by Jay Johansen | May 30, 2015
Here's an argument I'm hearing a lot from atheists lately: "The burden of proof is on the affirmative. That is, if you say that X is true or that X exists, the burden is on you to prove that it is true or that it exists. The person claiming the negative doesn't have to prove anything."
One person gave an example that went like this: Suppose you claim that you have a dragon in your basement. It is not up to me to prove that you do not have a dragon in your basement. It is up to you to prove that you do. Until you offer such proof, we must assume that you do not have a dragon in your basement."
The application, of course, is that if you claim that there is a God, the burden of proof is on you. Until you prove that there is a God, we must assume that there is not.
Okay, so you say, "the burden of proof is on the person claiming the affirmative". That's an affirmative statement. Prove it. Because no one follows this principle in general. I doubt the people making these statements follow this principle in cases other than where they believe the affirmative statement to be false. I have never heard an atheist offer any proof that the burden of proof is on the positive. They don't even apply this principle when they state the principle!
The atheist who gave the "dragon in your basement" argument went on to say that of course this applies to things other than dragons. If you claim, he said, that your mother is living in your basement, the burden of proof is on you. I found it rather surprising that he brought up this example, because it completely undermines his argument. If someone said that his mother lived in his house, would you really take it as a working assumption that he is confused or lying, until he offers proof? Indeed, presumbaly the real point with the dragon example was not that it was living in your basement, but whether dragons exist at all. So if someone said, "I have a mother", would you really say that the safe, rational position is to assume that he does not have a mother, unless and until he offers proof? I sincerely doubt that anyone makes assumptions like that in day to day life.
Yes, it is true that proving a negative can be difficult. If we were debating, say, the existence of bigfoot, it could be very difficult to prove that bigfoot does not exist. If I have not studied every square inch of the Earth's surface, how can I be sure that bigfoot does not live in some place that I have not studied? It's often possible to conclusively prove a positive. If someone captured a bigfoot and brought him back in a cage, or killed one and brought back the body, that would presumably prove that they exist. It might be necessary to prove that it's not a hoax. But assuming we're convinced it's genuine, the question would be settled. But there's no single experiment I can do to prove that no such creature exists.
But the fact that it's often difficult to prove a negative doesn't mean that we can or should assume the negative to be true. In any given case, you might be able to make an argument that the negative is more likely than the positive. But there's no reason to assume that in general. If instead of bigfoot, someone said that he believes that there is a previously-unknown species of beetle in the Amazon jungle, would the fair assumption be that he is right or wrong? I would say that he is almost certainly right. New species of beetle are discovered in the jungle all the time. The possibility that there is yet one more seems very likely.
The atheists' ultimate point goes like this: The burden of proof is on the affirmative. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the theist to prove that God exists. Therefore, until you offer proof that I find convincing, we must work on the assumption that he doesn't. Therefore we should live our lives on the assumption that there is no God: personal lives, scientific research, government policy, etc.
I might note at this point that Christians offer numerous proofs of the existence of God: The argument from first cause. The argument from ontology. Eyewitness accounts of miracles. Historical and archaeological evidence for the accuracy of the Bible. The personal experiences of Christians. Etc, etc. The atheist says that he finds these arguments unconvincing. Okay. So what? On any controversial question, there are always doubters. There are people today who don't believe that the world is round, or that astronauts have been to the Moon. Would you say that as long as there is one person in the world who is not convined, a question must be declared "unproven"? Indeed, as controversial questions go, the existence of God isn't very controversial. Surveys routinely show that perhaps 10-15% of the population of Europe are atheists, 5% of Americans, and less than that in most of the rest of the world. So why should the 90% who believe that there is a God be expected to act on the assumption that there is not, just because there are 10% who are unconvinced?
It is not at all clear that assuming the negative is always the safe course. Suppose when the first space probe was being sent to Mars, one of the scientists on the team said that they should plan the flight on the assumption that the Law of Gravity applies on Mars just like it does on Earth. Would the rational position for the other scientists on the team have been to say, "No, no one has yet proven that gravity exists on Mars. Therefore, we must plan this flight on the assumption that there is no gravity on Mars."
© 2015 by Jay Johansen