Article and Video Featured Image: Discussion and the burden of proof

One of the problems with contemporary social media discourse is jumping around and ahead in the conversation, misusing terms, axioms, and similar and not taking the time to actually have a discussion and understand what the other person is saying.

We are too quick to judge people based on the group we think they belong to and forget to appreciate the nuance between positions. A Christian is judged by how we judge all Christians based on previous experiences with Christians. The same can be said for atheists, Muslims or any other group.

This form of tribalism and cognitive bias makes use too quick to assume positions, all entailed beliefs and rationality, and you find people just name fallacies (often incorrectly) instead of having a dialogue and reaching some accord.

Recap: We often fail to hold conversations and throw out erroneous statements based on poor assumptions.

Belief vs Claim

There is a difference between a belief and a claim.

A belief is something you accept as true. (Think most likely, conclude is the case etc)
A claim is something to say IS true.

So, sure, there is a claim that you believe something, but as we don’t have access to anyone’s mental states this isn’t anything we can prove, and really, why would someone say they believe something that they don’t? (Except for outlier cases and cons which again don’t really apply to social media conversations.)

When you do or don’t believe something, the only real duty you have is to yourself, and even then this duty only applies if you care about rationality.

Recap: Your primary duty to any belief position is to yourself.


Rationality deals with the way we reason, using the rules of logic and probability theory. This entails having no strong evidence against your position, no contradiction in your beliefs, not using fallacious reasoning but also realising that bit everything is a fallacy e.g. there are some authorities you can trust without it being a fallay, and this ties into good theories of testimony and all sorts.

So, if we care about rationality, our burden is to justify our position, at least to ourselves, so that we can ensure that we are holding a rational position.

Recap: rationality deals with the way you reason, everyone has a burden to justify their position to themselves if they care about rationality.

You can be wrong (without knowing it) and still be rational, and you can be correct and irrational.

However, rationality is definitely something that would usually lead one to truth if all all information was available to you and analysed mitigating all bias – which is hard to do, as bias is built into our wiring.

So, one’s rationality is somewhat relative to the information available. Someone in an epistemic bubble could be rational for believing something that outside of that bubble would be wildly irrational.

It can be said one can only be as rational as one can be. We should judge a child as a child, they do not have fully developed brains nor learned adequate reasoning skills, and therefore their behaviour is by default less rational on an adult scale.

This too relates to the information available. Forming an option based on 3 bits of information that point to a single conclusion and not being able to find anything else would be rational, even if that conclusion was wrong.

If you later found additional information that then leads elsewhere and the original conclusion was wrong, it would be irrational to maintain that original conclusion as true.

Recap: rationality should be judged in a more relative way, and based on reasoning, not conclusions.

So what about in conversation?

This is where the whole burden of proof argument often comes about and is misused

As standard, the burden of proof, especially the legal burden of proof, does not apply to conversation. At all.

No one owes you anything in conversation – this is not a courtroom, this is not a formal debate, there is no one presiding over the conversation, this is not in a lab setting, this is not academia, it’s social media.

Recap: In general conversation, the burden of proof does not apply and no one owes you anything.

That said, when we engage in conversation we do enter into a certain social contract with them.

The standard conversation contract is this back-and-forth of questions, answers and general discussion. We don’t just stonewall someone with short phrases and dismissive responses in a normal conversation, and that should be the same for social media too.

Within this contract there is a sort of discursive burden to explain your reasoning to your conversation partner should they ask, but let me give a few examples of how this could go wrong and perhaps some advice on getting it right.

Recap: Engaging in a conversation means you agree to a sort of social contract and through that you may have a discursive burden.

Assuming this is a conversation between a theist and a “lack of belief atheist”.

If the theist says, “I believe God exists”
“Prove it” isn’t an appropriate response.

  1. They cannot prove they believe that
  2. You probably mean to prove that God exists, but they have not made a truth claim, just told you what they believe.
  3. They are not trying to convince you to believe thier statement (that may come later).
  4. You wouldn’t act that way with most other statements.
    • “I went to the beach yesterday” – prove it .
    • “I finally landed a kickflip at the weekend” prove IT!
    • “I believe my wife is being faithful to me” PROVE IT!
      So this shouldn’t be treated any differently.

“I don’t believe you” is also not a great response because instead of focusing on what they believe you’ve shifted the conversation to why you don’t believe.

This shifts the burden of proof onto you, and if they ask “why not?” You’d be wrong for telling them they are shifting the burden of proof because it was you that did the shifting.

Instead, you could ask them why they believe what they believe and take the time to actually listen to their response. They might have some good reasons even if you don’t find them compelling. You can then discuss why you don’t accept certain bits of their reasoning and provide your justifications.

See, it’s much better to view the discussion as a friendly game of badminton where you’re trying to keep the rally going till someone drops the cock.

Recap: it’s better to engage in conversation than stonewall with short responses.

The Burden in a Legal Setting

Even in a legal setting where there are claims of innocence and guilt being made, this is still true. It’s not just on the prosecution to prove guilt, the defence has to cast doubt on the claims and evidence provided. They can’t do that just by saying “I don’t believe you” and “I don’t think you’ve met your burden” and if they were to complain about shifting the burden of proof instead of engaging they wouldn’t win any cases.

Recap: Even in a legal setting there is the back and forth – the burden isn’t just on one person or side.

A Conversation isn’t a Formal Setting

But a conversation isn’t a formal setting like a court. Yet, people try and use this legal form of the burden of proof, where it doesn’t apply, and they use it incorrectly. They forget about the duties of both sides.

What’s more, the demand for evidence and what will be accepted as evidence seems much higher on social media too. The idea that all evidence has to be at least empirical often meaning scientific and supported by peer-reviewed papers is again not how the real world actually works.

Even if the Theist is making a claim like “God definitely exists” they still don’t owe you anything really, but I would say they have raised the burden on themselves.

A truth claim is much harder to fulfil, especially with something metaphysical. In general, this sort of claim isn’t something we should expect scientific evidence for unless there is a claim about the god affecting the physical world.

At best, one that claims to know god exists can tell you about their experiences. That won’t convince you, but it will let you know what convinced them. Experiences are very powerful to the one that experiences them. In this, you shouldn’t respond with “that’s an anecdote” or “anecdotes are not evidence”. Not only because anecdotal evidence is a form of evidence all be it quite uncompelling, but all it does is stop the conversation.

From here you can engage differently and ask them how they knew that was god, or investigate other things it could be explained by

It may just come done to them “feeling” like it was god… From here, you can’t really move the conversation forward. They had an experience and feelings wrapped up in them. You have reasons to think that experience isn’t what it seems.

You could try and explain how that doesn’t really qualify as knowledge, at least epistemic knowledge, or address that maybe what they claim to know is just a strong belief, but it’s pretty pointless.

There are plenty of theists out there that, given the chance, you can have a great conversation about their beliefs and various reasoning behind them, you just have to be willing to engage.

If you’re not willing to engage, why are you actually having the conversation in the first place?