Oh, what a burden…

Doing Christian apologetics online can get really interesting, really serious, and also sometimes amusing.  I need to preface this post by explaining that I teach philosophy of logic at the college level, and there are two things that add to the context when reading this blog post; first, it is important to take a formal logic class if you are seriously going to debate anything online, or anywhere else for that matter, and second, taking one formal logic class is just enough to make a person dangerous…the danger being that one then tries to make everything into a formal argument, and one tends to see rhetorical devices lurking behind every sentence, which often leads to mislabelling, and can be annoying.

I’m going to focus on one problem area in this post; The Burden of Proof.  I don’t believe I’ve witnessed one specific area of logic argued over more between Christians and atheists.  The problem usually arises when a Christian who hasn’t had a formal logic course, or studied it on their own, or is not looking for a formal argument, runs into an atheist that has had a class, and is fit to bursting to show off their newly acquired vocabulary, unfortunately these meetings do not go well, and the only reason why is that there are crossed wires.  Inevitably, the conversation usually starts off with the atheist asking questions of the Christian, and the Christian giving their reasons for believing…the atheist doesn’t like what they hear, so the discussion escalates from there.  Then it happens, the Christian says, “fine, so prove to me that God doesn’t exist.”  Then the atheist pounces, and neglects to mention that they are now kicking into “formal” argument mode, instead of just a discussion.

“Oh, no,” says the atheist, “the burden of proving God exists falls on you.”  Here is where the misunderstanding comes in, and both sides are usually ignorant of what is happening.  When a Christian (who has not been warned that this has become an exercise in formal argumentation, instead of just a conversation) hears the words “the burden of proving,” they are not thinking about formal logic, they are thinking about moral responsibility.  So, they understandably hear, “Oh, no, the moral responsibility of proving God exists falls on you.”  And rightly, they flatly deny it.  The atheist assumes that the Christian doesn’t know logic, but that isn’t necessarily the case; their mindsets are just understandably different.  Christians are generally concerned with their moral responsibility, which actually ends at presenting the gospel truthfully and correctly, and includes providing a reason for their personal belief, if asked.  That’s it.  The rest we leave directly up to God and the atheist.

The discussion usually goes steeply downhill from there; the atheist insisting that the Christian has the burden and the Christian flatly denying it.  For the atheist’s part, they are referring to the formal logical concept of The Burden of Proof; who has the weight in arguing a certain issue to provide the majority of evidence to lend credence to their conclusion.  There are several ways of figuring out who has the logical burden; 1) If everyone involved agrees, you simply lay the ground rules for who has the burden (they do this formally in court proceedings, for example), 2) Whichever side has the least initial plausibility (meaning whichever side tends to run counter to things like common sense, and our background information) usually has the greater burden, and 3) Whichever side is stating a “positive” or “affirmative” position (there is life on mars, there is a problem with your battery, God does exist…) is normally held to the higher burden.

So, neither side is being intentionally thick, they are just using different definitions for “burden of proof.”  If you find yourself in a conversation like this, or just listening in, try to get each side to state what they mean by “burden of proof,” it should save a lot of misunderstanding.  As for me, the interesting question is, which side does indeed have the burden.  Well, it depends on which general rule you claim; if it is only a matter of the affirmative side, then yes, if I say, “God does exist,” and I am engaging in an argument, not just an explanation, then the burden would fall on me (not every statement is an argument, and not everyone is interested in “arguing”).  However, if we look at initial plausibility, I believe the burden shifts to the atheistic side, of course that is a debate in and of itself, which I’m not getting into in this post.  Also, the Christian is free to counter with, “you are claiming that nature itself, with no outside force or designer, is capable of bringing forth complex life, and that we are a result of macro-evolution; prove it.”  Oh, what a burden…

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9 Comments

Filed under Apologetics, Atheism, Logic

9 responses to “Oh, what a burden…

  1. Pingback: One apologists burden « Simply Ecclesia

  2. kliska

    Thank you for your comment! I’m new to the blogosphere, and will definitely check out your blog.

    Only one slight correction, I’m a “daughter of Eve,” instead of a ” son of Adam,” as CS Lewis would say, but no worries there.

    Grace and Peace!

  3. Robert

    I myself don’t see it as a matter of “proof” but of plausibility. Trying to prove God (or not prove Him) is something which no one can achieve. Knowing this, the theist (and sometimes the atheist) will retreat to this impregnable position. “Well, you can’t prove God doesn’t exist”, as if that justifies their god-belief.

    I never try to argue this way. As an atheist, I know I cannot disprove anyone’s deity, but I can try to demonstrate the high unlikelihood of someone’s specific deity, given enough claims about it.

    And there many claims about the Christian deity. So many, in fact, I think we can demonstrate the near impossibility of its existence. The problem of evil, for example, I think pretty much rules God out.

    By the way, your preferred Christian counter-claim to the atheist seems to me one of those rhetorical tricks you spoke of. The atheist need only point to the theory of evolution in response to the question how complex life came about. “Prove it!” you say? Only mathematical theorems are “proven”. Telling someone to prove the theory of evolution is akin to telling them to prove the theory of gravity. For all intents and purposes, these theories are proven, but there’s a chance, albeit a very slim one, better theories may come along. Thus, your counter claim fails on point 2 of the 3 regarding who has the greater initial burden. It is you who must demonstrate how nature is incapable of bringing forth complex life and that we are not the result of evolutionary processes. Good luck!

  4. kliska

    Robert, thank you for your comment. Here is the fundamental issue; when we talk of the burden of proof in logic, it simply means that if we are to have a discussion which includes formal arguments that one side or the other has the responsibility to present their premises in favor of their conclusion in an attempt to sway the other side, or the “audience.” It is not meant to touch on the question with 100% accuracy, although, that is what everyone is hypothetically shooting for. For most of us, either Christian or non-believer, when debating, if we ask someone to “prove it,” we are asking for their strongest evidence, not that we believe that there is going to be some miraculous 100% airtight argument from the other person that completely changes one’s mind.

    The problem of evil is no problem at all; evil is a direct result of free will, but that is fodder for a later blog post.

    No rhetorical trick, quite the contrary, you trying to spin it into one supports my earlier point about people seeing rhetoric lurking behind every sentence. BTW, you might wish to review the differences between abiogenesis and macro-evolution, they are indeed connected, but are often discussed separately, esp. in scientific circles.

    You brought up gravity; no one would have trouble providing good, solid scientific proof (esp. observational proof) in support of the theory of gravity, not so with either Macro-evolution or abiogenesis. Macro-evolution is a swiss-cheese theory, as are all current theories on how lifeless matter became living matter. As for your last assertion that it is up to me to demonstrate how nature is incapable of bringing forth complex life, that is a good example of misplacing the burden of proof, the logical fallacy I touch on in the blog, since, amongst other things, it has never been shown how non-living matter can truly become living, how information could be organized and gained by purely natural processes, where the universe originated from, etc… and your side is the “affirmative” side (that would be from someone claiming, “nature alone is capable of producing life from lifeless matter, and naturalistic macro-evolution is responsible for the complex diversity of life around us”)…these things place the burden on the naturalist position on these questions, not on a Christian.

  5. aslansmane

    Kliska Hello – I agree with both of the Points you made on my blog page. The fact that God’s love is not a mere emotional impulse, but a rational and voluntary affection, having its ground in truth and holiness and its exercise in free choice. This is not to deny feeling, for true love necessarily involves feeling. If there is no feeling in God, then there is no love in God. The fact that God grieves over the sins of his people implies that he loves his people. God’s love finds its primary objects in several persons of the Trinity. Thus, the universe and man are not necessary to the exercise of God’s love. Thanks for stopping by and commenting– I plan to add your Blog to my roll.

    Warm Regards in Christ,

    Robin

  6. Robert

    kliska, you wrote,

    For most of us, either Christian or non-believer, when debating, if we ask someone to “prove it,” we are asking for their strongest evidence, not that we believe that there is going to be some miraculous 100% airtight argument from the other person that completely changes one’s mind.

    I’m positive this is what is meant some of the time, but in general, demanding someone “prove it” is often the device employed to forestall further discussion. Your own example above illustrates this, in which “prove it” comes near the end of discussion, not at the beginning, where one would expect it to be if it was meant as shorthand for “give me your strongest evidence”. Was the opponent giving their weakest evidence, saving up their big bang arguments for later?

    I look forward to your take on free will and the PoE. Personally, I believe the free will defense is among the weakest arguments. I hope to see you address the question whether free will exists in heaven.

    You brought up gravity; no one would have trouble providing good, solid scientific proof (esp. observational proof) in support of the theory of gravity, not so with either Macro-evolution or abiogenesis.

    I’m curious what your take is on this then: Bacteria make major evolutionary shift in the lab.

    Macro-evolution is a swiss-cheese theory, as are all current theories on how lifeless matter became living matter.

    If evolution was a “swiss-cheese theory,” then why has its acceptance among scientists (and even among theists) only increased since it was first proposed?

    I agree with your assessment about abiogenesis. Many interesting theories, but no solid evidence to support them.

    As for your last assertion that it is up to me to demonstrate how nature is incapable of bringing forth complex life, that is a good example of misplacing the burden of proof, the logical fallacy I touch on in the blog, since, amongst other things, it has never been shown how non-living matter can truly become living, how information could be organized and gained by purely natural processes, where the universe originated from, etc…

    Evolution easily demonstrates how complex life emerged from very simple life. The fossil record, genetics, and current experiments amply support it. The burden is on you to show how nature alone could not have produced such a result.

    The situation is murkier with regards to how non-living matter became simple life. As I mentioned, many theories abound, but nothing demonstrated to the level of evolution or gravity. I have no doubt, however, that even if one such theory emerged, creationists would find “holes” in it. Such is the nature of apologetics.

    In any case, the Christian’s theory is that God did these things. Merely faulting a rival theory doesn’t automatically make this theory more plausible. Where’s the evidence in support of it?

  7. kliska

    A point for everyone in general; while I enjoy a good discussion, this blog is not here for a free platform for opposing beliefs, proselytizing on The Christian Scribbler will be pretty much limited to the Christian variety. As such, please make sure that in your comments you are addressing what the main theme of the blog post is about, in this case the burden of proof, if and when I write about other topics, that will be the time and place to jump in on those topics.

    Robert,
    The term “prove it” can mean various things depending on context, that is why it is always a good idea to clear up the meaning with discussion partners, or make one’s meaning clear when writing or public speaking. Also, free will is a fascinating and important topic, one that I will probably cover several times in the future.

    As I am not a biologist, nor is it the intent of this post to argue about evolution, here is a write-up from a Creationist’s perspective for you, the author is an evolutionary biologist : http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/aid/v2/n1/a-poke-in-the-eye

    Just because a majority of scientists support a particular position, doesn’t make it true, which I’m sure you are aware of…there have been many cases where a majority of scientists have been wrong. Take the case of physical geocentrism, the scientific and philosophical community of the day (which “revolved” mainly around the Ptolemaic astronomical POV, pun intended) pushed the idea, and unfortunately many in the church at that time embraced it too; they were all wrong. There is still a mistaken belief amongst a few believers, and apparently many non-believers, that the Bible supports a physical geocentric POV; this isn’t the case.

    “Evolution” has not shown how macro-evolution is behind a supposed change from simple life to complex life (please keep in mind that different theories, including Creationism, do support the ideas of natural selection and even speciation), and I disagree that the fossil record, genetics, or current or past experiments support it. Take the fossil record; the links showing evidence of animals changing from kind to kind simply are not there, and add in things like the fossil evidence behind what secular scientists call the Cambrian Explosion, amongst other things, and it is all a bit “holey.”

    Yes, faulting a rival’s theory doesn’t automatically support your own, but such is the nature of apologetics. As for evidence in support of it, presenting the various evidences is one of main points of this blog, so I hope you’ll do some heavy and serious research one your own, and also stay tuned, if you like, for my simple take on some issues.

    Please keep in mind that we can debate things like evolution ’til the cows come home, but that is not the main point of Christianity. You need to focus on the person of Christ, examine the evidence for His life and resurrection, and come to a verdict for yourself on the question of who Jesus is. It’s not a theory when I state; He is indeed Lord and Saviour, Creator and King…I do hope you come to that conclusion some day in this life.

  8. Eddie Glenn

    Hi, I am just curious. Are you aware of the Baha’i Faith? If yes, what do you think of it?

  9. kliska

    Eddie,
    Welcome to the blog. While this is a bit off topic of my post; yes, I’m aware of the Baha’i Faith. And, while the old testament prophets of Judaism and Christianity, and Christ Himself are shown respect, they teach a false gospel.

    I have not studied every aspect of Baha’i in depth, but I am aware that they miss the claims of Christ, lumping Him in with the likes of Zoroaster, Muhammad, Buddha, Bab, etc… And, in fact they seem to dismiss what the different founders and prophets of religions claimed about themselves. Take Buddha for example, he never claimed deity (in fact he outright denied it), or a direct connection with deity, he only taught that if humans followed his example they could reach nirvana.

    Also, from Christ onward God has decreed that He “speaks” to us only through His Son, and that we should always be aware of false teaching.

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