Everyone Has a Burden of Proof

The Reconquista Initiative

Presents…

Everyone Has a Burden of Proof

One of the reasons why this author calls ‘bullshit’ at the atheist’s attempt to avoid the burden of proof through his ‘lack-of-belief’ maneuver, is because, in the end, both believers and unbelievers alike have a burden of proof. In fact, no one who has genuinely contemplated the question of God’s existence can avoid the burden of proof. But how could this be given that it is normally understood that the person making the positive claim has the burden of proof for it, and since it is normally the theist who is understood as making the positive claim that God or gods (hereafter just God) exist, then the theist has the burden of proof (although some atheists also make the positive claim that God does not exist, and thus they accept the burden of proof for this claim). Well, the reason that every self-aware person has a burden of proof concerning the God-question is because when the right question is asked concerning God and His existence, then it can be seen that everyone—atheist, agnostic, and theist alike—has a burden of proof concerning this matter that they must meet. Now, before we get to what the ‘right question’ is, a few analogies are in order to set the stage for this discussion.

Imagine, for example, that you are working as a Detective (something that this author personally did) on, say, a sexual assault case. Furthermore, based on the initial complaint, you have a main suspect that you are looking at. Now, in such a situation, what most people think a Detective is trying to do is answer the question: “Did the suspect commit the sexual assault against the complainant?” But while this question is a good form of short-hand for the real question that the Detective is asking himself, it is not actually the real question itself. The real question is more along the following lines: “Given all the facts, evidences, reasons, and arguments gleaned and assessed after a thorough investigation, what is the best and most rational position for a reasonable person to hold—where ‘reasonable person’ is used in the objective, legal sense—concerning the claim that the main suspect sexually assaulted the victim?” Now, when looked at in this manner, note that whatever position the Detective takes, that position is a positive claim which would thereby have a burden of proof. For example, if the Detective holds that the evidence points to the suspect being guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then this position has a burden of proof. If the Detective holds that the evidence points to the suspect being guilty, but the evidence is weak and the Detective’s belief in the suspect’s guilt barely crosses the threshold of being a ‘reasonable belief’—in the legal sense—then this position also has a burden of proof. If the Detective holds that there is actually strong evidence to show that the suspect positively did not commit the sexual assault, then this position has a burden of proof. If the Detective holds that the evidence leans towards the suspect being innocent, but the evidence for this is weak and the Detective only holds this view very tentatively, then such a position still has a burden of proof. Additionally, if the Detective holds that the evidence is ambiguous, or is equally strong in both directions, and thus the Detective holds that the best position in this case is to neither believe (affirm) nor disbelieve (deny) that the main suspect committed the sexual assault, then he still has a burden of proof for this claim. So, in essence, if the Detective is a ‘believer’ (weak or strong) in the suspect’s guilt, or if he is “agnostic” about the suspect’s guilt—thereby neither affirming or denying it—or if he is a “disbeliever” (weak or strong) in the suspect’s guilt, all these positions have a burden of proof. And if the Detective claims to ‘lack a belief’ about which position is the most rational one to hold in this case, then not only is he being disingenuous—for he would naturally and unavoidably come to a hold one of the aforementioned positions after examining the evidence—but he would also be considered incompetent and would be removed from the case!

Note as well that if, say, two Detectives were investigating the aforementioned crime, and the first Detective came to hold the view that the main suspect was guilty, but the second one merely ‘lacked a belief’ in the main suspect’s guilt, the second Detective would still have a burden of proof for his lack of belief. Why? Because that ‘lack of belief’ specifically in the suspect’s guilt would stem from a positive belief concerning which position was the most rational one to hold in this case. So, for example, does the second Detective ‘lack a belief’ in the suspect’s guilt because he finds the evidence uncertain, and thus he cannot form a positive belief that the suspect is guilty? Or does the second Detective lack a belief in the suspect’s guilt because he positively believes that the suspect is actually innocent and has been framed? Either way, the second Detective, though technically lacking a belief in the suspect’s guilt, will nevertheless still possess a burden-bearing positive belief concerning the real question under consideration, which is, once again, the following: “Given all the facts, evidences, reasons, and arguments gleaned and assessed after a thorough investigation, what is the best and most rational position for a reasonable person to hold—where ‘reasonable person’ is used in the objective, legal sense—concerning the claim that the main suspect sexually assaulted the victim.” And lest it is thought that the ‘lack of belief’ Detective does not have a burden of proof in this case, this author can state—from personal experience—that if both of the aforementioned Detectives approached their supervisor and told the supervisor of their views, the supervisor would demand that both Detectives justify their positions and meet their respect burdens of proof; what the supervisor would not do is claim that the ‘lack of belief’ Detective need not say anything simply because he allegedly lacks a belief in the suspect’s guilt. And again, the reason for this is because, in the real world, both Detectives are answering the real question—namely, the question above—in a positive burden-bearing way, regardless of the fact that one of the Detectives might ‘lack a belief’ specifically in the suspect’s guilt.

Now, with the above in mind, consider another quick analogy. Think about the existence of aliens. Again, commonly, when it comes to this issue, the question that most people think is being asked is: “Do aliens exist?” But that is not the real question. Rather, once again, the real question is the following: “Given all the facts, evidences, reasons, and arguments gleaned and assessed after a thorough investigation, what is the best and most rational position for a reasonable person to hold—where ‘reasonable person’ is used in the objective, legal sense—concerning the existence of aliens?” And so again, note that if a person claims that the most rational position to hold about the existence of aliens is to believe that they exist, or to be agnostic about their existence, or to disbelieve in their existence, every one of these positions is a positive answer to the question under consideration, and thus every one of these positions has a burden of proof. And so again, ‘lacking a belief’ about the existence of aliens is all well and good, but that lack of belief does nothing to avoid the burden of proof for a self-aware person because the self-aware person will nevertheless still have a positive burden-bearing position concerning the real question under consideration. And this is why every self-aware individual would have a burden of proof in this case.

Finally, also realize that what is being described above is exactly the same thing that happens in a criminal trial. Most people think that a jury is meant to determine whether a person is guilty of the crime that he has been accused of committing, and, in common parlance, this is true. But, at a more fundamental level, the real question that a jury is answering is the same one articulated above: namely, given all the evidence and arguments, what is the best and most rational position for a reasonable person to hold concerning the question of the suspect’s guilt. And if the jury determines that the most rational position to hold is that the suspect is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then that, in turn, overcomes the presumption of innocence by tacitly answering the more common but imprecise question of whether the suspect should be considered guilty or not.

And so, by now, the connection to the question of God’s existence should be obvious. Most people, when they debate God’s existence, ask the question: “Does God exist?” But again, that is the wrong question. The right question is: “Given all the facts, evidences, reasons, and arguments gleaned and assessed after a thorough investigation, what is the best and most rational position for a reasonable person to hold—where ‘reasonable person’ is used in the objective, legal sense—concerning the question of God’s existence?” And when asked in this way, it can once again be seen that essentially everyone—atheist, agnostic, and theist alike—has a burden of proof concerning this question. Also note that having a positive position concerning this question does not need to be done verbally or overtly; after all, the mere fact of being an atheist or a theist or an agnostic is a tacit answer to this question, and it is an answer which thus has a burden of proof. And again, lacking a belief concerning God’s existence does nothing to avoid the burden of proof that stems from the right question under consideration, for every self-aware person who has genuinely contemplated the question of God’s existence gives a positive answer to that question, and thus has a burden of proof to meet concerning it.

Finally, note that the reason that it is contended that questions like “Did the suspect commit the sexual assault?” or “Does God exist?” are ultimately the wrong questions to ask is due to two reasons.

First, such questions are clear ‘true or false’ questions, and yet given the power of skepticism, it is beyond human ability to answer such questions in a certain or complete sense. This is why, for example, the highest standard in a court of law is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, not ‘beyond any doubt’, for the latter standard is unachievable in nearly all cases given the human condition. And this is why the court, in a criminal trial, does not ask a juror to determine whether something is categorically true or not, but rather whether it is true beyond a reasonable doubt, which is another way of saying whether a reasonable person, based on the evidence and arguments, can believe something to be the case without having a reasonable doubt about that belief. Now such a belief would be a very strong and nearly certain belief, but it would not be an absolutely certain one. And so this is one of the reasons why, in these cases, the right question concerns what is the most rational position for a reasonable person to hold in light of the evidence and arguments, not whether something is absolutely true or not.

Now, the second reason why questions like “Does God exist?” are the wrong questions to ask—although they are perfectly fine ‘short-hand’ questions—stems from the fact that sometimes, the most rational position to hold is, in fact, a false position. For example, say that a person was murdered by an expert assassin who made the murder look like a suicide; furthermore, say that there was absolutely no evidence that showed that the person’s death was anything but a suicide—the person was already suicidal, had a history of suicide attempts, etc. Now, in such a case, the most rational position to hold concerning this matter would be that the person committed suicide, even though this position is false. Nevertheless, everyone would be rational to hold this false position for there would be no way to know that it is false (barring a confession by the assassin). Furthermore, given the human condition, and thus given the impossibility of knowing the absolutely true answer to this question (see the first point above), then, for all intents and purposes, the real question that we are interested in is what the most rational position for a reasonable person to hold is concerning this matter, not what is absolutely true concerning it; indeed, for while we know that the latter question is ultimately unanswerable, we also know that the former question is readily answerable, and so the focus, in real life, is on the former question not the latter one. Indeed, in real life, while truth is sought after, and while what is true and what is the most rational position to hold are often synonymous, sometimes they are not, and since we cannot, with certainty, state what is absolutely true, the fact is that in reality (like in a court of law), what we strive for are rational positions, not absolutely true ones. And so again, this is why, in the end, the right question to ask concerns what it is the most rational position to hold about a certain matter, not necessarily what is true or false about that matter. And because making any claim about what is the most rational position to hold about a certain matter—such as the matter of God’s existence—is to make a positive claim about it, then this is why, in the end, everyone has a burden of proof in such a case.

And so, the long and short of it is this: when the right question is asked concerning the issue of God’s existence, it soon becomes clear that no one can avoid the burden of proof concerning their answer to that question. And that is why, in reality, everyone—atheist, agnostic, and theist alike—has a burden of proof concerning the God-question.

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Anno Domini 2017 02 02

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam

 

2 thoughts on “Everyone Has a Burden of Proof

  1. Speaking as a self-described atheist, I think I can agree with your post, to a certain extent. If someone makes claim X, and I respond that I do not believe X, there is no evidence which I can offer for my statement beyond the statement, itself, since it refers to a particular internal state of my mind. However, if I say that I do not believe X because of Y, then I certainly agree that I have a burden of proof to support Y. Or if I say that X is incoherent or poorly argued, then it is certainly clear that I have a burden of proof.

    For example, if someone came to me with, say, the Fine Tuning Argument for God, and I replied that I believed the argument to be faulty, then I would bear the burden of showing why such an argument is faulty.

    Still, even if someone fails to meet their burden of proof, that does not imply that the contrary position is therefore true. Such a claim warrants its own burden of proof.

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