Why the ‘Burden of Proof’ Destroys Rational Discourse

As my friend Chris Lansdown has noted, not only is the “burden of proof” not useful in discussions, it actually renders all discussion and argument impossible, if it is taken seriously.

Consider someone who claims that his opponent has the burden of proof. By his own principle that “the one who claims has the burden of proof,” he has the burden of proof to prove his claim that his opponent has the burden of proof.

Suppose he attempts to do so. In order to prove this, he will have to make an argument. In order to make an argument, he will have to assert other claims, namely, the premises of the argument he offers as a proof.

But in asserting these new claims as premises, he immediately, by his own principle, acquires a burden of proof to prove his additional claims. So he will need to prove his new claims, the premises, as well.

But to prove his premises, he will need to make an argument for each premise, and every argument he makes will require more still more premises—that is, claims—and with every new claim he asserts, he acquires—by his own “the one who claims has the burden of proof” principle—a new burden of proof to prove each of the new claims.

This very obviously results in an infinite regress, in which he must prove the proof and then prove the proof of the proof and then prove the proof of the proof of the proof etc. ad infinitum.  And since this endless task cannot be completed by any human being, it would destroy any meaningful conversation before it even begins.

Thus, literally the ONLY way to have a rational discussion about ANYTHING is to DISREGARD the nonsensical pseudo-logical principle that “the burden of proof is on the one who claims.”

10 comments on “Why the ‘Burden of Proof’ Destroys Rational Discourse

  1. The burden of proof falls upon the individual making an affirmative statement. An affirmative statement, according to http://legalbeagle.com/7413395-affirmative-statement.html “When its grammatical meaning is being applied, an affirmative statement can be used to state any basic fact,” and “In grammar, an affirmative statement is any statement that affirms something to be true.”

    An affirmative statement requires supporting evidence. Me TELLING you this is an affirmative statement, which I’ve reinforced with a legal reference regarding affirmative statements.

    It is logical to assume that an affirmative statement requires supporting evidence. In this case, the assignment of “burden of proof” is self-fulfilling and automatic. “The affirmative statement requires burden of proof,” in itself, is a statement that asserts its completeness. I recommend looking up the blend of semantics and mathematics that is Gödel. Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_completeness_theorem

    I think it is reasonable to ask WHY the affirmative statement requires proof. A simple thought experiment could quickly demonstrate the necessity to validate affirmative statements. For example, a Westboro Baptist Church protest sign reads: “God killed your sons.” If proof was not required to validate this statement, this would implicate God in (at least) a double homicide. However, because these claims are not demonstrably true, it is reasonable to doubt their validity until such point that they are validated.

    Logical discourse and arguments can be very involved and require weeks of preparation and definition, establishing formats and algorithms that can aid us. Epistemology might be worth your curiosity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Yes, but you have also made the additional affirmative statement that your legal reference establishes your first affirmative statement. That is an additional affirmative statement, as are the statements from your source, which must now be proven.

      In making this argument, you have now acquired a new burden of proof to

      1. prove your affirmative statement that your citation of other affirmative statements proves your first one.
      2. prove the affirmative statements you cited (including the definitions).

      Please proceed. I’ll wait. Do be aware that any additional affirmative statements you make in proving 1 and 2 will generate new burdens of proof.

      You will not of course be able to do this. Anything you assert or affirm in an attempt to make your case will lead to an explosive inflation of your burden(s) of proof. This is why your principle is false. If it were true that “the burden of proof rests on the one who makes an affirmative statement” then anyone affirming this would acquire a burden of proof to prove it (by itself), as you have done. But now you are trapped. Anything you say in order to discharge your burden of proof must, again by your own principle, be proven by you; and anything you say in attempt to prove the proof must be proven; and anything you say attempting to prove the proof of the proof must be proven; etc.

      Therefore, your principle that “the burden of proof rests on the one who makes an affirmative statement” is not established. You have failed to meet your own standard, because your standard sets an impossible task. Thus, your standard, by the very standard that it sets, IS NOT ESTABLISHED, nor can it be.

      And since it unreasonable to accept a principle that is not established, it is not reasonable to accept the unestablished principle “the burden of proof rests on the one who makes an affirmative statement.”

      And this is of course only one of the problems.

      Suppose I assert the following: “There is no such thing as a burden of proof.” Will you tell me that I have the burden of proof to prove there is no such thing as the burden of proof? This seems like an entirely question-begging move on your part. If I deny there is any such thing as the burden of proof, you telling me that I have a burden of proof is rather obviously a question-begging move. Why on earth should I listen to you?

      Or again, consider a person who says “I exist.” Does he acquire a burden of proof to prove that he exists? I think not. Why would he?

      Or again, consider a person who says “Something exists.” Does he acquire a burden of proof to prove that something exists? Again I think not. Why would he?


      In short, the principle you assert is unestablished, unestablishable, needs to be rejected by its own terms, and is absurd on its face.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Did you look into the completeness link I provided? Keep in mind the affirmative statement regarding the burden of proof is often an understood rule. A sort of sensible requirement.

        You do bring up an interesting thought. “The burden of proof does not exist.” That is an affirmative statement that would require…question begging. But I think it might be useful to investigate the “liar paradox.” This occurs when a statement is self contradictory, or leads to contrary conclusions.

        You didn’t entertain my thought experiment either! Let us suppose that the burden of proof is exponentially complex and pointless to determine. I doubt this is true, but lets suppose it is.

        How then, would you determine the truth of anything? If the burden of proof is not the domain of the affirmation, in which capacity do we prove the affirmation? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!


        • Eve Keneinan says:

          I did refresh myself re: Gödel’s completeness theorem, just because I’d forgot most of it, but it really wouldn’t have anything to do with philosophical arguments in natural languages, which are not, after all, formal closed systems.

          It may be that the burden of proof is “often an understood rule,” it is certainly within my epistemic rights to bring to light said rule and question its legitimacy. I think the correct account of it is as a matter of interpersonal protocol, which may founded in an unspoken agreement of persons engaging in discussion. In my specific case, I do not automatically and non-verbally enter into such an agreement because I frequently debate atheists, who do not accept this.

          If the burden of proof is exponentially complex, how would we determine the truth of anything? Like so many people, you seem to be oddly conflating ‘the burden of proof’ with proof. The way we determine things to be true, typically, is by demonstration or proof that they are true. This has nothing whatever I can see to do with any moral obligation to engage in the activity of demonstrating something to be true. My question remains, as it has been, what right or authority allows you or any other person, to compels me to engage in activities to which I have not and do not consent? What obligates me to provide you with demonstrations, against my will?

          Liked by 1 person

          • “What obligates me to provide you with demonstrations, against my will?” I really like how you said this, and it is a perfectly valid point. Anyone is free to say just about anything, and not have to substantiate their claims.

            I might suggest these two ideas. The first being that, just as no one has the right to force you to prove your assertions, until you fulfill that, you should not expect someone to regard them with any validity. Despite your obvious passion for knowledge. I think there might be an understanding (as you stated an “interpersonal protocol”), that when an affirmative statement is made, it is typically made for a reason. In order to utilize that affirmative statement in the manner of its intent, it should be first demonstrated to valid. Again, your point is excellent and this is absolutely no moral obligation to provide validity. But, even if the burden of proof did not rest with you, it might be polite to provide it. If, for no other reason, to make your affirmative statement useful.

            Secondly, regarding the burden of proof, would you entertain the idea that it is a collective responsibility? With our current technology, perhaps it isn’t one voice or one argument, but a collective operation of investigation that would yield a better result? Peer review, for example.


            • Eve Keneinan says:

              Politeness takes place within a context of implicit reciprocity. Since, as I said, I typically debate with atheists, who do NOT reciprocate, I see no reason why I should do so, since to do so gives them a decided debate advantage, which I see absolutely no reason to cede, for the sake of politeness.

              I do think we have certain epistemic duties to God and ourselves, but I see no very strong ones to those who are our intellectual enemies.

              Neither ordinary politeness nor a collective responsibility could suffice to obligate me to endure unjust attacks. It is not polite to seek someone’s death, and in general there is a general and perhaps collective responsibility not to do so: but these things can be overridden in times of attack, direct threat, war, etc.

              If someone physically attacks me, I will defend myself by whatever means I am able to, up to and including lethal force. If someone intellectually attacks me, something of the same principle applies. I will not allow myself to be disarmed or defenseless when my attacker is very clearly intent on being armed.


  2. KIA says:

    I’m not sure the author of the article is being completely honest here. It seems like he or she just wants to be able to make statements and claims he doesn’t have to defend.
    Are you a chriatian?


  3. KIA says:

    Ah… I just saw. Sorry. You seem to be Muslim.
    Do you really believe Muhammed flew on a winged horse?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s