Apr 26, 2014

Burden of proof

If you have ever engaged in a discussion with theists, chances are that you've bickered over where the agnostics belong. I have seen atheists claim them as their own, theists claim that atheists are embarking on a double standard by not offering proof of their belief, many agnostics claim the high ground, some atheists offer some distinction on weak vs. strong atheism, and the ensuing chaos ends up producing nothing.

I too have indulged in this numerous times, and have employed various arguments, including the strong vs. weak atheism. I have also argued against the other pablum "atheism is a belief," and "atheism requires faith too," or the more outrageous "atheism requires more faith than theism"

This post endeavors to state my position, and will be continually refined as warranted.  So, without further ado, some definitions:

Atheism.  I can refer to several dictionaries, and relying upon, and Websters online I find these to encompass the ones relevant for such discussions.
  1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
  2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
  3. disbelief in the existence of deity
  4. the doctrine that there is no deity
To be sure, there are certain variants of the above, and other archaic ones that atheism to be synonymous with wickedness or ungodliness. The latter two are arcane, even the most fervent godmongers do not bother with them. 2. and 3. are somewhat ambiguous in that they could interpret disbelieve to either mean do not believe or believe that there is not and are the common source of weak atheism and strong atheism, respectively.

So for the purpose of a discussion here, I'll stipulate that atheism is either the belief that there are no deities, or the lack of belief that there are deities.

Agnosticism. Again, from the same sources, we have an agnostic (or agnosticism, the position held by an agnostic) defined as
  1. a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.
  2. a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not
  3. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.
  4. an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge.
  5. a person who is unwilling to commit to an opinion about something.
The last two are not relevant to this discussion, the first two are. While the first definition is technically more accurate, the second is the one in use more often.

Thus, I'll stipulate that agnosticism is the position that it is unknown if deities exist.

The definitions of god, gods, Gods, Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu etc. are restricted to the terms as they are used in the Bible, Qur'an, and other religious texts.  They do not refer to "uncaused causes" or the god of deism, or any deity that is not worshiped in a house of worship like a temple, mosque or a church.

Lastly, one who is not a theist is a non-theist. An atheist is a non-theist, as is an agnostic.

If you disagree with these definitions, please exit to your right. You cannot contribute or learn from this discussion.

Now, consider the question: "Do you believe in a god/gods/God?" I contend that if you answer "yes," you are a theist. Otherwise you are an atheist. In the context of this question, atheists and agnostics are the same. Why? Atheists either do not believe there is a deity, or they believe that there is no deity. Agnostics cannot believe in something they do not even acknowledge knowing. Agnostics believing in a deity while simultaneously claiming that it is unknown if one exists is basically incoherent, for what does it mean to profess belief in something false, or known to be not justifiable?

Consider a second question: "Do you think that a god/gods/God exists?" This is a different question. But again, if you answer "yes," you are a theist.  But if you do not answer "yes," then we cannot decide whether you are an atheist or an agnostic, since it'd depend on your answer. "No" would mean that you are an atheist, "I do not know" would mean that you are an agnostic.

Consider a third question: "Does a god/gods/God exist?"  This is a still different question. Again, answers or "yes" and "no" confirm you to be a theist or an atheist respectively.  "I do not think so" would still make you an atheist, "I do not know" confirms you are an agnostic, "I cannot say that God does not exist, but I do not believe that he does" still leaves one to be an atheist.

I present these because the context is important.  In all cases though, an affirmative response places you as a theist.

So, who has the burden of proof when it comes to demonstrating that a deity exists? Suppose we are discussing whether Jesus exists, and the theist in question is a Christian. Obviously, the claim "Jesus is alive" did not arise from the non-theist. So the burden is on the Christian, because without that claim, there is no claim that says "Jesus is not alive." The position of the non-theist with respect to Jesus is no different than the position of, say, Aristotle.  Did Aristotle have the burden of proof to show that Jesus does not exist?  Surely he could not have believed in someone who was not even born in his time.  

This can be further understood with another trivial example. Suppose that a person today makes the claim "I saw Elvis, he is alive," with respect to the musical legend Elvis Presley. If I disbelieve that claim and state "No, Elvis is not alive," do I have the burden of proof?  Is that burden of proof equal in respect to that of the claimant of "Elvis is alive"?

Consider the claim "There is no God."  Does it have a burden of proof given what God is understood to be as above (as described in a religious text)?  I have had weak atheists who concede this saying something to the effect of "You cannot prove a negative," or "it is illogical because there is a small probability that a god could exist."

Clearly that is wrong on many levels. Gödel's incompleteness theorem basically rules out proof of existence just as much as it rules out proof of non-existence or a disproof of existence. Besides, if I said, "You owe me a million dollars," would you pay up, simply deny it by saying "I do not owe you a million dollars," or would you be consistent and say "I do not believe I owe you a million dollars because there is a small probability that I might"?

Why the hedging of bets when it comes to deities?

This is why the "small probability" response is a non-starter. Without providing evidence of likelihood, "small probability that God exists" is just as much of a claim as "(100 percent probable that) God exists" or simply "God exists."  You are asserting that there is a non-zero probability without showing the existence of this number.

So, "God does not exist" has no burden of proof as long as "God exists" has not been proven. Now if you are scientifically inclined, you already know this. Science does not prove a proposition. It simply proposes a theory that gains strength to different levels of acceptance, or is rejected.  The key point being, science is provisional, and is evidence-based.  Proof is elusive, and relevant only in mathematical or logical propositions.

Yet we routinely make claims of negatives: "The dog is not here," "The car is not in the garage," "There is no ten foot tall giant standing in my living room," "You do not have seventeen heads," "A unicorn does not exist in my attic," "Dracula is a mythical creature" etc.

In the matter of theism, "God exists" is a premise.There is no valid proof being offered for it. I'd settle for evidence though, since that is all I need for accepting other propositions in my life, and the burden of providing such is the theist's if it important to him or her that I should accept that premise. So when I say that a theist has the burden of proof, I do mean that the theist has the burden of providing the evidence that supports his premise.

My position: "God does not exist. Of course, it is possible that I am wrong, but all available evidence so far is not sufficient in the least to establish so."  This is not much different than what a Christian would say with respect to the deity known as Allah: the allegedly one and only true god who has no offspring. Clearly, he is not Yahweh, the god of the Christians, since Yahweh allegedly has a son: Jesus.

Prove yourself right, if you are a theist. You have the burden of proof. By that I mean provide the compelling evidence that this god of yours, exists.


Scott Rollison said...

"Agnostics cannot believe in something they do not even acknowledge knowing."

This flies in the face of the entire field of epistemology, which formulates knowledge as a type of belief. Specifically it is a belief which is also true and you have justification in believing it to be true. It is a justified true belief. Thus you can believe in something without knowing it (by recognizing you lack justification).

In this vein agnosticism, dealing only with knowledge, is a subset to theism/atheism, which deals with belief.

This is actually a more fruitful definition. After all, what is the value in highlighting a subset of atheists that claim to know? While, commonly, agnostics may be found within the population of atheists, there are agnostic theists out there.

Scott Rollison said...

I wish I could edit...

In this vein agnosticism, dealing only with knowledge, is **separate from** theism/atheism, which deals with belief.

Shripathi Kamath said...

Knowledge is justified true belief. So agnostics believing something that is not knowledge is possible if it is either not true, or not justified. Given that they claim that it is not knowable, they are committing to one of those two positions and know it. They are either not justified, or know it to be false. A belief under either of those cases is not tenable.

Shripathi Kamath said...

I need to clarify this, because my focus is not on knowledge vs belief, and it is raising tangents,

Yolita said...

Of course one can believe something without knowing it, so strictly speaking Shripathi's phrase was indeed wrong as stated. But I think he's capturing the spirit of agnosticism better than the diagram in the link you provided.
That classical definition of knowldege as justified true belief (which is by no means accepted by the totality of the philosophical community, it must be said) refers to propositional knowledge and I think it is very useful to focus on the proposition rather than on the subject believing it. So if 'p' is a proposition and S is a subject, when we say that S knows 'p', what we mean is that 'p' is true, S believes 'p' and 'p' has been duly justified. Of course there are many problems here: What do we mean by 'true'? What is a belief? What counts as adequate justification? But let's go with the simplest definition of belief: to believe 'p' is to consider 'p' to be true.
Now let p be the proposition "God exists"
An atheist would say: "I don't believe p", that is, "I don't consider 'p' to be true". Whether that implies that he believes not-p will depend on his underlying logic (i.e. whether he accepts the Principle of the Excluded Middle or not). That will make the difference between strong and weak atheism
An agnostic, according to the definitions (1) and (2) provided by Shripathi, would say: "I don't have an opinion as to whether 'p' is true or false, because it is unknowable". I think that's the spirit of agnosticism.
There may be, as the diagram in your link shows, an agnostic theist who says: "It's impossible to know whether 'p' is true or false, yet I believe 'p'", but I haven't met any of those. Usually people who believe 'p' claim that there is another kind of knowledge, very personal, accesible through inspiration and meditation, mystical. In the same way, I haven't met a gnostic atheist who claims to *know* that there aren't any gods.
So the diagram looks neat, but in fact it just adds labels that are not all that useful. They turn the discussion into as semantical one.
It reminds me of my communist youth, when we spent hours obsessing on what it meant to be a Trotskyist, a Maoist, a Titoist, a neo-Stalinist, a revisionist, a Marxist... :-)
In that sense, I think the emphasis should be on discussing who has the burden of proof, people who believe 'p' to be true or people who believe 'p' to be false. Independently of what we call them.

Yolita said...

I think you're right, that a belief under those circumstances is not tenable. That's why I don't think that there are any agnostic theists. At least I haven't met any, it would be a very difficult position to hold.

Agnostics basically claim that it is not possible to decide about the truth value of the proposition "God exists" because it's unknowable. So they don't believe it and the don't believe its negation.

Yolita said...

"Clearly that is wrong on many levels. Gödel's incompleteness theorem basically rules out proof of existence just as much as it rules out proof of non-existence or a disproof of existence."

I don't see the need to bring Gödel's incompleteness theorem here. It doesn't add to the discussion or to the point that you are making.

But I have to say that Gödel's incompleteness theroem doesn't rule out proof of existence, nor does it rule out proof of non.existence. In fact, in the proof of Gödel's theorem one gets to see a proof of existence and a proof of non-existence.

Gódel proves that any system that contains Peano´s arithmetic an which has a set of axioms of a certain kind, is incomplete. And this means that there is a formula which is true and non-provable in the system. So Gódel proves the existence of this formula in the best way one can prove existence: by exhibiting it, by constructing it.

One can use that construction to prove that there is no proof of the consistency of arithmetic, unless one is prepared to use much stronger systems, whose consistency is even more doubtful. And one proves the non-existence of the proof by reductio ad absurdum. That's the only way to prove non-existence: to show that assuming existence leads to a contradiction.

That's the beauty of Gódel´s theorem: it proves existence of certain objects, it proves non-existence of other objects and in 22 pages it destroyed 2 philosophical programs. As good a theorem as it gets.

But irrelevant here, sadly. :-)

Yolita said...

Sorry about the typos. I tried to type Gödel´´ and it came out as Gódel´´. :-)

Scott Rollison said...

"There may be, as the diagram in your link shows, an agnostic theist who says: "It's impossible to know whether 'p' is true or false, yet I believe 'p'", but I haven't met any of those."

I have. And I fail to see any basis by which I could argue that their belief constitutes knowledge!

Now, you say this is a pointless semantic distinction, but I disagree. I think the treatment of agnosticism as some sort of philosophical no man's land by which someone takes the best of both sides while eschewing the worst or - even worse - as merely a noncommittal atheist, misses the point of agnosticism.

Theism and atheism are statements about the existence of a god. Agnosticism is not. Agnosticism says nothing about whether a god exists, precisely because it makes the claim that we can't know whether a god exists!

I'll concede that this is tangential to the topic of this post, but this is something I see crop up from time to time and I think it's important to try and quash the misconception.

Shripathi Kamath said...

Ok, can it establish existence of God anymore than it can rule it out? The point being, your circle of existence requires a true proposition which cannot be proven with what is known in that circle. So if that is true for existence, you have no proof.

Shripathi Kamath said...

But that is not how most people refer to agnosticism, which is why I took the most favorable definition I could to reflect it being a position on knowledge, even if I expressed that statement incorrectly at first. Ask an agnostic that question. The fact that it is a position on knowledge and not belief does not change the fact that the agnostic cannot hold a belief on the matter. And what would such a belief be, if he insisted that existence is unknown.

Yolita said...

No, it can't. It cannot establish the existence of God nor can it rule it out, because it's not about that.

Gödel's incompleteness theorem states that any formal theory of arithmetic (with certain specifications, irrelevant here) which is consistent is incomplete, that is, there is a mathematical truth which cannot be proved in the theory.

This theorem has been misunderstood as saying something about knowledge. As if the theorem states that complete knowledge of arithmetic is impossible, as there will always be unprovable truths.

So one could extrapolate that if that happens in arithmetic, it happens in other fields and we should learn to live without expecting to be able to prove everything that is true. Worse, I even heard somebody say once, in a lecture, that Gödel's incompleteness theorem proves that knowledge is impossible!! Not at all...

That is not what Gödel's incompleteness theorem says. It is not about knowledge, it is about formal theories formalised in certain kind of languages known as first-order languages. The theorem is stating a limitation of those languages. So one might take it as an indication that we should try to find more powerful languages, languages with more expressive power, so that one could find axioms in those languages and define theories capable of proving all arithmetical truths.