Burden of proof and the null hypothesis

Randal Rauser
Randal Rauser

Today I ran into the following article on cristianpost.com, written by Randal Rauser.  Here are a few excerpts:

One of my skeptical readers, EnoNomi, takes issue with my claim that atheists and agnostics shoulder an evidential burden to defend their belief just as much as the theist does. This is what EnoNomi writes:

“It’s not up to the Atheist or the Agnostic to prove anything because you can’t prove a negative. I can no more prove that your god doesn’t exist than you can prove Odin or Zeus doesn’t exist.”

This is an important comment because it reflects a commonly held, but also incorrect view.

Interesting.  It looks like, at this point, Randal is quite aware of the concept of burden of proof.  It looks like he will address this issue, and if he does it may be something I’ve not heard before.  I eagerly keep reading.

Rauser then discusses that there are different kinds of proof.  Logical and mathematical proof being the highest, and other kinds of proof being lesser, but still valid. While I may think that in situations like court proceedings, the word ‘proof’ may not be the best, I’ll accept the general premise that in other areas besides logic and mathematics, lesser degrees of certainty exist necessarily.

So now to God. What kind of standard of evidence is the atheist required to provide in order to justify disbelief in God? Logical certainty? Beyond a reasonable doubt? A preponderance of the evidence? Who decides?

It seems to me that there is no clear answer here. Rather, it seems most likely that the more evidence the atheist can provide, the stronger the justification for his/her belief.

This, I believe, is where the discussion goes all wrong.  This is where I saw that Rauser didn’t really understand the most important aspect of the burden of proof.  Atheists don’t have to disprove god, and he knows this as he quoted above.  This article of his is an attempt to address this issue, but so far he has not done so.

What he has done, so far, is state that atheists can provide evidence, and the strength of that evidence will either lend support for their belief or not.  But that is precisely the problem.  The atheist does not have to provide any evidence at all.  The atheist is not the one with any burden of proof.  The reason is simple: The null hypothesis.

The null hypothesis, in this context, is to assume that something does not exist until there is sufficient evidence to accept that it does.  That is the position that the word ‘atheist’ describes; a rejection of the claims about existing gods due to lack of evidence (or the lack of belief in any gods).  It is not the position or belief that a god does not exist.  This is the fundamental misunderstanding of Rauser and many other theists (and some atheists who call themselves agnostics) who try and analyze this issue; a misunderstanding of the atheist position.  Sure, some atheists will say that they believe that god does not exist, but this is saying something more than atheism per se.

Rauser confirms this misunderstanding of atheism/agnosticism in the parenthetical sentence that follows my last quotation of him;

(Conversely, the more doubt the agnostic — or weak atheist as some of my interlocutors prefer to say — can cast, the stronger the justification for his/her withholding of belief.)

Agnosticism is not withholding belief. One either believes or one does not.  If one is considering the question or withholding judgment, this is technically a position of being without belief.  Agnosticism is simply admitting one does not know with certainty.  Name me anyone that this does not apply to and I’ll show you a liar; everyone is, therefore, agnostic.  The question is what one believes.

This is a distinction I wish more people would be aware of.  And Rauser seems to be somewhat aware of the issues.  He addresses the question of certainty about other gods besides his own:

So back to EnoNomi’s claim. Can I prove that Odin or Zeus do not exist? It all depends. I cannot provide a logical proof. But could I provide a lesser proof? Beyond a reasonable doubt? Or a preponderance of the evidence? I suspect I could. Certainly EnoNomi cannot simply declare by fiat that I cannot.

She may, but I don’t know.  I think that it’s possible to do what Rauser claims; to prove to a great degree of certainty that gods such as Zeus do not exist.  But what about his god? Well, let’s see what he says:

And this is what many atheists in fact attempt when it comes to the Judeo-Christian God: they seek to provide a lesser proof to support the conclusion that God does not exist. For instance, Vic Stenger attempts this in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis where he argues that current science warrants the conclusion that God does not exist. I may disagree, but Stenger is right that belief in God is up for critical review.

Atheist Austin Dacey has referred to this lesser proof approach as the “look and see” method. Essentially we engage in an a posteriori (or empircal) enquiry, looking to see whether the universe evinces signs of God’s presence. If it does not then we can reasonably infer that God is absent or, to put it another way, that God does not exist.

But one can go further: it is also possible to develop a logical disproof for the existence of God. The way one would do so is by showing that there is a logical contradiction between certain attributes God possesses (e.g. a conflict between omnipotence and omnibenevolence) or between God’s attributes and certain indisputable characteristics of the world (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence and the existence of evil).

This is certainly a fair summary of some of the positions and points that atheists often make.  I commend Rauser for being aware of them and treating them fairly, as many apologists are not and do not.  I find it honestly refreshing to see analysis by a Christian theist that is aware of what atheists actually say.  So, when he states the following, I at least am not too frustrated…just a little frustrated.

As a committed Christian theist, I do not believe that the atheist has provided any of these proofs, though I do agree that there are certain lines of evidence which prima facie count against the existence of God as defined by the Christian theist.

Again, here is the problem.  Proof that any god does not exist is strictly epistemologically impossible.  He did gloss over the logical contradiction approach to attempting this “(e.g. a conflict between omnipotence and omnibenevolence),” and he is right to point out that the definition of god is slippery.

There is a remaining grumble that one hears: as soon as a purported disproof for God’s existence is provided, the definition of God is changed. Thus, theism is a target forever moving. For the moment I’ll concede that this is occurring (that is, that the concept of God has evolved because of the proffering of disproofs for earlier concepts).

Yes, indeed.  The definition of god changes every time we improve our understanding of the universe (I’ve written about this recently) and thus make another attribute of some god absurd.  Because of this process, the definition of god retreats once again to something more mysterious, ephemeral, and nonsensical.

But Rauser is not finished with the slippery god yet:

But even if true, is that a ground for complaint? From the atheist’s perspective it would just mean that he or she is guaranteed a job, forever knocking down new concepts of God like a centuries’ old game of metaphysical Wac-a-mole.

Yes.  And what you seem to be missing is that you are continuing the game of re-defining god every time we show more and more about why our lack of belief in your (or others’) god is justified.  That is, our skepticism, our lack of belief due to lack of sufficient reason to believe, is warranted.

Atheists like myself will continue to write and argue because you keep changing the rules.  We are reactionary, admittedly.  We see what you propose as a being that exists and that you call ‘god’ and we will continue to say “I don’t believe you” to which you will continue to insist that we can’t disprove god and we’ll continue to reply that this is not the point; we simply have no good reason to think your claim is correct.

It is your job to provide good reason to accept the claim, not ours to disprove it.  You say God exists, I say I don’t believe you.  I don’t believe you because it’s silly to accept such spurious claims with no good rational support.  You reject all the other gods, such as Zeus, Rama, or even Allah and I just reject yours for similar reasons.

But the main point here is that the atheist can in principle provide a weak or strong proof for God’s non-existence. And thus the atheist cannot protest that such a thing cannot be expected of him or her because it is impossible.

What is impossible? It’s impossible to present a weak or strong argument (not proof) for god’s non-existence? That can be done, but again that’s not the point.  I would like to see an alternate phrasing of this last quoted section, because I’m not quite sure what he is saying.

It’s a problem I have with many theists; I don’t know what they are saying, and so I leave thinking they are saying nonsense most of the time.  Tell me what you believe and why.  If I don’t understand what you mean then I can’t believe it, can I? And if I can understand it I can surely not believe it if I don’t see good reason to accept it, right?  That’s what I mean when I say I’m an atheist.


7 thoughts on “Burden of proof and the null hypothesis

  1. Although there are different senses of the word ‘atheism’, anyone who assumes that it means an explicit denial of the existence of God is justified unless context indicates otherwise. The weaker form you employ is the less common usage.

    Likewise the notion that everyone is an agnostic, thus rendering the term entirely meaningless, is equally wrong. I don’t know whether Homo Floresiensis was a diseased group of humans or a separate species, but it almost certainly was one of the two. It would be silly to suggest that I don’t believe it was a separate species when I don’t know what to believe. The evidentiary standards for belief are not simply unmet but unclear. Agnostic means “not knowing” not “not believing”.

    It seems as though you like to play word games to make your case just as the believers do. Just one more problem with methodological essentialism. Words themselves are not that important but misrepresent them is.

  2. The usage might be less common, but it is the definition that applies to everyone who does call themselves an atheist. It simply means “not a theist.” Those who use the stronger use are still atheists, but their opinion goes beyond simply lacking belief and says more. It’s just that the stronger use is not the definition of atheist itself. I don’t see how that is not the most rational use of the term.

    It’s a lot like how a theist–one who believes in god, does not tell us about that god they believe in. If they believe in Yahweh, this does not imply that belief in Yahweh is what it means to be a theist. It implies that this theist does more than just believe in god, they believe in a specific god. Similarly an atheist simply lacks belief in god, and them going further and saying that they actually believe no gods exist–the stronger statement–they are taking another step.

    If atheism was belief that there were no gods, then what are people that simple lack belief in any gods? (which, I’ll assume, you understand to be different positions). They aren’t theists. And since the prefix of ‘a-‘ simply means not, then what we have here is a digital position. (sort of like ‘a and not-a’). One is either a person who believes a god exists, or one is not. And since the definition of atheist as “one who believes that god does not exist” does not include those that “lack belief in gods,” and those latter group are not theists, then it cannot make logical sense for the former definition to be central, but rather peripheral. The former position implies the lack of belief as well, but lack of belief does not imply belief of lack. Thus the definition of ‘lack of belief’ MUST be the one that holds up as the wider definition that includes those that are not theists. It thus occupies the digital ‘off’ position for atheism/theism. The definition you prefer does not stand up to scrutiny, no matter how common its usage.

    You said:

    I don’t know whether Homo Floresiensis was a diseased group of humans or a separate species, but it almost certainly was one of the two. It would be silly to suggest that I don’t believe it was a separate species when I don’t know what to believe. The evidentiary standards for belief are not simply unmet but unclear. Agnostic means “not knowing” not “not believing”.

    You are missing the point. The fact is that you don’t know, and neither does anyone else. That is the point precisely. You can have an opinion one way or another, but that is precisely like with God. You don’t know certainly. You may believe there is a god, you may not, or you might even say that it is impossible. That’s your opinion. But since you don’t know, you are agnostic. I don’t know why you are correcting me in saying that agnostic means ‘not knowing’ when that was my very point. You don’t know, I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Thus we are all agnostic. Your example only proves my point.

    I think I understand the confusion, in going back. I wrote that “Agnosticism is not withholding belief” which I think you read as “agnosticism is defined as ‘not withholding belief'”, when in fact I was saying that he position of “agnosticism is not defined as ‘withholding belief'”. I think that this might be the source of the confusion. Sorry if I was imprecise or unclear.

  3. If we were debating etymology, I wouldn’t disagree with you. But I am concerned with usage and that’s where I think you have a problem.

    You ask: “If atheism was belief that there were no gods, then what are people that simple lack belief in any gods?”

    A valid question but it can equally be run the other way and we have “If atheism was simply lack of belief in any gods, then what are people that believe there are no gods?”

    Historically the answer to this question and still the one in widest usage is atheist. The more qualified position you use in your argument has precedent but not nearly as much. Perhaps you should coin a new term or research the issue as one might already exist. Maybe ‘theistic apistian’. BTW isn’t that what a Bright is supposed to be?

    There are many technical terms for various forms of belief and there are even two words I know off the top of my head that describe tribes that believe in many gods but worship only one, henothesim, and monolatrism.

    Hitchens uses antitheist to express his position that that not only doesn’t he believe in gods but that all such beliefs are always harmful. Sam Harris makes the point that we don’t have a word for a non-astrologer and perhaps its unwise to try to coin one for non-believer.

    “The fact is that you don’t know, and neither does anyone else.”

    I don’t think this statement is necessarily true.

    “You can have an opinion one way or another, but that is precisely like with God. You don’t know certainly”

    No, this not at all the situation with H. floresiensis. Not only is speciation among extinct animals itself a contentious definitional issue in zoology but I am not qualified to even have an ‘opinion’ as I lack the requisite background in evolutionary biology or physical anthropology that would allow me to wade through the issue and come to anything approaching an intellectually responsible conclusion.

    I know what you mean and can appreciate your attempt to bring some clarity to the issue. But I would venture to guess that most of the “New Atheists” or those active in the public debate are of the stronger more traditional variety. Therefore I don’t think you should fault their critics for using the narrower definition.

    For me the NA’s don’t have the burden to prove there is no God, or not to belive in gods, I already agree with them (I’m a strong atheist in that sense) but I do think they have to prove their methods and aims are socially productive, practical, and fair. They’ve a lot of work to do.

  4. “…I just reject yours for similar reasons.” This is inaccurate as most theists do not consider evidence to believe or disbelieve other gods. Most theists simply think their holy text is their god’s commandments, and reject other gods because the text says they’d better. This applies to muslims, christians…. pretty much all dogmatic religions. Believers are not skeptics or critical thinkers by definition. So the reason I reject the existence of gods is not similar to theirs. Only apologists at least give an illusion of critical ponderance of evidence, but even they suffer the same flaw as their arguments start with a special pleading and end in a false dichotomy or argument from ignorance falacy in most cases.

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