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


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

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

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

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