Archive for the ‘Burden of Proof Is On The Believer’ Category

Evidence for atheism?

June 11, 2014

My Christian friend unkleE from Austalia has written a very good article in his blog
“Is there a God?”
Under the topic
“Evidence for atheism?”
With his permission, it is reblogged here:

Evidence for atheism?

Why do you believe what you do – about religion, politics, ethics or life itself?
Many sceptics about religion are evidentialists, that is, they believe we should proportion our belief according to the evidence. Different disciplines (e.g. law, science, history, journalism and everyday life) require different types of evidence, but the principle seems reasonable.
But what if the sceptics are ignoring their own creed?

Evidentialism and atheists

Philosopher Michael Antony observes that most atheists criticise religious belief for its lack of evidence, but then notes that many atheists offer little evidence for their own views. He asks: “How can the New Atheists employ evidentialist principles to argue that religious belief is irrational if they are unwilling to apply those same principles to atheism?”

He also notes that several reasons are offered for why atheism doesn’t require evidential support, and discusses five of them.

1. Atheism Isn’t A Belief

It is common for atheists to claim that atheism isn’t a belief at all, but a lack of belief. Antony argues that this isn’t the standard use of the word (it conflates atheism and agnosticism), but says it makes no difference. Evidentialism applies to all beliefs – believing P, or believing not-P, or suspending belief. Only if a person makes no statement at all can they avoid the evidential requirement for evidence.
Most atheists believe it is unlikely that God exists, so evidentialism requires that they only hold this belief if they can offer evidence.

2. You Can’t Prove A Negative like “God doesn’t exist”

This is in fact incorrect. There are mathematical proofs of negatives (e.g. that there is no greatest prime number) and many negative statements that can be shown to be probably true (e.g. there are no snow-capped mountains in the Sahara).
Some negative statements can be shown to be true and some not; ditto for positive statements. There is no valid general argument here, every case has to be argued on its merits.

3. The Burden of Proof Is On The Believer

“Burden of proof” is a legal term, and it isn’t clear how it should be applied in metaphysics. Antony discusses several ways this concept is argued by atheists:
• “The burden of proof falls on the one making a positive statement.” But most positive statements can be turned into negative statements, and vice versa. For example, “there is no supernatural” can be re-phrased as “everything is natural”.
• “One acquires a burden of proof if one’s statement runs counter to received opinion.” There is some truth in this, but received wisdom varies from group to group.
But evidentialism says nothing about burden of proof. According to evidentialism, evidence is required for any belief to be justified even if there is no ‘burden’ to defend the belief. So Antony concludes that “in situations in which participants to a discussion are expected to take seriously the claims made by other parties, all participants bear a burden to provide support for their claims, if asked”.

4. Ockham’s Razor
Ockham’s Razor advises “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity”. So, some atheists argue, we shouldn’t add an extra entity (God) into our thinking when we can explain everything without him.
But this is the point. Theists, and some atheists, believe that naturalismcannot explain everything – for example the origin of the universe, or consciousness. Ockham’s Razor therefore doesn’t apply until all these things can be explained.

5. Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

This is a favourite argument of many atheists, sometimes expressed in the supposed comparison between God and the hypothetical Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) or Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot. There is no way, it is said, to disprove these things, yet no-one takes their existence seriously. So why should it be any different with God.
Antony puts this argument in this form: “When there is no good reason for thinking a [positive existence] claim to be true, that in itself is good reason for thinking the claim to be false.” Then he asks, is this true?
He suggests that we distinguish between strong and weak evidence. Evidence is strong when it provides convincing grounds for a belief, but weak when it is insufficient on its own to compel belief, though it may form part of a cumulative case. Most hypotheses start with weak evidence, which may become stronger as the hypothesis is tested. So is the principle we are discussing based on weak evidence or strong evidence?

Either way, it is in trouble.

If absence of strong evidence is evidence of absence

For example, consider the question of whether earthworms have a primitive form of consciousness. There is little evidence for this (i.e. weak evidence) but some researchers believe it may be true. But since there isn’t strong evidence, we should (according to this principle) believe the contrary, that earthworms don’t have primitive consciousness.

But suppose we then say ‘the boundary between conscious and non-conscious creatures is above the level of earthworms’. But there is no strong evidence for this either so, following this principle, we again have to believe the contrary, that the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness is below the earthworm. But this means we are affirming two contradictory statements, which is obviously wrong.

If absence of weak evidence is evidence of absence

This is a more reasonable statement. But of course it then doesn’t apply to the existence of God. For there is certainly evidence that might point to the existence of God – “religious experience, the fine-tuning of physical laws and constants, the apparent contingency of the universe, etc”. Atheists may contest all or any of these evidences, but they clearly can be seen as evidence.

Thus, Antony argues, the atheist case for this principle is based on finding examples (like the FSM) which fit easily with the principle, but ignore examples where the principle obviously doesn’t apply. So the discussion must return to the place where it should always have been – what is the evidence for God?

Antony’s conclusion

The five ways which atheists sometimes claim exempt themselves from providing evidence of their belief all fail. Unless they make no statements about God at all, they have as much a requirement to support their statements with evidence as anyone else does. He concludes:

the various positions that can be taken on the existence of a divine being – theism, atheism, agnosticism, and variants – are in principle no less intellectually legitimate than positions in disputes in the sciences and other fields in which none of the positions enjoy strong evidential support.

That is, each position has to show why it is more probable than the others if it wants to gain support.
What do you think?

Where’s The Evidence?
Michael Antony argues that the New Atheists miss the mark.

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