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Meditation 580
Burden of Proof

by: Will Petillo

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“Burden of Proof” is a phrase that should be avoided

During various conversations and moments of browsing the internet I have noticed a peculiar phrase that pops up in many arguments for or against believing in the supernatural (as well as in other situations) that is called the “Burden of Proof”.[1] And, oddly enough, I have seen it used on both sides of the argument. There are two things I don’t like about the phrase, but before getting to that I will attempt to explain what it seems to mean. After some reading (thanks Wikipedia!) I have come to the conclusion that it is nothing more than a fancy way of saying: “If one is to convince a person of something then one will have to convince that person of it.” For example, in a discussion of Meditation 534, JT points out that “if you want to believe there is a supernatural cause, that's your own choice. But, if you want others to accept such a belief, it is your responsibility to prove it.” David—the person that the preceding quotation was in response to—does not have to use any arguments of any sort to convince himself or those who agree with him that supernatural forces exist (because they already believe in them), but in order to convince JT—who seems to only accept rational arguments as a basis for what one can rationally believe to be true (I agree)—however, it will be necessary for David to use rational arguments that would convince JT. This is not, however, a one-way street, for if JT intends to convince David that supernatural cause is not a likely explanation for strange occurrences (or rumors of them), then JT will have to convince David of this contention using arguments that David will find convincing. One can see how this could lead to a disconnect between the two parties because people tend to argue in the manner that they find most convincing but the sort of arguments that David and JT find convincing are probably significantly different—to a skeptic, the natural causes that JT suggests for various strange occurrences are more intuitive and therefore seem more likely whereas for a believer in the supernatural the opposite is true and therefore the argument that natural causes are more likely will fail to convince them.

The first thing I don’t like about the phrase “Burden of Proof” is that it avoids referring to who is being convinced and for this reason can be misleading. If one were to say, for example, that David has the “Burden of Proof” in arguing for the supernatural, does that mean he needs to support his beliefs in order to defend having them, to convince the person he is arguing with, or to sway the opinion of the audience of people reading this site but not directly participating in the discussion? The phrase seems to imply all of these, but in reality the first answer is wrong (people are capable of believing in whatever they like) and the second and third answers depend on his intention—If David was just blowing off steam and doesn’t care what other people think then no “Burden of Proof” of any kind rests on him at all.

The second thing I don’t like about the phrase is that it forces one to make a decision about the subject in question. The person with the “Burden of Proof” will either fail or succeed to satisfy the demands of their burden, and therefore will necessarily “win” or “lose” the argument. This may be fine for court cases or debate tournaments where one side must emerge victorious but meaningless in civilized discussions where there is no judge that declares who has won or lost the debate. When having a discussion, it is much more productive to explain your ideas and try to understand those of the person you are talking to rather than trying to achieve rhetorical triumph over them. The former leads to mutual understanding and possibly even agreement on a logical solution while the latter leads to people getting angry and talking past each other—though the latter is often tempting as it is an unfortunately effective means of preventing those in the audience who agree from wavering. For this reason alone, the phrase “Burden of Proof” should be anathema to agnostics who take pride in their uncertainty.

Furthermore, if we are interested in convincing people who have irrational beliefs about the supernatural to question those beliefs, the “Burden of Proof” is on us. In other words, we will have to find a way to argue our points in a way that is convincing to them, which will require understanding where they are coming from significantly better they understand themselves. The alternative, of course, is to abandon such people as “lost” and try to “inoculate” those who are wavering between belief and skepticism. The problem with this approach is not only that it fails to reach those we are arguing with directly, but also that it fails to fully address the arguments that they use in spreading their dogma. In defending the validity of rational arguments, the use of rational arguments is simply not enough, which is probably why so many people continue to hold beliefs that seem so strange to us.

  1. This phrase was not used in Meditation 534 or Ask the Patriarch 140, but the discussions reminded me of it for some reason.