Burden of Proof?

By | February 1, 2010

You and I walk into a room in which there are a bed, a chair, a small table with a vase of flowers on the table. A quick visual and tactile inspection reveals nothing else in the room. We both agree on this. [This could be taken as the ‘neutral’ position.] I adopt this ‘neutral’ position as my philosophy: The room contains nothing but two people, a bed, a chair, a table and a vase of flowers. Affirmation of this premise is consistent with me functioning well (even flourish and thrive) in the room. You, on the other hand, agree with me on the stated list of physical things in the room, but you add another unseen, undetectable item, namely, a spirit with whom you claim “interaction.” This ‘interaction’ makes your stay in the room easier and meaningful. It has pragmatic value for you. But you’re unable to show me or others (who might join us in the room) that the spirit really exists. You cannot come up with any objective, neutral evidence to support your belief.

Who has the burden of “proving” his case? Is it the theist who claims that an extraordinary entity exists? (One example of an extraordinary entity is a supernatural being who relates in some ways to humanity and who is the ground for all reality,) Or is it the non-theist (atheist, agnostic, skeptic) who finds that there isn’t any clear indication of such an entity?
What is at issue here? The issue concerns the purported existence of an entity whose existence has not been shown to be a public, common reality knowable by all, including disinterested, neutral parties. If the existence of the deity were clear and well-grounded, there would be no issue, and no need for arguments purporting to prove the existence of the deity. Given that we do have a legitimate issue for rational minds, the burden of proof is on those who claim that a deity in fact exists.

Has anyone ever been able to provide unequivocal, objective evidence clearly supporting the proposition that a deity exists? The burden of proof is on those who claim to possess this evidence. They must show that there are neutral, objective grounds for belief in a deity.

Where is the neutral position?

Many theists and the believers in religious orthodoxy will deny that they have the burden of proof because they see the neutral position as being neutral between both the existence and non-existence of a deity. Accordingly, they argue that the skeptic has to make a case for nonexistence, in light of the nearly universal belief in deity.

(Of course, in a culture in which there is universal, or nearly universal, belief in a deity, the skeptic or non-theist stands out as a non-conformist; he is seen as standing outside the mainstream. In this context, most people might believe that the burden of proof is on the skeptic to justify his drastic non-conformity. On the other hand, those who conform by affirming a deity do not have to prove anything.)

(But in a pluralistic culture like ours, in which a significant minority do not believe in a deity, and among those who do believe, there are varying concepts of deity and ambiguity regarding the proposition that a deity exists, the burden of proof should not be on the skeptic.)

So we have the common view that the skeptic must make a good case for non-existence of deity before the theistic position becomes questionable. Should we give the apologists such an advantage in the “god debate”? I think not.

I will argue for an alternative notion of the neutral position. The key is the naturalistic standpoint: We ordinarily explain events in nature and society without invoking the mysterious, unknowable supernatural realm. Any reference to the supernatural realm is problematic and usually of no real help in explaining matters. [Does this beg the question?]

Is this really a neutral position?

Some apologists claim there is no neutral position. According to them, both the view of belief in a deity and non-belief require certain assumptions. Both positions require certain “faith”; i.e., presumption that a belief system is true.
Contrary to this, the rational skeptic will argue that belief in a questionable entity requires additional assumptions or basic faith, but omission of this belief does not. How would the argument go?
Let us start by admitting that, in order to make sense of our world, people generally start with certain assumptions or presuppositions. Some examples are

• the assumptions that generally the future will resemble the past (what we learned yesterday applies to today, and what we learn today generally will apply to tomorrow);
• that generally our perceptual experience is a good guide to things and happenings in our environment;
• that questionable claims must be supported by empirical evidence or well-grounded reasoning.
• that there is a difference between fact and fiction, common public reality, on the one hand, and fantasy or hallucinations, on the other;
• Something like the “Law of the Excluded Middle”; no contradictions allowed: something cannot both be and not be (in the same sense).

[There may be more; my list is just to give a flavor of the “faith” of the secular rationalist.]

It is reasonable to say that the most ardent defender of religious faith shares these assumptions with the rational skeptic. In order for anyone to operate successfully in the world, he must operate with assumptions (or unstated presuppositions) much like these. Even believers in gods, angels, demons, and miracles do not accept every claim that others make (especially when those claims oppose their basic beliefs); they apply tests of empirical evidence and reason to them, and may even reject them on this basis. And such believers also routinely reject the fantasies of disturbed persons and the hallucinations of drunkards and mentally impaired people. Hence, my claim that even believers in gods and demons use assumptions stated in the third and fourth bullets above.
It is a set of presuppositions like these that could be called the “shared faith” of our culture. But such shared faith does not entail the beliefs of a theistic religion; nor does it entail that our traditional religious beliefs are false. The “shared faith” is neutral between theism and positive atheism (the positive claim that there are no gods whatsoever).

But the naturalism of the rational skeptic does not need any additional assumptions. A world view that omits belief in a deity is an adequate world view. In the same sense the world view of most mature people that omits belief in Santa Claus (as an actual individual) is an adequate world view. By “adequate” here I mean that the set of beliefs are good enough to enable a successful, intelligent, moral existence.
The world view of the rational skeptic is not as non-conformist as our ‘Christian’ culture suggests. Millions of people in different cultures and historical periods have operated successfully on this basis. The fact that others in theistic, religious cultures find it “impossible” to do the same does not show that a naturalistic world view is not workable; it only shows that under certain cultural, historical conditions, entire cultures have been persuaded that it is unworkable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *