Monday, January 26, 2009

Brandon on the Burden of Proof

Is there a burden of proof? Brandon seems to think there is no general burden of proof that could support, for example, the claim that atheism ought to be believed by default if there is no good proof (satisfactory to all parties) for theism.


Doctor Logic said...

Yes, there is a burden of proof.

Humans acquire most of their beliefs through non-rational (not necessarily irrational) intuitions. A belief becomes rational when it survives a process of rational reflection that checks for consistency, guards against personal bias, considers alternatives, etc.

Rational reflection is often expensive. Consequently, people retain many beliefs that are not rational, and many of those beliefs are bound to be false or inconsistent.

So I think every belief faces some minimal sort of burden of proof if it is to be called a rational belief.

Beyond this, if one believes that one needs reasons for believing X, then it is special pleading to say one does not need reasons for believing Y. So a person avoiding his own special-pleading bias will have to believe everything for which he lacks proof. And that leads to inconsistencies, IMO.

Brandon said...

In other words, 'burden of proof' here is a metaphor for something that virtually no one means when they talk about burden of proof, namely, the fact that that there is a precondition for belief being reasonably considered rational. I can see the point of using the phrase in that sort of context, but I don't think it is anything but a misleading use of the phrase.

There are of course burdens of proof in the ordinary sense; they are contracted obligations in the course of rational interaction with others. The problem with the usual view is the assumption that burdens of proof are automatic. This is an understandable assumption given that 'burden of proof' talk is dominated by the metaphor of law; but there are default burdens of proof in courts merely because they have been pre-set that way as a reasonable means for what you are trying to do in that particular sort of law court, and therefore are obligations that are accepted in order to have be in court at all. Burdens of proof are in reality negotiated even in the case of law (which is why not ever legal system uses exactly the same principles to establish burden of proof); they are things that people agree upon as contributing to the aims of the discussion, not things that arise automatically, and can therefore be created, ended, lowered, or raised, merely by agreement.