The Burden of Proof Fallacy

The concept of “the burden of proof” is a matter of interpersonal protocol in debate or discussion. In formal contexts, such as courts of law, one side—in criminal cases in the United States, the prosecution—may hold the burden of proof.  Some formal debates also make use of a burden of proof as part of the rules.

A burden of proof fallacy occurs when someone attempts to invoke or assign a burden of proof outside of any agreement or interpersonal protocol.

In such cases, the concept of “the burden of proof” becomes a rhetorical trope that conceals two informal logical fallacies: special pleading and an argument to ignorance. A fallacy of special pleading occurs when one asks or demands (“pleads”) to be exempted from a rule or criterion to which everyone else is held for no relevant reason (or no reason at all).  An argument to ignorance fallacy has the form “my assertion is true until proven false.”

The burden of proof fallacy takes the form of “My position is the default position. My opponent has the burden of proof!” But in asserting that one’s position is “the default position”, one is making an argument to ignorance: this just is equivalent to saying “My position is true until it is proven false.” And the justification for this argument to ignorance is simply special pleading that one be allowed to use an argument to ignorance as if it were valid.

Both combined have the form “My argument is true until proven false, and although this is an argument to ignorance, I am specially pleading that I be allowed to use it, despite its invalidity.”  This sounds more legitimate when it is phrased as “My position is the default position, and my opponent has the burden of proof,” but the meaning is the same.

To attempt to lay the burden of proof solely on one’s opponent, as if one had some sort of metaphysical, moral, or logical right to do so is logically fallacious, intellectually dishonest, and unethical.  Since the burden of proof exists solely as a matter of interpersonal protocol, it cannot be placed upon someone without their consent.

As my readers know, I do not appreciate attempts to obligate me without my consent.  As my readers also know, I block this move by demanding that anyone who asserts that I have “the burden of proof” PROVE IT.  And he will never be able to do so, since the burden of proof is a matter of interpersonal protocol, and not any sort of metaphysical, logical, or ethical principle.  It is exactly the same as someone unilaterally attempting to say that I am bound by a contract I never agreed to or signed, just because he says I am a party to the contract.  He cannot “prove” I signed a contract I never signed.

Or to make an even more obvious analogy, it is like someone claiming that of two parties, one of them can consent for the other person, whether or not he or she agrees to this. This dynamic has the same structure as an accused rapist arguing to be acquitted of rape charges on the grounds that he consented for his victim and therefore there was consent.

No one in their right mind would accept this kind of argument. Consent precisely does not occur when only one of the two parties involve does the “consenting” for both. And it is not any more sound when it involves nonconsensual attempts to morally obligate someone with specious “burdens.”

Escaping Plato’s Cave

As you know, the Image of the Cave, which is the centerpiece of Plato’s Politeia (or Republic) is an image of human nature in chains and the story of an escape—a healing, Socrates says—from our default condition, which is one of bondage and ignorance.

There are people, though, who think that healing is what we need to be healed from, and anywhere outside the prison is what needs to be escaped.  In a quite literally Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument, I have been told that only they are truly free who are slaves, and that free men and women are enslaved—by their freedom.

This is one of those times that I will choose Socrates’ simplemindedness over the sophisticated sophistry of the sophists—I’ll go with the freedom of the mind that’s just freedom, not the sophistical freedom that is the “true freedom” of mental slavery.

But let’s take a look at this idiocy, shall we? It’s meant to “cure” me of Platonism, and since Platonism is, at bottom, the belief that reality exists and can be known, it is meant to cure me of these beliefs too.  Let’s see if it succeeds, shall we?


Nine whole points.  Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

1. Plato’s essentialist, historicist and degenerative Theory of Forms or Ideas is a bad idea.

1. This is nothing more than name-calling. And it isn’t even accurate name-calling.  Platonism is as anti-historicist as one can get, since to be a Platonist is to hold that there are entities and intelligible structures in reality that do not vary over time—things like mathematics or the laws of nature.  It is the Caveman (as I shall call him) who is the historicist, as we will see, and who holds that human thought is incapable of rising above its historical situatedness.   As for “degenerative,” the word holds no meaning here.  Again, Platonism holds that there are entities and structures within reality that do not change, and being changeless, cannot degenerate.  If the Cavemen is asserting there is something “degenerate” about Platonism itself, he hasn’t said what it is or even might be, so that claim can be ignored.

2. Nothing — mind, matter, self, or world — has an intrinsic or real nature.

2. Pure self-contradiction.  Supposing it were true, it would be the nature of all these things not to have a nature. To be able to assert this, one would have to know that being or reality is this way—but what is being denied even as it is being asserted is that there is a way reality is.  And “there is no way reality is” is just as self-contradictory an assertion as the assertion “there is no truth” (a proposition the Caveman also accepts, as we will see).

3. That does not mean that the world does not exist. The world is independent of our mental states.

3. Flat contradiction of 2.  Caveman now states, in opposition to his self-contradictory principle 2, that the world does indeed have a nature, and that that nature is “to exist independently of our mental states.”  Remember he said this, because his right to say this is going to be an issue.

4. It means that truth, knowledge and facts cannot exist independently of the human mind. Truth, knowledge and facts are properties of sentences, which make up larger theories and descriptions.

4. Idiotic on several levels.  I am certainly willing to concede that knowledge cannot exist apart from some mind (it doesn’t have to be a human mind)—since knowledge JUST IS the apprehension of some true proposition by some mind.  Notice however that Caveman in the next sentence will ridiculously ascribe knowledge not to minds, but to sentences.  No, Caveman, sentences do not KNOW THINGS.

[Philosophy 101 lesson: Following the principle of charity, I’m going to take Caveman’s “sentences” to mean “propositions,” although strictly speaking he is confused.  Propositions are the primary truth-bearing logical entities, and they relate to sentences in that they are expressed by sentences.  Using the standard philosophical example, consider two sentences: “Snow is white” and “Schnee ist weiss”.  The sentences are different.  One is an English sentence and one a German sentence. The can be found in different locations on your computer screen. If they were spoken, they would be spoken at some time, in some place, by some speaker, etc.  However, they both express the same proposition, which is the logical expression of the relation between a real entity, snow, and a real property of that entity, being white. That snow is white is a state of affairs in the world or a fact.  The relation of snow to whiteness is an intelligible proposition which is true (the fact that snow is white makes the proposition ‘snow is white’ true). Propositions are universal. Sentences are particular.  When you are I or anyone comes to know ‘snow is white’, we have the same propositional attitude towards the very same proposition, viz. that snow is white.  If this were not so, we would not all know the same fact or truth about snow, but we would each ‘know’ an individual fact or truth relative to us—but the nature of knowledge is such that it is common to all.  And once we have propositional knowledge we can express these propositions that we know in the linguistic entities called sentences.  And it is  irrelevant whether we do this by means of English, or German, or Chinese.]

As I’ve just mentioned, facts are best construed as the truth-makers of true propositions.  This is because facts, as states of affairs, exist independently of their being known, that is, independently of human minds—contrary to Caveman’s assertions. It should be a fairly trivial point to note that IF Caveman is correct, we human beings produce not only the entities that may or may not be true, affirmative sentences or negations, BUT ALSO produce the truth-makers of these things, this makes FACTS and TRUTH things that are produced by human beings.  We would, in this case, not only be the ones who produce claims about reality, but we would produce/create/manufacture the truth-makers that make our claims true.  And this means that we human beings have the power to make any claim about anything true or false by our creative wills.  Hello Nietzsche, my old friend. It’s good to meet with you again.

Finally, Caveman’s claim that truth is a property of sentences, which I will charitably take to mean “truth is a property of propositions”, is a half-truth.  There is a very important way in which propositions are the most common locus of truth—for us, since we are essentially discursive creatures or creatures of λόγος.  But this is not the most primordial sense of truth—discursive truth is itself always grounded in a deeper openness of reality to comprehension that makes discursive truth possible.  To put it very simply: we could not grasp or express discursive, propositional truths of the form “S is P” if S and P and their relation where not already given to us in such a way that we could grasp them in their belonging-together and thus come to know them precisely in this belonging together.

So even where Caveman gets close to saying something true, that “truth is a property of propositions,” he’s right only with a series of necessary qualifications.

5. The world can cause us to hold certain beliefs. However, neither the world nor some notion of unchanging Forms decides which description of the world is true. The world does not speak or provide descriptions. Human beings do.

5. Okay, I have decided that this is not a true description of reality.

See the problem?

The problem is an equivocation on the verb “decide.” In one sense, as creatures capable of knowing or believing, it is up to human beings to ‘decide’ what to believe. On the other hand, the way that reality is is not a matter up to human ‘decision.’  Reality is the way it is, regardless of whether human beings ‘decide’ otherwise.  If Caveman seriously disagrees with this, I have a simple challenge for him: I challenge him to ingest a large quantity of cyanide and ‘decide’ that cyanide is non-toxic to human beings.  If reality is controlled by human decision, he should not have a problem doing this and not dying. I maintain “Cyanide is a lethal poison to human beings” is a true description of the world. I further maintain than no amount of human “description” can change this fact.

We can do another thought experiment to bring this home: suppose that the earth became unstable for some reason and was soon to explode, much like Superman’s home planet Krypton.  Suppose also that (for some odd reason) Caveman was the one who was tasked to find a solution to the imminent explosion of the earth.  His solution is “Because the world does not decide what is or is not true, it is not true that ‘the earth is going to explode’. Nor can anything in the world ‘decide’ whether the earth does explode. These things—’facts’ or ‘truths’ or ‘knowledge’—are all contingent on human description. So all we need to do, as human beings, is to describe the earth as ‘not going to explode’ and it will become true that the earth is not going to explode.” Do you think that would work? I think *KABOOM*.

If human ‘decision’ could alter reality by means of ‘description,’ why would we not redescribed reality into some kind of ideal state for human beings? Why do we not live in a perfect world, if it is entirely within our power to create reality as we see fit by description?

Oh, wait, I think I know! It’s because this is bullshit, and we can’t actually change reality by redescrbiing it, isn’t it? Damn. I knew this was too easy.

6. That does not mean that truth, facts and knowledge are subjective. It means that they are a product of shared vocabularies, language games, social practices, in short, forms of life which are again contingent upon and conditioned by historical, social, environmental, and cultural factors and, in the final instance, human evolutionary biology.

6. Time to cut the bullshit. This means that we cannot have knowledge of reality. THAT is what the denial of Platonism MEANS, as I’ve said. “Contingent, historical, circumstantial truth which is produced by a variety of social factors” IS NOT TRUTH.

Caveman is putting forward a theory of reality that serves as a DEFEATER for all theories of reality INCLUDING HIS OWN.  If this account is TRUE, then it itself is merely a product of some historically contingent form of life, etc., etc., and “in the final instance” of human evolutionary biology.  In other words, he is FIRST a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST about reality, but SECOND (inconsistently) a BIOLOGICAL REDUCTIONIST.

Neither of these things is coherent, either with the other, or with itself.

Social constructionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is a mere social construction or convention.

Biological reductionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is merely the outcome of mindless biological forces.

Each theory provides its own defeater, because it provides a defeater for all theories.

Any theory that provides a defeater for all theories, including itself, can be immediately rejected as unwarranted and wholly irrational.

So, that’s what I’ll do.

In this case, each theory also instantiates a performative contradiction insofar as the one who puts forward the theory intends that it be taken to be a true theory about nature of reality—which means that the proponent of the theory, despite his wishes, is committing himself by the very fact of offering a theory of reality, to the view that REALITY CAN BE KNOWN, or in a word, to PLATONISM.

Nietzsche understood this: TRUTH stands or falls with PLATONISM.  That is why he said things like this


And this


And this


What we can see from this is that Caveman is one of those sad specimens of the 20th and 21st centuries, a feeble Nietzschean.  He thinks he is a late-Wittgensteinian, but of course he isn’t consistent in any way, nor is there anything Wittgenstein discovered that Nietzsche was not aware of.

Caveman’s problem is not (yet) the wild incoherence of Nietzsche or the late Wittgenstein. Caveman’s problem is that he sees, dimly, that his shallow Nietzscheanism cum Wittgensteinianism requires him to reject Platonism—but his isn’t actually prepared to DO THAT, since that entails giving up the idea of TRUTH once and for all.

This is sane, to an extent, insofar as the rejection of TRUTH and REALITY is tantamount to embracing the irrational void of pure nihilism—but the inconsistent attempt to embrace the nihilistic void is, if anything, worse. It merely makes one a failure on all sides, a half-and-half, a lukewarm neither-this-nor-that, a rebel when convenient, but utterly conventional when that is convenient. “Hypocrite” would be another word.


It’s one or the other: BEING or NOTHINGNESS;  PLATONISM or NIHILISM.

And lest I be accused of putting to much weight on Nietzsche’s assessment of meaning of Plato (although Nietzsche, as his arch-enemy, understood Plato better than almost any other thinker), let us add some additional testimony:



7. We communicate successfully every day, and we use knowledge successfully every day, because we share imagined (and conditioned) realities and social practices on many levels.

7. What’s amusing is that Caveman thinks our success in knowing and communicating shows that we can “do without” Platonism.

Actually, what it shows is that Platonism is true; that is, we can know things and communicate them.

At bottom, Platonism is the theory of theories, the theory we can know things.  No anti-Platonism can be coherent, since it has to assert we cannot know anything to be true, and so, by its own (anti-) theory, it cannot know what it asserts as true to be true. Caveman is merely another in a long line of people trying to escape truth by asserting the “truth” that “there is no truth” or to escape knowledge by claiming to know that “nothing can be known.” Caveman fails, and all such attempts will always fail, forever and necessarily.

 8. Truth, knowledge and facts can always be redescribed by changing the language game, by changing the habits of speaking, by scientific research coming up with better theories, better descriptions that pragmatically explain better, work better according to what we want to achieve.

8. This is simply the thesis of the sophists, that because we speak about reality, we can change reality by changing the way we speak.  See above for why that doesn’t work.

Caveman thinks he is being bold and new. But there is nothing new here. It is the same old sophistry that philosophy, in the person of Socrates, rose up to destroy.


Platonism is the view that, not man, but reality and truth are the measure of all things. The fact than it is man who does the measuring does not change the fact that what man measures is not man’s creation, nor is it under man’s arbitrary control.

This is of course how SCIENCE operates.  Human beings gain what technological power and mastery over nature they have, only insofar as they submit to the objectivity of reality. Here is Bacon, one of the founders of empirical scientific method making this point:


The postmodern rebellion against reality is, to paraphrase Sartre, a useless passion.

9. Plato’s hypothesis of truth, knowledge and facts as unchanging essences (or “The thing in itself”, in Kant’s description) — only every seen as poorly reflected images on a cave wall — is entirely optional.

9. Platonism is “optional” only so long as you are willing to regard reality, truth, and knowledge as “optional.”  And it is far from clear that that is even a coherent thing to do.

Caveman keeps making assertions which have the appearance of being meant as possibly true assertions—but since he assures us repeatedly that “truth” is a kind of social fiction (or perhaps biological fiction; see Nietzsche’s remark above)—this is in vain, a useless passion.

It is not clear that it is in any way meaningful to say that everything is a fiction, an illusion, a falsehood, etc., since these very concepts of “fiction,” “illusion,” “falsehood” seem to by parasitic on the idea of truth.

And the idea of truth is ultimately the same as the truth of ideas, that is, of an intelligible reality which shows itself to the human mind in such a way that it can be known.

Caveman has failed in his attempt to persuade me to reject truth in favor of fiction, to reject philosophy in favor of sophistry.

I remain, as always, a friend of truth, a seeker of truth and a friend of wisdom.

Which is to say, a philosopher.

Which is to say, a Platonist.

Belief is Evidence? Amazingly, the Amazing Atheist Seems to Think So.

So I watched a YouTube video by T. J. Kirk aka The Amazing Atheist, called “Escaping Atheism 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” (there seems not to be an “Escaping Atheism 1”, at least as far as I can tell. Is the 2 supposed to be a joke? If so, I would have gone with “Escaping Atheism 2: Electric Boogaloo”, but what do I know?)  Anyway, the video is about the Escaping Atheism Project, coordinated by Max Kolbe, in which I’m involved in a volunteer capacity.  The Escaping Atheism Project is essentially a loose association of likeminded volunteers, who each do things independently, coordinated by Max, to whom we have given the honorary title “Patriarch” (anyone familiar with Max’s history should understand why that’s funny).

Now, T.J. does discuss one of my posts, “Plato’s Cave Image / God and the Atheist“, but he doesn’t really say anything substantial—he calls me pretentious, a pseudo-intellectual, mocks me for using Greek words when discussing Plato, things like that.  I left a long comment on the YouTube video itself, and I don’t really have anything to add to it.  It boils down to “T.J. engages in a lot of mockery and tone policing, but he doesn’t actually claim, much less attempt to show, that I am wrong about anything.”

What I actually want to talk about is T. J.’s amazing criticism of a point made by Andrew Stratelotes in a totally different essay.  You’ll understand my amazement in a moment.

Stratelotes’ point is this: “The mere fact of a psychological property, such as a belief or a lack of belief, has no bearing on whether said belief is true or justified or whether said lack of belief is justified.”

This point seems so trivial as to hardly be worth arguing.  If someone were to ask me to demonstrate the existence of God, and I replied “I believe it,” this would not normally, and should not be, regarded as a strong argument for the existence of God.  Similarly, the mere fact that someone does not believe in God is neither evidence that God does not exist, nor that such a lack of belief is justified.

Belief, lack of belief, and disbelief are propositional attitudes human beings hold towards propositions.  They have no bearing on the truth value of the propositions in question, at least in all cases touching on first order beliefs about objective reality.

[Technical paragraph on self-referential epistemology; skip if you want: My first-order belief that “I believe that P” probably is sufficient to establish my second-order belief “I believe that I believe that P.” In cases where the proposition itself is about whether or not one believes a proposition, then and only then would one’s believing a proposition function as the truth-maker for a proposition. Still, even in these cases, it isn’t my second-order belief that “I believe that I believe that P” that makes “I believe that P” true, but the existence of the first order belief “I believe that P” itself. So even in this case, it is the FACT of the first belief that makes ANOTHER belief, the second belief that you believe the first belief, true—and not the second belief, that makes the first one true, by the very act of believing it.]

Excluding the interesting-but-probably-not-important self-referential cases of my beliefs about my beliefs, the propositional attitudes of belief, suspension of judgment, lack of belief, and disbelief have no bearing on the truth value of the propositions towards which they are attitudes—and this because, taken in themselves, they are merely factual psychological properties of the person who holds the propositional attitude in question. My being related to a proposition in the way of assuming a propositional attitude toward it does not, in any way, affect the truth value of the proposition, nor the epistemic likelihood of the proposition’s truth value being one way or the other, nor the correctness of my belief.  It would be very strange indeed if my beliefs were either made correct or made more likely to be correct just on the basis of my act of believing.

I would have thought than any atheist, especially an Amazing one, would not want to hold that the mere fact of my belief in the truth of Christianity is evidence that Christianity is true.

Hence my amazement.  At 16:36 into T. J.’s video we find him yelling “Moron! Moron! Moron! Moron!” at Andrew Stratelotes exactly for holding this view.

So we seem to get the following argument:

  1. Anyone who holds that “believing that P is not evidence that P” is a Moron⁴.
  2. Either T.J. holds this, or T.J. does not.
  3. If T.J. does hold this, then T.J. is a Moron! Moron! Moron! Moron!
  4. If T.J. does not hold this, then T.J. either holds that “believing that P is evidence that P” or  T.J. suspends judgment whether “believing that P is evidence that P.”
  5. If  T.J suspends judgment whether “believing that P is evidence that P,” then he is being highly intellectually dishonest in espousing atheism, because he has not investigated whether a highly relevant thing does or does not constitute evidence for the existence of God.
  6. If T.J. does hold that “believing that P is evidence that P”, then he is being highly intellectual dishonest in espousing atheism, since the existence of ~2.5 billion persons who believe that Christianity is true surely constitutes a lot of evidence that Christianity is true.

In other words, T.J. seems to be acting in a highly irrational way if he discounts the beliefs of billions of Christians as evidence of the truth of Christianity, if he either believes that belief is evidence of truth, or he isn’t sure it isn’t. My suspicion is that T.J. holds neither “believing that P is evidence that P” nor does he suspend judgment on the matter.

I suspect that T.J. holds that “believing that P is not evidence that P,” and the belief of billions of Christians that Christianity is true is not evidence that Christianity is true.

But if so, that would seem to make him, in his own words and for his own reasons, a “Moron! Moron! Moron! Moron!”

The only other options I can think of are that T.J. has catastrophically misunderstood Stratelotes’ point—or else he has deliberately misrepresented it.

What do you think?

The Burden of Proof Fairy

Atheists frequently claim they do not believe in God due to a lack of evidence.  They will tell you such things as God is “a hypothesis,” “unfalsifiable,” “not empirical,” and so forth.

And yet, almost all of these same people believe in fairies. Or at least one fairy: The Burden of Proof Fairy.  They keep telling me that this fairy is sitting on my shoulder.  And that the fact that she is morally obligates me to do things they desire me to do, which I never agreed to.

Now, when someone tells you that you have to obey them because there’s an invisible fairy sitting on your shoulder, which somehow magically places you under a moral obligation, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask them for evidence of this. And so I do.

I get the strangest answers from atheists about why the Burden of Proof Fairy exists.  At least, I find them strange, because I know they wouldn’t accept any one of these as evidence of the existence of God:

“It’s obvious that the Burden of Proof Fairy exists.”

“You are stupid if you don’t believe in the Burden of Proof Fairy.”

“The Burden of Proof Fairy exists by definition.”

“Lots of authorities say that there is a Burden of Proof Fairy.”

[Addendum: a new proof of the Burden of Proof Fairy, courtesy of Josh Randolph:

“She’s just there.”]

And my favorite,

“You have to believe in the Burden of Proof Fairy—or else the You-Have-To-Believe-Everything Monster will come and get you!”

(The You-Have-To-Believe-Everything Monster is some kind of mythical monster that has the power to morally obligate you to believe everything anyone asserts without evidence—the only thing that can cancel this moral obligation is to believe in the saving power of the Burden of Proof Fairy, confess she is real and sitting on your shoulder, and accept her moral commandments.  To me, this sounds like trying to sell me a made-up cure for a made-up disease, but many of them do seem to sincerely believe in both the monster and the fairy)

What’s amazing is the sheer blind faith atheists have in the Burden of Proof Fairy. It frequently gets in the way of discussions about God.  Many atheists simply won’t have a discussion about God unless I will first agree to accept their faith belief in the Burden of Proof Fairy. They just cannot accept that I won’t, and they’d rather end a conversation than proceed without my credal confession that the Burden of Proof Fairy exists.  I am unaware whether there are different denominations among atheists depending on variant dogmas concerning the Burden of Proof Fairy.  I assume that there are, but it seems to be nearly universal atheist orthopraxis to invoke the Burden of Proof Fairy against theists.

Amazing again is the sheer indignation with which I’m met when I ask for evidence of the existence of the Burden of Proof Fairy. I swear I think most atheists would prosecute me under some kind of blasphemy law if they could for daring to question the existence of the Burden of Proof Fairy.  And yet, these are the very same people who endlessly demand and command you to produce evidence that God exists.

Why are they not aware that God exists? They usually claim that there is “no evidence”—which is nonsense of course, given the couple dozen cogent metaphysical demonstrations, the experiences and testimony of literally billions of human beings, and of course the general consensus of the human race, being at least minimally aware of the divine reality as most of us are.  What they really mean is “there isn’t evidence which subjectively convinces me“—which I tend to view more as problem with the me than the evidence.

Back to the Burden of Proof Fairy. She’s invisible, undetectable by any empirical or scientific means, immaterial, and alleged to have a moral power to obligate persons to obey her. And atheists absolutely, fanatically, believe in her. Or should I write Her?

If you don’t believe me, try asking an atheist for evidence that the Burden of Proof Fairy exists. You’ll be amazed at the reactions you get.

I made a guide to understanding the Burden of Proof Fairy for you all. With cartoons! Enjoy.


Professor James Cargile on the Burden of Proof

I’m a professional philosopher and I have never really run across the work of Professor James Cargile. That’s not unexpected, since there are literally thousands of professional philosophers in the United States alone.  He is, apparently, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virgina, and has taught philosophy for upwards of 40 years.

He also has the distinction—if it is a distinction—of being the main reference used to bolster a particular talking point, commonly used by atheists, concerning the “burden of proof”—that is to say, he is the source which Wikipedia references as authoritative on the issue, thus:


As my readers know, I have issues with the notion that “the one who makes the claim has the burden of proof” etc., etc.  Many times I have said, well, if this is Professor Cargile’s position, well and good, but what is his argument?

I do not accept citations of Wikipedia as authoritative.

And of course, my readers will also note immediately that, if Professor Cargile does indeed make the claim that the burden of proof lies on the one of who makes a claim, then, by the principle of retortion, he—as the one who claims this—has the burden of proof to prove it, by his own principle.

Despite the fact that I must have challenged people who cite Wikipedia as their authority on the burden of proof to produce Professor Cargile’s argument at least 2 dozen times, no one ever has.

I got tired of waiting.  So I went and read Professor Cargile’s paper for myself.

I invite you to do so also. It can be found here: Cargile, James. “On the Burden of Proof.” Philosophy, vol. 72, no. 279, 1997, pp. 59–83.

I found it to be thoughtful and nuanced, the kind of work one would expect from a serious professional philosopher.  That is to say, citing Professor Cargile’s paper in support of the above simple-minded and dogmatic principle is erroneous, and a disservice to a thoughtful paper.

He does indeed explore “one common principle for assigning the burden of proof” as “being on the one who affirms,” and holds it to be not entirely unreasonable as a rough heuristic principle for guiding serious conversation—he more or less agrees with my friend Christopher Lansdown, who holds “the burden of proof lies on whoever wants to be in the conversation most”—but Professor Cargile also quite sensibly notes that “the common principle is not true without qualification,” and he elaborates as follows

But sometimes a claim arises after there has been some discussion and there is some general interest in keeping it going.

For example, suppose that the topic is street gangs, one side suggesting they are not all bad, the other side skeptical. Jones is arguing that gangs bring young men together and teach them to cooperate with others, etc. Smith argues that they do too much damage. The conversation is somewhat difficult, but Smith hopes to win support for stronger police action against gangs. He discovers that a new fad is catching on among the gangs—dousing derelicts with gasoline and burning them to death. He brings this fact into the discussion as proof that the gangs are intolerable. He is stunned to hear Jones reply that “torching ‘bos” is an innocent activity that benefits the community while entertaining gang members. Jones ‘replies like a reasonable person’ arguing his case gently, with lots of examples, waiting patiently for Smith to reply. He is disappointed and somewhat offended when he finds Smith to be speechless.

Smith is dizzy with shock. He manages to observe that the lads are guilty of torturing helpless people to death and that this is evil. But when politely challenged with the consideration that the derelicts are merely a drain on the resources of the community, he cannot think of any reply but to sputter about the sanctity of life. Jones points out that such derelicts might have been used in ancient Rome to entertain the public and that that was the good old days. Why can’t we shed our absurd inhibitions and recapture that spirit? Smith replies that torturing people to death for recreational purposes is evil and that one who is unable to see this is morally blind. Jones replies at length about the importance of considering the happiness of the whole community, etc. Smith says that he has had more than enough and leaves. Jones complains that Smith made a controversial claim and then refused to shoulder the burden of proof. It may well be that a study of voice inflection and conversational manner would show that Jones was engaged and responsive in the discussion while Smith was uncooperative and finally unwilling to argue his position further. Smith has clearly affirmed a position. Does he have the burden of proof?

Here is a basis for answering no: ‘If in some situation there is a proper presumption that something is true, anyone seeking to prove its opposite is said to bear the burden of proof.’ Jones then, is the one who bears an unanswerable burden of proof, since there is a proper presumption of the opposite of his position. There is a proper presumption that recreational torture is evil, no matter how widespread its denial may be. Smith does not have an obligation to produce arguments in support of his claim. It is reasonable to assume it true without argument.

This is in some respects a very satisfactory ruling. It seems right about Smith. But it is not so clear about Jones. Jones is trying to prove the opposite of something which is properly presumed to be true, so by the foregoing criterion, he has the burden of proving his position. But this does not tell us what that means. He certainly does not have an obligation to prove or support his evil claim. In fact, the truth is that Jones has an obligation to cease making that claim and go round humbly testifying to its wickedness by way of atoning for his error. How could it be someone’s duty to defend a wicked falsehood?

Nonetheless, we have a notion of obligations to a discussion that do not clearly follow this line about the decency of the claims at issue. It is possible to have the situation such that it is bad of Smith to drop out and not argue further. There might be some chance of breaking through and bringing enlightenment to Jones (in some version of the case). Furthermore, there is some sense in holding that Jones may come under some requirement to defend his claim. It can be said that, though he is evil for believing the claim, he is acting rightly in doing his best to produce what he honestly considers good reasons for it and waiting in good faith to hear what can be said against it. It is possible for a situation to arise in which it is good to continue to enquire about a matter on which the answer should be obvious to everyone. When, unfortunately, some parties are in a wicked state on the question, then it may be good to pursue the question according to the standards of good debate. This is not at all to endorse the view that this is always good. To refuse to pursue a discussion with a moral monster may be absolutely right, but not universally. It depends on the standards appropriate to the context. But what standards are appropriate is not determined by the opinions of the people in the context.

I would say that the foregoing analysis of Professor Cargile applies very precisely to argument with atheists:

  1. There is a proper presumption that God exists, no matter how widespread its denial may be.
  2. Atheists cannot in a strict sense have an obligation to argue for atheism. Strictly, the obligation would be to renounce the evil doctrine and testify to its falsehood.
  3. It is not unreasonable simply to refuse to have discussion with atheists. However, there may be other considerations in play, such as the possibility of opening their eyes.
  4. Whether or not it is reasonable to have discourse with an atheist depends on whether the atheist in question shows himself capable of a certain kind of rationality-in-discussion, even though his doctrine is irrational in the highest degree.

In sum:

  1. Wikipedia’s citation of Professor Cargile’s article to broadly affirm that “the one who makes the claim has the burden of proof” does not actually provide substantive support for this claim.  We are unsurprised to find, yet again, that Wikipedia is not a reliable basis for supporting serious claims.
  2. This claim, at least according to an analysis unfolded by Professor Cargile, would not help the atheist in any case, given that he is the one attempting to assert a claim in evident opposition to the consensus gentium, wherein it would be necessary to locate what Professor Cargile calls “a proper presumption that something is true.”

For a related line of reasoning, see my reblog of Professor Ralph McInerny’s article “Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist.”

“Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist”

My readers are aware that I have philosophical issues with the concept of the “burden of proof” when it is used outside formal contexts such as courts of law, as it frequently is by many atheists.  I think in these cases it functions as a rhetorical trope which conceals two fallacies, special pleading and argument to ignorance.   When one says “My opponent has the burden of proof,” what one is really saying is “My position is true until proven false, which, yes, is an argument to ignorance, but I am specially pleading that you allow this argument to ignorance for me (but not for my opponent of course).”

If there is some meaning to the term “burden of proof” in non-formal contexts, it could be something like “The person who disputes the consensus gentium has a prima facie expectation of justifying this being at odds with the human consensus.

Now, since the atheist is clearly the one who disputes the consensus gentium, it seems as if there should well be a prima facie expectation that atheists justify their position.

At any rate, Professor Ralph McInerny, Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, makes an interesting case “Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist.”  Enjoy:


Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist

Professor Ralph McInerny

In this paper, I ponder two questions:

(1) Why can’t the religious believer simply put the burden on the skeptic, and ask him to justify his unbelief, with the underlying assumption that as between theism and atheism, it is the former that is obviously true and the latter that is obviously false?

(2) This not being possible in any way that is of immediate interest to religious belief, how does the believer regard his inability to prove the truth of faith in the manner the skeptic demands?


Should one review the considerations and discoveries and breakthroughs that have been taken to render religious belief false, inane or pointless, the list could prove amusing. Greek atomism, disease and death, heliocentrism, electricity, the new physics or philosophy or psychology, have all been advanced as telling decisively against any belief in God. The point on which the refutation or rejection rests, for a moment the latest thing, is all too soon forgotten or refuted. Shouldn’t this tell against atheism?

Of course skeptics seldom think of themselves as part of a tradition. They take no more responsibility for the follies of earlier versions of themselves than they do for the claims of theists. The skeptic is always at Square One, arguing ab ovo, willing to be himself alone against the world, and even when he wheels in the views of others for support we sense that he feels no need for company in order to hold what he does, or to deny what he does.

Believers have recently gotten a little weary of being assigned research projects or intellectual tasks by the skeptic and have devised a number of versions of the tu quoque to stop the demands. No one is more adroit at this than my colleague Alvin Plantinga and I shall not attempt to steal his fire. (The phrase has nice theistic overtones but perhaps assigns Al a place more exalted than he himself would claim.) I simply refer to the structure of God and Other Minds. This book argues that it is no less reasonable to believe in God than to believe in the existence of other minds. But critics of theism cannot get along without belief in other minds, therefore they have no consistent way of objecting to theism.

In other words, So’s your old man.

A later version of this is to counter the claim, one, that there are certain basic propositions which do not include ‘God exists’ and, two, that other such propositions as ‘God exists’ must be justified by grounding them in basic beliefs. The theist can accept this model of justification and blandly add that ‘God exists’ is one of his basic propositions. Why not?

This should not be understood in a private or subjective sense. When Job says that he knows that his redeemer liveth, he is not simply reporting on his psyche; he doesn’t mean that he knows that he knows something or other, it doesn’t matter what. It is the object proposition and the truth it contains he is asserting. Does the believer who says ‘God exists’ is basic for him want simply to report on his idiosyncratic convictions?

If he does, he may be saying only that he has as much right to take ‘God exists’ as basic as his critic does to take sense data or truths about the world as basic. Perhaps that is all Plantinga wishes to do. The upshot is then to claim that the believer and his critic are in the same boat. They agree on some formal account-that there are basic propositions and propositions derivative from them-but there is no way to adjudicate claims as to what propositions, materialiter loquendo, can function as basic. The skeptic is simply wrong if he thinks some version of empiricism is beyond dispute or, worse, that it is part of the formal theory.

My own first question envisages a meatier interpretation than that. I am asking whether the skeptic is justified in calling into question the truth of ‘God exists.’ Why not put the burden on him? Why not insist that he is attempting to convict of irrationality generations of human beings, rational animals like himself, whole cultures for whom belief in the divine and worship are part of what it is to be a human being? Were all those millions, that silent majority, wrong? Surely to think something against the grain of the whole tradition of human experience is not to be done lightly. It is, need one say it, presumptuous to pit against that past one’s own version of the modern mind. This suggests that the present generation is in agreement on things incompatible with belief in God. Or that all informed people now alive, etc. etc. Meaning, I suppose, that all present day skeptics are skeptics.

Is there thus a prima facie argument against atheism drawn from tradition, the common consent of mankind both in the past and in the present time? I think so. There is a way in which it is natural for human beings to believe in God. I think of St. Thomas who on several occasions observed that a person need only look around at the world and gain the idea of God. The order and arrangement and lawlike character of natural events impose the idea. Indeed, so easily does the idea come that it seems almost innate.

This may be taken both as a factual historical remark as well as a theoretical claim. Thus it has been in the experience of the race. The difficulty with this all but universal acceptance of the divine lies in the identification of God. That is, trees and wind, sun and the world itself have been identified with God, nor has it been necessary to choose among these possibilities. This diversity does not tell against the naturalness of the recognition.

Let me cite a parallel in St. Thomas in order that it may be clear what he is and what he is not saying here. Thomas, as you know, agrees with Aristotle that there is an ultimate end of whatever we do, that any human action of any human agent aims at the supreme good or ultimate end which is happiness. The familiar objection to this is that humans have very different aims when they act and that any given human appears to have a plurality of aims not easily reducible to the kind of unity Thomas’s view suggests. Since Thomas was not the village idiot, we may presume that he is aware of the diversity mentioned and that he does not think it tells against his doctrine of ultimate end. How not?

He distinguishes in any action the ratio boni, the note of goodness, the formality under which we do any action, on the one hand, and, on the other, the particular deed done in which we take that formality to be realized. What the dizzying variety of deeds done have in common is the reason we do any of them, our aim, and that is that they are good for us to do, meaning, to do such-and-such is perfective of the kind of agent I am. A vast variety of types and tokens of act fill that bill. Some do not. Just as I may, misled by a miracle diet plan, think ground glass is good for me, so I may think theft is a kind of action perfective of the kind of agent I am. To want to be healthy, the presumed goal of dieting, with being wealthy and wise following hard upon, of course, is an unquestionable good for man; physical well-being is a constituent of any adequate account of a fulfilled human life. The problem lies with the ground glass.

No need to go on about this here. What I wish to recall is the way in which Thomas holds that human agents always act under the same formality-aiming at what is perfective of them-and that this in no way precludes legitimate and illegitimate diversity in action.

In similar fashion, the idea of the divine, the concept of a god, is what is shared; the identification of this or that or the other thing as God does not destroy the common assumption. Men disagree about who and even what God is. Another way Thomas makes this point is by saying that ‘God’ is a common noun, not a proper name.

Consider Thomas’s remark about Anselm’s proof. Someone might not agree that ‘God’ means that than which nothing greater can be conceived. What does Thomas think is the common formality of the term ‘God.’ The etymology of the Greek term suggests to him: one who sees, with the connotation, I think, of one to whom we are responsible, one on whom we depend for being or well-being, one to thank, petition, worship, placate.

Thomas’s reference to Anselm is in a discussion in which he argues that ‘God exists’ is not a self-evident truth. At first blush, this seems incompatible with his other view that knowledge of God is natural, easily had, widely shared, kind of unavoidable. There is no incompatibility because the latter claim, that knowledge of God is natural, means that men easily make the requisite inference as, e.g., from the order in the world.

Does not the burden of proof then fall on the shoulders of the skeptic? Yes. And the skeptic is the first to admit this-or at least to exemplify it. I would hazard the view that more attention is paid to theism, religious belief, the existence of God, as a problem to be dealt with, as something that is an intellectual task, by the skeptic than by the believer. I have met many more militant skeptics than I have believers who look as if they were going to toss and turn all night unless they developed an airtight proof for the existence of God.

The Thomist distinguishes rigorously between theism and Christianity in terms of the distinction between praeambula fidei and mysteria fidei. The preambles of faith are truths about God which happen to have been revealed but which had been discovered, independently of revelation, by the pagan philosophers. Theism, call it natural theology, establishes truths about God on the basis of other truths which are accessible in principle to any human being. Mysteries of faith, on the contrary, are truths about God which cannot be established as such by grounding them in or deriving them from what anyone knows.

This distinction would seem to imply that even if the best conceivable results were obtained on the level of theism, this would do nothing to establish the truth of the mysteries of faith, precisely those truths which are the heart and soul of Christianity, viz. that Jesus is both human and divine, that there is a Trinity of persons in the one divine nature, that we are called to an eternity of blissful union with God, etc. The distinction between nature and grace, between the natural use of human reason and reasoning which is aided by grace and revelation, makes it clear that while Thomas holds that theism is natural and relatively easily attained, he does not regard this as making the further step into Christian belief as a continuation of the same sort of thinking.

It is, of course, within the ambiance of his own religious faith that Thomas makes such distinctions, just as it is in reflecting on revealed truths and on what philosophers have accomplished that he distinguishes the preambles from the mysteries. Given the distinction, there would be no way in the world that the believer can respond to the nonbeliever’s demand that he show that the central truths of Christianity are true. Current day skeptics doubtless think that theism is in every bit as much trouble as Christian mysteries and thus that the distinction does not make much difference.

Indeed, the skeptic might well say to me that my suggestion that the burden of disproof is on him in the case of theism should lead me to the same claim with respect to Christian mysteries. That is, he might say, an awful lot of people over the last two thousand years and an awful lot of people today are Christians. Do I accordingly think that it is natural to be a Christian and that until proven otherwise Christianity ought to be accepted as true?

Of course the parallel does not hold. It is the Christian who makes the distinction. St. Paul says that the misbehaving Romans are inexcusable because they can come to knowledge of the invisible things of God from what God has made. Just as men have a law written in their hearts which is not identical with the law of the Gospel. It is the Christian who insists that it is only thanks to the grace of Christ that he has accepted the word of God.

It might seem that the believer would have no particular interest in theism. From the point of view of the fullness of revelation the truths about God men could learn on their own are few in number and relatively exiguous. There are several reasons why someone like Thomas Aquinas exhibits such an interest, but let me stress only one here, the one which enables him to formulate an argument for the reasonableness of belief.

The truths of faith, the mysteries, are truths about God whose truth cannot be established by natural reason. (Nor can their falsity.) Does this mean that Thomas is a fideist if by fideist we mean one who holds that nothing we know counts either for or against Christianity? No, because Thomas has devised proofs on behalf of the claim that it is reasonable to accept as true propositions whose truths we cannot now comprehend. And one of those arguments makes use of the preambles of faith.

It is not that preambles of faith provide premises from which mysteries of faith could be concluded to be true. That would of course erase the difference between preambles and mysteries. The argument is rather this. If some of the truths about himself that God has revealed can be known to be true (the preambles), it is reasonable to hold that all the rest (the mysteries) are true. It is that argument, and its far reaching implications, that explains the historic interest of Christian believers in theism and natural theology. If theism is accepted by the non-believer, he has one less obstacle to accepting the grace of faith. The believer believes on the basis of Romans 1:19, and the Roman Catholic on the basis of Vatican I, that men can come to knowledge of God by natural reason. The believer does not need such proofs. He does not fret when relevant objections are brought against his own efforts to formulate one. He will return to the task, not to shore up his own faith and certainly not in search of something that will argue another irresistibly into the faith. There is only one way to come to believe.

This is why, in discussions with skeptics, the believer confines himself to philosophical theism. His aim is not to triumph, to crush, to embarrass, even simply to succeed, since success in natural theology has such an oblique relation to what is truly important, that all men recognize and accept the pearl of great price. If there is something that makes the believer toss and turn it is the thought that he might become an impediment to another’s acceptance of the gift of faith.

Troy Leavitt on GamerGate and the Religion of Identity Politics

Game developer Troy Leavitt recently released a video on YouTube called GamerGate — Thoughts of a Game Developer. It’s very good, and I recommend you watch it.

But the thing that most caught my attention was his extremely clear and concise description of what he calls “The Religion of Identity Politics”—which could just as well be called “The Religion of Social Justice” (as I would probably call it) or “The Religion of Political Correctness.”

And he understands GamerGate, correctly, as a revolt against this aggressive Religion.

His words are good, so I am going to share them, because that’s what I do.



My explanation is that GamerGate was a consumer revolt against the Religion of Identity Politics.  I think the word ‘religion’ is the right word here, because there’s kind of a central dogma in identity politics, and that is that you are defined not by your behavior, not by your character, but by your demographic identifiers. For example, you start with your sex, whether you’re male or you’re female; then you move on to your race, whether you’re white, or black, or asian, or indian or whatever that might be; and then your sexual orientation, gay, straight, bi, and so forth—and this is supposed to be your political group. It’s how you’re supposed to be IDENTIFIED. And the Religion of Identity Politics goes on to say that the more rare your particular instances of demographics are, the more oppressed you are, and hence, the more righteousness within the religion you can assume. Conversely, the more commonplace are your demographics, the more oppressive you are, and hence the more evil secretly resides in your very existence.

To me, this is very much like original sin. If you just happen to be born into a majority position, within the Religion of Identity Politics, you are automatically sinful. Your behavior doesn’t really matter. That’s what they mean by ‘privilege’—it’s your position, you’re just born into it. Note that this is the exact opposite of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Now also within the religion, the only way you can really be redeemed is to accept your inherent sinful nature as on oppressor—to whatever degree that is—and you confess your demographic markers. You say, “I’m sorry I’m white, I’m sorry I’m male, I’m sorry I’m straight!” and then you promise, you promise to do better, to have a change of heart, to strive to overcome your inherently sinful ways. And you do that be denigrating yourself, by putting yourself down, and elevating others who might be in a more oppressed state. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person. Within the Religion of Identity Politics, it’s purely your demographic.

Go back and look at those articles [about gamers] that all dropped on the same day of August 28, and you can see pretty clearly that they’re evangelizing this religion of identity politics. And they’re saying “This is the solution to this scandal we see over here.” The authors, the press people, were kind of like priests and priestesses of Identity.

No! I reject your religion. I reject what you’re saying about me! And I’m going to push back. I’m going to fight back against anybody who says I have to suddenly buy into your religion to be a good person.” To me, that’s what GamerGate was all about and what it continues to be all about.

It’s a rejection of the Religion of Identity Politics.