Extra-Special Pleading: How “Burden of Proof” Atheists Engage in Special Pleading to be Allowed to Engage in Special Pleading

So, Josh R. over at his non-ironically named “Arguments for Reason” blog wrote a post about me.  This is my response, although he doesn’t really say much of substance.  He is one of the legion of intellectually dishonest atheists spawned by Antony Flew who want to stack the deck against theists by special pleading, whereby they claim that atheism is the default position or, as Josh mistakenly calls it, “the null position.”

As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, my standard response to the dishonest tactic of attempting to place the burden of proof entirely on the theist is simply to ask “by what right do you do this?” Since anyone who claims that the burden of proof falls on someone else is by doing so necessarily making a claim, it is perfectly reasonable to ask him to prove his own claim that the burden of proof is on anyone who makes a claim.  After all, he is the one claiming something about the matter.

I sum it up in the card, where I present the intellectually dishonest “burden of proof” atheist with a dilemma: either he abide by his own principle and prove his claim that I have the burden of proof; or he admit that his principle is only for me and not for him, in which case I reject his principle as mere special pleading.  There really isn’t a third alternative: either this principle applies to both of us, or neither of us.


Now Josh gets off to a poor start with an argumentum ad websiteium:

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 9.38.41 PM

To which I respond with my longer version of my “burden of proof” challenge:

Let’s see what Josh has to say about the claim that “the one who makes the positive assertion has the burden of proof.”

It isn’t a claim. 

First, Josh makes the bizarre claim that a claim about where the burden of proof lies … is not a claim.

Let’s quote the meme he cited: “The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim.”

Now let’s consider the definition of a ‘claim’:

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 9.47.56 PM

A claim is basically a synonym for an assertion, and an assertion of where the burden of proof lies is most certainly as assertion, so I have no idea what Josh is thinking when he denies that this claim is claim.  He doesn’t say.  Perhaps no thinking was involved. Or perhaps he has that special psychosis found among atheists where they believe the things they claim are “facts” which therefore do not require any argument or evidence? Again, I don’t know, since Josh merely asserts this obvious falsehood without argument.

You’re conflating that word with another here to try to make your point seem more valid than it actually is. That’s several fallacies all at once, but most importantly it’s the fallacy by conflation.

He then claims that I’ve made several fallacies all at once, although he doesn’t say what these are, except for the one he finds most damning: a fallacy of conflation.  But a fallacy of conflation is to run two things together so as to confuse an argument by ambiguity. What have I conflated with what?  Josh doesn’t say.  He just claims that I have done so, again without argument or evidence. It probably isn’t going to surprise you that most of his blog post has this form of assertion without argument.

Also, as you’ll see soon enough, the author presumes that her god existing is the null hypothesis, which it is not. Until evidence arises for whichever god(s) she’s believing in (presumably the Jesus one), the null hypothesis remains that there is no god. There’s equally much evidence to support any god, and many mythical characters who aren’t gods, like Beowulf or Odysseus. However, until we find evidence independent of someone’s story, the null hypothesis is that they were not real.

So now we come to Josh’s assertion, again without argument, that the “null hypothesis” is that there is no god.  First, it should be noted that Josh does not understand what the null hypothesis is. It is technical term in statistics that he is misusing. See here to learn what the null hypothesis actually means.

But more importantly, we are again faced with simple assertion, rather than argument or evidence. Josh just takes it for granted that atheism should be the default position, apparently blissfully unaware that this argument dates back only to around 1973, stems from philosopher Antony Flew, and has been subjected to rather devastating criticisms.  Here is one place you can read about what is fundamentally wrong with this claim (see the concluding couple of paragraphs).  Here is a excerpt from philosopher Paul Copan giving a summary of some of his objections to Flew:

Paul Copan Presumptuousness of Atheism

Here is an article by Professor Ralph McInerny with the straight to the point title “Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist.”

Nor is it only theists who think this. McInerny’s colleague at Notre Dame, Alvin Plantinga has probably done more that any other single individual to undercut Flew’s attempt to shift the burden of proof decisively to the theist.  In fact, prominent atheist philosopher Keith Parsons holds that this is pretty much exactly what Plantinga has done, that he has shifted the debate back to the point where the burden of proof cannot be placed “presumptively” on either sideKeith Parsons on Plantinga

While I wouldn’t necessarily expect Josh to be aware of developments in the philosophy of religion, it is a bit presumptuous of him to simply be channeling arguments Flew made in 1973 as if they were (pardon the expression) THE WORD OF GOD.  The fact of the matter is, the entire question of where the burden of proof lies in the theism/atheism debate (or whether it lies anywhere, presumptively, or whether such a concept is even useful) is a seriously contested philosophical issue.

What that means is that neither Josh nor anyone else may simply lay it down as if it were fact that “atheism is the default position” or “the burden of proof lies on the theist.”  There is good reason for thinking both of these are false. Indeed, I hold that both of them are false, that the reverse is the case, that theism is the default position, and that to whatever extent such a concept is useful, the atheist needs to show, if he is to dent the rational presumption in favor of theism to any degree, that it is at least highly probably that God does not exist.

I won’t argue these points extensively in this post, but the reader should be aware that they exist and they are very strong. Popular culture lags behind professional philosophy, but it inevitably catches up.  Populist online atheists such as Josh can channel Flew’s rhetoric because, for a time, it was hegemonic in the philosophy of religion (just as we still see half-educated advocates of scientism trot out Karl Popper’s falsification criterion, without any idea of its provenance, limitations, or the decisive objections that relegated it to an artifact in the history of philosophy).  The point is that Josh and atheists like Josh are living on borrowed time; they can, for the moment, get away with attempting to claim atheism as the default position, but it isn’t, and theists knowledgeable in the philosophy of religion (like me) are already beginning to call them out on it, and it won’t be very long before almost all theists will do so. Enjoy your atheistic safe space; you won’t get to keep it for very long.

Finally, as I am sure most of my readers already noticed, Josh is making the typical atheistic confusion of God with gods, a catastrophic category error.

Even though Josh has yet to make an argument, he now claims that he has proven something about the burden of proof. He also proves that he does not understand the nature of probability:

Sure, we just did. The null hypothesis is that all gods are equally probable, including the absence of a god. It is from this point we present our evidence. Christians like to claim a global flood, but stratified rock is a clear example of evidence against that god. Greco-Roman Pantheists will claim that from Chaos (the deity) appeared Gaea (the literal, living god who is earth), but the fact that the Earth doesn’t appear to be a god is evidence against this.

The claim that “all gods are equally probable, including the absence of a god” is manifestly absurd. How would one possibly make a case for this? Well, of course we needn’t ask what case Josh makes. As we’ve seen, Josh doesn’t make cases.

Actually, here he touches on something like a case, but seems to think that pointing out that modern geology mitigates against the literal truth of a Biblical account in the way a heretical 20th century American fundamentalist Protestant might possibly read the Bible is some kind of strong evidence against Christianity.  Hint: it isn’t.  I’m also a little dubious about his “X does not appear to be god [to whom?]; therefore, X is not a god” argument. Even at the level of gods (not God), gods are known for disguising themselves as such, are they not? Perhaps he is unaware of the Gaia hypothesis? At any rate, I’ve no interest in gods, so let’s move on.

Again, as Eve failed to discuss the null hypothesis, it’s understandable why she might not understand the significance of burden of proof, or how to prove who has it. Even if the null hypothesis were that a god exists, there is currently no evidence to support that assertion, but plenty against. With regard to Christianity, for example, we have a distinct lack of reports of the sun being gone for three days. We do, however, have texts from that time period, none of which anywhere in the world mentioned this particular phenomenon. Most things in the bible do not have evidence to support them, therefore the null hypothesis would become invalid and the previous null hypothesis (there are no gods) would return.

Well, let’s discuss the default position a bit, shall we? I have been writing somewhat about this lately. It is entirely reasonable to maintain (as I do) that the default position is theism, given that this is the natural conclusion the overwhelming majority of the human race has come to in all times and places.  The idea of God and the divine belongs to the common belief of the whole human race, the consensus gentium, as it is properly called. It is atheism that has always been the aberrant position. Let’s be clear: I am not making an ad populum argument here. I’m not arguing that God exists because the great majority of the human races thinks so and has always thought so; I am positing that human beings have a natural cognitive capacity to grasp the truth of divinity, although this capacity can become darkened, distorted, stunted, and perhaps even extinguished in some individuals. I am speaking of the sensus divinitatis, the natural cognitive power where human beings are able to experience the presence of the divine. Why should we think we have such a cognitive power? For one thing, it would explain the near-unanimity of the human belief in the divine; and secondly, on the assumption that God exists and is the kind of being which all the great world religious traditions speak of, it is extremely likely that He would have endowed us with such a power to know and experience Him. In other words, if theism is true, it is extremely likely we are in a position to know that theism is true; this is only unlikely on the assumption that atheism is true, which is not something Josh or anyone else can rightfully presume.

Now, while I have no doubt that Josh will be inclined to deny human beings have such a cognitive power, which when functioning properly in the proper environment, is truth directed and therefore belief-warranting, but what exactly would his case be?  That we do not have any cognitive power to experience the divine, because atheism is true? That is simply begging the question in favor of atheism. And if Josh has no experience of this sense of the divine, then he doesn’t have much or any basis to talk about it, and his assertion of its nonexistence is no more evidence of its nonexistence than a color-blind man’s insistence that on the nonexistence of color perception, or the sociopath’s claim that conscience does not exist. The fact that you, personally, do not have any acquaintance with something that nearly everyone else does isn’t strong evidence of the nonexistence of the thing: if anything, it is prima facie evidence that there is something the matter with you.

If, on the other hand, Josh does have a functioning sensus divinitatis, but asserts that it is not truth-directed and so its deliverances do not provide belief-warrant, how would he make the case for this? He would be in the position of a man who asserted that sense perception does not provide belief-warrant.  It would, at the very least, take a great deal of careful philosophical argumentation to make such a claim even plausible.  And as we know, Josh is not big on actual argumentation.

The existence of God is plain to me by at least there paths: metaphysical demonstrations, the sensus divinitatis, and (twice in my life) direct deliverances of God. I hold my belief in God to be entirely warranted. I have thought the matter through very carefully, considered all arguments pro and con, and all available evidence, and come to the conclusion that theism is not only a reasonable position, but the only possible position that accords with reason.  Atheism, as I have written elsewhere, is a deeply irrational position that logically commits one to absurdism and nihilism, since it denies both the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and any objective standard of good and evil. In what way have I violated any epistemological or ethical principle?

Back to Josh’s post.  My old comments will be red and Josh’s blue.

And yet, they consistently refuse [to] do this. Why is that?

I’m not refusing here, exactly as others have tried to explain this to you, but keep ignoring that. Also, about that evidence you were discussing, isn’t this a positive claim?

You say you aren’t refusing, and yet still no argument as been made, merely assertion. You refuse by deeds. You won’t do it. That is refusing.

My guess is that they don’t really mean…lies with the one who makes the claim

This part is more of that positive claim she’s making. Which, oddly enough, applying her logic earlier, she hasn’t proven why she (or anyone else) has such burden.

I’m not trying to prove anyone has a burden. That is your assertion, not mine! You posted this meme, so I take you endorse it: “The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim.” So well-spotted, I guess, for noticing I haven’t proven something I wasn’t trying to prove.

I’ve yet to see anything beyond mere (and repeated) assertion.

Well, that’s some top-tier pot-kettle right there, folks.

Tu quoque.  We’ve both made claims, but you are the only one who is attempting to assign “burdens” to anyone—and again, I’m not bound by your principle that “The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim“—but you are! It’s your principle! If you assert it as binding for all and at the very same moment refuse to abide by it, you are clearly contradicting your words by your deeds. You are failing to practice what you preach. But the same can’t be said of me, since I don’t preach this doctrine.

But an ad-naseum fallacy is not an argument. Something doesn’t become true after being repeated many times.

Oh really?

Yes, really. Your post here is a case in point. You have repeated several times that the burden of proof is on the theist, but you haven’t argued it.  Assertion isn’t argument, not even repeated assertion.

What was it she said up there again? Repeating a thing over and over doesn’t make it true? Repeatedly saying that someone is wrong because they disagree with you is not an argument. I’m glad we agree there. Arguing that you don’t like the way logic works, over and over, doesn’t actually prove that logic doesn’t work. You see, when you claim someone’s got a fallacy, you’ve got to try to explain why, even by your own logic.

Which, to those who can read, I did do: I was attacked for committing a straw man fallacy, and my response was the perfectly correct argument that, since I was not making an argument, and a fallacy is an error in argument, I could not have committed a fallacy.

One who is not making an argument cannot commit a fallacy of argument anymore than one who is not driving can be driving without a license. It’s a simple modus tollens:

  1. ∃(x) a fallacy of argument ⇒ ∃(x) an argument.
  2. ¬∃(x) an argument.
  3. ∴ ¬∃(x) a fallacy of argument.

Or perhaps you were talking about the “burden of proof” issue? It isn’t my job to prove that the burden of proof lies on the one making the claim that the burden of proof lies on the one who makes the positive claim, because I don’t accept the principle.  What I am saying (and I realize nuance is hard for you) is: anyone who asserts the principle as universally valid is subject to it, by his own standards.  The choice before the one who asserts (as you do) “The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim,” is

  1. Submit to your own asserted principle, and prove it to be the case, or
  2. Admit that the principle is meant only to apply to your opponents and you are engaging in intellectually dishonest special pleading.

I don’t actually care which route you take, although I do find it interesting that no one has ever seriously attempted option 1. (I do not consider appeals to memes or Wikipedia, or ad nauseam fallacies to be serious attempts to prove the principle.)

The picture you posted in the first tweet doesn’t do that, and now I’m explaining why. In fact, it’s pretty self-referential, your picture, because it just keeps repeating your assertions without breaking them down logically. Argumentum Ad Naseum [sic] as it were.

Speaking of conflation, that’s what you’re doing here. Unlike you, though, I will actually show what two things you are conflating, namely, an argument by repetition and repetition of an argument:

  1. An ad nauseam fallacy is an argument by repetition of an assertion (as you’ve been doing re: the default hypothesis and the burden of proof), in the mistaken view that saying something more often makes it more true or more likely to be true, or more probable as it is repeated, with
  2. repetition of an argument in the hopes that the dim-witted might finally grasp it. In this case, the argument that “Where there is no argument, there is no fallacy of argument, and thus any charge of a fallacy of argument where there is no argument is necessarily invalid.”

Anytime anyone accuses me of a fallacy where it as not only false that I am committing a fallacy, but actually logically impossible that I am, I will point it out.  If this happens repeatedly, I will repeat my explanation.  Repeating a sound argument because it has not been grasped or repeating it to different persons is not the same as repeating an assertion in the hope it will, eventually, be believed.  Don’t conflate these two things in future.

Josh goes on to accuse me of special pleading, when really that is what he is doing. He is actually engaging in what I have described before (concerning Flew’s original use of this tactic) as “extra-special pleading“, which has the form “please allow me to get away with special pleading because I am specially pleading to be able to.”  Josh posted a response I made to a Tweet of his, but not his original post.  Could it be because this shows what he really thinks:

I think here is where we see Josh’s true colors most clearly.  This is practically the Platonic form of an argument to ignorance. “I am right, unless you can prove I am wrong.”

And this, I think, really goes to show the intellectual dishonesty and bankruptcy of atheism since Flew’s day—although the New Atheists did a great deal to vulgarize and coarsen something that was already pretty shabby and dishonest.

From here, there really isn’t much left to say. Josh goes on to cite the dictionary, in order to “prove” that what I mean by ‘God’ is something I do not mean, which is obviously spurious, since what I hold to be God is what I hold to be God and has nothing at all to do with Merriam-Webster’s or Josh’s preferred definitions. I know he really, really wants me to be talking about a god, so he can claim that the case for God is the same thing, and by refuting one, refute the other.  In other words, for Josh, all talk about God is talk about a god, just like all talk about animals is talk about unicorns. But God is not a god, and serious theists believe in God, whether or not they also believe in gods (as e.g. Hindus do).  And unfortunately for poor Josh, the fact that he really, really wants me to do something is just not a good reason for me to do it, so he is doomed to disappointment in this regard.  He does, however, have my permission to beg me to allow his special pleading; I won’t, but begging amuses me.

Which brings us to Josh’s conclusion:

TL;DR: If you want to prove who has the burden of proof, start by defining the null hypothesis.

Theism is the default position.  If an atheist wishes to refute theism, his task is to prove that theism is false.  Nor can he escape this burden by attempting to claim that theism is de jure unwarranted, while refusing to address the question of the de facto truth or falsehood of theism. As I argue elsewhere:

This situation is explanatorily important in debates between theists and atheists. Atheists will often insist that theists do not have evidence for their beliefs, that is, that they believe what they believe without warrant. But for theists, it is atheists who hold the unwarranted belief that certain of our natural cognitive powers are not warrant-conferring, on the basis of peculiar metaphysical assumptions about the nature of human beings and their cognitive powers, and so of the nature of warrant.

In this situation, the atheists are effectively arguing “If atheism is de facto true, then theism is de jure without warrant,” which claim is, as a hypothetical, entirely correct. Unfortunately for the atheist, the claim “If theism is de facto true, then atheism is de jure without warrant” is also, as a hypothetical, entirely correct. The problem arises because atheists typically present their claim simply as “theism is de jure without warrant“; the trouble with this claim is that its warrant depends upon the de facto truth of atheism: if atheism is de facto true, then theism probably does de jure lack warrant. BUT if theism is de facto true, then it is very probable indeed that theism possesses de jure warrant and atheism is de jure either an unwarranted belief or an irrational (unwarranted) rejection of a warranted belief.

What follows from this is simple: atheists cannot make the claim that theism is de jure without warrant without first making the case for the de facto truth of atheism, because if theism is true, then the claim that it is without warrant is so improbable as to remove all its effective force as a real objection to theism. Atheists who wish to refute theism cannot do so by means mere de jure objections to the warrant of theism, but must make the positive de facto case for the truth of atheism, since any evaluation of the warrant conditions of theism depend upon the truth or falsity of theism. Unless and until atheists have done this, their de jure objections are without force, since they all contain the unspoken caveat “If atheism is true, then it is the case that …”

I will conclude with an excerpt on this extremely important point as set forth by Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, from his Knowledge and Christian Belief:

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 11.46.05 PM

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη, Josh.



10 comments on “Extra-Special Pleading: How “Burden of Proof” Atheists Engage in Special Pleading to be Allowed to Engage in Special Pleading

  1. A very small point, but what was he going on about with “a distinct lack of reports of the sun being gone for 3 days”?


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      I assume it’s a garbled version of Joshua 10:13 when the sun is said to have stood still for a day during the battle with the Amorites. He’s assuming both an entirely literal interpretation of the passage (which seems doomed from the start, since the apparent movement of the sun across the sky is caused, as we know, by the rotation of the earth) and that we would definitely have many preserved records from an event which took place ~1300 B.C.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also love the version of extra special pleading for atheism which runs, “until you have evidence that something exists, you assume it doesn’t, right?”

    Whereas I will actually check my shoes for spiders *before* I stick my feet in and get bitten. Ditto for holes in the ground – I don’t assume a lack of animal with teeth in it until I have evidence there is one. 🙂


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Kings and politicians in highly Machiavellian societies make very bad atheists: they always assume until they have evidence of poison or other forms of assassination, none exist. They don’t live long.

      Is this a good argument for disbanding the Secret Service?


  3. What a great knock-down! It is so odd to see atheists so loudly professing their intellectual superiority – yet they cannot survive their position without denying definitions, or without committing a textbook argument from ignorance.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      As I said, in professional philosophy, there is general agreement, even by atheistic philosophers of religion, that the “burden of proof is on the theist” argument fails.

      What’s become clear is over a couple decades’ argument is that the argument requires certain assumptions, and the assumptions are equivalent to assuming the truth or high probability of the argument. In other words, the whole strategy turns out to be question-begging rather than “neutral” as it purports.

      Or to put it another way, only by assuming that atheism is “neutral” position can the argument seem to work.

      This is plausible only because of analogies in which the assumption of nonexistence until existence is shown seems natural and correct. But as I’ve pointed out before, there are also cases where the natural and correct assumption is existence until nonexistence is proven, e.g. the existence of human beings, minds, truth, the outside world, the reliability or reason, that language can communicate, etc.

      Consider the case of eliminative materialists, who contend there is no such thing as personal first person subjective experience. They deny it exists, and would no doubt demand proof. How could we ever prove such a thing? And yet: cogito, sum. Our private first person experience is so evident to us as to be, literally, indubitable—the natural response to eliminative materialists is to hold they are arguing in bad faith, denying something exists that they know perfectly well does exist.


  4. theofloinn says:

    What is he going on about the Null Hypothesis? Does he even know what it is? Or does he think it amounts to the hypothesis that X=0? It could just as easily be X=32 ft/sec². What makes him think it is even appropriate to this question? Does he imagine a one-sample t-test? A two sample t-test? A χ²-test? Does it occur to him that this is not even a statistical question?

    Anyway, hypothesis testing is sooo 19th century. 🙂

    — Ye Olde Statistician


  5. acce2455 says:

    I’m glad my blog tracks traffic sources, so that I at least know about your response.

    I’ll have a proper response done in a day or so. Again.


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