open to discussion to anyone brave enough to engage the sage.
    Thanks for the info JS. I love his court analogy. And he brings in the game of chess just as I said, “Proof” is a game“.
    So I see the options as:
    (a) great minds think alike
    (b) poor minds fall in the same traps
    (c) shit happens
    Not sure what is the case here. 🙂

  19. Since his post came after yours, I assume he was influenced by radio waves from your brain. Try wearing a tinfoil hat (to keep your brainwaves in) next time you post, and if he fails to post a similar post after, then you’ll have empirical proof 🙂

    He had a followup post quoting two people who say that it’s good to be challenged with “burden of proof”, because it gives you an opportunity to pontificate. Heh.

  20. @ JS Allen ,
    (1) Actually, I am debating with a (retired) Yale Professor of psychology if mindreading is possible with really accomplished Buddhists. He doesn’t want to say “no” and is inclined to hope for “yes” enough to be inspired by it. I, on the other hand am opened to “Yes” only with a hell of a lot more evidence since all testing on that phenomena to date shows such a thing is not possible. Thus I choose “no” since so much work has been done on this issue and only foolery brought people to believe it to date.

    (2) Indeed, I read those other posts. They all fall together for me. Debate is a game, rhetoric and logic rules are game rules. If you want to play the game, it can be good fun and even productive.

  21. Interesting discussion on the Buddhist mind-reading post. My take is:
    1) Knowledge at a distance is possible.
    2) It has a naturalistic explanation which we don’t understand yet
    3) It’s an extraordinarily poor mechanism for choosing a teacher or mate — I can’t for the life of me understand his leap from “knowledge at a distance” to “then you too have met your teacher.”

  22. @ JS

    (1) My impression is that many studies have tested “knowledge at a distance” and found it without a speck of evidence. If so, why to you feel it is possible?

    (2) I think his jump was:
    (a) only very skilled meditators can see thru space and time
    (b) all skilled meditators would be a good teacher
    (c) if a skilled meditator sees information about YOU then there is a fantastic karmic connection and thus that person is the Karma-machine’s choice of a teacher for you.

    All three of which I think are nonsense — each loaded with their own bad presuppositions.

  23. OK, that seems like a plausible thought process, and I agree that all three are nonsense. Personally, I doubt that the teacher even had a “knowledge at a distance” experience.

    Unless the woman grilled him on the spot and asked, “What bad thing, specifically, are you talking about?”, it seems likely that he simply knew she had bad associations with France. That information could be easy to gain through observation. For example, he may have observed her eyes scanning the room and saw an involuntary tightening of the muscles when her eyes fixed on something related to France. The type of people who have mastered such techniques are usually con artists and charlatans — usually not the type of people you want as teachers.

    On the other hand, I’ve had enough personal experience with “knowledge at a distance”, myself and with family members, to not doubt it. I’ve never believed in the “supernatural”, and I was pretty scientific about keeping detailed journals and sharing predictions with friends before confirming, so the only plausible theory for me personally is that the phenomena are real, and we just don’t fully understand the underlying naturalistic mechanism.

    I tend not to talk about my experiences, because there is no point. I once had a kid almost beat me up when I told him about a lucid dream I had, because he said there was no such thing as lucid dreams, and that I must be mocking him. People get even more hostile if you talk about “knowledge at a distance”. Clear thinking goes right out the window:
    1) People assume that you’re talking about something “supernatural”, and start arguing against magic
    2) People think you’re bragging about having some special powers
    3) People think you’re crazy

    To me, it’s not much different than if I had seen a meteor fall from the sky back in 1850. If I related the experience to other people, I would’ve been mocked and told how no study has ever concluded that rocks can fall from the sky. I might just say out loud, “Sure, maybe I was deluded” — there is really no point in trying to persuade people of something that none of us can understand. But in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking, “I know what I saw, fuckers. You’ll figure it out in 100 years or so”.

  24. @ JS
    Your last line was hilarious! I get that.
    Many studies have been done with people who claim to be able to gather “Knowledge at a Distance” (KD). None of them have been shown to do what they claim they can do. So, I would have to suspect:
    (a) the real wizards [you] just don’t make claims cause people beat you up.
    (b) the effect doesn’t work when tested [yeah, right]
    (c) KD only comes unexpectedly, you can’t make it happen

    Is that fair? (minus the hyperbole)
    Which of those do you feel it is?

    My mother-in-law calls 5-6x /year saying she had a preminition about her grandkids (our kids) — each time she has been wrong (Thank Krishna), but, damn it, someday she may be right and she will remember that as KD.

  25. Yeah, I’m convinced it’s (c), kind of like solar flares or the northern lights (or meteors). I think that the individual person has very little to do with it; it’s a larger and impersonal natural phenomenon, but people insist on projecting teleological explanations and get hopelessly confused. A woman might have a few veridical experiences early on, and then discover that such experiences have a payback in the form of allowing her to meddle in her children’s lives, so her subconscious starts manufacturing experiences. Because she believes that it’s something inside herself, she has no way of coping with non-veridical experiences, and starts rationalizing things in her mind via selective memory, superstitious attribution, etc.

    My brother in-law’s mother is one of these people (I have no idea if she ever had any veridical experiences to begin with). She’s constantly calling random family members with batshit crazy premonitions.

  26. HA! What are the odds of me telling you that your idea had the Burden of Proof on my post? Weird!

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