Sunday Meditations: Teapots Around the Sun, Part 3

The other posts in this series are here and here.

The last thing I wanted to note in the whole discussion about burden of proof in general and the example of the Cosmic Teapot in specific is that the use of a teapot in the example actually plays a role in the assumptions we have about the example and how much leeway in the burden of proof we’re willing to grant someone.

If I tell you that there is a teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars, the fact that I have posited a teapot raises a number of questions.  We know teapots are man made objects.  We know they do not end up in space without assistance.  So, if I say, “There’s a teapot that orbits the Sun between the Earth and Mars,” what I’m really saying is, “A man-made object with no means of propulsion that has never been in space has somehow ended up in space and, rather than collide with anything, is now in orbit.”

You see, I’m not merely asking you to believe in the existence of something I can’t prove; I’m asking you to believe in a very unlikely chain of circumstances surrounding something whose existence we take for granted.  At minimum, someone had to make that teapot and someone had to get that teapot into space.

Note what happens if I change the example to this: “There’s a small asteroid that orbits the Sun between Earth and Mars.”

The existence of this asteroid is no more well-founded than the teapot.  On the grounds of debating existence, we have just as much warrant (i.e. none) for believing that the hypothetical asteroid exists than the hypothetical teapot exists.  The difference is that we know asteroids are commonly found in orbit around things, they are not manufactured objects on earth factories, and they do not propel themselves into space.  The use of a teapot actually makes the situation more implausible because of the host of assumptions that statement can’t bear.  It raises more questions.

If I say that there’s an asteroid orbiting the Sun between the Earth and Mars, the burden of proof is still on me, but notice how the change in assumptions affect how the burden of proof would function in actual reason and dialogue.

This is why Russell doesn’t say, “What if I said there was a ball of ice and dust that had coagulated in orbit between the Earth and Mars?  Would you accept such a thing on faith?”  Well, yes, actually most people probably would, or offer only the most minimal of objections.  It is the fact that he posits a -teapot- that makes the whole scenario incredible to a listener and almost necessarily draws a challenge.

In Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation, he says:

The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.

In fairness, Harris doesn’t see how the hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous because he isn’t very smart and produces horrible arguments.  But the reason the hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous is because a hairdryer carts in a load of assumptions and questions that are absent when the object is “prayer” or “meditation” or “a purely subjective spiritual experience.”

For instance, we build hairdryers and we know that none of the components assist in communicating with anyone, much less a divine being.  In the long history of varied human experiences with the divine and spiritual or mystical practices, not a single one engages with hairdryers and finds the experience successful or fulfilling.  To say, “My hairdryer allows me to talk with God,” raises all kinds of questions that are intimately bound with the nature of a hairdryer and the assumptions we have about them.

Now, let’s be clear that none of this establishes that prayer is a valid vehicle for talking to God, either, or that anything is.  The point is that the use of a hairdryer actually -does- make the situation more absurd because of what we know about hairdryers.  It would be absurd to say, “I use my hairdryer to talk to my aunt in Mexico,” too, but that has everything to do with the hairdryer and nothing to do with whether my aunt exists or whether she can be communicated with (she does and can, for those keeping score at home).

So, if I said, “I use my telephone to talk to my aunt in Mexico,” I still have the burden of proof, but you are likely to give me a pass on it because of our common assumptions about telephones.  If I said I used a hairdryer to do it, not only do I have the burden of proof, but I also have to account for how a hairdryer could possibly facilitate such a thing in the face of everything we know about hairdryers.

In the atheism and theism discussion, these kinds of absurd analogies are very relevant, because most of their absurdity relies on the fact that we know the object in question and the assumptions associated with it, and this clouds the point.  A known object in a situation that is incongruous with everything we know about that object adds tons of layers of objection and complexity into the situation.  To compare a “teapot in space” existing to the question of God existing, or to compare talking into your hairdryer to prayer is fundamentally problematic, because teapots and hairdryers actually increase the unlikeliness of those scenarios.

But God, should He exist, would be a being unique to our experience with His own unique properties and assumptions.  Prayer has no inherent element of its nature that would keep it from being a communication tool with a divine being, much unlike a hairdryer.  That doesn’t mean that God exists or that prayer works; it does mean that Russell’s Teapot and Harris’ Hairdryer are inherently flawed analogies, and just because those situations would require a hell of a lot of explaining and proof does not necessarily demand that another object in their place would demand those same things, because in those examples, you aren’t merely proving something, you are having to overcome everything we know about them.

Obviously, I believe that God exists, and I believe that prayer is a thing that God can listen to.  My beliefs are not evidence, and if someone wanted evidence for those beliefs, I would have the obligation to provide that evidence or admit that they are baseless but help me get through the day (or, apparently, are vital to humanity’s evolutionary survival and cannot be functionally discarded).  I can offer those things; whether anyone finds them compelling or not is another story.

But my beliefs are not intrinsically absurd.  They do not have the credibility problems that an orbiting teapot or oracular hairdryer have such that I have the additional obligation to overcome an established body of knowledge.  They do not fly in the face of everything we know about their objects, and a discussion that attempts to be honest and fair on both sides needs to be honest and fair on both sides.



Sunday Meditations: Teapots Around the Sun, Part 2

In the last post in this series, I talked about the burden of proof and how the person making the assertion has the burden of proof even if that assertion is a negation.  This is not to say that theists should never assert that God exists or that atheists should never assert God does not exist; we just need to realize that even if you assert something is not the case, you still have the burden of proof.

One thing that complicates the discussion of who has to prove what is the concept of status quo.  In other words, if most everyone around you agrees something is true, you don’t have the burden of proving it even though, technically, the burden of proof would be yours in another context.  The people around you absorb and diffuse that burden of proof, sort of like when a singer does a stage dive (and, like a stage dive, disaster results when the performer misreads the audience).

For instance, if a four year old boy tells us that grass is green, no one would say that he should prove that except for very idiosyncratic parents.  We all know that grass is most commonly green, we know about chlorophyll, we know how eyeballs work when they perceive color, etc.  The boy may know none of these things, and yet, we would all accept his statement as fully warranted.

If a trained botanist said that healthy grass was actually a bright red, we would expect proof.  A trained botanist knows far more about grass than a four year old boy, but the botanist’s statement goes against our collective understanding.  The audience does not give him a pass on the burden of proof.

This is a very useful feature of discussion.  When you’re explaining how to fix a motorcycle’s piston timing, you do not also want to spend time defending your theory of language that establishes that when you say “motorcycle,” we mean a vehicle and not the game of baseball.  We rely on this collective body of assumptions and knowledge all the time – moreso than we are often consciously aware.  It is this very body of assumptions that Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til and the like referred to as “presuppositions.”

The sharing of presuppositions depends largely on context.  There are very few assumed truths that all people everywhere actually share in common.  Not that there aren’t any, just that this body of truths you can depend on everyone to agree is true is smaller than you might think.

Take the laws of logic, for example.  In the West, our laws of logic come primarily from Aristotle and includes handy features like the Law of Noncontradiction, truth tables, the Transitive Property, the necessity of a conclusion’s truth if the propositions are valid and sound, etc.  If anything should be shared assumptions, it what counts for valid reasoning, right?

Until you get to the East.

It was a very eye-opening experience for me having a Korean exchange student in my symbolic logic class.  We would talk about how definitions should not use the word they define, and she would argue that the word itself was actually an ideal definition.  We would talk about the Law of Noncontradiction, and she would say that it is better to hold contradictory assertions if that better approximates the truth of a situation than it is to try to modify those assertions to be noncontradictory in ways that distance them further from the reality they describe.  These are common features of Eastern epistemology.  It turns out that an uncomfortable amount of the “Laws of Logic” turn out to be “the best way to reason if you value what we value.”

So, if you’re debating in the West, and you point out that your opponent has contradicted themselves, you are well on the way to winning that debate.  If you’re in the East, you might as well have pointed out that your opponent made statements.  This is the kind of fun stuff the military, diplomats, policy makers, and teachers deal with on a regular basis.

This is not to say that Eastern ways of thinking are better than Western ones or that all logic is arbitrary or that everyone in the West thinks one way and everyone in the East thinks a different way with no overlap.  It’s simply to illustrate that, when it comes to what is true or assumed to be true, the “status quo” can be a lot more localized than we might think.

To bring this around to conversations between theists and atheists, what we consider the status quo is of large importance, because, at least in my experience, Christians tend to assume the existence of God is a default, and atheists tend to assume the non-existence of God is a default.  Where the weirdness creeps in is that most atheists recognize that most people are theists of some stripe, so part of the conversation gets devoted to why the atheist should be allowed to assume the non-existence of God is the default.

This is where I think a lot of the confusion about burden of proof enters in.  An atheist may recognize theism is the social default in his or her audience, but it shouldn’t be, so you should have to prove your default while the atheist has to prove nothing.

But, once again, burden of proof does not work this way, because:

  1. The asserter always has the burden of proof, even if the audience is willing to give it a pass.
  2. The status quo assumptions for what people do and don’t have to prove is socially defined; it’s not some absolute law of the universe.

This is an aspect the Cosmic Teapot example fails to take into account.  We all assume that a teapot won’t spontaneously appear in outer space.  We don’t all assume that God doesn’t exist.  Why the use of a teapot actually adds to the unlikelihood of the statement, I’ll talk about in Part 3.

But this is where the shenanigans start.  The whole idea of the Teapot example is, “You would demand that I prove such a teapot exists, wouldn’t you?  You would not demand proof of its non-existence.  Ergo, you should have to prove God’s existence and not demand proof of His non-existence.”

But this is an appeal to social assumptions.  There is no law of the universe dictating what sorts of things we should and shouldn’t assume to exist.  There is no baseline physical law that non-existence is more likely than existence.

I suppose in a very abstract sense, we could say that the number of things that could exist – but do not – vastly outnumber the things that actually do exist and make some weird argument from statistics that the vast enormity of imaginary objects argues against the probability of actual objects.

It seems like such an assumption, though, that non-existence should be our default, is actually intensely problematic for the atheist, because that means that everything that exists does so in the face of the overwhelming probability that it should not.  How do you account for that?  The existence of anything would be virtually infinitely unlikely, yet a virtual infinity of things exist.  Either the assumption that “non-existence is the default” is a bad assumption, or you have to account for why things actually exist despite the fundamental absurdity of it.

When we bring the social element into the picture, we discover that nobody reasons this way, as if non-existence in the abstract is the default that requires no proof, but existence requires proof.  Our demand for proof depends on other things.

If I say, “I was talking to my friend Willard, yesterday,” nobody is going to demand that I prove Willard’s existence (although a few people might demand to prove that I have friends).  Or if I say I checked out a book about flanges, nobody is going to stop me right there until I can prove the existence of such a book.  We give existence a pass all the time.

It works the other way, too.  If you are telling a story about your friend Willard, and I stop you and say, “Willard does not exist,” you would probably demand proof.

“Oh,” but you say, “We all agree human beings exist and some of them are named Willard, and it is even possible you have friends, so that does not really stretch the bounds of credibility.  But when you say God exists, you are talking about a being that would be unique with far less empirical impact than people named Willard have.”

Ok, fair enough, but now we’re talking about other criteria besides the raw claim that something exists or something doesn’t exist.  I may be unable to persuade you of God’s existence in the same way I could account for Willard, but it’s not because non-existence is a default that needs overcoming by proof.

And this brings us back full circle.  The statement, “There is no God” carries the burden of proof.  There is absolutely nothing about language or reasoning or social discourse or the laws of nature that make it a given that is allowed to stand on its own, while the statement, “There is a God,” has the full burden of proof.

And in both the United States and the world at large, the large majority of the population are theists, so take that audience into consideration when determining who does and doesn’t owe proof for their assertions.

Part 1

Part 3

Sunday Meditations: Teapots Around the Sun, Part 1

Something that comes up often in discussions about atheism is the concept that the person making the positive assertion also has the burden of proving the assertion.  The people hearing the assertion do not have the burden of disproving the assertion.  The example given is usually a variation of Bertrand Russell’s example of someone saying that a teapot is orbiting the Sun between the Earth and Mars.  We would expect the person making such a claim to substantiate it; we would not expect him to hold this proposition as truth unless someone can disprove it.

The applications to discussions about theism (an actual ideology, for the record) are obvious.  If a theist says, “God exists,” then by virtue of the “rules” governing the burden of proof, that theist is responsible for substantiating their claim.  It is not the responsibility of the atheist to prove God doesn’t exist any more than it would be the responsibility of a Cosmic Teapot Denier to prove there isn’t a teapot between the Earth and Mars.

I can certainly understand the frustration.  I’ve heard enough Christians say, “Prove that God doesn’t exist” to know this is an actual thing people say as if it is somehow a point in theism’s favor – as if the inability to disprove something is a substantial proof for something.  As the cosmic teapot illustrates, this is clearly not the case.  The inability to disprove a proposition is not a proof for that proposition, and if you are a Christian who smugly invites atheists to “prove God doesn’t exist” as if that settles anything, you should stop doing that immediately.  You’re making us look bad and we have enough things to make us look bad without additional help.

But where the issue gets trickier is when we’re trying to identify who actually has the burden of proof in a clash of propositions, and it’s here that the cosmic teapot proves too much.

The default philosophical understanding of “burden of proof” is that the person making the assertion has the burden of justifying that assertion.  This definition cannot serve the atheist as is, though, because “God exists” and “God does not exist” are both assertions.  This would mean that the burden of proof would actually shift based on who was making the statement.  I actually think this is representative of the way thinking and discussing actually works, but this has bad ramifications for the sort of individual who feels they must make a proactive stance against the existence of God.

Because it’s one thing to tell a theist, “What you have offered for evidence does not support the claim that God exists, therefore I am unpersuaded of your claim and I don’t know why anyone else would be persuaded, either” and it’s another thing altogether to say, “God does not exist.”  In the space of that motion, I would argue that you have assumed the burden of proof with the second statement.

This is typically countered by a small modification to the standard definition of the burden of proof: the person making the positive claim has the burden of proof.  So, if your claim argues for something, like the existence of God, you have the burden of proof.  If your claim negates something, like saying God doesn’t exist, you don’t.  It is this definition that I find in operation in many of my discussions with New Atheists, and it is a bad one.

Some examples:

Let’s say you and I run a company together, and we are trying to decide whether or not to enter into a contract with a business run by Cathy.  You say, “I think we should do this.  Cathy is an ethical person who deals fairly in negotiations.”  If I didn’t have any experience with Cathy and didn’t agree one way or the other, I might very well ask you to substantiate that claim, and it is certainly your responsibility to do so.  You would not be able to get by with a “prove that she isn’t.”

But let’s say we are having the same discussion, and I say, “I don’t think we should do this.  Cathy is not an ethical person who does not deal fairly in negotiations.”  You might very well ask me to substantiate that claim, to which I would reply, “I don’t have to do that.  I am not making a positive assertion.  It is your responsibility to prove that Cathy is ethical if you believe she is.”

While it is true that my assertion is a negation, it is still a statement about reality and you, as a responsible business partner, would want me to substantiate that statement with actual data that would allow us to induce Cathy’s trustworthiness.  It is still my responsibility to furnish proof for my statement even though my statement is about what is not the case.  I am still making an assertion, and I still have the burden of proof.

If I claimed that gravity does not always work on me, or that Eskimos do not commit crimes, or that my parents are not real, or that the sky is not blue, or that there is not a teapot orbiting the Sun between the Earth and Mars – making those claims puts the burden of proof on me even though they are negations.

Now, this begins to tread into the area of what we consider to be the status quo and what our default assumptions are and how that influences what we do and don’t expect people to prove, and I’ll get into that in Part 2.

Let’s get back to Cathy.

Note the difference between these statements:

  1. “I do not believe you have good reasons for believing Cathy is ethical.”
  2. “Cathy is not ethical.”

In the first statement, I am not making any assertions about Cathy; I am making assertions about your warrant for a belief about Cathy.  You haven’t proved your case in a way that satisfies me.  I might provisionally accept Cathy’s trustworthiness, anyway, just as a risk factor of doing business.  Or I might decide to protect myself and not engage in contracts with anyone whose integrity can’t be positively established to my satisfaction.  I might even explain why your case isn’t satisfactory and why it shouldn’t satisfy you, either.  But the one thing I have not done is assert that, “Cathy is not ethical” is a true statement that describes reality.

The parallel to this in discourse about theism is the person who says, “I haven’t come across any good reason to believe in God, so I don’t.  I know you have reasons.  I don’t think they’re good reasons, or at the very least, not good enough to justify taking on that position and everything that entails.”

Hey, fair enough.  I don’t expect people to adopt claims that can’t be established to their satisfaction.  We’re not always very consistent with what we require to adopt a claim, but that’s ok, too, because different claims arise in different domains, are established in different ways, and carry varying degrees of risks and commitments.

In the second statement, however, I am making an assertion about reality (and Cathy).  I have moved from not having enough warrant to adopt a claim to actively asserting the negation of that claim.  That is fine, too, except that I must now accept the burden of proof.  “I do not see good reasons to believe Cathy is ethical” is not the same as “Cathy is not ethical.”  Now I am asserting, and it is poor logic, laziness, or cowardice that would make me retreat into some artificial shelter like absolving myself of the burden of proof because I’m negating something.

If I say, “Unicorns do not exist,” I have the burden of proof.  People might give me a pass on it because this is where most people are at on the whole unicorn issue, but if someone challenged that statement, it would not be evidence for my statement to demand that the challenger provide evidence for unicorns, whether they could do so or not.  I might instead say, “The only evidence I know of for the existence of unicorns are fanciful legends and the occasional hoax.  So far, I haven’t heard or seen anything that would make me believe unicorns exist, so I don’t believe they do.”  That would not require me to prove there are no unicorns.  But if I write The Unicorn Delusion and make signs that say “Unicorns Probably Don’t Exist, So Don’t Get Your Hopes Up, Virginal Maidens”and have conferences where all the presentations revolve around socially advancing the claim that unicorns do not exist, I absolutely have the burden of proof.  I need to have something to say about my claim besides, “Well, can you prove unicorns exist?  You can’t?  Ok, so obviously they don’t.”

The equivalent to this in conversations about theism would be the person who declares, “There is no God,” or as the bus signs in Britain sometimes say, “There’s probably no God.”  That is an assertion.  That is a statement about reality, and you have the burden of proof.  If you say, “There’s probably no God,” and I say, “Well, how would you establish that claim,” and you say, “No one has successfully proved God’s existence,” you are doing the exact same thing you might accuse Christians of doing.  You have unfairly shifted the burden of proof and are making a claim about reality that you have not substantiated.

This isn’t just similar to the Christian who, when challenged on his theistic claims says, “You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist,” and counts that as evidence; it is actually the exact same thing.  You are shifting the burden of proof to the other person and, should they fail to carry that burden, you are counting it as evidence for your own claim that you have yet to establish.

Atheists do not have to prove God doesn’t exist to be atheists.  It does not take “faith” in this sense to be an atheist.  I do not have to prove the negation of a belief just because I don’t accept a belief as justified.

However, if an atheist makes the claim that God (probably) does not exist, they absolutely have to prove that in order for that claim to be justified.  Christians do not have to prove God’s existence just because they don’t accept that negation as justified.  You’re making the claim; you have to establish it.

A theist of any religious stripe is perfectly warranted in saying, “I do not believe you have established your claim that God does not exist.  Your reasons are not good enough for me to adopt that position, and I don’t see why they’d be good enough for anyone else, either.  Here’s why your evidence does not prove that conclusion.”  By doing so, the theist is not proving a counter-claim.  They are not proving God exists.  What they are doing is saying you have not provided sufficient warrant for your own claim.

This has honest ramifications for both sides.

If you are a Christian (or a theist of any sort, really – I’m just assuming it’s primarily Christians who read this), we have to recognize that not having a good enough reason to believe in God and having to prove that there is no God are two, different things.  Let’s stop all this nonsense about it taking faith to be an atheist or atheists serving Satan or what have you, not only for the sake of charity, but also because there is a big difference between rejecting a belief as unwarranted and advocating the negation of that belief.  You also have to understand that providing enough warrant for your claim that God does exist has absolutely no connection to anyone’s ability to provide warrant for the claim that God doesn’t exist.

At the same time, if you are an atheist, you need to understand that you are not magically shielded from the burden of proof.  You do not have to prove a counter-claim to reject a claim.  You do have to prove any claims you actually make.  So, if you say, “God doesn’t exist” or “God probably doesn’t exist” or “There is no God,” you have the burden of proof.  You are advancing a claim about reality, even though your claim is a negative.  If this is the route you’re going to take, no amount of showing the impoverishment of theistic arguments or the negative social effects of religion or whatever supports your claim one iota.  There is a big difference between pointing out whether or not a claim is warranted by the evidence and whether or not the converse of that claim is true.  Think about what you are claiming and whether or not you can back that up, because as far as that goes, you are in the same boat as the theists.

Part 2

Part 3