One of my readers, Nate, offered a formidable response to my article “God and the Burden of Proof” which I’ve reposted below because (1) it’s too long for a comment thread, (2) it pushes the debate forward and (3) it’s well written. Following the comment I offer my own brief response. Nate’s comment is rendered in red.
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I think the weak interpretation of the BoPA has something going for it. It’s something I have tried to articulate in past posts (on the tight conceptual link between internal justification and the social practice of justifying one’s beliefs to others), but this formulation is helpful in getting to the heart of the matter.
Weak BoPA: If person A affirms a positive existential claim E, about which person B is either unpersuaded or in a state of disbelief, then person A has the burden of proof to rationally persuade B of E. Consequently (as a matter of practical rationality), B is justified in concluding that A has no adequate grounds for belief in E, and therefore believes irrationally.
Corollary: This means that A is not permitted the common dialectical move “B can’t prove or provide convincing reasons that not-E, so (a) she ought to accept that E, or (b) I don’t have to justify my belief that E to B as a prerequisite for her acceptance that I am rational to persist in believing E.”
We can frame the discussion in terms of basic beliefs, since we both accept a roughly common framework of properly basic warrant for the following belief-types: perceptual experience, memory, testimony, awareness of other people’s minds and mental states, moral intuitions, rational intuition (in mathematics, logic, perhaps even metaphysics and natural science), and introspective monitoring of one’s own thoughts feelings, and bodily sensations – with the caveat that empirical psychology can supply defeaters for our confidence in the reliability of some of these faculties (e.g., our discovery that eyewitness testimony years after the fact is notoriously prone to suggestion and other distortions). We agree on a wide berth of what is prima facie justified. So where A and B are in agreement in general cases of what types of claims are justified, the question of the burden of proof doesn’t apply.
This is not to say that the question can’t arise for particular belief-tokens belonging to a type which both A and B both accept as basic. I’ll take your word for it if you tell me you own a baseball or a cat – which is why that cartoon is ridiculous – but as soon as you say that you tell me you saw a unicorn in the woods, or that you have memories of a past life, then given our shared ontological commitments I am perfectly warranted to insist that you provide some evidence, and until you do so, to take your persisting in that belief to be irrational.
However, when you take this framework and apply it to the burden of proof vis a vis Christianity (or any theism) vs. weak atheism, all of a sudden there’s a deep asymmetry. The theist says belief in God is properly basic on the basis of some sensus divinitatus, which makes it no more incumbent on you to defend your belief than it does for me to defend my disbelief. But here’s the difference: we have wide agreement over what faculties are properly basic, but you add to that set the sensus divinitatus, which is something I am strongly skeptical of. The strong principle clearly doesn’t hold in this case: I’m not going to say that from your point of view, taken in isolation from our dispute, you are irrational for continuing to believe in God – because I could be wrong. When it comes to convincing me that you are rational in clinging to this belief however (an instance of the weak principle), it is appropriate for me to ask for evidence.
A thought experiment will bring out the contrast: a TV psychic claims to be able to speak with the dead, divine someone’s future, have powers of remote viewing and mind-reading, etc. You and I (I presume) think that this is baloney. No one has such a faculty. From our shared epistemic POV, it is completely appropriate for us to want to test this person’s abilities to see if they really can do these things before we accept his putative abilities as genuine. As a matter of fact, whatever anyone believes, it may be true that the psychic really does have these powers, and therefore he has basic warrant when (for instance) she senses what someone is thinking. This is the strong principle in action. But, as epistemic policy, it is fair and even the responsible thing to do to ask for a convincing demonstration of her abilities before we conclude that the psychic is anything more than a charlatan.
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A few initial thoughts to Nate’s comments. First a response to his formulation of the weak BoPA:
Weak BoPA: If person A affirms a positive existential claim E, about which person B is either unpersuaded or in a state of disbelief, then person A has the burden of proof to rationally persuade B of E.
This needs some tweaking. The problem is that it places the burden all on A. However, it seems that A’s relationship to burden of proof and rational belief is tied essentially to the degree to which B is being rational in her failure to assent to E. Obviously it remains the case that if A wants to persuade B of E, A will have to explore various means (including evidences) by which she might do that. But if B is fundamentally irrational about E, you can hardly fault A.
Second, I’ll comment on the following claim that Nate makes:
“The theist says belief in God is properly basic on the basis of some sensus divinitatus…”
Some theists say something like this and others don’t. But we should be sure not to suggest that theism is somehow committed to the existence of a novel doxastic faculty.
Nate then observes:
“When it comes to convincing me that you are rational in clinging to this belief [in God via a sensus divinitatis] however (an instance of the weak principle), it is appropriate for me to ask for evidence.”
Here I’ll simply note that the world is full of contentious claims about novel doxastic hardware. Are humans prepackaged with an innate grammar that spurs language acquisition? Do we have a faculty of moral perception that illumines basic moral facts, thereby providing us with the axioms for substantial moral reflection? Do we have a rational intuition that can aid us in *seeing* logical necessity? Do we have an intuitive sense to detect danger in our environment? All these abilities (and many more) have been affirmed and defended.
And so, the sensus divinitatis is not some anomaly that the theist wants to add to five universally accepted senses. Rather, it is but one more in a crowded field of contenders.
Finally, I’ll make a closing observation. We live in a world where bees do dances that somehow instruct other bees on where to find the flowers; we live in a world where dogs can smell cancer tumors; we live in a world where salmon can move out into the open ocean and then return to spawn years later in the very same creek bed from which they left years before; we live in a world where elephants can communicate subsonically over miles of open savannah. In a world like this nothing is surprising and an attitude of skepticism should always be tempered with a spirit of wonder.