Who Has the Burden of Proof on the God Proposition?

Who has the burden of proof may depend on our end goal.

Michael Egnor published a provocative article posted on Evolution News & Science Today: Theists vs. Atheists: Who Has the Burden of Proof? Egnor’s comments follow a debate he had with Matt Dillahunty, who is, perhaps, the most popular atheist voice speaking out against religion today.

Egnor claims Dillahunty “didn’t fare well” and demonstrated “no real understanding of any of the ten classical proofs of God’s existence”. It seems that Dillahunty’s big position in the debate was that theists have the burden of proof, so there is no real need for him to assert a position; he can sit back and take pot shots at theist’s arguments and call it a win.

I didn’t watch the debate, so I am just parroting Egnor’s characterization on my way to making a different point. Dillahunty did recently attempt to undress William Lane Craig’s favorite argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, so perhaps he isn’t quite as derelict in his opposition as Egnor makes him out to be. (Though, again, it’s just taking pot shots at positive arguments.)

It is true that Dillahunty relies heavily on the position that he has no burden to prove the negative: that God doesn’t exist. Egnor claims this is because positive atheist arguments are “few and weak” (before putting up a strawman argument in caricature of Dillahunty’s favorite argument based on “Divine Hiddeness”, which I don’t intend to address either).

Egnor may be right, basically, in his assessment of Dillahunty’s position, though not very winsome in stating it. Of course, I wouldn’t characterize Dillahunty as winsome either. Much less so.

What caught my attention about the article wasn’t in the article at all. It was a comment about the article to the effect that anyone who is interested in truth has the burden of proof. That comment deserves some attention.

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Where to Begin Looking: an “Unapologetic” Argument for God

We can’t know very much about an artist from her painting, alone. We need more information, and we need to meet the artist to really know the artist.

In a pervious article, The Beginning of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God, I conceded that human beings cannot prove the existence of God as an absolute, objective certainty. Not because God may not exist, but because we are finite beings who have limitations.

Because we don’t know what we don’t know, we have have to take our most basic assumptions on faith. Basically, we all must reason from a point of faith. Whether our premise is a multiverse limited to space/time and matter or the existence of a transcendent creator God, we assert the starting premise on faith because we cannot prove it.

That is the very nature of an axiom. Axioms are propositions we regard as “self-evidently” true, but we can’t prove them.

Immanuel Kant famously demonstrated the dilemma we face on the existence of God by creating an airtight syllogism logically proving the existence of God. Then he turned around and created an airtight, syllogism logical proving there is no God. What was the difference?

The difference was the first premise, the axiom with which he started. Thus, the premise with which your logic starts will determine the outcome of a syllogism. Different starting premises yield different logical conclusions. The logic can be solid in both examples, but the difference in the starting premises leads to opposing conclusions.

This is the human condition, finite as we are: we have to take our starting premises on faith. We can test them logically and in other ways. We can eliminate starting premises that won’t stand up to logic or other forms of testing, but we cannot ultimately prove our starting premises.

When we have two syllogisms that stand up to logic and to other ways of testing them, and they still yield opposite conclusions, we are at a loss to reconcile them and to eliminate one or the other – except by faith.

We can’t hold them together, because they are diametrically opposed to each other. We cannot resolve which one is correct objectively because we do not have the facts we need, as finite beings, to determine which axioms comport with ultimate reality, and which do not.

This is the human dilemma on the existence of God. It requires us to choose a starting premise on faith. With that said, I am going to make a very “unapologetic” argument for the premise of God.

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The Beginning of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God

Faith is the inevitable position of a finite being who does not know all there is to know.

I really like apologetics. I find it interesting to think about, but apologetics has limited power as a tool to convince people to believe in God. It is not a magic bullet. There is no magic argument to prove the existence of God.

When I see article titles or social media posts that make claims of proving the existence of God, I cringe a little bit. It’s a promise we can’t deliver. We really shouldn’t “go there”. I feel that we should be more honest than that.

Of course, the “promise” depends on the definition of “prove”. The Oxford online dictionary defines the word, “prove”, as follows:

  1. demonstrate the truth or existence of (something) by evidence or argument. (“The concept is difficult to prove.”)
  2. demonstrate to be the specified thing by evidence or argument. (“Innocent until proven guilty.”)

If everyone accepted and applied these definitions, perhaps, we could find more common ground. A “proof” in the first sense is just evidence or argument that demonstrates the truth of the existence of something. Whether that proof actually, definitively and absolutely provides the truth or existence of that something, is another matter. A proof in this sense is still open to judgment whether it accomplished the goal.

A proof in the second sense is similar, and the example includes a standard of proof (one that we use in criminal proceedings). This example raises a key point: Without agreement on the standard of proof, the determination whether a proof is successful in proving that point is a moving target.

The success of any evidence or argument in proving a point depends on what standard of proof is applied. Two people may apply two very different standards of proof and, therefore, arrive at two very different conclusions on the determination whether the proof was successful.

Most of the arguments between theists and atheists gloss over and fail to recognize this fundamental issue. Not only do they apply different standards of proof, they make all kinds of different assumptions, and worse: they define their terms differently. It’s no wonder the debates and discussions produce so much disagreement. They are basically talking in foreign languages to each other.

Wikipedia defines “proof” as “sufficient evidence or a sufficient argument for the truth of a proposition.” What is “sufficient” evidence, though, depends on the standard of proof that is applied. Different standards of proof will yield different results.

For instance, we generally apply different standards of proof in the American legal system in different contexts. In civil cases, the applicable standard of proof is “more likely than not”, and in criminal proceedings, the applicable standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

Proving a case under the “more likely than not” standard is much easier than proving a case “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The higher standard (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) is designed for criminal cases with the purpose of causing “the system” to err on the side of finding a guilty person innocent (rather than erring on the side of convicting innocent people).

At least, that is the theory. People still disagree on the outcomes of criminal cases, and innocent people are sometimes found guilty, even when applying the much higher standard of proof. I am reminded of the axiom: to err is human.

These problems of proof are inevitable for finite beings. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we are always prone to “getting it wrong”. If we don’t take that limitation seriously, we become arrogant and prideful.

Therefore, I am reminded of the propriety of maintaining humility. Even if we are certain in our own minds of the truth of a matter, we should be mindful of the human tendency to get things wrong.

This is where faith comes in. Faith, in part, is an exercise in humility. Faith is the inevitable condition of being human, and that goes for faith in the truth that science reveals and faith in the truth that the Bible reveals. Let me explain.

Continue reading “The Beginning of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God”