Saturday, March 14, 2009

Science and the Burden of Proof

Some people claim God exists.  Many scientists say, "the burden of proof is yours to show that's the case."  Well, I have a few things to say about this kind of rhetorical shove-off.

I see it this way (and I'm open to correction): if science wants to place the burden of proof on the person making the positive assertion, and simultaneously administer empiricism as the rational standard, then it should uphold that same standard to prove what it denies -- deity. Thus, if a scientist wants to deny the existence of any form of deity then one of two things need to happen:

1. S/he must admit his/her denial of deity is an honest leap of faith in the absence of evidence;

2. Provide evidence for the lack of a (or all) deity.

But I think you'll agree with me when I say that neither of those two options is really satisfactory. Not only because we agree that scientific empiricism is not the only way to know something, but because the sword cuts both ways: theists cannot hold to faith while simultaneously administering dogmatisms as the rational standard, and all the while deny the use of empiricism as a form of proof.

The conversation has to move past the bifurcation of "nonoverlapping magisteria" (Stephen J. Gould) and into a more wholistic appraisal of reality. Neither science nor religion needs a magisterium; we need useful conversation, and helpful perspectives from each other in the reality that we both share.


Anonymous said...

Sorry Chris I disagree with you about the burden of proof.

I feel the burden of proof should always be toward the person stating that something exists. Simply stating something is so is not does mean it is.

I could give you unlimited numbers of examples demonstrating that. But just think of dragons, unicorns and purple people eaters.
If I went up to you and said that purple people eaters (PPE) were real, that does not make it so. if I then state that I must punch everyone that I willingly touch in the nose as a greeting or the PPE would eat them, then you would think I was insane. If I then went ahead and punched everyone in the nose I would be locked up.
All this without anyone having to prove the PPE does NOT exist.

See the line of logic in that?

Christopher said...

"Sorry Chris I disagree with you about the burden of proof."

No need to apologize. Many people disagree with me on this point. And I'm okay with that.

"I feel the burden of proof should always be toward the person stating that something exists. Simply stating something is so is not does mean it is."

And this is just where the notion of the 'burden of proof' breaks down. If you think the burden of proof "should always be toward the person stating that something exists", where is the proof for that? Simply making a claim does not make that claim logically applicable, or even practically useful.

On the other side of your thinking, stating something is so does not mean it isn't. Also, stating something isn't does not mean it isn't.

Anonymous said...

Are you asking me where is the proof that proof is needed?

Can you give any examples, not based on faith, that can support the idea that something exists without proof of it's existance? I know I can not think of anything like that.

stating something is so does not mean it isn't

huh? Of course. Stating something is so without proof is a hypothesis. Proving it is so makes it so.
With that line of thought, god is an interesting hypothesis :)

Also, stating something isn't does not mean it isn't

Interesting mind bender here.

Of course this statement is true. If I said people did not exist, then obviously that would be false. if I said PPE's did not exist then it would be true.
I think proving a negative is harder, impossible completely if you are trying to prove something that does not exist actually doesn't.
Think loch ness, big foot, sasquatch, etc... Those are all things that in all likely hood do not exist. it is , however, impossible, to prove that they do not exist. This is why the believers can hold on to their beliefs despite the fact there is no proof of the existance of those things, at least not irrefutable proof. Personal accounts and photographs, especially extremely poor and rare photos are not proof.

Using the fact that it is impossible to prove something that does not exist actually does not exist to prove it does exist is a very poor arguement. This is also why the burden of proof lies on proving that it does exist.

Edward said...

Try accepting the burden of proof and presenting an evidence based argument for the existence of other minds, or for your not being a brain in a vat.

If you think that's easy, you haven't thought about it enough.

But I'm perfect rational to believe in both.

So evidentialism is false.

Anonymous said...

Can't prove a state of being other than through direct observation, which would be simple enough.
Min alone though is simply a word used to describe those observations and the manifestations of thoughts and emotions.
Basically if you want me to prove something exists, then try telling me what you want me to prove.

Try looking at
An tell me which of those definitions you would like proof about.

Personally i think you are trying to ask me to prove the existance of other brains.
that is simple through observation. MRI's CAT scans, endoscopic probes, etc can all see living brains in specimens. Through autopsies we can examine the brains in deceased specimens.

I can not take the burden of proof for your hypothesis about brains in vats. Again you are asking me to prove something that does not exist does not does not exist. Any proof about something that does not exist is very difficult or impossible to gather.
i refer you to my previous examples about Nessy, Yeti's etc...

You second question is basically the same as asking to prove Yeti's do not exist. Not possible.

As for as dealing with things that do not exist, all we can do is disprove or refute the erroneous proof that the believers concoct.

Christopher said...

This is getting us nowhere. And that's exactly my problem with the burden of proof.

Let's reduce this problem to a very simple common denominator. If all postive assertions require the one making them to provide proof for validity, then proof must be provided for that assertion. Put simply, the burden of proof is not provable. Hence it is essentially a waste of time. If two people want to enter into a conversation about topic A, and they have opposing opinions, then stating only one of them has to prove their point renders the conversation useless from the get-go. Either those two people want to have a conversation, or they don't. But taking up some middle-brow pseudo-philosophical stance about who is charged with proving this-or-that is a muzzling tactic.

You may as well argue ad verbosium. Or pick any other fallacy you may enjoy justifying to the point of acceptance in normal parlance. If you want to have a conversation, then do so. If you want to shift the responsibility by claiming 'proof' as the sole legitimizer of rational discourse, then find someone else who will agree with that brand of special pleading.

Edward said...

I wasn't asking you to prove anything like "Yeti's don't exist". I was bringing up external world skepticism. External world skepticism can't be answered with evidential arguments of any kind. It's a standard issue in the philosophical literature.

I don't believe in the external world on the basis of evidential arguments.

Similarly, I don't believe in God on the basis of evidential arguments.

Of course I also don't believe I ate eggs this morning for breakfast on the basis of evidential arguments.

Knowledge of God is a bit like knowledge of the external world and a bit like my knowledge of my breakfast.

BTW - I hope you aren't under the impression that God is merely one more thing out there populating the universe. Put another way, I hope you don't think God is like a Yeti. If God were like a Yeti then, yes, evidential arguments would probably be the way to go. Could it be that your confusion can be traced back to this mistake?

Christopher said...


Good source on External World Skepticism right here. Read, learn, and inwardly digest.


Thank you for bringing this epistemological viewpoint to the fore. I've never heard of it, and will do some reading up to familiarize myself.

Anonymous said...

Of course does not truly exist, it is a faith, a belief. knowing that we can also surmize that proving that god exists is impossible, and as I stated before proving something that does not exist truly doesn't is impossible.

Sorry Ed, I'm not that confused.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Ed, i missed a line earlier.

Is it perfectly rational to believe you are a brain in a vat?

I would think the only way for that to be rational is if there was some proof. Even some anectodal glimpse of proof of that being true.

Chris what do you mean, the burden of proof is not provable?

Burden of proof is not a tangible thing that needs or can be proved.

I see this mostly as a way to play with words so that people can believe in irrational things with no proof and rationalize that belief. At least in regards to this conversation.

If you just want to talk about burden of proof when it does not relate to proving existance of a thing then that is different as well.

It is possible to prove you did not do something that never happened for example. if it was your responsibility to prove that you did not do the thing that never happened then the burden of proof is on you.

In the legal system burden of proof is placed on the plaintiff. That is what makes most sense and is most fair. It is a rational choice to place burden of proof there. if the burden of proof was placed on the defendant then you would get some rediculous cases and a lot of innocent people would be found guilty.
For instance, it would be very difficult for me to prove that I was not a peeping tom watching my neighbours during the night. Impossible actually.
So if the burden of proof was on the defendant then how could I prove that i have never done that?
Burden of proof is still there and does not need to be proved, that does not even make sense to try to prove burden of proof.

Edward said...

If God doesn't exist then, yes, successfully proving that God exists will be impossible. Who'd disagree with that?

I gotta say, I'm pretty sure you are confused.

Under most all accounts of knowledge, knowledge = true belief + {fill in the blank}. So the fact that belief in God is a _belief_ doesn't mean it ain't knowledge. Belief in God seems like a necessary condition for knowledge of God, right? If you want to find out if I know God, you'll want to find out some things about my belief in God.

Anonymous said...

Confused about what?

Are you simply saying I am confused because i have come to different conclusions then you?

Okay, now I do admit it. I am confused about your conclusions about my state of confusion.

One thing I love about this blog and these comments is that I do a little research and find all sorts of neat things.

For arguement for god's existance does commit a fallacy of logic, an appeal to ignorance.

of course you will likely just come back and say that i am confused and instead of discussion and responding to me just keep with that line of communication as well.

Knowledge=true belief + n does not mean that n is true.

Further I say belief is not a pre requisite for knowledge.

One can have knowledge of astrology, I know I am a Leo. I can read my horoscope and have knowledge of how that affects my life. That does not equate to it being true or me believing in it.
That of course can be extended to just about anything.
For something to be true you also need proof that it is true. Not just knowledge that it is true.

Of course you could consider much of the proof to be based on faith, since you can not have first hand proof of a lot of things.

For example one can believe that burning is the rapid oxidizing of a material. This is known to be true because it has been proven many times over by many differing people.
You can believe this because the proof is overwhelming and because you were taught that.
Of course if I was taught god exists while I was in church. Just like I was taught about oxidization in school. So how do I decide which lessons are true and which are false? Proof.
Scientific conclusions are easy to believe in, to a degree. A method is carefully laid out and if followed you can prove it yourself. I guess belief in god is the same way, procedures are laid out as to how to think and behave and if followed you go to heaven.
The difference is I can prove oxidation and have witnessed it many times over through things like OXY-fuel cutting, and snuffing out candles, etc...
The proof of god though is a little more difficult, you gotta die. A little harder for me to believe in since I can not prove the hypothesis of god's existance without dying.

Sorry I have a tendency to ramble.

So what am I confused about Ed?

Edward said...

You say you have knowledge of astrology. Then I presume you have true beliefs about astrology. That doesn't mean you believe in astrology. But you must have beliefs about it. See what I mean?

You know that P, if and only if you have true and warranted belief that P.

You can know things which you don't have proofs for. Lots of mundane things, too. Like what you had for breakfast, or that there's an external world. Or that you are presently reading a computer screen.

Anonymous said...

I can also prove all those mundane things.

True belief can have everything or nothing to do with proof, or rational thought.
An arachnaphobe believes that spiders are scary without rational thought or proof.

When you talk about beliefs, are you really talking about an opinion? Belief in it's existance? validity? etc... What do you mean by "true belief"?

Edward said...

Suppose you know that P.

Well, then you'll have to believe that P. (Right?)

And it'll have to be true that P. (Right?)

And something else. There's a lot of debate about what exactly this 'something else' is. But everything else I've said is completely standard in the literature.

As I remember, I brought this stuff up because you dismissed belief in God because it is belief. But all knowledge is belief, right? It is not merely belief, but it is at least belief, no?

So maybe you're interested in some other facts about my beliefs about God? How else could you have an opinion about whether or not my beliefs in God count as knowledge?

For now, try this on for size: my belief in God is not the fruit of argumentation, nor is it decisively backed up with evidential proofs. But it still counts as knowledge, as far as I can tell.

You're probably wondering, "How can this be???" We can talk about that if you like.

Anonymous said...

It can be because you take it on faith. you feel it to be true whether rational belief or not.

Much like many mental illnesses, not that I am saying faith is a mental illness :)

Suppose you know that P.

Well, then you'll have to believe that P. (Right?)

And it'll have to be true that P. (Right?)

This is sounding like you are talking about an appeal to ignorance. Fine, it is still classified as a fallacy.

Knowing something does not make it true.

No matter how many ways you try to say it, no matter how long your explaination is, no matter how convaluted your logic is. Knowing something still does not make it true.

For centuries scientists, alchemists and general public KNEW that everything was made up from he four elements. They could prove it through experimentation.
But this knowledge does not make it true.

People once knew the world was flat. You could stand on the shore and see the edge of the world. if a ship sailed away it fell off the earth, or at least appeared to from shore.
That knowledge did not make that true.

It was once known that the sun traveled around the earth. That knowledge does not make it true.

examples abound about the fallacy of an appeal to ignorance. Or if I am using that term wrong, forgive me it is a new term for me, not a new concept.
Another way of saying it is you are wrong. Knowing P and believing P does not make it true.

Edward said...


I said _suppose_ you know that P. Suppose it!

Not suppose you _think_ you know that P. Suppose you _actually_ know that P.

On the supposition that you know that P, then P must be true! If you won't admit that, then forget it. This is getting embarrassing. It is unthinkable that you'd actually disagree with me on this. This much is absolutely standard.

Anonymous said...

So everything you know is true?

Does that also mean that everything everyone knows is true?

Christopher said...

If I understand correctly what Edward is saying, Toshido, all knowledge -- whether true or not -- begins with a belief that something can actually be known. Hence the foundation of knowledge is belief.

Of course, the argument is much stronger if we take Edward's supposition that you actually (i.e., irrefutably) know that P. At that point, you absolutely must -- inescapably -- believe what you know, which is P.

The denial of that much, Toshido, also begins at the same point: you believe that belief is not the foundation of knowledge.

And when I use the word 'belief' -- and I'm pretty sure when Edward uses the word 'belief' -- I'm not referring to religious faith. I'm talking about the ability to trust that something is so; that P is as it is.

Anonymous said...

Wow.... So we are arguing that one must believe it is possible to know something...
Sure we can agree that you must believe you can know something, sure why not. But that does make it true.

Suppose you know that P.

Well, then you'll have to believe that P. (Right?)

And it'll have to be true that P. (Right?)

The Eddie is saying that knowing P = believing P = P is true

I can not and never will agree to that. Regardless of how much Eddie thinks this is standard and how embarrassed he gets.

I can certainly accept that you must believe something is true. There are plenty of examples of where belief plus proof was assumed as true but later proven false, i.e. flat earth, 4 elements, etc...
This is why I will never accept that knowing something is equal to it being true.

I never assumed the use of the word belief to be synonymous with faith. Religious or otherwise.

Edward said...

Properly speaking, you can't know falsely. You can _think_ you know something, and be wrong. But then you didn't actually _know_. You only believed, and your belief was false.

All the examples of so-called false knowledge you've offered were merely false belief.

In order to know, you have to at least believe.

But then your belief also has to be true.

And even true belief isn't enough for knowledge. What if your belief just accidentally turned out to be true? That wouldn't be knowledge. That would just be a lucky belief.

So some people say you also need a justification for your belief, or maybe the process by which the belief was formed must satisfy certain conditions. Or something like that.

I know I'm typing right now.

I believe I'm typing right now. And this belief was produced by my perceptual faculties functioning properly in an environment conducive to the proper function. They've furnished me with true belief.

In my view, I know I'm typing whether or not I have an evidential proof or some sort of argument. Just try to produce an argument. It won't be easy.

I'm guessing that this is where you really disagree with me. I'm guessing that, in your view, knowledge is true belief based on arguments.

My problem is this: I can't think of any good reasons to think this is right. And if it is right, you know very very few things, if any.

Christopher said...


What you perceive to be proof can also be questioned. For example, 'proof' is only another set of data/information/perceived input used to confirm a hypothesis (which consists of information in combination from previous understandings). This means that what you take to be proof is under the same scrutiny as what you consider to be knowledge. That is, proof is based on a belief that what constitutes certain proofs is true. So again, we're back to all knowledge, including the proofs this-or-that knowledge is based on, is founded on belief.

psa said...

"If two people want to enter into a conversation about topic A, and they have opposing opinions, then stating only one of them has to prove their point renders the conversation useless from the get-go. "

Bzzzzt. Wrong.

If two people have opposing opinions on a matter, the burden of proof lies with both of them to prove their positive assertions. If you believe that ponies poop lilacs and I believe that ponies poop grenades we are both making positive assertions that can be tested through observation, the collection of evidence and examination of same.

If you say there are godzilla sized chickens that live in Oakville, that could be proved through presentation of physical evidence. But I cannot prove that there are no such creatures, or leprechauns or deities or ghosts because proving a negative assertion fails at the point that any positive evidence might be beyond our ability to record or measure or that the phenomena is simply too rare, we just missed it or we went on Wednesday when the super chickens were out of town.

I choose not to believe in a god because the concept makes no sense to me. I can't prove that there is no god because I have no means by which to prove something that I might have simply overlooked, missed or am not equipped to observe. But... the positive assertion that there is indeed a god should be provable by some form of empirical evidence, a repeatable test, that returns a positive proof. Belief is not proof.

psa said...

"So again, we're back to all knowledge, including the proofs this-or-that knowledge is based on, is founded on belief."

By that reckoning, nothing can be true and everything is up for question. Which throws a wet towel on the flames of faith. However, I can be fairly certain that if I wrap my head in newspaper and set the paper on fire there will be discomfort, heat and so forth. Where scientific method becomes valuable is the repetition of the experiment and the recording of results. Plays hell with cold fusion, psychics and other as yet unproven ideas.

If everything about experience falls at the feet of belief then you can't prove that children exist if you choose to believe otherwise and nobody can prove differently. With four kids of your own, the hundreds of pounds of diaper fillings might be compelling evidence regardless of belief. By the same token, choosing not to believe in god is as good as disproving that there is such a thing/being/entity/divinity.

Edward said...

"Belief is not proof."
Agreed. Who'd disagree?

"By that reckoning, nothing can be true and everything is up for question."

If belief is at the root of all knowledge, then nothing can be true? You're going to have to lead us through the reasoning behind all this. There's huge gap between premise and conclusion, no?

Proofs of various kinds presuppose belief. They take you from premises you believe in to a conclusion. If you don't believe in the premises, the proof won't be rationally persuasive. Now you might be able to produce another lower argument to rationally persuade someone to belief in the premises. But at the bottom of it all, you'll be believing something on the basis of it seeming true to you, and it cohering with your other basic beliefs, or something of the like. (Perceptual beliefs, for example, are basic beliefs, not believed on the basis of arguments.)

You can never be rationally persuaded by any argument with premises you don't believe in. Successful arguments make their conclusions seem true to you, and so invite you to _believe_ in their conclusions.

Belief is utterly mundane and non-spooky. What are you afraid of?

psa said...

"If belief is at the root of all knowledge, then nothing can be true? You're going to have to lead us through the reasoning behind all this. There's huge gap between premise and conclusion, no?"

actually edward, i am countering that point as posited by christopher. the fact that you choose to believe something does not make it true, your selective reading is your own issue. further, i did not say that nothing can be true. reread my words and don't try to put your falsities in my mouth, that is a disingenuous and dishonourable form of argument. i think you have confused rationality with subjectivity but then you'll never be persuaded by arguments you choose not to believe in. most rational of you.

Edward said...

Well, what can I say? I directly quoted you. I just reread your words. Help me out. What did you mean?

BTW - Do you disagree with my discussion of how argument presupposes belief? What specifically do you disagree with?

Christopher said...

Hello psa!

you stated the following:

"If two people have opposing opinions on a matter, the burden of proof lies with both of them to prove their positive assertions."

I agree. That is another outcome of stating the 'burden of proof'. I overlooked that in my initial post. Thank you for pointing it out.

However, your comment requires both debaters to have a positive assertion. The original scope of my article suggested one debater had a negative assertion. And it's this difference that is in question, at least in my mind.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that no-one can prove a neagative because that would be false (e.g., 'I'm not wearing red shoes' can easily be proved by looking at my black shoes). The negative assertion that can't be proved -- and I could've been more clear about this -- is a universal negative (e.g, 'no gods exist' cannot be proved by any amount of information).

So the points that I'm making are these:

1. Our particular epistemologies demand we move forward in dialogue despite what each of us thinks is the necessity for proof;
2. The 'burden of proof' has to be proven to be necessary on its own if cross-epistemic systems are to benefit from each other.

Christopher said...

Hello again, psa!

I stated the following: ""So again, we're back to all knowledge, including the proofs this-or-that knowledge is based on, is founded on belief."

You responded with: "By that reckoning, nothing can be true and everything is up for question. Which throws a wet towel on the flames of faith."

I think I see where you're going, but I could most certainly be wrong. In any case, it would seem to me that my position lands squarely in the I-know-it-to-be-true-to-the-best-of-my-ability-and-available-reasons department. Or, more formally, in epistemological agnosticism. (Please don't confuse that with a declaration to agnosticism. I'm not agnostic except in regards to the limitations of knowledge). That is, I think there is an end to how and what we know (not in scope, but in the details), and that 'end' lands us in the position to choose to carry on in a sort of pyrrhic skepticism, or faith.

So saying, if, according to you, my position puts a "wet towel on the flames of faith", wouldn't it also choke the breath from skepticism? And this is where I come to a different conclusion than it seems you have. If I state that knowledge is founded on belief (i.e., believing that what you know is commensurate with reality), then I'm stating by implication that what can be known cannot be known absolutely (in scope or in details). Thus we arrive at the juncture of skepticism and faith. I choose faith because I believe it to be wholistic and realistic; you choose skepticism, perhaps for the same reasons. I don't know.

What I do think I know, is that we've both chosen based on what we believe to be true, and not necessarily on what we know absolutely to be true.

**I wonder if fellow Christians reading this are going to flame me now! I've just said some pretty unorthodox things. lol...

Edward said...

As far as I can tell, there is no burden of proof--at all--when it comes to assertions. Ever.

I can assert whatever I want, whenever I want.

But assertion is not persuasion.

The burden of proof only comes into play when we're dealing with persuasion.

If I don't believe that P, and you want to rationally persuade me that P, then you have to make it seem to me that P. You are taking on that burden. You can make it seem to me that P by presenting an argument, or simply showing me that P.

But suppose who want to hold me accountable to a truth that I claim not to believe. Suppose you want to hold me accountable to the truth of the Holocaust, and I say "I don't believe it! Persuade me, or I'll continue to call Hitler my hero!" That's when things get dicey.

In our society, the truth of the Holocaust is so obvious that, if you want to deny it, it's up to you to argue for its falsity. Otherwise, we'll expect you to model your behavior as if it really happened. But that's matter of good manners and being realistic about what you can expect to get away with.

So I say no one has the burden of proof when it comes to assertions, whether positive or negative. If they want to persuade anyone, then of course they better take on that burden. And if they want to hold someone else to the truth of that assertion, they _might_ need to persuade.

Christopher said...


I hadn't considered that angle of the issue before. Very interesting, indeed. Thank you for pointing that out.

psa said...

interesting choice of example edward, a tad controversial. assertion versus orthodoxy. i don't have the time to address everything right now but i'll attempt to come back to this discussion as soon as possible. cheers.