The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Shifting Burden of Proof, example: Atheism

I thought I had archived something like this here before, but when I just went to refer to it for an email exchange, I couldn't find it, so here's a fresh expression.

When someone bears the burden of proof and when they get the benefit of doubt is not related in any essential way with whether the claim is affirmative or negative. First, it’s not perfectly clear there is anything substantive in the distinction between affirmative and negative for two reasons. A. Every (litteral) affirmative is logically equivalent to a double negative. Standard logic texts have all kind of exercises converting statements to and from various positive and negative forms. B. Though *statements* can be affirmative or negative, it’s not clear *propositions* can be. Propositions are the cognitive or conceptal or meaning contents expressed by statements in language. Each proposition corresponds to a state of affairs, to a possible way the world could be. You can express atheism in the language of “There is no God” but it might be (at least roughly) logically equivalent (in context) to say “Everything is finite”. At the very least, this shows that a negative can entail a positive, and every theory is responsible for the verification of all the (relevant) positives it entails, if there is anything substantive to the distinction between positive and negative propositions.

Second, assuming there is any relevant distinction between affirmative and negative claims, even then there is no necessary connection with burden of proof. It’s simply a matter of background evidence, and this is often encoded in society. Epistemology has substantive sociological aspects (See the most recent work of Richard Feldman, for example). Here is an illustration. Consider the following claim.

NP Pluto does not exist.

This statement is ambiguous. “Pluto” can name a planet (dammit!) or it can name the god of the underworld (or a goofy Disney dog). So let’s disambiguate.

NP-P The astronomical object once considered the 9th planet by many and still considered so by the sane does not exist.

NP-U The god of the underworld sometimes referred to as Hades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon does not exist.

If there is any substantive distinction between positive and negative statements, these are both denials. Yet while NP-U is a default position, NP-P is not. NP-P runs against our background information, so if someone asserted it, they would be in need of defending it. NP-U is the other way around. It would be the *denier* of NP-U that would need to bear the burden of proof.

The above is sufficient to show that the burden of proof bears no essential relation to content (unless, perhaps, you happen to be Adam!). And for reasons similar to those that apply to the disambiguations of NP, it is, if anything, the atheist who bears the burden of proof, since it is the minority position among the relevant experts. When we survey the experts, in fact, it’s not even close. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, (Hegel), and Newton begin the advance. Darwin was also a theist, though he had some doubts at times, Einstein was a kind of theist, maybe a pantheist. They are both interesting cases. But the people who are best trained at the intersections of science and theology or philosophy and theology or all three are almost always theists: Polkinghorne, Stephen Barr, Francis Collins should be in there, though he’s not as heavy a hitter. I am aware of no one on the planet with the combined philosophy-science-theology equipment as Alexander Pruss, Peter van Inwagen, and Richard Swinburne. Adolf Grunbaum has some training in both science and philosophy, but there’s just nothing like that triumvirate. I know and like several contemporary atheists who also know a good bit of science, but, honestly, it’s a pretty lopsided affair. Atheism is, and should be, on the defensive, just as it always has been.


At Monday, January 16, 2012 8:05:00 AM, Anonymous Morgan said...

Such a great article it was which tandard logic texts have all kind of exercises converting statements to and from various positive and negative forms. In which Propositions are the cognitive or conceptal or meaning contents expressed by statements in language. Thanks for sharing this article.


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