My take on burden of proof

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:

  1. Who wins if no further arguments are made?
  2. Who should win if no further arguments are made?
  3. Whose turn is it to advance the argument?

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How to argue

Correct argumentation is obviously a very broad topic, and I cannot hope to present any sort of ultimate guide on it. My goal here is more humble: to present principles that I personally have found useful, especially in the context of arguing on blogs and in the comments. This was initially an update of something I wrote in 2014, but I ended up rewriting the whole thing.

If you’d like to see any particular point expanded out, please express your interest!

1. Identifying Goals

90% of everything is crap, and that goes for arguments too. It is worth considering what you want in an argument, and whether the argument in front of you fulfills your purpose. Arguments that do not fulfill your purposes should be dropped. You could be spending that time on more productive arguments, or for that matter playing video games.

Truth vs Power

Some arguments are about finding truth, and others are about acquiring power.

Truth is the same for everyone, so truth-seeking arguments should in principle be cooperative. You don’t want to win every truth-seeking argument, you only want to win the ones where you started on the correct side. Being good at arguing means being good at losing arguments when you are wrong.

Power-seeking arguments, on the other hand, are competitive. The winner of such an argument usually gains legitimacy, or perhaps decision-making power. Since few people willingly give up power, these kinds of arguments rarely result in any participants being convinced.

Most of this post addresses truth-seeking arguments rather than power-seeking ones.
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No causal comparison

cn: sexual assault and victim blaming are discussed briefly as an example.

Often we observe some phenomena or trend, and we wish to explain what caused it. Different people can disagree on the cause. Or perhaps they agree on the causes, but disagree on which causes are important. Bold claim: There is no objective way to assess the relative importance of two causes.

I’m making a purely abstract argument, but I’ll offer a few provocative examples:

1. Is a given human trait caused by genetics, or the environment?

2. Is personal success caused by hard work, or by lucky circumstance?

3. Is terrorism caused by politics, or by religion?

4. If a woman is victim of sexual assault, is that caused by the perpetrator, or by risky behaviors on her part?

5. Is our knowledge of physics the result of scientific research, or is it the result of the continuing absence of an earth-destroying supernova?

Among these examples, we’d obviously like to say that some causes are more important than others. We are welcome to say so, but there is necessarily an element of subjectivity in our words.
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Rational ideals

This post is for the Carnival of Aces, whose theme this month is “Questioning your faith“.

Leaving religion was a rather unemotional process for me. There was no catalyzing event. I was interested in skepticism. I learned about philosophical arguments for God, and found them unpersuasive.  Without any real urgency, I spent a whole year thinking to myself, “Gee, there’s really no justification for belief in God, and there may never be.” At the end of the year, I considered myself an atheist.

Unlike leaving religion, leaving straightness was a far more emotional experience. And yet, I tried to treat it the same way. “Am I straight or am I asexual?” was an intellectual puzzle, to be approached under the same rational ideals.  It is not clear to me, after the fact, that this approach was a good idea.  Here I give a taste of my thought process.
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Review: Hits and Mrs.

Content note: this is a spoiler free review. The book depicts rape, which is briefly discussed here.

PZ Myers brought to my attention to Hits and Mrs., a new novel by Karen Stollznow. The book is about Claudia Cox, and her efforts to expose her ex-fiance Gil Godsend, a famous psychic medium. This book was of particular interest to me, because of its topical nature, and because PZ mentioned its negative view of organized skepticism. Although, as it turns out, the negative view of organized skepticism plays only a very minor role.

The first thing that struck me about the book was its similarity to TV series Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones is a former superhero, currently working as a private detective specializing in cheating husbands. In the series, she faces off against an abusive ex slash supervillain with the power to control people. In Hits and Mrs. Claudia Cox is a former skeptical activist, currently working as a private detective specializing in cheating husbands. In the book, she faces off against a manipulative ex slash villain with the power to read people.

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