As most of my readers know, I often get into arguments on Twitter with Twitter atheists, who are not the best educated class of people in the world. Most of them are very fond Antony Flew’s redefinition of atheism as “lack of belief in God,” because it allows them to pretend they have no real position, and so no obligation to defend their position with reasons, evidence, or argument. The trick here is to attempt to put all the responsibility on the theist, claiming that atheism is the “default position.” (Often they call it the “null position”, badly misunderstanding this concept from statistics).
My response, as many of you also know, when someone says “The burden of proof is on the one who makes the positive claim” is to note that this itself is a positive claim, and that, therefore, the one claiming it to me has the burden of proof to prove it:
This drives them crazy, because they cannot prove it. They cannot prove it, because it isn’t true.
Tonight, I had yet another atheist say this to me (actually five, but who’s counting?). As her “proof” @Isobelletomkins referred me to “every logic text book there is” or something like this. I hunted for her actual Tweet for about 15 minutes before realizing she had blocked me. No great loss, as she seemed like an extremely dogmatic and narrow-minded atheist. [Correction: if you check the comments below, you will see that Isobelle Tomkins is not an atheist. She is, in fact, some kind of priestess, who I believe considers herself to be a Christian. I had honestly forgotten this, and simply assumed her to be an atheist since she took part in the dogpile attack on me, along with several atheists. And as for her seeming to me “dogmatic and narrow-minded”, it seems she is one of those “tolerant liberals” who is only dogmatic and narrow-minded towards actual Christian orthodoxy. She has no problem with atheists—only with orthodox Christians. This is of course to be expected from a heretic.]
At any rate, before she blocked me (or maybe after—who knows?) I told her I’d transcribe the section on the fallacy of “Shifting the Burden of Proof” from the logic text I use in my classes, which is Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, if you wish a very thorough grounding in basic and practical logic.
Professor Kreeft and I have corresponded on occasion and he has generously told me to use his books as much as I like.
Here is what he has to say:
Shifting the Burden of Proof
The “burden of proof” or “onus of proof” is a matter of protocol, or interpersonal rules in debate. The one who has this “burden of proof” has to prove his case: if he does not, he loses the debate.
Who has the burden of proof? This varies with the situation. Sometimes it is the one who denies, sometimes the one who affirms. Sometimes it is the one who is the first to speak, sometimes the second.
In science, an idea is “guilty until proven innocent,” so to speak: a crucial principle of the scientific method is to accept no idea until you have adequate proof for it. (What counts as “adequate proof” also varies with the situation.) But in ordinary conversation, an idea is “innocent until proven guilty,” so to speak: we believe what our friends say until we have good reason to disbelieve it. If a physicist says he has discovered how to make cheap cold fusion, or if a theologian says he has discovered the date of the end of the world, the burden of proof is on him, and our rightful reply is “Prove it!” But if Aunt Harriet says the dirty little diner downtown serves the best apple pie you’ve ever tasted in your life, or if your brother says he saw a police car crash into the front door of the city library, you don’t say “Prove it.” The burden of proof is on you if you doubt it. This is not a matter of logic but of personal protocol.
It becomes a matter of logic when, in debate, the original strategy is implicitly changed. E.g. in court a prosecuting attorney may badger the defense to prove its case as if the accused were guilty until proved innocent rather than innocent until proved guilty; or a moralist crusading for a prohibition may demand proof that alcohol contributes to the health of bodies or societies. In a debate about a controversial practice that used to be illegal or unavailable, such as cloning or surrogate motherhood, the one who attacks the new procedure often assumes that the burden of proof is on the “new kid on the block,” on the new permissiveness, while the one who defends it often assumes that any practice, like a person, is innocent until proved guilty. Who has the burden of proof here is itself a matter of serious argument, but this should be agreed on before argument proceeds, and whoever assumes the burden of proof should not “cop out” on giving such a proof (i.e. proving his case) by simply accusing his opponent of not proving his case.
I am unsurprised to find Professor Kreeft saying essentially the same thing I have been saying for years: the “burden of proof” is neither a purely logical or ethical principle. It is a matter of interpersonal protocol. It is foolish to endlessly insist on some mindless “one size fits all” rule such as “the one who makes the positive claim has the burden of proof.” This is, as I have noted, a positive claim that cannot be proven, so the one who makes it is always subject to my retort above, or my friend Chris Lansdown’s standard response, which is to ask his interlocutor to prove he or she is a capable of understanding a rational proof before he makes one.
Which is to say, making up an arbitrary rule about who has the burden of proof and trying to impose it on someone is not a logical or reasonable action. It is an exercise in intellectual bullying or intellectual violence in response to which the victim is certainly entitled to refuse to play that game. Any rules of debate must be agreed upon by all parties; else they are not binding on those who do not accept them. If someone wishes to impose a rule on themselves, that is of course within their rights; but to impose it upon others without their consent is not.
I note again that, infallibly, those who seek to impose the burden of proof rule on others do not accept it for themselves. No one has ever, not once, made a serious philosophical attempt to demonstrate that “the one who claims has the burden of proof.” Instead, they either repeat the “rule” over and over, make an appeal to authority (e.g. Wikipedia), or indulge even more bizarre behavior, the most common of which is to deny that the claim “the one who claims has the burden of proof” is a claim! They say things like “I don’t claim anything. That is just a fact.” or “The burden of proof is on the one who claims! This is not a claim.” To which I of course respond “That is fine. I don’t claim anything either. God exists. That is just a fact,” or “God exists. This is not a claim.” [ADDENDUM: I got a new one for my collection. “I don’t need to prove the burden of proof. It’s axiomatic.” My reply? “That’s fine. I don’t need to prove the existence of God. It’s axiomatic.” Atheists HATE IT when you make them play fair!] [ADDENDUM 2: Got another one. “The burden of proof does not need to be proven because it is the FOUNDATION of logic.” My reply? “Accepted. The existence of God does not need to be proven, because it is the FOUNDATION of all existence.” The response? The usual: “No!!!! You can’t use the EXACTLY SAME ARGUMENT I JUST DID!!!!! BECAUSE THAT’S FAIR AND I DON’T LIKE IT!!!!”]
The problem with using dishonest rhetorical tactics is the most basic rule of fair play: if YOU can do it in the debate, then *I* can do it too! If my opponent uses an unfair or dishonest move, it then becomes entirely legitimate (in that argument) for me to make the exact same move. My opponent has no basis to call me on it, since he himself legitimized the move by making it first. So he can either (1) accept my equal right to use of his own cheat, or else (2) he can openly and brazenly specially plead and insist the rules apply only to me and not to him, or (this is possible, but has never happened) (3) he could say “I see that move I tried to make is illegitimate. Since I’m not willing to let you do it, I guess I’ll have to not do it either, since that’s what fairness requires.” I find it both interesting and depressing that never, not once, has an atheist I’ve been is dispute with elected for option (3). They also won’t accept (1) since I use it to immediately and directly establish the existence of God and/or the truth of Christianity. So what follows is infallibly a long and tortured whining about how it is “unfair” of me to demand fairness. Many of them seem genuinely offended that I expect them to abide by the very rules they are eager to enforce on others. Which, again, I think, tells you something about the typical atheistic mindset.
All you accomplish when you dogmatically assert the unproven and unprovable claim that your opponent has the burden of proof is to thwart all possibility of meaningful discussion or debate, and make yourself an ass or crybaby (or both, a crybully):
It isn’t only atheists who do this, nor is it all atheists, but thanks to Antony Flew’s infamous exercise in intellectual dishonesty “The Presumption of Atheism,” an entire generation of insufferable atheists think they have a God-given right (so to speak) to place the burden of proof on theists, against their will, while divesting themselves of any and all responsibility to make a rational case for atheism (which cannot be done, since atheism is a deeply irrational and incoherent worldview).
It is, in fact, an indication of the complete failure of atheism as a rational position that it has to redefine itself as a kind of agnosticism and make use of this extraordinarily intellectually dishonest tactic. I regard recourse to such foul play as a tacit admission of defeat. If you cannot win without cheating, you should concede defeat and reconsider your position rather than continuing to advocate the position through dishonest means. [ADDENDUM: It was also a completely asshole thing to do for the atheists to redefine themselves en masse as agnostics—except instead of joining the agnostics in an honest manner, they REDEFINED ATHEISM so as to incorporate agnosticism, and FORCED the agnostics, against their will, to be “atheists”—even though the term “agnostic” had been coined specifically in contradistinction to “atheist,” with the result that no one identifying as an “agnostic” wanted to identify as an “atheist” (or they would have done so already). But the atheists carried out a kind of intellectual-linguistic imperialism and simply conquered the domain of the agnostics. This was a massive dick move in the part of the atheists.]
The basic point remains: no one has any right to place the burden of proof on another person without their consent. And you should think little better of people who do think they have such a right to do this to your intellect than you do of people who think they have a right to do things to your body without your consent.
Here are some things I wrote for Twitter: