Burden of Proof in Philosophy? [reblog from the Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella]

Reblog of Burden of Proof in Philosophy via Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher.


Burden of Proof in Philosophy?

1. The question this post raises is whether it is at all useful to speak of burden of proof (BOP) in dialectical situations in which there is no judge or tribunal to lay down and enforce rules of procedure.  By a dialectical situation I mean a context in which orderly discussion occurs among two or more competent and sincere interlocutors who share the goal of arriving as best they can at the truth about some matter, or resolving some question in dispute.  My main concern is with dialectical situations that are broadly  philosophical.   I suspect that in philosophical debates the notion of burden of proof is out of place and not usefully deployed.  That is what I will now try to argue.

2. I will begin with the observation that the presumption of innocence (POI) in an Anglo-American court  of law is never up for grabs in that arena.  Thus the POI is not itself presumptively maintained and subject to defeat.  If Jones is accused of a crime, the presumption of his innocence can of course be defeated, but that he must be presumed innocent until proven guilty is itself never questioned and of course never defeated.  The POI is not itself a defeasible presumption.  And if Rescher is right that there are no indefeasible presumptions, then the POI is not even a presumption.  The POI is a rule of the ‘game,’ and constitutive of the ‘game.’  The POI in a court room situation  is like a law of chess.  The laws of chess, as constitutive of chess, cannot themselves be contested within a game of chess.  The reason there is always a definite outcome in chess (win, lose, or draw) is precisely because of those nonnegotiable chess-constitutive laws.

As I pointed out earlier, defeasible presumption (DP) and burden of proof are correlative notions.  The defeasible presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty places trhe onus probandi on the prosecution.  Therefore, from the fact that the POI is not itself a defeasible presumption in a court of law, it follows that neither is the BOP.  Where the initating BOP lies — the BOP that remains in force and never shifts during the proceedings — is never subject to debate.  It lies on the state in a criminal case and on the plaintiff in a civil case.

3. But in philosophy matters are otherwise. For in philosophy everything is up for grabs, including the nature of philosophical inquiry and the rules of procedure.  (This is why metaphilosophy is not ‘outside of’ philosophy but a branch of same.)  And so where the BOP lies in a debate between, say, atheists and theists is itself a matter of debate and bitter contention.  Each party seeks to put the BOP on the other, to ‘bop’ him if you will.  The theist is inclined to say that there is a defeasible presumption in favor of the truth of theism; but of course few atheists will meekly submit to that pronunciamento.  If the theist is right in his presumption, then he doesn’t have to do anything except turn aside the atheist’s objections: he is under no obligation to argue positively for thesism any more than the accused is under an obligation to prove his innocence.

4. Now we come to my tentative suggestion.  There is no fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies in any dialectical context, legal, philosophical or any other: it is a matter of decision.  This is because BOP is a procedural matter.  If so, then there must be an adjudicator above the fray (i.e., a judge or arbiter who is not party to the dispute) who makes the decision as to where the BOP lies and has the power to enforce his decision.  There must be an arbiter who lays down and enforces the rules of procedure.  But in philosophy there neither is nor can be an above-the-fray adjudicator  whose decisions are unquestionable and backed by the threat of violence.

For suppose I were to try to play the arbiter in a debate between a theist and an atheist.  I give the following speech:

There is a presumption in favor of every existing institution, long-standing way of doing things, and well-entrenched and widespread way of belief.  Now the consensus gentium is that God exists.  And so I lay it down that there is a defeasible presumption in favor of theism and that the burden of proof  lies squarely on the shoulders of the atheist.  Theism is doxastically innocent until proven guilty.  The theist need only rebut the atheist’s objections; he needn’t make a positive case for his side.

Not only would the atheist not accept this declaration, he would be justified in not accepting it, for reasons that are perhaps obvious.  For my declaration is as much up for grabs as anything else in philosophy.  And of course if I make an ad baculum move then I remove myself from philosophy’s precincts altogether.  In philosophy the appeal is to reason, never to the stick.

The situation in philosophy could be likened to the situation in a court of law in which the contending parties are the ones who decide on the rules of procedure, including BOP and DP rules.  Such a trial could not be brought to a conclusion.  That’s the way it is in philosophy.  Every procedural rule and methodological maxim is further fodder for philosophical Forschung. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the alliteration.)

My tentative conclusion is as follows.  In philosophy no good purpose is served by claims that the BOP lies on one side or the other of a dispute, or that there is a DP in favor of this thesis but not in favor of that one. For there is no fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies.  BOP considerations are usefully deployed only in dialectical situations in which some authority presides over the debate and lays down the rules of procedure and has the power to punish those who violate them.  Such an authority constitutes by his decision the ‘fact’ that the BOP lies on one side rather than on the other.

It follows from what I have said that if you disagree with me, then neither of us bears a burden  of proving his metaphilosophical thesis.  But this is paradoxical.  For if you disagree with me, then presumably you think that BOP considerations are usefully deployed in philosophy, and that there is a fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies, and that therefore one of us must bear a probative burden.


The mysterious case of the totally bogus Epicurus quote

e g r e g o r e s

If you do a google search on the following words (without quotes):

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but unable?”

you will get over 2 million hits. Most of those hits ascribe these words to Epicurus, who is supposed to have posed the above question concerning “God”. The only problem is that Epicurus never wrote any such thing, and, in fact, directly contradicted the sentiment expressed in that question.

The quote actually comes from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. More specifically it is found on page 134 of the 1907 edition of Hume’s Dialogues (look here and search for the word “malevolent”).

Hume has Philo, one of the fictional speakers of his Dialogues, say the following:

Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered.

Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent…

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A Simple Epistemological Question for Dr. Bronwyn Winter

Dr. Bronwyn Winter, Associate Professor of “European Studies”—one of the paradigm fields of scientific and academic rigor—at the University of Sydney, and radical feminist, has this to say:

Girls who have felt suicidal, who have histories of eating disorders and self-harm, who have felt our bodies are all wrong, and who have suffered from conservative [sic] and abusive family or school environments and have come out the other side—or who are perhaps still working on coming out the other side—we all know that the problem is not our bodies or our brains; the problem is not us; the problem is society; the problem is gender. [Emphasis mine.]

It isn’t clear who the “all” is in “we all know”—perhaps it is only the ones with the histories of suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and self-harm, things I admit I no experience with.

Assuming this is correct, what exactly is the epistemological link between being suicidal, having eating disorders, and a history of self-harm, and accurate knowledge that “there is nothing wrong with us”?

Prima facie, it seems likely that there is something wrong with a person who is suicidal, has an eating disorder, or engages in self-harm: all three of theses things are, in fact, recognizable and recognized mental disorders.

How do “we”—or I suppose “they”—have this knowledge that, despite the fact that there is obviously something wrong with them, that there is nothing wrong with them, that it is “society” or “gender” which are out of order?

You all know I like arguments to be laid out systematically, so

  1. P is suicidal.
  2. P has an eating disorder.
  3. P has a history of self-harm.
  4. Therefore, P knows that there is nothing wrong with P.
  5. Therefore, P knows something is wrong with society.
  6. Therefore P knows something is wrong with “gender.”

I would really like to know how Dr. Winter manages to get conclusions 4-6 out of premises 1-3.

The Story of Moira Greyland (Guest Post)

Something everyone should know.


I was born into a family of famous gay pagan authors in the late Sixties. My mother was Marion Zimmer Bradley, and my father was Walter Breen. Between them, they wrote over 100 books: my mother wrote science fiction and fantasy (Mists of Avalon), and my father wrote books on numismatics: he was a coin expert.

What they did to me is a matter of unfortunate public record: suffice to say that both parents wanted me to be gay and were horrifed at my being female. My mother molested me from ages 3-12. The first time I remember my father doing anything especially violent to me I was five. Yes he raped me. I don’t like to think about it. If you want to know about his shenanigans with little girls, and you have a very strong stomach, you can google the Breendoggle, which was the scandal which ALMOST drummed…

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“Mythical Jesus”: The Fatal Flaws

Larry Hurtado's Blog

My lengthy posting in which I explained why the “mythical Jesus” claim has no traction among scholars (here) drew (predictably) an attempt to refute it from the “Vridar” blogsite.  I don’t think it succeeds, but readers will have to judge for themselves.  I’ll content myself with underscoring a few things that remain established from my posting.

I focused on three claims that Richard Carrier posits as corroborating his hypothesis that “Jesus” was originally a “celestial being” or “archangel,” not a historical figure, and that this archangel got transformed into a fictional human figure across several decades of the first century CE.  I showed that the three claims are all false, which means that his hypothesis has no corroboration.

  1. There is no evidence of “a Jewish archangel Jesus”.  All known figures bearing the name are portrayed as human and historical figures.  Furthermore, contra Carrier, Paul never treats Jesus as…

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Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars

Larry Hurtado's Blog

The overwhelming body of scholars, in New Testament, Christian Origins, Ancient History, Ancient Judaism, Roman-era Religion, Archaeology/History of Roman Judea, and a good many related fields as well, hold that there was a first-century Jewish man known as Jesus of Nazareth, that he engaged in an itinerant preaching/prophetic activity in Galilee, that he drew to himself a band of close followers, and that he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

These same scholars typically recognize also that very quickly after Jesus’ execution there arose among Jesus’ followers the strong conviction that God (the Jewish deity) had raised Jesus from death (based on claims that some of them had seen the risen Jesus).  These followers also claimed that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory as the validated Messiah, the unique “Son of God,” and “Lord” to whom all creation was now to give obeisance.[i]  Whatever…

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The “Mythic” Jesus’ Last Hurrah

Larry Hurtado's Blog

For several years now, the “mythic Jesus” notion has been re-asserted and, with the aid of the internet, has gained some widespread attention, much to the puzzlement (and often amusement) of serious scholars in the field of origins of Christianity.  I’ve commented on the phenomenon in earlier postings (here, here, here, and here, this last posting with a link to an interview with a leading scholar on the historical Jesus, Dale Allison).

In the eyes of fans of the “mythicist” Jesus view, it appears, Richard Carrier is the key figure, whose books are pointed to as presenting a scholarly defence of it.  Carrier’s two books on this subject are (1)  Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Prometheus Books, 2012), and On the Historicity of Jesus:  Why We May Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield Academic Press, 2014).  Occasionally, readers of my…

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