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May 09, 2006

Burden of proof

If a religious person asks me to prove that god does not exist, I freely concede that I cannot do so. The best that I can do is to invoke the Laplacian principle that I have no need of hypothesizing god's existence to explain things. But clearly most people feel that theydo need to invoke god in order to understand their lives and experience. So how can we resolve this disagreement and make a judgment about the validity of the god hypothesis?

Following a recent posting on atheism and agnosticism, I had an interesting exchange with commenter Mike that made me think more about this issue. Mike (who believes in god) said that in his discussions with atheists, they often were unable to explain why they dismissed god's existence. He says: "I find that when asked why the 'god hypothesis' as Laplace called it doesn't work for them, they often don't know how to respond."

Conversely, Mike was perfectly able to explain why he (and other believers) believed in god's existence:

The reason is that we have the positive proof we need, in the way we feel, the way we think, the way we act, things that can't easily be presented as 'proof'. In other words, the proof comes in a different form. It's not in a model or an equation or a theory, yet we experience it every day.

So yes, we can ask that a religious belief provide some proof, but we must be open to the possibility that that proof is of a form we don't expect. I wonder how often we overlook a 'proof' - of god, of love or a new particle - simply because it was not in a form we were looking for - or were willing to accept.

Mike makes the point (with which I agree) that it is possible that we do not have the means as yet to detect the existence of god. His argument can be supported by analogies from science. We believe we were all bathed in electromagnetic radiation from the beginning of the universe but we did not realize it until Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism gave us a framework for understanding its existence and enabled us to design detectors to detect it.

The same thing happened with neutrinos. Vast numbers of them have been passing though us and the Earth but we did not know about their existence until the middle of the 20th century when a theory postulated their existence and detectors were designed that were sensitive enough to observe them.

So electromagnetic radiation and neutrinos existed all around us even during the long period of time when no one had any idea that they were there. Why cannot the same argument be applied to god? It can, actually. But does that mean that god exists? I think we would all agree that it does not, anymore than my inability to prove that unicorns do not exist implies that they do. All that this argument does is leave open the possibility of a hitherto undetected existence.

But the point of departure between science and religion is that in the case of electromagnetic radiation and neutrinos, their existence was postulated simultaneously along with suggestions of how and where anyone could look for them. If, after strenuous efforts, they could still not be detected, then scientists would cease to believe in their existence. But eventually, evidence for their existence was forthcoming from many different sources in a reproducible manner.

What if no such evidence was forthcoming? This has happened in the past with other phenomena, such as in 1903 with something called N-rays, which were postulated and seemed to have some evidentiary support initially, but on closer examination were found to be spurious. This does not prevent people from still believing in the phenomenon, but the scientific community would proceed on the assumption that it does not exist.

In the world of science the burden of proof is always on the person arguing for the existence of whatever is being proposed. If that evidence is not forthcoming, then people proceed on the assumption that the thing in question does not exist (the Laplacian principle). It is in parallel to the legal situation. We know that in the legal context in America, the presumption is that of innocence until proven guilty. This results in a much different kind of investigation and legal proceedings than if the presumption were guilty until proven innocent.

So on the question of god's existence, it seems to me that it all comes down to the question of who has the burden of proof in such situations. Is the onus on the believer, to prove that god exists? Or on the atheist to argue that the evidence provided for god's existence is not compelling? In other words, do we draw a parallel with the legal situation of 'presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt' and postulate a principle 'non-existence until existence is proven beyond a reasonable doubt'? The latter would be consistent with scientific practice.

As long as we disagree on this fundamental question, there is little hope for resolution. But even if we agree that the burden of proof is the same for religion as for science, and that the person postulating existence of god has to advance at least some proof in support, that still does not end the debate. The question then shifts to what kind of evidence we would consider to be valid and what constitutes 'reasonable doubt.'.

In the next few postings, we will look at the kinds of evidence that might be provided and how we might evaluate them.

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Comments

The argument about 'burden of proof' is one that is brought up often in debates between people of different faiths or non-faiths, but I'm not sure it actually applies. Either side of the issue can easily be argued. Scientific assumptions are made about the world we live in, and with enough evidence are accepted by the scientific community. The burden of proof lies with those who would challenge the existing assumptions. These challenges are not limited to identifying new phenomena, but a burden can equally be placed on anyone who attemps to discount existing scientific thought. If an individual stated that there were no such thing as neutrinos, would the burden not be on that person to prove his claim? The belief in a deity of some type has been the assumption for thousands of years, would it not follow that the burden of proof would lie on anyone who challenged the entrenched beliefs?

The argument of proof has little to do with the discussion of a God. There is no way yet to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of a divine being that doesn't even share our plane of existence. How can proof of an entity that lives outside our limitations of time and space be obtained? How can it be proven that this being could NOT exist? Any time the scientific community comes up with another piece of the puzzle that is our universe any person of faith will take it as confirmation of God's existence. Any time a religious person sees a miracle or something that can't be explained a scientist will be able to write it of as some new phenomena we just don't understand yet. The only way the issue of 'proving' a God will ever be settled is if he shows up in person.

Posted by Bob on May 9, 2006 03:53 PM

It is true that if someone now postulated that neutrinos do not exist, they would have to shoulder the burden of proof which would have to have at least two features: (1) Their alternative theory would have to explain the features that neutrinos currently do and (2) the new theory would have to predict some things that neutrino theory does not, and experiments would have to provide some support for them.

But the point is that all this occurs after neutrinos have been accepted based on positive, reproducible evidence. So to draw the parallel, with god's existence, we would have to ask if any proof comparable to that used to persuade people for the existence neutrinos has been provided.

The point you make about how people with different viewpoints might view the same evidence is a good one which I will discuss in subsequent postings.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 9, 2006 05:04 PM

Mano,

While in principle I agree with your answer, it seems incomplete. I was not present at any test that has confirmed the presence of neutrinos, so I must take the evidence presented from said tests as faithfully executed results, not made-up data.

The belief in a god is often linked with a religion, and a set of beliefs and documents. Many of those documents specify a direct conversation or presence of their god with a human entity. Often the same human who reportedly wrote or supplied the information for the book.

At least to a first analysis, that would appear to be the same as the proof of something done before my time, or outside of my sensory experience, and might be accorded the same faith in documentation.

Or maybe it just shows that the same failure of reasoning that prevents me from convincing myself that solipsism is wrong, despite the belief it is, now rears its head in proving "God" doesn't exist, despite the belief that it doesn't.

Posted by Michael on May 9, 2006 06:10 PM

Dr. Singham,

While in principle I agree with your answer, it seems incomplete. I was not present at any test that has confirmed the presence of neutrinos, so I must take the evidence presented from said tests as faithfully executed results, not made-up data.

The belief in a god is often linked with a religion, and a set of beliefs and documents. Many of those documents specify a direct conversation or presence of their god with a human entity. Often the same human who reportedly wrote or supplied the information for the book.

At least to a first analysis, that would appear to be the same as the proof of something done before my time, or outside of my sensory experience, and might be accorded the same faith in documentation.

Or maybe it just shows that the same failure of reasoning that prevents me from convincing myself that solipsism is wrong, despite the belief it is, now rears its head in proving "God" doesn't exist, despite the belief that it doesn't.

Posted by Michael on May 9, 2006 06:10 PM

Sorry for the double (now triple) post.

Posted by Michael on May 9, 2006 06:12 PM

Outside of any formal setting like a courtroom, I always say that the burden of proof lies with whoever cares about convincing others. Of course, this means that the burden might lie with everyone involved, or no one, and can weigh more heavily on some than on others. Without some established consequences for failing to convince, I don't think the the “burden” can be very meaningful.

Posted by Paul Jarc on May 9, 2006 08:48 PM

Before a burden of proof can be established there must be some parameters to work in. First you must establish what is attempting to be proven. Are we attempting to prove that there is no Christian God, are we attempting to prove that there can be no intelligent entities beyond our current means of detection or are is the issue something else entirely?

Second, we must establish what constitutes 'proof'. The US legal system has specific rules of evidence that must be met before 'facts' can be introduced into court. Likewise, any scientific experiment must have parameters it operates under. Are we looking for positive, observable, reproducible evidence of God's existence? If so, this is a pointless discussion. It would be unreasonable to assume that any individual intelligent being would respond consistently to any kind of stimuli. The scientific community has difficulty reliably predicting the behavior of any individual person, why would this be different for a being which we don't really know much about. On the other hand, if you would be willing to allow eye-witness testimony and written accounts of past experiences (as a court of law would) I could provide you with all the evidence you could possibly want.

Posted by Bob on May 9, 2006 10:48 PM