The Burden of Proof Thing

One of the classic fallacies recognized in philosophy is the argument from ignorance: You can’t prove it, therefore it isn’t so. Or just as often, you can’t disprove it, therefore it is so.

There are truckloads of things in this life that none of us can never know for sure: whether or not your boyfriend/girlfriend is contemplating cheating on you, whether a student actually did his own homework, what country your jeans were made in, whether some hacker has been looking at your private correspondence, whether Shakespeare actually did all his own writing, whether there are other planets with intelligent life on them in the next galaxy over…  On all of these things we sometimes have to take scientific or strategic wild-assed guesses, or SWAGs for short.

For any given SWAG that we operate on the basis of, there will almost always be some smart ass who will harass you about the matter, saying, “You can’t prove that!” or “How could you possibly know?” And of course in the final analysis many times we can’t know. Nor is it always possible to determine what level of doubt is reasonable even. Is the best policy to charitably believe what we are told as coming from good faith investigation unless proven otherwise, or is it best to assume that self-appointed authorities are full of crap unless they can prove that they know what they are talking about in some clearly repeatable scientific sort of way?

John Locke prescribed a particular method for determining which premises were trustworthy and which weren’t in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: First one is to collect evidence concerning the matter in as thorough and unbiased a way as possible, corresponding with whatever empirical data is at one’s disposal. Second, one is to weigh the probability of the proposition in question based on that evidence. And then finally one is to adopt a level of confidence on the matter which corresponds to the certainty that the evidence at hand provides. But this unjustifiably assumes that such a thing as neutrality is possible on such matters. Locke was a devoted Protestant theist, and as such he automatically assumed that his belief that the New Testament was reliable was perfectly rational, but that the Catholic doctrine of trans-substantiation wasn’t. Not being able to see how his perspective contained just as many biases and unjustified assumptions as the next guy’s made his system a lot less useful than he thought it was.

Of course the most controversial SWAGs these days have to do with the foundations of religion. Is there a God out there? Is there a spiritual realm beyond the material world we live in? Do the scriptures of my religion flawlessly, or even somewhat reliably, show us what God expects of us? Suffice to say, final rational proof on any of these questions, of the sort that demonstrates that all who disagree with you are idiots, is not forthcoming on any of these questions. So the question then becomes, whose responsibility is it to prove that they are right, with the assumption going against them until they are able to do so?

If it is important to you to convince the people of his village that this young man does not get the advice he offers from the spirits of their ancestors, it's up to you to prove it.

If it is important to you to convince the people of his village that this young man does not get the advice he offers from the spirits of their ancestors, it’s up to you to prove it.

Let me start laying out my own views on this matter with a view that most westerners will agree with fairly readily: If I’m trying to take power over your day-to-day life and convince you that you need to change your pattern of living to conform to my tastes, or if I am trying to convince you that the authority structure which I have decided to submit myself to has to be the one that controls your life as well, the burden of proof falls on me. This does not mean that either the religious or the non-religious assumption has the higher moral ground; it merely means that the party which is attempting to limit the behavior of others has the responsibility to explain why their behavior must be limited. If I am telling you that you should not be allowed to smoke in public places, it thus falls to me to prove that it would be harmful to others if you were to exercise the freedom to smoke as you please wherever you happen to be. If I want to insist on you being required to salute my flag, it is up to me to prove that this ritual plays a valuable and irreplaceable role in creating a sense of national solidarity and our shared cultural values will be less reliably realized if you fail to do so. If I want to prevent you from performing your preferred prayer rituals in some public space, it is up to me to demonstrate that these rituals cause significant harm or loss of freedom to others. In each case, the one who would take control over the other has the burden of proof to establish why the limiting of the other’s freedom is necessary.

This does not relate to the bigger religious questions of the existence of God or the spirit world or the reliability of some given faith, however, unless those views are being used as a means of attempting to take control over the lives of others. It must be acknowledged that religion has frequently been used for such purposes, and that such thinkers as Machiavelli strongly recommended the practice even; but that does not mean that this is part of the basic nature of religious belief in general, nor does it mean that religious perspectives are more liable to be used as the basis of coercion than non-religious ones. If anyone would care to make such a claim, the burden of proof is on them. It takes more than anecdotal evidence from Khomeini’s Iran and Calvin’s Geneva to prove such a case, especially when we have Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia on the other side of the balance. But in the case where an Islamist party is campaigning to make the closing of businesses for daily prayer times as a matter of civil law, and that women should be fined for indecency of they show too much leg or cleavage in public, then yes, the moral burden of proof falls on them to demonstrate that there is a need for such laws. If they are basing these laws on an understanding that there’s a god out there who gets seriously pissed when things are not done so, it becomes their responsibility to prove such a proposition to the satisfaction of any skeptics who will be required to live by such rules.

This too needs to be qualified, however. Complete consensus on moral and legal matters is a rather unrealistic standard to hold any society or system of government to. Just because not all skeptics can be satisfied does not mean that governing beliefs are inherently illegitimate, be they based on religious or any other ideology. There is still a practical value in the level of conformity embodied in the adages, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” and “When insane, do as the sane do.” The concept of human rights was introduced as a means of limiting the extent to which the majority can exercise power over minorities that they don’t like, but within those limits there is a fair amount of room for the standards that the community operates according to to be set by the principles of the majority, be they secular, deeply religious, nominally religious or agnostic. The point I am making is merely that the act of using an ideology as a means of controlling others is a factor that, philosophically speaking, causes someone to take on a certain burden of proof. In cases where neither religious nor secular ideas are being used as a means of usurping control over others, neither takes on a moral burden of proof in this regard.

So then in terms of establishing mutual understandings about underlying principles of reality for purposes of philosophy of science or applied ethics, how should we go about looking at these matters?

When it comes to the philosophy of science, actually, in the way it is practiced today this is somewhat of a mute question. Science is, in practice, a communal understanding of how we can go about fruitfully investigating various aspects of the dynamics of the material world. Whether there is a spiritual realm beyond this is sort of a moot issue as far as the scientific investigation itself goes. Just as when you are investigating the proper techniques of French cuisine you don’t need to take ice hockey strategy into consideration, so when you are doing most forms of science the potential existence of a spiritual realm is not particularly relevant. The exceptions are when we are trying to discover scientific causes for things that seem easier to understand in non-scientific terms, like why people heal faster from sickness and injury when they feel loved, or how we can determine whether or not people are capable of exercising moral choice in their actions. For some this also includes questions of the origin of life and consciousness, and the claims of different religions to be able to explain such things in non-experimental ways based on concepts of divine revelation within their faith. In these cases, when religious believers wish to impose their religious understandings on the process of investigating our material universe and theorizing about its dynamics and origins, they certainly do take on an extraordinary burden of proof in doing so. Likewise pure materialists who wish to demonstrate that there are in fact no important questions about life as we know it that cannot be answered in scientific terms take on a particularly heavy burden of proof in making such claims. Overall though, this field is not necessarily any more burdensome on religious people in terms of proof issues than politics is. The practice of scientific investigation is not one that needs to take a stand on the existence and dynamics of the spiritual realm one way or the other.

In the realm of personal ethics –– determining what I must do in order to think of myself as a “good person” –– there is so much disagreement regarding the underlying principles of what it is that makes particular actions right or wrong that the question of God’s role in the whole matter can easily get lost in the shuffle. It would be fair to say that whether or not there is a God, all of us suffer and benefit from a combination of nature and nurture when it comes to the “gut reactions” that determine more about our moral behavior than our ethical ideals do. That leaves each of us, if we want to be rationally ethical in the way we life, with a personal burden of proof to ourselves in terms of finding grounds for believing –– in “good faith” –– that the ideals we claim to believe in are true, useful and sustainable. Sometimes, we all must admit, we get a bit lazy about this process –– doing whatever feels good at the moment, or naively believing what our priests or cultural gurus tell us without stopping to think things through. Or like Locke himself, we chose to believe that the beliefs we were raised with are fundamentally rational and objective, even if in practice we should know better.

In my maybe not so humble opinion on the matter, there’s a lot to be said for being humble on purpose in this matter. We need to recognize that we will make mistakes and we need to believe that doing the best we can with what we’ve got will end up being worth something in the long run. Believing that there’s a just but merciful God out there evaluating the whole mess we get ourselves into but being ready to accept us in spite of ourselves when we cry out for his mercy is the best way I know of to go forward with such things. I have my reasons for believing that this is an honest thing to believe, but even if I’m wrong it’s still more functional than most. If I’m right about the basic things then the God out there is big enough where he doesn’t need me to defend his honor or to prove to others how great he is, and ultimately it’s him that’s in charge of judging everyone else, not me. If it turns out that I’m wrong, well I’ve done my best to be fair and honest about things, so I just have to hope that that counts for something.

Yet some want to prove to themselves, and those around them, that in some abstract sense their approach to the metaphysical principles they base their beliefs and morals on is in better faith than the next guy’s. It would be unfair to say whether this practice is more common among theists or anti-theists, but the most recent examples of such that I’ve seen have been tentatively presented from the anti-theist side. In particular there’s this one by my virtual friend James.

James has this thing for abstract logic, so to look at the question in good faith he wants to consider it in the most purely abstract terms possible: thinking of the question of the existence of God(s) entirely separately from any cultural preconceptions whatsoever. That in itself is a rather problematic premise since our minds really don’t work that way; but moving on, his best effort at a purely abstract argument for starting with the assumption of the existence of God is that given all of the mutually exclusive definitions possible for divinity there would seem to be pretty good mathematical odds that one of them might exist. This, however, boils down to a fruitless game of perpetual disputes over definitions, not providing anything worth basing ones further contingent beliefs on. The argument he offers in turn for starting with the assumption that there is no God is that the more carefully you define the nature of the sort of god you are will to accept as God, the further you decrease your odds of finding such an entity “out there.” Thus it may be safest not to assume that there is such a thing “out there.”

I’m frankly not sure how this relates to the real comfort and sense of purpose that some get from believing in God, and the sense of freedom and open possibility that others get from not believing in gods. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone’s starting default position on the subject is actually going to be set without any reference to these existential emotional factors. We obviously become what we receive the most reinforcement at becoming in these matters. If our primary experiences of religion are negative, we learn to avoid all that such religion stands for. If our primary experiences of religion are positive, we learn to cling to those beliefs as a key part of our frame of reference in shaping our personal identities. Clearly there is more to the cognitive validity of various religious beliefs than just the cultural conditioning factors, but the power of these factors is foolish to deny for those on either side of the question. This will set the de-facto default setting that each of us in fact has to work with; the rest is tactics in the power struggle between these default settings.

So what it comes down to is this: if you need me to accept your premises as grounds for our interaction, the burden of proof regarding the validity of your premises lies with you. If I need you to accept my premises as the grounds for our interaction, the burden of proof lies with me. If we can interact without having to agree on the matter, neither of us shoulders a burden of proof. And as long as we can accept that the other has certain rights regardless of how much or how little she agrees with me, the risks involved in being in the minority of convictions on such matters is manageable. And if each is secure enough in his/her convictions so that we don’t act as though the truth of the matter might hinge on whether or not we win the argument or a holy war on the subject, these bitter arguments and holy wars over such matters can be kept to a minimum.

And if you can’t accept that, it’s up to you to prove me wrong.  🙂



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Filed under Epistemology, Human Rights, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Tolerance

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