In a free country’s courts of law, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This burden of proof rests with the accusers because a free society has a vital interest in protecting the rights of individuals. When one makes a claim against an individual that would deprive that person of freedom or property, it is a grave matter (because human rights are a grave matter). The claim must be accompanied by good reasons and evidence. That’s what a burden of proof is: the requirement to provide good reasons and evidence for a claim.
But when you take the idea of the burden of proof out of the courtroom, the concept becomes dubious as a debating point between contending views (as in, “Who has the burden of proof concerning a religious claim?”). The reason is that no claim, for a rational individual, is ever presumed innocent. If one is rational, it follows that you will expect four things of any claim that you adhere to (or are asked to adhere to):
- The claim is accompanied by evidence.
- If evidence is not explicitly present, you at least have good reasons for believing the claim (inductions, deductions, plausible analogies and associations, appeals to expert consensus on a matter, etc).
- The claim is coherent. In other words, it agrees with the other things that you think you already know about the universe; it coheres with your background knowledge.
- Out of a series of competing claims, your claim appears to be the best of the bunch. If it is a broad hypothesis about a matter, it is not just a pretty good hypothesis, it is the best hypothesis. Reasoning to the best hypothesis is known as abduction.
Here’s a simple example of a belief accompanied by supports: if a woman surmises that her husband is cheating on her, she may acquire such a belief because there is some combination of the following:
- explicit evidence (she has found a cryptic message to another woman in one of his jacket pockets);
- good reasons (he’s unusually quiet around her; he never sleeps with her anymore);
- it coheres with her background knowledge (he is a narcissist and travels a lot for business); and
- it is the best explanation of his behavioral patterns given all that she knows about him (he might just be out with the boys at a bar after work, or making extra-money on the side to buy her a new car, but these seem implausible to her. An affair, in her estimation, is most likely).
When you take the burden of proof out of the courtroom, and make no claim “innocent,” then you realize that the burden of proof always rests on you (because you never want to believe or reject a claim that you can’t justify with a demonstration of evidence, good reasons, coherence, and some process of abduction to the best hypothesis). If the matter is of genuine concern to you, then nothing is left presumed. When somebody claims, for example, that an invisible gremlin is in the lightbulbs of a room, making them shine, it’s not so much the burden of proof upon that person that leads you to reject the claim—it is, rather, the burden of proof that you’ve already assumed for yourself: you have already arrived at a good theory concerning why lightbulbs work, and it’s not just a good theory, it’s the best one, to your knowledge, on offer. Your theory is based on good reasons and evidence, and it coheres with your background knowledge. You’ve been given no good reasons (presumably) to entertain the gremlin hypothesis of lightbulbs.
And so, in the conflict between atheists and theists (one advocating naturalism; the other supernaturalism), neither side is accorded a presumption of innocence. Both must account for themselves in precisely the same way: with evidence, reasons, background knowledge coherences, and hypothesis testing. Each has to look at the whole (for the truth is the whole) and decide which Weltanschauung—worldview—in the end, makes the most sense. Nobody gets a free ride in the intellectual effort required here (unless you don’t care enough to make the effort, and have decided to be an irrationalist and just believe whatever you want).
Of course, rational people, having different temperaments, will draw different conclusions about the murky matters surrounding God’s existence. Here, for example, is the kind of puzzle that has no obvious answer, but that divides atheists and theists:
Did the material universe and its physical laws just come into existence out of nothing, have they always been here, or did a mind—the mind of God—preceed matter and the laws of physics?
Who has the burden of proof on such a question? Obviously, a paradox of the profoundest mystery rests at the heart of existence. Neither naturalism nor supernaturalism possesses the obvious default answer to the question of whether we live in one world or two.
And so, to my mind, the burden of proof question is a red herring, and, with regard to atheism v. theism, comes down to these two questions:
- Which is the first thing to exist: mind or matter?
- Does mind reduce to matter?
To pretend that we know the answers to these questions is to live in falsity. The truth is that we don’t know, exactly, where we are or whether we are operating under the right set of premises. A lot of what we conclude about our existence is guesswork. The burden of proof, therefore, rests with one and all, and each of us has to decide what makes the most sense to us. Since the answers to our questions of ultimate concern (such as whether mind might have preceded matter in the universe) are not obvious, intuition, invariably, must also come into play (and so gets added to evidence, good reasons, coherence, and hypothesis testing). In other words, we have to lay bets and hope that we have laid them well, and have some sympathy for those who put their bets on different parts of the table. Part of making a bet entails going with your gut. It always has.
I like what Damon Linker recently wrote about post-9-11 atheists (such as “gnu atheist” Jerry Coyne) v. post-World War II atheists (such as Albert Camus):
The members of the second, more humanistic tradition of atheism understood and accepted that although an individual may settle the question of God to his personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all human beings will settle it in the same way. They recognised that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to preclude unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Humanistic atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists, including our bestselling new atheists, do not.
Ask not for whom the burden of proof tolls. It tolls for thee.