The burden of proof is often discussed, and it is no secret that we constantly see the burden being shifted in debates. Quite often, something is presented with no justification and when asked for is met with: “prove I’m wrong“, “do your own research” or threats.
This sort of behaviour can be explained simply through arrogance, tribalism, emotional thinking and so on. I am not going to address this as most discussions about the burden of proof and shifting it are focused.
Instead, I would like to address a question a fellow AiR author and podcaster, @trolleydave, asked in our debate group:
Where Does It Come From? Where does it Go?
I think we have to understand where the understanding (or misunderstanding) of the burden of proof comes from.
Whatever first caused atheists/sceptics/non-theists etc to first come looking for more information and land on Twitter, Facebook groups and YouTube channels, they would have been surrounded by memes and other atheists/sceptics telling them “the burden is only on the one making the claim” like this comment did:
This person’s comment not only fails to address the topic in question but also shows they have never taken a logic 101 course, nor have they taken the time to actually understand the burden of proof. This attitude persists through online communities like a gene copy error that eventually causes cancer in later life.
When Did I First Hear of ‘The Burden of Proof’?
I’ll be honest, I’d not heard of the burden of proof in this discussion form until I joined these groups (some 20-odd years ago now), but other people who also identified as atheist were all saying the same thing, so for a while I too thought this.
This is not only a misunderstanding of the legal burden of proof (as this shifts throughout the case rather than only being solely on the prosecution), but also the understanding of how the burden of proof works within a discussion, and on to a belief position.
The burden of proof, in the sense of adducing evidence, rests on the party who would fail if no evidence at all, or no more evidence, as the case may be, were given on either side. This Burden will rest on the party substantially asserting the affirmation of the issue at the start of the case, but as evidence is presented, the Burden may shift constantly throughout the case, but also because of presumption of the law, or statutory requirements which sometimes put proof of Authority, consent or Lawful excuse on the accused (e.g. Road Traffic Act 1961, s38) or which put the onus of proof on the defendant (e.g. on an employer to justify a dismissal: Unfair Dismissals Act 1977)Legal Burden of Proof (lawteacher.net)
All Answers ltd, ‘Legal Burden of Proof’ (Lawteacher.net, October 2023) https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/criminal-law/legal-burden-of-proof.php?vref=1 accessed 25 October 2023
Burden of Proof: Misnomer or Misunderstanding?
With much in our language, people examine a word based purely on what the components of the words mean and forget the underlying content that goes along with it. We see this in discussions of free will, the definition of atheism and so on. The burden of proof is no different.
Firstly, “burden” makes it seem like it’s necessarily a difficult thing to do, when actually it just means you have some responsibility (epistemically speaking).
Proof too is a bit of a misnomer as this isn’t a mathematical proof, but the arguments and evidence that justify the position one holds.
Defining Evidence & Proof
When proof is used in terms of evidence, it is usually seen that proof is conclusive evidence.
Evidence is anything that raises (or lowers) the probability of a conclusion being true (or false).
A more simplistic way to define it might be: That which indicates or supports a position/conclusion.
This is why testimony is a form of evidence. Testimony is one of if not the weakest form of evidence. Something being evidence says nothing about the quality of the evidence, just that it supports a conclusion. Evidence, when examined, can sometimes end up being evidence of the inverse.
Proof, in this regard, refers to the cumulative case of evidence carried to create a conclusion with an extremely high probability.
In many other languages, this split does not exist, it is just evidence and conclusive evidence.
There might be many who think of evidence as purely empirical (some even going so far as saying only scientific), but this isn’t how evidence works. That is just a type of evidence.
When it comes to proof in a broader sense, it’s talking about all the justifications to support a position one holds.
Combining Burden & Proof
Combining these two together, we can see that the concept is actually talking about our responsibility to justify a position. The application of this differs depending on context.
The next is understanding where this burden applies. I mention “the position one holds” – so even if that position is a considered: “I don’t believe you” or “I lack belief in X” then there is still some responsibility there. If someone has not considered something, perhaps because they have never heard of it, they don’t have any responsibility.
Life’s a Beach
Consider a friend telling us they went to the beach at the weekend. I might believe them, be uncertain, or think their claim was false. I’m under no obligation to “prove” this either way, but I do have a responsibility to my own mind to consider why.
We have to consider all the things that apply to this, is this something someone usually lies about? Are they a known liar? What would they gain from lying about this? Did their social media indicate otherwise? And so on.
Level of Responsibility
The burden for someone claiming something is absolutely true or false is arguably higher than someone believing or not believing a claim.
The more implications and entailments of a particular belief or truth claim the more considerations there are. An ontological position has implications on our understanding of the universe, whereas believing your friends went to the beach has little impact on anything.
Truth Claim vs Belief Position
There is often a conflation between a truth/knowledge claim and a belief position.
To believe something is to think it is most likely true.
To make a knowledge/truth claim is to say something is definitely true.
If you think something is likely true, your justification is much different than the truth claim. The truth claim carries a burden in which one ought to be able to conclusively evidence said position with little to no room for doubt.
The burden on a belief position is to justify that position as rational.
Theism and the Burden of Proof
Most theists, outside of fundies, simply believe. They think theism is true rather than claiming it is absolutely true.
But… they still don’t owe you their justification, at least not necessarily.
This burden isn’t to “prove it true” – it is to “justify as rational” – but you only carry this burden to yourself. Even then, only if you care about rationality.
It would do us all well to consider this when holding conversations with others of different attitudes, whether the topic is theism or anything else.
If you’re in a conversation with someone then there’s a sort of social contract, if someone questions your belief or lack there-of, you have a discursive burden to justify your position and simply “no evidence” or “you’ve not met your burden” isn’t particularly strong reasoning but is often the most you see given. Usually, it doesn’t even get there.
Burden of Proof or a Meme Turned Dogma?
This meme-based learning of the Burden of Proof (and I mean this both in the image and catchphrase sense) has been passed through the community so often it has become a form of doctrine or dogma.
Questioning this dogma is often met without another catchphrase “go take a logic 101 class” which in itself is evidence one hasn’t taken a logic 101 class or read much on logic at all.
This sort of othering, where the one who questions the dogma is made out to be stupid or unlearned strengthens the false belief and makes people sink back into the tribe and less likely to question… like the Mormons do with their “elders” who get so regularly ridiculed it strengthens their belief and the comfort they get from the tribe and how evil the “others are”.
This builds such a strong bias among the community that folks can’t begin to question it.
Scepticism, proper scepticism, doesn’t enter the equation. Folks don’t take the time to reconsider their beliefs about the burden of proof or logic. You either agree with them or are wrong.
So, we are stuck in this paradigm where this false belief about BoP and logic is propagated as truth throughout the community.
So, What Does it Do?
The effect is, that it shuts down any chance of positive conversation with theists.
It also shows atheists off as clueless idiots to anyone who actually understands these topics.
Both of these cause biases to form against atheists about how arrogant, egotistical, and wrong we are about things like logic and the burden of proof. This can lead to other thoughts like, if we are wrong about logic we can’t be rational and if we are not rational we probably shouldn’t be listened to, and so on.
This further causes a divide between atheists and theists and the cycle goes round and round.
But What’s the Reason For This Misunderstanding of The Burden Of Proof Take In The First Place?
Thinking back to before the propagation of the bad takes… what first inspired this?
When I initially considered this, I had 3 main thoughts on the matter.
1. A misunderstanding that took off.
2. An intentional misrepresentation to make the atheist position effortless.
3. A clever theist posing as an atheist with an idea to make us look dumb.
A Misunderstanding That Took Off
If it is a simple misunderstanding of the legal BoP, basically a “headline culture” take, then we can understand how this was propagated so easily… everyone just read the headline and thought they knew what the BoP was.
An Intentional Misrepresentation
If it was an intentional misrepresentation, though, it could be done so in an effort to make the theists do all the work. Atheists don’t need to think. Being an atheist means you’ve already done your thinking and once we are here we no longer need to think…
…of course, it’s not displayed that way, the aesthetic of an atheist is often one that is smart, rational, sceptical and so on.
But, if the atheists managed to convince the theists that they don’t have to do anything except stand there saying “I don’t believe you” then it saves a lot of energy.
I would question the reason of even engaging in discourse if this is your entire part in it though. You’ve essentially taken yourself out of the conversation yet at the same time many go looking for these sorts of conversations just to tell people they don’t believe them and that they don’t have to justify why.
Subterfuge to make atheists look dumb
The last option, is the least charitable and possibly one I don’t necessarily think that likely, but it would be a good ploy from the theists to make atheists look dumb so they can point fingers and say “You don’t want to be like them do you?”
Could there be some truth though?
It might hold some truth, like the “can’t prove a negative” was originally a theistic argument that atheists adopted not realising it was faulty and in fact, you can prove at least some negatives. Perhaps, this burden of proof was originally used by theists who were surrounded by atheists who claimed no gods existed… and this in turn is why atheism in recent years has retreated into a weaker “lack of belief” state rather than a claim or even the belief/propositional sense.
Using the Burden of Proof as a Shield
What I do see is a lot of atheists holding on to bad arguments, false beliefs, and unjustified positions and using the BoP as some sort of shield to protect them from having to explain their position or give it any real thought.
Are there other options for the Origin of BoP?
Of course. What I shared above were my initial thoughts on the matter. I’ve had many considerations since then, although one I would like to share with you is something one of our other authors @colindj put forward.
I suspect the origin of the fallacious position comes from a reaction to constant evangelising by theists to ex-theists. Essentially “You keep telling me I’ve got to believe or burn in Hell, but I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you are right. Before you tell me what I have to do, you need to prove you are correct.”
As ex-theists, they are looking to teach theists that their theistic beliefs are unjustified and the theists need to reflect on their own beliefs before pushing them on others.Colin Denman-Jones – Friday 13th October
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This too is a strong contender for the origin. One can quite easily imagine being pushed to a point where one shuts down and gets defensive, and then this attitude continues. It is especially easy to imagine with a community that in recent years has rejected philosophy and the only form of evidence they consider evidence is scientific evidence. We can also point out the irony that they want absolute proof when science takes a more fallibilistic approach to knowledge and any of its conclusions.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the mistakes about the burden of proof arose because the effects are the same. I like to understand the origins but with an epistemic problem like this, and my experience of conversations online, knowing the history won’t matter, at least not in the sense that it will help me correct the problem.
The misunderstanding of the burden of proof has quite a few negative impacts, from making atheists look silly to anyone who knows more than the average layperson, to shutting down conversations with theists and causing further division.
Before anyone brings up the burden of proof I would spend some time learning about it from a proper source, at the very least read this article on epistemic justification from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Discussions and The Burden of Proof
- Discussions and The Burden of Proof – Podcast Version
- The Burden of Proof – Belief vs Claim – Court Room Analogy
- Are YOU Justified?
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
Recent Articles on Evidence and Burden of Poof
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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