Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cause and Effect and the Burden of Proof

Do you think you are entitled to believe that God does NOT exist in the absence of conclusive evidence supporting that position? Some atheists do think this way. They think that the burden of proof lies with the affirmative claim, and that the negative position has to be accepted by default. 
But I have a problem with this. You can't really prove, for example, that cause and effect occurs. As David Hume pointed out, you see one even followed by another event,  and it is natural for us to assume that there is cause and effect. When you see spatial contiguity, temporal succession, and constant conjunction, our minds naturally think it's cause and effect. But, says Hume, we can't prove it. But, if the burden of proof lies with the affirmative, doesn't that mean we have to prove the principle of causation in order to accept it? 


25 comments:

John Moore said...

We don't just believe things based on evidence, but we believe what is in our interest to believe. In almost all cases, it is in our interest to believe something to the extent there is evidence for it, but in a few odd cases, it is in our interest to believe without clear evidence:

a) Definitely it is in our interest to believe in cause-and-effect, regardless of whether there is any actual evidence.

b) For some people, it may be in their interest to believe in God due to social/cultural or psychological reasons. But for other people it is not in their interest to believe in God.

c) What about the teapot orbiting Mars? Nobody has any particular interest in believing such a thing.

Hugo Pelland said...

I think John's point c) is really the most important one here. We could re-write the post by stating: "Do you think you are entitled to believe that Santa Claus does NOT exist in the absence of conclusive evidence supporting that position?" I know it seems silly and I don't mean that in a demeaning way, but that's only because most humans today, and especially before, have had some belief in God. It's so ingrained in our psyche, it's such a powerful explanation (for the believers...), it has so many evidence, etc... that it's very easy to forget that it is indeed a positive belief, like any other.

People build their lives around that belief so it's not possible for them to even consider the possibility that there might be no God. That's why they ask to be proven wrong and refuse to admit that there is in fact a burden of proof on their shoulders.

Mortal said...

I have to admit that I've never quite understood just what this "burden of proof" thing is all about. If Joe is convinced that the New Testament is true and sees nothing to contradict that belief, then that's all that matters. Even if Harry is not convinced, Joe has no obligation to prove his beliefs to Harry, or to anyone else for that matter.

And (especially) in an internet conversation, Joe is obligated only to express his beliefs clearly and perhaps to explain why he holds them. But "prove" them? No such burden exists.

Hugo Pelland said...

Good point Mortal, but if hypothetical Joe has a blog, wrote books, studies theology, and affirms that anyone who doesn't believe in God is wrong, or immoral, or irrational, or incapable of governing, etc... then Joe has to explain why we should believe the same things, given that he considers these beliefs to be essential to be a good person.

To be clear, I don't think the real Joe who comments here is like completely like that, nor is anybody here, but many of you do exhibit many of these attitudes. Plus, we all grew up in religious societies, literally all of us afaik, so even though we can certainly ignore religion, it's not always possible to do so, hence the notion of burden of proof.

In other words, it would actually be great is hypothetical Joe did nothing but believe and did not try to convince others. As Hitchen once said, religion should be like sex. I don't care what you do, just keep it private. But that's not the world we live in, isn't it? You even said yourself that you 'dont' want to live in such world! You clearly stated that you want a more religious government, and as a non-religious person (forget even Atheists for a moment), I am completely justified to ask you to explain why what you believe should matter outside of your own home.

Mortal said...

Huh! If I've ever called for a "more religious" government, I have no recollection of ever doing so. Not saying I haven't, but I sure don't remember it if I did.

When did I "clearly" state such a position?

Hugo Pelland said...

Oh... well it was just 2 weeks ago, so I must have misunderstood that:
"In my opinion, the United States prior to the 1960s had probably the best system of government ever devised on this planet. In recent decades, unfortunately, we have gone off the deep end toward favoritism to atheism. I would love to see the pendulum swing back in the other direction."
What did that mean? And I did not ask then but I really don't see how Atheism is supported in any way, anywhere, by the government.

Mortal said...

Well, I can see how my comment could be misinterpreted. But I wasn't calling for a government that was "more religious" but rather one that wasn't (as ours currently is) biased towards atheism. I simply would like one that is neutral on the subject.

And if you can't see the clear bias towards atheism in recent court decisions, well then, you're just not paying attention.

Hugo Pelland said...

Fair enough, and I honestly know which court decisions you are referring to so I am indeed not paying enough attention to that...

Joe Hinman said...

I don't mean that in a demeaning way, but that's only because most humans today, and especially before, have had some belief in God. It's so ingrained in our psyche, it's such a powerful explanation (for the believers...), it has so many evidence, etc... that it's very easy to forget that it is indeed a positive belief, like any other.

People build their lives around that belief so it's not possible for them to even consider the possibility that there might be no God. That's why they ask to be proven wrong and refuse to admit that there is in fact a burden of proof on their shoulders.

I don't believe in God because i need to explain the workings of the world,that's moot since weather or not God created the physics is deponent upon God's existence.there are other reasons to believe in God, I mean valid reasons not just because it feels good.

Joe Hinman said...

In other words, it would actually be great is hypothetical Joe did nothing but believe and did not try to convince others. As Hitchen once said, religion should be like sex. I don't care what you do, just keep it private.

Nothing wrong with trying to convince people, depending upon how you go about it.Once upon a time I did study Greek,It was undergraduate language. My translation of the great commission says"where ever go tell everyone." It is not a command it does not say force them or make them. it does not say convince them nor lead them to me.It just says tell them.It does say make disciples and baptize it;snot totally passive, that opes thee discussion how does one make disciples?

In any case the burden of proof changes when you decide to convince people,Then you take on a burden but it need not be proof.It;s burden to produce a warrant.

David Brightly said...

I agree with Mortal. 'Entitled to believe', 'has to be accepted', and 'burden of proof' strike me as moral terms irrelevant to the psychology of belief. We can do without them. If I want to convince you of something you don't hold then I have my work cut out to assemble facts and arguments. And vice versa. Simple as that.

The 'positivity' or 'negativity' of a claim is also irrelevant. For most of us a holocaust denier has a mountain to climb.

Joe Hinman said...

I agree with Mortal. 'Entitled to believe', 'has to be accepted', and 'burden of proof' strike me as moral terms irrelevant to the psychology of belief. We can do without them. If I want to convince you of something you don't hold then I have my work cut out to assemble facts and arguments. And vice versa. Simple as that.

The 'positivity' or 'negativity' of a claim is also irrelevant. For most of us a holocaust denier has a mountain to climb.

you are re writing the rules of logic, If you are not seeking prove something why would you have a burden of proof?

anyone who argues something has a burden to prove it. Not all statements of opinion are invitations to argue,however, it'only when one seeks to persuade that debate premed up.

Arguments work by inference, we draw inferences from premises and when the premises are true and inferences are logical the arguments must be assumed true. It's not as easy to pull off as it sounds,

David Brightly said...

Joe, anyone arguing to a conclusion is attempting a proof, of sorts, surely? What does saying that he has 'accepted the burden of proof' add to this?

Nothing here about the rules of logic, I think.

Joe Hinman said...

"anyone arguing to a conclusion." We don't have to do that there are kinds of religious talk and other kinds of witness. I'm not against argumnet I've done plenty and I'm preparing for debate with Secular Outpost's Bradley Bowen right now, but that is not the only way I try to lead people to the Lord.

I said anyone who seeks to argue accepts a burden of proof I meant that tacitly. The act of argument is tacit acceptance of a burden of proof.

David Brightly said...

Fair enough!

Stardusty Psyche said...


Blogger Mortal said...

" I have to admit that I've never quite understood just what this "burden of proof" thing is all about."
--I am not surprised.

" If Joe is convinced that the New Testament is true and sees nothing to contradict that belief, then that's all that matters. Even if Harry is not convinced, Joe has no obligation to prove his beliefs to Harry, or to anyone else for that matter."
--Burden of proof is in the context of an argument, not in the context of living in isolation from one another.

If the state (government prosecutor in the USA) argues John Doe is guilty of a crime the burden of proof is on the state.

If an applicant for entry to the USA argues for eligibility to enter the USA the burden of proof of eligibility is on the applicant.

If two people are engaged in an argument both are interested in, and one person makes a positive assertion the burden of proof is on the person making the positive assertion (a positive assertion of a negative proposition is still a positive assertion)

You can believe ad hoc whatever you wish and if you are not interested in making a logical argument for your belief then that is your choice. But if you wish to present a sound logical argument for your belief then the burden is on you to prove your premises are true and your logic is valid the combination of which makes your argument sound.


May 31, 2017 6:52 PM

Stardusty Psyche said...

David Brightly said...


" The 'positivity' or 'negativity' of a claim is also irrelevant. For most of us a holocaust denier has a mountain to climb."
--Holocaust denial is a positive assertion of a negative proposition, so the burden is on the person asserting the holocaust did not occur.

To assert the holocaust did occur is a positive assertion of a positive proposition, and the burden is then on the person claiming the holocaust did occur.

The burden to prove the holocaust did occur is so easily met that one might assume there is no burden at all, similar to Joe's comment about theists who are so thoroughly convinced of the existence of god that they assume they have no burden for their positive claim.


June 01, 2017 3:41 AM

Joe Hinman said...

If two people are engaged in an argument both are interested in, and one person makes a positive assertion the burden of proof is on the person making the positive assertion (a positive assertion of a negative proposition is still a positive assertion)

that goes as much for the atheist as for the believer

You can believe ad hoc whatever you wish and if you are not interested in making a logical argument for your belief then that is your choice.

why do you say ad hoc?

But if you wish to present a sound logical argument for your belief then the burden is on you to prove your premises are true and your logic is valid the combination of which makes your argument sound.

Of course

Joe Hinman said...

People build their lives around that belief so it's not possible for them to even consider the possibility that there might be no God. That's why they ask to be proven wrong and refuse to admit that there is in fact a burden of proof on their shoulders.

I was an atheist I was arrogantly and stridently asserting there was no God all the time when God got my attention.

Stardusty Psyche said...

Joe Hinman said...

" I was an atheist I was arrogantly and stridently asserting there was no God all the time when God got my attention."
--Now you are arrogantly and stridently asserting and even larger set of irrational positions.

Once you get your head in a place where you read and understand the precise claims others make, spend your time arguing those precise claims, and stop claiming how you kick ass with your new set of arrogant strident irrationalities, then you will begin to make some real personal progress.


June 02, 2017 11:28 PM

David Brightly said...

I prefer not to speak of 'burden of proof'. 'Burden' here is equivalent to 'obligation' and that is a moral term. Hugo says, '[Christians]...refuse to admit that there is in fact a burden of proof on their shoulders'. This is moral language. We are getting close to Clifford's 'It is morally wrong, always and everywhere, to believe anything for insufficient evidence,' which Victor quotes in a later related post. As a moral irrealist I see only inconsistency to be gained from moralising belief. For belief is not a matter of choice (though others may disagree on this). If it were then one could fix one's belief in some proposition by tossing a coin, and this runs counter to the way having a belief 'feels'.

Hugo Pelland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hugo Pelland said...

I agree that the term 'burden' is not quite right in the context of belief. And I also agree that belief is not something we can choose. We are compelled, convinced, or even seduced one could say. But when we believe something, we have reasons for it, just like we have reasons for not believing. That being said, not believing is really just that: sorry I don't believe you, when faced with a statement. (One could argue back and ask questions, leading to discussions of cours...) The one making the statement though should have at least some reasons to do so, hence the so-called 'burden'. It could be 'I don't know' and that's fine (to a certain extent) but then the non-believer, for any claim, will simply remain unmoved by the statement, with the "burden" to justify one's belief still resting on the shoulder of the one actually believing that statement.

David Brightly said...

But am I required to justify what I believe to anyone? Am I on trial for my belief? I don't think so. We use 'ought' in non-moral contexts, as in 'If I want to buy a house then I ought to save for a deposit', or 'If I want a good grade then I ought to do the homework'. These oughts express practical necessities, that some goal cannot be achieved without some action. Sometimes the desire, which is a permanent state, fades into the background through familiarity, leaving just the necessity for action---I simply ought to do the homework. In the present context, it's a well-known fact in the psychology of belief that getting someone to believe P requires evidence, argument, and persuasion. So if I want to convince you of something I feel obliged to argue for it---I ought to argue for it. As I'm doing now! But this is not a moral obligation in any sense, something that I owe, say. It's a practical necessity.

Hugo Pelland said...

Yes, practical necessity, not moral. But you wrongly infered that I meant moral so... I guess I can appreciate your self-correction, and it made me clarify my point as well so it's all good!