• Burden of Proof

    I was asked by a fellow blogger to write something on the burden of proof. We often hear the maxim “the burden of proof falls upon the person making the claim” or something like that. Why is this the case? Does it stand?

    Well, first of all, anyone could come up with almost infinite claims. I’ve got a magic badger under my pillow which dances the tango every Tuesday night whilst writing computer programmes in C+.

    For this claim to be true, there must be some sort of evidence, and for me to claim it as such, the burden of proof is upon me to establish the high probability of this being true. I could also defer to Bayesian probability here. Because if I said that I own a cat, then this is very credible given background probabilities, and most people would not demand proof from me (perhaps they should, I don’t like cats much).

    So when it comes to supernatural things, like gods, this becomes contentious. Some people say things like, “Well, surely the atheist is claiming that there exists our universe which is uncreated by a god”. They might, but I think the more accurate and savvy atheist would state, “We don’t know how the universe was created, but we;re doing our best to find out, and this involved methodological naturalism, because this is the only really reliable tool for investigating such things”. It is worth checking out my post on relying on naturalism as an explanation for things as having a far greater probability and having won every single competition with supernaturalism to date.

    Essentially, on the universe thing, really the atheist should defer to agnosticism, and a higher inductive probability that naturalism will provide the answer. So there should be no real burden of proof. This is because they are not so much stating that the universe is naturally caused, per se, but that the likelihood is that those who claim God caused it are wrong. In other words, in legal terms, it is not guilty as opposed to innocent.

    Let me explain.

    The atheist looks to theists who claim that God caused the universe and say, “That is a positive claim, and the burden of proof is on you for that. I don’t make a claim that the universe was caused naturally (that is still being looked into), I am saying that God is not guilty of causing it.”

    God caused the universe – Guilty

    God didn’t cause the universe – Not Guilty

    Naturalistic causes caused the universe – Innocent

    The difference is subtle but is what the legal system depends on. When, as a juror, I say Bob is not guilty of murdering Jane, I am not saying he is innocent. I am saying there is insufficient evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, to assert he is guilty. And that’s all. He may still have committed the offence, but on that evidence, we cannot conclude this. It is up to the prosecutors to provide the evidence of this.

    We often hear “innocent until proven guilty”. This should more correctly be, “not guilty until proven guilty”!

    The prosecution are the ones coming to the table with the claim. The more outrageous the claim, the more evidence is required to substantiate it. That is how it works. See the related posts below for further reading.

    This video form the Atheist Experience spells the issue out really well.


    Category: EpistemologyFeaturedPhilosophyPhilosophy of ReligionSkepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce