Monday, September 27, 2010

Kai Nielsen on the Atheist's Burden of Proof

"To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false...All the proofs of God's existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists. In short, to show that the proofs do not work is not enough by itself. It may still be the case that God exists."
(Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 143-4. cited at: http://www.origins.org/articles/craig_tooley_3.html)

14 comments:

zilch said...

You can substitute "troll" for "God" in the above argument, and it makes just as much, or as little, sense.

bossmanham said...

No you can't, because there's good evidence against the existence of trolls.

zilch said...

There is? Show me some.

bossmanham said...

Trolls are a part of literature that is widely known to be fictional, and is so confessed by those who have written said stories. For instance, the men who placed the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale in their collection of Norwegian fairy tales would be pretty straightforward about it, I'm sure, as would any other fictional author. That is evidence against their existence.

Now, as an atheist, you are making a claim to KNOW something. If you make that claim, you have a burden of proof. I'm not abdicating the theist from a burden of proof, but theists have given reasons for their claim to knowledge. You haven't.

zilch said...

Gods are a part of literature that is widely known to be fictional, and is so confessed by those who have written said stories. For instance, the man who placed the Valar fairy tale in his collection of tales about Middle Earth would be pretty straightforward about it, I'm sure, as would any other fictional author. That is evidence against their existence.

People make up gods all the time. Do you disagree?

Now, as an atheist, you are making a claim to KNOW something. If you make that claim, you have a burden of proof. I'm not abdicating the theist from a burden of proof, but theists have given reasons for their claim to knowledge. You haven't.

I'm not making a claim to KNOW something. I'm saying that I see NO evidence for the existence of something. The burden of proof can only reasonably be placed on the person claiming that SOMETHING or SOMEONE exists, not on the one who sees no evidence for this existence.

How can I prove that something DOESN'T exist? You haven't proved that God does exist, so I will continue to provisionally not believe in this God. I don't need to prove anything.

bossmanham said...

People make up gods all the time. Do you disagree?

Some do, but they aren't claiming to if they want their religion taken seriously. This is why we go after other gods as false using evidence.

I'm saying that I see NO evidence for the existence of something

Then you're not an atheist. Say what you are, man. Saying "there is no God" is an assertion of knowledge.

The burden of proof can only reasonably be placed on the person claiming that SOMETHING or SOMEONE exists

Wrong! The burden of proof is on anyone making a claim to knowledge. If I said that evolution didn't exist, the burden of proof isn't on the one who is fielding that claim. Any assertion of knowledge requires argument.

How can I prove that something DOESN'T exist?

I told you how.

David said...

"Trolls are a part of literature that is widely known to be fictional."

Are you saying that no one ever believed that trolls are real? In the past, some thought trolls were fiction and some thought trolls, fairies, etc., were real.

bossmanham said...

Are you saying that no one ever believed that trolls are real

Maybe. Why would that matter? They're believing in spite of the evidence, sort of like atheists...

David said...

"They're believing in spite of the evidence."

Are you sure about this? Maybe they believed because they thought that there really was evidence that trolls existed. After all, the idea of trolls came from somewhere. Maybe it came from encounters with trolls.

bossmanham said...

Are you sure about this? Maybe they believed because they thought that there really was evidence that trolls existed. After all, the idea of trolls came from somewhere. Maybe it came from encounters with trolls.

Then it would behoove them to produce that evidence if they wanted others to believe.

And we're back to Dr. Nielsen's point.

David said...

"Then it would behoove them to produce that evidence if they wanted others to believe."

Do you have anything specific in mind? Tell you what, I'll bring you a dead troll body when you bring me a physical evidence of a single NT miracle.

zilch said...

David: I'll second that, and add that I will bring a dead unicorn for physical evidence of any OT miracle.

z: I'm saying that I see NO evidence for the existence of something

b: Then you're not an atheist. Say what you are, man. Saying "there is no God" is an assertion of knowledge.


I never said "there is no God". I said "I see no evidence for gods, and thus, provisionally, don't believe in gods". I don't really care if you call that "atheism" or "agnosticism". I prefer "atheism", meaning "not believing in gods".

And saying that "not believing in something" is a "claim to knowledge" seems a stretch to me. Is it a "claim to knowledge" to say "I don't believe there is a teapot orbiting the Sun"? It's rather a claim to no knowledge.

Wrong! The burden of proof is on anyone making a claim to knowledge. If I said that evolution didn't exist, the burden of proof isn't on the one who is fielding that claim. Any assertion of knowledge requires argument.

Okay- my argument is that I don't believe in entities for which there is no evidence, as a default position. I don't see that I have any more "burden" than that. By the way: many people take "the burden of proof" to be some sort of a priori principle of logic; but as I said, it's simply a matter of commonsense and tractability. And it's commonsensical to put the burden of proof on someone making the positive claim, that is, the claim that something exists, not on the person who simply says that they don't believe in the existence of something.

So c'mon, bossmanham, give us some evidence for the existence of this God of yours.

cheers from sunny Vienna, zilch

sinclairj said...

A Christian (or theist in general) should never pick up the apparent olive branch here and attempt to justify faith on the grounds that the opponent cannot prove that God does not exist. If so, then one's own post (or pre) modernist narrative is lost in an infinity of fairy tales. The anti-theist may just as well say, then, that if the narrative is 'measure zero' against the full range of possibilities then it is not worth the time it takes to consider it. It is this type of thinking that leads directly to the following lampoon:

"Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree."

The Christian must reject this line of thinking and make the anti-theist listener face the Christian truth claim (or theist in general) as per the reasoning given by, for example, Fr. Spitzer in his new book "New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy". One must say (and learn to demonstrate) that the claims are based on relentless rational logic and some modern empirical findings.

Then, if the anti-theist attempts ridicule (but only if then), you may say something to the effect of 'my claims are based on X. you must now put up or shut up'.

If the anti-theist then wishes to persevere, he/she must do their homework. There is no simple 'flip' answer that will appear adequate to the third party listener (and hopefully, the speaker him/herself).

bossmanham said...

Dr. Sinclair,

Thank you for your assessment.

I agree with you completely. My goal here is not to show that the lack of a good argument for atheism is suddenly evidence for theism. The lack of evidence is not evidence for anything a priori (it only becomes evidence when we would expect to see evidence, like if someone claimed an elephant were in the room).

My goal here in this conversation, which continued from a previous post, is to show that an apparent lack of evidence for God isn't suddenly evidence for atheism.

I think you have given a good method for interaction. I think without argument on either side, the default position is simply agnosticism. The Christian must present his claims, the reasons for believing his claims, and the urgent reason for people to accept those claims.