Whence Does the Burden of Proof Lie?

In speaking with an atheist acquaintance, it was suggested that the burden of proving the existence of God, or rather, of any god at all, rested with the believer. Believers are the ones making the claim, so it must be believers who provide the evidence therefore. Must it, though? Perhaps it would behoove us to consider this.

Which claim came first – that there is a God, or that there is not? This is not asked in reference to the conversation with the acquaintance, but in the infinitely grander picture. Reasonably it follows that in order for one to claim that there is no God, there must first be a God against whom such a claim can be leveled. One cannot contradict the claim of the existence of a deity if no concept of the divine previously existed. Thus, the first claim was that there is, indeed, a God.

Next, then, would come the accusation that there is no God. The burden of proof rests not with the claimant, but with the accuser, and so it is that the burden of proof lies with the atheist to prove that there is no God, rather than with the believer to prove that there is. Of course, he cannot do this, because God does not reside in the material universe. The accuser knows this, and so resorts instead to so much anecdotal evidence to instead chip away at the idea of God.

Why then, one might be asking, doesn’t the burden of proof rest with the believer? As surely it must be said that before the first man pronounced that there is a God, there was not belief therefore. In this way, the first proclamation would have been in a sense an allegation. I, as the proverbial first man, allege that there is a God where before there was not, so mustn’t the burden rest with me to prove that there is?

It is on this point that the entire debate turns and becomes murky water, as it rests upon the necessity of a common starting point. The Christian believes that his God is eternal – unmade, uncaused, and unchanging; “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, a world without end.” – and from this proposition it does not matter if every man or no man anywhere believes in Him. He exists, and His existence is not contingent upon our acknowledgement. Further, our acknowledging and proclaiming of his existence does not speak Him into being (in the metaphysical sense); it merely states what was already stated in other ways, namely the totality of existence. Acknowledging God is not to speak contrary to a previous state, i.e., the absence of God, precisely because there is no previous state to God – “… in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” As the beginning of St. John’s Gospel proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thus, in the beginning was God, and it is impossible for the beginning to be anything else except the beginning.

However, the accuser, i.e., the atheist, will likely not work from this starting point, either because he does not believe it, hence his atheism, or because it will appear to him as a sort of instant trump of any attempt at argumentative advantage. If he were to acknowledge that God has always existed, then he would also be forced to acknowledge that it was he who was making the comment in need of proof. Knowing that there is no such proof – proof being understood as conclusive evidence for or against a claim; and conclusive being understood as strong or thorough enough to form a conclusion – he would not be able to lambast the believer without acknowledging his blind prejudice.

It remains, however, a well-known fact whether one is a believer in God or not, that the Christian believes his God to be eternal, so any accuser to the contrary is once again indeed the accuser and thus the party responsible for the provision of evidence against. The Christian religion is a religion that worships a God – not a demigod, nor a man who was later made into or adopted by a god, but God. He believes that his God is one and everlasting, that He always has been and always will be. When Moses encountered God in the form of the burning bush, God spoke through the flame. When Moses asked Him, “Who shall I say it is who sends me?” God replies, “Tell them it is I AM who sent you.” Not “I WAS,” or “I WILL BE,” but I AM – a name of total constancy. Whether God is I AM in year one or year 10,000, He is I AM. There can be no real confusion, then, that when a Christian speaks of God, he speaks of a God outside of time, a God who transcends our own timelines, who sees them all as points on a piece of paper, rather than long stretches of human existence. It has been 2000 years since the Passion of the Christ, and to God it is one point of many, all of which can be easily spied as He resides over them. He is not a God of time, because he is the God of Time. It is His.

Ultimately, there is no debate to be had, because the Christian and the atheist argue from two completely different starting points, one that upholds the existence of a God both in and out of time, and another that denies the reality of anything but that which resides in time, and thus that if it cannot be materially proven, it cannot be. How does one bridge that gap? That is a question beyond the scope of this short burst of thought, but there is one thing we may all know for sure: if there is a God (there is), then there is no chasm too great to be overcome. It requires spiritual, moral, reasonable, and intellectual imagination, to be sure. God did not give man above all other creatures the ability for complex and abstract thought only to let our brains languish and turn to dust.

Ours is a time of deep loneliness, and in that loneliness there is a fear masquerading as anger. One sees it in the faces of our daily protests against this person or that cause One hears it in the voice of those who say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” The chasm between belief and unbelief is not as wide as it may at first appear. We are all humans, and we all are made for the same purpose. “You have made us for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” writes St. Augustine in his Confessions. Let us find what binds us all together and build upon that, rather than celebrating what drives us apart.

43 thoughts on “Whence Does the Burden of Proof Lie?

  1. We can wrap this whole thing up in a short conversation:

    B: There is a God!
    A: How do you know this?
    B: There must be a first unmoved mover.
    A: I am not convinced. Do you have better arguments?
    B: Yes. Look at how everything appears designed.
    A: I remain unconvinced.

    The burden of proof is about convincing someone of a position. I am unconvinced of the existence of a God. The burden lies with anyone who wants to convince me there is a God.

    • Which is kind of the point. First, that reason holds no water when trying to demonstrate the reality of God, because the other side will always say they are still unconvinced. Why? Because reason is not reasonable enough. No, the atheist demands evidence, which is impossible seeing as God exists outside of time. Thus, because he cannot be proven, he cannot exist.

      Would you say that love exists?

  2. We are not born believers of God. We have to read and be convinced by the bible and then, as it states in the bible, to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’ The burden of proof is unequivocally on the believer. That is the entire point of it.

    • Respectfully, I disagree. We may not all be born with innate Christian knowledge, but we are all born with a sense of basic right and wrong. Lewis makes this point in Mere Christianity, and the same ideas pop up all throughout human history in cultures separated by time and space. As St. Augustine wrote to open his Confessions:

      “And man desires to praise thee, for he is a part of thy creation; he bears his mortality about with him and carries the evidence of his sin and the proof that thou dost resist the proud. Still he desires to praise thee, this man who is only a small part of thy creation. Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”

      This gets exercised in all manner of ways, some much closer to the true God than others, but ultimately everything of significance that one does in life is a response to this deep inner desire for God. So, to that extent, I would say that while we are not born believers, we are born with a sense that there is something greater to believe in.

      • Respectfully, I could not disagree with you more. We are not born with a sense that there is something greater to believe in. I think what you are mistaking it for is the fact that in nearly every culture we are brought up being taught religion. There is no escaping it.

        I have never had a sense that there is something greater to believe in. I have been raised in a strict religious household but as far back as I can remember I have never believed in a god of any kind and I personally know this to be the case for a lot of other people.

        However, even if your point is true, the burden of truth is still on the believer. Your point doesn’t argue anything against that. There are still many religions to shop around at to find what fits your life style and supports your views. So you still have to be convinced or not convinced of them, therefore leaving the burden of proof with those particular religions.

      • And why would every culture be brought up to be taught religion? Why would every culture have a religious sense? Doesn’t it seem odd to you that the idea of God, or a god, or many gods, has popped up in every corner of the world and that, for the most part, they have all shared the same basic sense of good and evil?

      • No I think it’s understandable for people to not want to believe that there isn’t anything after this life. People don’t want to believe that their only lives will be full of pain and suffering. They want to have something to look forward to in the afterlife to make death a more positive thing. But the fact of the matter is that some of these religions have to be wrong. They cannot all be right, for example the bible teaches that there is only one god. Therefore if the bible is true then the Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh faiths are all wrong. When you understand that some of these religions have to be wrong you then understand that those religions have to have been conjured up by man. Once you understand that, it’s easy to see how man has just created all of these religions out of a sense of wanting something better for themselves to look forward to after this life.

        But all of that is a digression from the point that the burden of proof is on religion.

      • I agree, we have gone a bit far afield. As I read through your response I was struck with one single question. You wrote, “it’s understandable for people to not want to believe that there isn’t anything after this life. People don’t want to believe that their only lives will be full of pain and suffering. They want to have something to look forward to in the afterlife to make death a more positive thing.” With this, I agree, but I would ask – why? Why do people want to believe their life has meaning? Where does this desire for meaning come from? It has existed from the very earliest human records. Even the pagan religions desire to bring meaning to their lives.

        C.S. Lewis was converted to Christianity when Tolkien explained to him that Christianity was a myth, just like all those Lewis loved, with the one real difference being that it was a myth that is true. Now, there is a lot that goes into that (here is something I recently published to that end: Crisis Magazine). Lewis then wrote his friend Arthur Grieves and explained it this way: our myths are God revealing himself to man using the images he finds there. In other words, perhaps in our myths there is truth, even though it is not full truth. Food for thought. Come back again!

      • Fear. Fear and ego. We are afraid of death and the pain that it brings. Because we don’t know 100% what happens after death, its nicer to think that perfection awaits us rather than the probable reality that we just cease to exist.
        The human ego also likes to make us think that we are special and that all of our hard work and good deeds will be rewarded. It’s basic human instinct. We want a reward because it makes us happy. When we are happy dopamine is released into our bodies, which feels great and we crave that feeling (it’s what drugs like heroin synthesize) so we always look for one because we want that dopamine. The same behaviour can be seen in dogs and other animals. They know that if they perform a trick they will be rewarded by their owner with a treat, so they’ll do exactly what we try and communicate to them because they want that treat so badly.

      • It sounds to me like you are avoiding my point. Humans and animals share many similar behaviours for example communication, using tools, expressing emotions etc. etc. I’m not sure why you seem so aghast at that idea?

      • Not avoiding – clarifying, which you have not done. Yes, animals and humans do share some similar behaviors, but are you elevating animal behavior to the level of human, or lowering human behavior to the level of animal?

      • I haven’t done because you’ve asked me a question which has no bearing on the argument whatsoever to avoid addressing the points that I made and is quite honestly an incredibly asinine question. Classic avoidance which you’ve been doing throughout our entire discussion and so I’ve seen in other discussions on here, so I’ll be leaving things here as it is pointless discussing with you. Hope you are well and enjoy the rest of your day.

  3. Love exists. Hydrogen exists. They share a vulnerability to explanatory reduction.
    You seem to be proposing something which would be invulnerable to explanatory reduction.
    Or it is, and lies within the natural schema.

      • Proofs are for theories, because theories are about functional relationships between defined entities.
        There are applicable theories regarding Love and Hydrogen, but they are only post-hoc. Given Love and hydrogen, the theories hold.
        The existence of Love or Hydrogen is a different question entirely.
        If I see hydrogen burning with it’s distinctive color, I say, “Ah, that is hydrogen!” because the color of the flame is distinctive, because I have looked at lots of other flames, because I have heated liquids and gases in air until those liquids and gasses began to produce light and heat, because, because, because…not endlessly or necessarily, but because.
        If I feel love, I say, “Ah, that is love!” because I have felt that flame as a distinctive feeling, because I have felt anger and other motivating sensations, because there is history of dispositions which lead to the feeling which I am having, because, because, because…not endlessly or necessarily, but because.
        Where does God fit in this schema? How?
        If God does not fit in this schema, then how do we know God other than as the terra incognita?

      • Proofs are for theories. They demonstrate the internal consistency of rules as they pertain to an entity.
        Proofs are not for existence, but identity, and thus dependency, are.

    • The burden of proof cuts both ways, and so far despite exhaustive efforts there has been no success to disprove God. Yet the atheist holds tight that despite any evidence, God does not exist.

      And you still have not answered my very simple question of whether or not you believe in love. Do you?

      • I don’t need to disprove God. My position is not that no God exists. I simply don’t accept that a God does exist.

        Before I tell you whether I believe in love, can you tell me what you think it is?

      • But surely you would agree that a position held without proof is not much of a position.

        And I will happily tell you exactly what I think love is once you have told me whether or not you believe it exists.

      • I’m not telling you whether I believe love exists until you tell me what you think I am admitting to. I’m not answering the question until you’ve defined the terms. You tell me what love is, and I’ll tell you whether I think it exists.

        As for my position, ‘not being convinced’ of a claim is not a burden-bearing position; it’s not a positive position; it’s not a claim.

        B: Does God exist?
        A: I don’t know.
        B: Do you believe a God exists?
        A: No.

      • What it sounds like you’re saying is that you don’t believe God exists, but that you’re not taking the position that there is no God. Is that correct?

        I just want to know if you think love exists. If you’re not willing to answer that simple question – at which point, again, I will happily share my own thoughts – then we probably won’t have much luck continuing on with this futility. I really do wish to know what you think, though, and hope that you will answer.

      • Yes. In general terms, I don’t know whether a God exists. And because I don’t know, I don’t believe.

        In terms of whether love exists, I think you’re missing my point. My position on love depends on what you mean by the word. Do you mean ‘love as a subjective experience’ or ‘love as an inferrable fact about people’s psychological reality’, and if you mean the latter, is it something we know through empathy and behavioural analysis or through neuroscience.

        Or do you mean ‘love outside the mind’ as a thing separate from mental states?

        I am not giving an answer until you define the terms as you mean them.

      • I do not think you want to answer. I did not ask if you thought my understanding of love exists. I ask you – do you believe that love exists? You have done nothing but try to turn this back on me so that you can refute my answer rather than very simply answering the question, a question that was posed directly and solely to you. So once again I ask, do you believe that lost exists?

      • Funny that you should ask that, I made a point of alluding to some evidence in the previous comment.
        But, we do have to clear a few things up. “Proof” is a concept reserved for formal logic and mathematics. Although the question was the topic of the “burden of proof”, the name is archaic and a more descriptive name would be “burden of demonstration”.
        It’s also worth clearing up that ‘love’ is not like ‘God’. Love is a subjective experience that people can observe directly. If you feel love in your own mind, that is exactly where love resides. That is a direct observation. If you ‘feel’ God, that sensation is not God — God is meant to exist outside your mind. This is an important distinction that collapses the idea of Love and God being analogous.

        Our evidence for the internal life of others — love and hate, fear and comfort, excitement and apathy — is inference from what we know exists in our own minds and explanatory of behaviour. That evidence has always been available.
        For example, you know what love feels like and you know you will go out of your way for people or ideas that you love. You can observe others doing the same, and explain their behaviour using the same sensations you feel.
        You can then ask them their motivation and they can report their subjective experience. Remember, love is a subjective experience. When someone says they felt the Holy Spirit in their lives, they are attributing a subjective experience to something they claim is objective; love is not objective and so the subjective experience is the appropriate report.

        In more modern times, we have been able to correlate and even induce that self-reported experience of love with neurophysiological changes; we can correlate it and induce it with chemistry.

        So, when Keithnoback says that love is vulnerable to explanatory reduction, this is the kind of thing he is talking about: it explains behaviour and can be induced and explained by chemistry.

        How the neurophysiology gives rise to subjective experience is unknown. However, that love is a function of the chemistry is well established.

        As you defined love in a way that relates more to behaviour, I wrote a piece a while about about identifying intent.

      • With respect, that is very interesting nonsense. You say that love is subjective, echoing the popular false philosophies of our day. If love is subjective, and if “you feel love in your own mind, that is where love resides,” then what of the rapist? What if he has the same effect in his brain as he ruins the life of another as the man who has just proposed to his now-fiance? Would you say that, because the rapist loves what he is doing, it is indeed love? That is a crude example, but the idea that love is what you want it to be is patent nonsense if you actually consider what that means.

        You also say that a subjective experience (love) is something that people can directly observe. How? How can someone directly observe an subjective experience and identify it properly?

        Finally, you mention the mind several times, which is interesting because the mind is an entirely philosophical concept. Yet, your whole premise rests upon it. What is the mind, then?

      • I’m not sure I understand your first criticism. Are you suggesting the models of love I provided (behavioural study and neuroscientific) would let to saying a rapist loves their victim? Or, are you suggesting the same thing is happening in a rapist’s brain as is happening when a groom sees his bride or a mother sees her baby?
        On the former, I don’t think that follows. On the latter, I think that would need to be demonstrated.

        Next, you ask how someone can observe their own subjective experience. I doubt that is a sincere question, as ‘observe one’s own subjective experience’ is all anyone ever does.

        Lastly, you ask about the mind (the home of love). There are a lot of questions about the mind, my favourite being how I can tell you have a mind as opposed to being a sufficiently advanced unconscious robot. And that’s the problem of solipsism.
        The answer is that I have experiences of a mind (my own) and so it’s more reasonable to assume the minds of others, than the falsity of others. It’s not certain, but nothing in science is. There is always a level of induction in these things.

        What do you like psychology and psychiatry and neuroscience do? They study the mind (or it’s relationship to the material). To say it’s entirely philosophical to to not really have thought about it at all.

      • Now as for this comment – the mind. Where is it written that the mind is the home of love? It seems like you just went to great pains to point out that love is an almost entirely physiological reaction. So is it the brain or the mind? Or both? More interestingly, though, is that you make assumptions based on your own experience. So, bringing this all back to point A – when a person has a religious experience, or several, he begins saying crazy things like “God exists. I know because ______ happened to me.” He is making an assumption based on his experience. That doesn’t seem to hold water with you. Yet, you are able to not just assume the mind, but assume it across all of humankind because of your own personal experience with it. Is experience a legitimate mode of evidence for some things but not for others?

        You will also be surprised to learn that no, by-and-large neither psychology, nor psychiatry, nor neuroscience study the mind. There are sub-disciplines that do, and God bless them for it, but the vast majority are entirely focused on the brain. But, I will say, there is very interesting research being done on what the mind is. It is terribly underfunded. But to suggest that the mind is anything but philosophical betrays a notable ignorance of the matter.

      • “It’s also worth clearing up that ‘love’ is not like ‘God’. Love is a subjective experience that people can observe directly. If you feel love in your own mind, that is exactly where love resides. That is a direct observation. If you ‘feel’ God, that sensation is not God — God is meant to exist outside your mind. This is an important distinction that collapses the idea of Love and God being analogous.”

        Look, I have conversation like this a lot and I do become impatient with people being dishonest in the way they discuss these topics. I have already explained why subjective experience is the evidence for love. And yet, you ask the question without addressing the point.

        Unless you think God is nothing more than a subjective experience or idea, then subjective experience is insufficient evidence.

      • If you think the neuroscientific phenomena is someone’s head is the same in a rapist as they rape as it a groom that looks upon his bride or mother who looks upon her baby, then that’s a claim I wait for your to demonstrate.

        And if it is the case that a rapist during rape has the same neurophysiology as a person beholding someone they love, then we have a question of whether the rapist loves the victim or raping. But that question only emerges if the neuroscience holds out.

        Now, I didn’t tell you what I want love to be. I told you what I consider evidence for it. So, you can’t claim to know that my concept of love becomes absurd when considering your ‘rapist objection’.

        But here’s the issue: whatever my conception of love, it only becomes absurd if we accept rapist would give a subjective report of love and an fMRI scanner would give the same read out as other people reporting love during the rape.

        Not only do we not have evidence of that, we have particular evidence to the opposite: areas of the brain relating to compassion are underactive in violent criminals. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2273857/Neurologist-discovers-dark-patch-inside-brains-killers-rapists.html)

        You ask how someone can observe their own subjective experience, but I’m not convinced that is a sincere question, as all anyone ever does is observe their subjective experience.

        To say that the mind is entirely a philosophical concept is to be wrong. We have entire scientific disciplines that study the mind and it’s relationship to the material: psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience.

        There are interesting philosophical questions, like how do I know you have a mind instead of just being an unconscious machine of some sort. This is a problem that is a part of solipsism. The answer is that I have direct experience of my own mind and that it affects decisions and responses. I don’t have have experience of machines making decisions in similar ways. It is therefore more reasonable to assume you have a mind than don’t.

        From there, I can start to build a model of reality that makes sense of neuroscience and psychology. It’s how we make sense of damaging the brain effecting the person — the ability to recognise faces or remember language.

        All of this, by the way, feels like a massive distraction from the point. The point in this post was the Burden of Proof, and my point is that if you’ve got a claim then you’ve got the Burden. Your response was to entirely change the Burden to get me to provide evidence for something you intend to be hypersceptical of. Well, la-dee-da, it’s a great sophistry trick and I’m sure it’s won you a couple of arguments over a dinner table. But it doesn’t actually mean you’ve challenged my view or admitted to changing your own:

        Do you still believe I have the Burden of Proof on the question of God?
        If so, why?
        If not, do you intend to provide evidence?

      • For some reason this and 4 other comments were automatically sent to the trash. As such, I see that I have missed a few things over recent days. My apologies if it seemed that I was purposely avoiding anything.

        You are intentionally attempting to take this down a rabbit hole, bringing in a lot of jargon. You can reduce the human experience down to the goings on in one’s head, but that is a sad, lonely, and meaningless view of life. I hope you will pull back.

        I also think I misread your post regarding observing subjective experience. As it was written, it read is if you were suggesting that other people can observe your subjective experience and identify it – “Love is a subjective experience that people can observe directly.” I now see that you intended to write “… that one can observe directly within himself.”

      • If I can interject here – for him to be able to answer the question he needs to know exactly what you are defining love as. It may mean something completely different to him than it does to you, so isn’t it important that you are both on the same page as to what the definition of what is being asked is. It would be pointless for him to answer if what you are talking about are completely different things. I don’t understand why are you so against making a simple clarification to your question?

      • You certainly may! And no, he doesn’t, because the question was never if he believes in my conception of love. The question is and always has been whether or not he believes love exists. If someone were to ask you if you felt warm, you most likely wouldn’t first ask the person what they define ‘warm’ as. So I ask again, does he believe that love exists.

  4. I can’t believe that I am doing this, but I feel like I have to defend my position from a bit of stoichiometric confusion.
    It is tempting to wield an argument from incredulity against the supposed position that “it’s all a chemical reaction”.
    It is also tempting to hold that position as a sort of naïve realist.
    However, chemistry and the like are representations – maps if you will.
    The point isn’t the detail of the map. The point is: what exists, whatever else may be said of it, seems to be apt for mapping.
    And by the way, love is what I feel towards those things upon which I expend myself. There’s the basic map.
    Love can also be terribly misguided. See Shakespeare.

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