While I’m criticizing Austin Cline, I also want to say something about his article on burden of proof in the context of the atheism vs theism debate. Again, I have nothing against Cline, and in fact he brings up several points that I agree with:
A more accurate label would be a “burden of support” — the key is that a person must support what they are saying. This can involve empirical evidence, logical arguments, and even positive proof.
The “burden of proof” is not something static which one party must always carry; rather, it is something which legitimately shifts during the course of a debate as arguments and counter-arguments are made.
The part I disagree with Cline’s assertion that the (initial) burden of proof “always lies with the person who is making a claim, not the person who is hearing the claim and who may not initially believe it.”
This leaves open the question of who has the initial burden of proof when both people are making claims. For example, what if the theist claims there is a god, and I claim there is no god? According to Cline, atheism refers to people who make no claims about gods, and thus atheists don’t have the initial burden of proof. However, I am part of the subset of atheists who positively claims there are no gods, so where does that leave me?
In my analysis, burden of proof is the answer to three different questions:
- Who wins if no further arguments are made?
- Who should win if no further arguments are made?
- Whose turn is it to advance the argument?
1. Who wins if no further arguments are made?
If no arguments are made, it is easy to see who will win: absolutely nobody. Everybody will just continue to believe the things that they believed before. An absence of argument leads to the status quo. Thus, you could say that the person with the burden of proof is the person who wants to change the status quo. If I want to persuade a theist, and the theist doesn’t really care, guess what, I have the initial burden of proof.
2. Who should win if no further arguments are made?
If no arguments are made, it is harder to say who should win. Imagine that you are an external observer to an argument, and you have to decide who wins purely based on the arguments presented. And then nobody decides to present any arguments. How should you decide?
Your decision can only be guided by heuristics. For instance, Occam’s razor suggests going with the simpler theory. A world without wizards is simpler than a world with wizards, because all that magic stuff is rather complicated. (Which are more complicated: gods or wizards? In my humble opinion, gods.)
From a Bayesian perspective, you’re judging prior probabilities. For instance, the prior probability of wizards is fairly low, and the prior probability that there are no wizards is fairly high. Thus, the side that believes in wizards has the burden of proof. Note that (contra Cline) it doesn’t make a difference whether I believe there are no wizards, or if I simply lack any belief in wizards. The burden of proof is the same.
3. Whose turn is it to advance the argument?
The trouble with burden proof as discussed so far is that nobody wants it. It becomes a way of avoiding responsibility. I say, “you have the burden of proof!” and you say “no, you have the burden of proof!” and we get nowhere. Therefore, I want to present a perspective of burden of proof where it’s not considered a burden. Basically, if you have the burden of proof, that simply means it’s your turn to speak.
The trouble with atheist vs theist arguments is that different people believe in a lot of different gods, and for many different reasons. Usually when I discuss with a theist, I don’t know beforehand what particular god they believe in, or what particular arguments they prefer. Thus, it makes sense for the theist to go first, unless they really want to hear my refutation of the Ontological Argument Nobody Ever Makes (which is a real thing that I do).
That theists have the burden of proof is not a disadvantage, unfortunately quite the opposite. I don’t know where to start when arguing whether gods exist. Gods: less plausible than wizards. And there’s the problem of evil. Your turn.