Saturday, November 6, 2010

Burden of Proof: A New Perspective?

I was thinking the other day about the burden of proof. It seems that no one wants to bare it. Many atheists claim that they don't shoulder the burden of proof because "you can't prove a negative". Some theists claim that they don't hold it because you can't prove something that is metaphysical (based on the assumption that only things that can be decisively measured can be "proven").

I have to say that I'm skeptical of the "you can't prove a negative" excuse. Not because I don't believe it, but because if that is true, then no one can prove anything. First, that statement is self-defeating (it is a negative). Second, any positive statement can be reworded to be a negative statement (example: "God exists." vs "God does not not exist."). Also, negative statements may be reworded to be positive statements (example: "God does not exist." vs "Atheism is true"). Another way of putting it would be say that anytime we state that "something is true" we are also saying that "something opposite is not true". Both statements say the same thing, only difference is whether it is how it is stated...if one cannot be proven, then the other can't either. However, if one can be proven, then both can be.

Anyway, I've come up with a couple different perspectives that I think my help with the whole "who has the burden of proof" controversy. If nothing else, maybe this will be something to consider. I'm going to assume that you are familiar with my previous posts "The Case for the Cumulative Case", "The Power of the Cumulative Case" and "Positive and Negative Arguments."

Perspective 1:
Those who claim to narrow the number of possibilities hold the burden of proof.
This is assumed in a court of law. Burden of proof lies on the prosecution because they are positing one single explanation of the evidence; while the defense may posit any number of explanations.
This is assumed in science. When a new theory (that claims to explain something) is proposed, the promoters hold the burden of proof. The theory is trying to narrow explanations of the phenomenon to that theory from the original number of, at least, 1+(that theory), which is a greater number than that theory by itself.

Perspective 2:
Shifting Burden of Proof:
Cumulative Case: If a theory can consistently explain all data presented, opposing theories now possess the burden of proof.
Assumed in a court of law: Burden of proof is shifted to the defense when the prosecution provides a consistent theory of guilt. The defense may either attack the validity of the evidence (a negative argument- but not very persuasive by itself) or provide an alternative theory that also consistently explains all the presented evidence (a positive argument- neither very persuasive by itself). The defense is expected to show why the prosecution's argument fails, but added a positive argument helps to bolster the defense.

Burden of Proof begins with those who make a claim to limit options. When evidence is provided and shown how the theory explains all of it, the other side may take one of three strategies:

1. Show how the evidence provided is invalid, thus demonstrating how the burden of proof was illegitimately shifted to them
2. Show how the theory does not actually explain a (or many) piece(s) of evidence provided, again demonstrating how the burden of proof was illegitimately shifted
3. Accept the burden of proof and provide an alternative theory that accommodates the evidence provided.

Objections to Synthesis:
Occham's Razor- (first presentation) "the simplest explanation is assumed; less is simpler than many; therefore the theory that does not limit bares the burden of proof". Occham's Razor presupposes the second perspective above: (second presentation) "the simplest explanation that accommodates all the evidence..." Also, science does not operate on Occham's razor as initially presented here, neither does a court system. They both operate on Occham's Razor as properly understood (the second presentation).

Atheism vs Theism: Where are we in this process now?

Burden of proof started with atheism (fewer options for existence of the universe). Atheists have only recently been able to distribute (not shift) to the theist the burden by positing the multiverse (perspective 1- the theist and the atheist now possess the same number of possibilities, meaning they both hold the burden). This was most recently offered as an alternative to the God hypothesis by Stephen Hawking. The theist may either:

1. Show how the burden has been illegitimately distributed to them, by demonstrating the multiverse impossible (philosophically and/or scientifically).
2. Accept the new burden of proof for a minute, and shift the whole burden back to the atheist by explaining that God and the multiverse are not incompatible therefore may be added together; therefore the atheist is still limiting the options; therefore the atheist now solely possesses the burden of proof once again.
3. Both 1 and 2 can be combined to ensure the burden of proof remains on the atheists.

Now all this is not to say that theists should avoid the burden of proof altogether and not be presenting their own arguments (both positive and negative). That is the exact opposite of what should be done. However, we can avoid the "burden of proof" while still being able to present proof. It is similar to avoiding battle yet preparing for it anyway (you shouldn't put "all your eggs in one basket").

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