A Christian believer in South Africa writes on News24 about his encounter with a friend who used to believe but changed his mind and was now an atheist. It is of course an article that is not really about that specific encounter, but is actually a posting that is an attempt to convince others and perhaps also himself that god is real.
It’s interesting to ponder over this because it is actually a very very common argument.
He sets the scene as follows …
“Creation itself testifies that God is there somewhere”, I had said. His answer was because there is no scientific evidence that the spiritual realm exists. He went on to explain a lot of things but all could just be summarised in the one statement above.
Now that is indeed an accurate statement of the position of those that do not believe, so how does he answer that?
He presents his rebuttal, and his non-believing friend then explains that he is a bit tired of him pushing his beliefs all the time, so walks away. So what is the essence of his rebuttal? It is basically this …
Firstly, it doesn’t make sense to say that something that another person says exists does not exist. If you want to argue that it does not exist, then the burden of proof is upon you. That is exactly what scientific evidence prescribes that you do. Science does not say that something you cannot prove its existence does not exist. No, that is not science. Science is smarter than many atheists, who although they claim to use it in their arguments, do not know anything about what it is.
Alas yes, he is attempting to shift the burden of proof, and well gosh, we have never seen that before have we?
In other words, I believe X (where X is any batshit crazy idea going) and unless you can prove it wrong, it just must be true. Wrong, that is not how things work because in every human endeavour, the burden of proof rests with those making a claim, the null hypothesis is not an alternative position that demands proof, but rather is the default position due to the lack of evidence.
- In Law, if you are accused of a crime, you are assumed to be innocent until you can be proven guilty, you do not get sent to jail on a whim and you are not required to prove an accusation is wrong, the accuser needs to first prove you are guilty.
- In Philosophy, any claim must be proven to be true, to assert something is true because it cannot be proven wrong is to commit a logical fallacy known as an argument from ignorance
- In science, once again, a claim without sufficient evidence to verify it will result in the claim being dismissed.
So while the author is indeed convinced that the lack of evidence argument is … to use his word … “busted”, he is sadly mistaken.
Why is it like this, why do so many ignore the rather obvious burden of proof that rests with them and instead attempt to shift it to those that dismiss their claim?
It is perhaps very much down to them being emotionally married to a belief and so the starting point is the conclusion that god is real. From there, anything that confirms that will be embraced and promoted, and anything that conflicts is dismissed. This is in fact a well-known aspect of human psychology and is known as confirmation bias.
Here is a practical example of one aspect of this. There is what is known as the belief perseverance effect, and was demonstrated by a series of experiments using what is called the “debriefing paradigm”, it works like this …
- Participants are presented with fake evidence for a hypothesis – example: here are a series of suicide notes, pick out the real from the fake. Some are then falsely told they did well, and others are falsely told they did badly.
- Their attitude change is measured – how good or bad they felt they would be, then after the false results are presented, how they now feel about their skill level.
- Then the fact that the evidence has been faked is presented – actually you did not do badly at all, we faked that conclusion.
- Their attitudes are then measured once more to see if their belief returns to its previous level. The rather common finding is that at least some of the adjusted belief remains even after a full debrief. Those that were told they did badly still think they are perhaps bad at selecting the real from the fake.
Why it is like this inside our heads is explained by confirmation bias. Even after a belief has been discredited, it can still tend to persist.
Time to convert
When faced with an attempt to shift the burden of proof, it might in fact be best to illustrate the flaw by simply agreeing and converting. Explain that the claimant is in fact quite correct, it is obvious that god is real and that you cannot disprove god, then explain that you will be going right down to the local temple of Zeus to sign up and join.
When they then point out that they had a different god in mind, you can ask why not Zeus because they clearly cannot dismiss Zeus and prove that Zeus does not exist. Hopefully some might then begin to get the point … but sadly most will not and it will go wooshing right over their heads.