I recently had an extended discussion with a reader at “Debunking Christianity” named “Joseph Palazzo”. For me, the over-arching goal of the conversation was to see what reasons Joseph had for endorsing his atheistic worldview. After a long converstation it became clear that Joseph was unable to provide clear reasons why he was an atheist. But he attempted to justify his inability to articulate reasons for his worldview by suggesting he didn’t need to have such reasons. This is what he wrote:
Here’s the real problem:
Atheist: I believe in the existence of the universe.
Theist: I believe in the existence of the universe + God.
In regard to the existence of a god, the burden of proof is on you, pal. Now I don’t care how you define god, either as the creator of the universe, a first cause, an entity inside/outside the universe, the ground of all reality, etc. Nevertheless, you claim the existence of a god, you prove it.
I was delighted to receive such a succinct statement of Joseph’s perspective, and it is worth taking some time to focus on it and deconstruct it for the simple reason that such errant views are very widespread in the populist atheist community these days. There are very many atheists who think they have no worldview to defend because they simply believe in one less being than the theist does.
So let’s put on our work gloves and engage in some deconstruction.
I begin with a charitable assumption that Joseph is not making a one off claim here (since that would be wholly arbitrary and prejudicial). Instead, I will assume that Joseph is appealing to a general principle and applying it in this case to show that the theist has a unique evidential burden not pertaining to the atheist. And what then would be that general principle?
Let’s call it Joseph’s principle (henceforth JP). I presume it looks like this:
Wherever two people agree on the truth of p, but disagree over whether q is required to explain p, the burden of proof is wholly on the person proposing q rather than on the person who denies q.
And so, armed with JP, Joseph can argue that it is not arbitrary for him to charge the theist with a burden of proof not applying to the atheist.
Unfortunately for Joseph, this is an absurd principle.
The trouble begins very close to home. Consider:
(1) Joseph and Randal agree that (p) people seeking to defend a truth claim to others have a burden of proof in defense of that truth claim.
(2) Joseph believes but Randal denies that (q) JP is required to explain the burden of proof.
From this it follows that:
(3) Joseph has an explanatory burden to defend JP that Randal does not have by denying JP.
If this isn’t quite self-referential defeat, it is at least punching yourself in the face hard enough to bloody your own nose. Ouch, that’s got to hurt.
Look folks, enough with the cutesy self-reference stuff. JP is complete nonsense. If it were true it would follow that realists have a burden of proof that idealists don’t have because the former affirms consciousness + the external world while the latter affirms consciousness alone.
If it were true it would also follow that substance and property dualists have a burden of proof that the eliminativist doesn’t have because the former affirm the brain + consciousness while the latter affirms only the brain.
So the person who believes in the existence of consciousness may or may not have a burden of proof, all depending. Yes this is indeed absurd.
The fact is that the event of the universe’s origin or the state of affairs of the universe existing is an effect or state of affairs for which it is meaningful to ask “Why?” And there are two basic ways to answer a why question, by appealing to a prior event cause or an agent cause. If you hear a crash in the basement you have two options: a prior event or an agent. It would be absurd to suppose that only those proposing agents had the burden of defending their supposition.
And if you’re walking in the dark woods with friends when you all hear your name being called it would be absurd to suggest that only the person attributing that shrill call to an agent had a burden of proof to account for the sound. The person who claims that it is merely a natural sound of the forest also has a burden of proof to explain how the forest could produce such a chilling, humanlike call.
And so it is with the event of the universe’s origin or the state of affairs of its existing: that too can be explained with reference to a prior event cause or an agent cause. And each explanation has a burden of proof. Or, more correctly, the person defending each claim has the burden of proof.
So now that we’ve introduced Atheist and Burden of Proof perhaps you can get to know one another.