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


2 thoughts on “Sunday Meditations: Teapots Around the Sun, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Sunday Meditations: Teapots Around the Sun, Part 2 | Letters to the Next Creation

  2. Pingback: Sunday Meditations: Teapots Around the Sun, Part 3 | Letters to the Next Creation

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