Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Burden of Proof

"Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat."

Latin legal expression

And it says, "The burden of proof lies with who declares, not who denies."

I lead a rich, colourful second life on the internet, on public fora, social media and behind the curtains of private messages. People might accuse me (and people like me who conducts the bulk of their correspondence in zeroes and ones) as antisocial hermits. Many have lamented the fate of humanity when they see a group of friends all completely absorbed in their smartphones, ignoring one another, while they text rabidly to far away individuals outside the prison of proximity. That is a perplexing a complaint to me because in my opinion, we are communicating far more robustly than we used to. The set of "people in the same room as you are" is too small a sample size to contain many people who you would like to converse with, if there are any at all. That is a statistical fact.

There are many notable exchanges I had in the past but I must quit my full-time job if I want to document every single one of them here but occasionally, I have one which is short, concise and significant enough that is worth writing about.

On Choosing Atheism or Rather, Not Choosing Atheism.

I had one such dialogue recently, and it began when someone who fancies himself as an apologist for Christianity asked me the following question:

"I'm just curious about what made you embrace atheism as your worldview. Was it because you found no evidence for Theism? Or was it because you found atheism more plausible? Hope you don't mind me asking."

Yes, he is the sort of person who capitalises the T in theism.

My answer, to summarise and rephrase, sought to clarify that I did not actually "embrace atheism as my worldview." I just simply don't can't believe it when people claim that their favourite god or gods exist because my threshold for acceptance have not been met - it is not a choice. I cannot accept such extraordinary claims based on no evidence whatsoever. It is like posing the question, "Why don't you eat bananas?" to someone who doesn't have any bananas. Even if I want to, I can't.

With that out of the way, I want to talk about the real meaty part of the discussion.

On the Burden of Proof, and Shifting It.

After a few to-and-fros, he posted the following message to me,

"You seem to be stressing that your atheistic-agnostic worldview doesn't need to have positive arguments because by definition it is a default position. I don't think I will concede that, Dr. Kok. To me, atheism (and agnosticism) is a worldview that claims to be exclusively true while holding every other worldview to be false (kindly correct me if I'm wrong). However, as you put it, it doesn't need to make a positive argument. That is a poor philosophical assumption. Let me ask you a simple question, how do you know atheism (or agnosticism) is true? Is it because all other worldviews are false? I mentioned in my last debate that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is possible to disprove the existence of fairies from a Christian Theistic perspective. Two steps needed:
1. I need to give evidence (positive arguments) for Christian Theism.
2. I need to demonstrate why fairies are incompatible with Christian Theism.
Ergo: It would logically follow that fairies do not exist. If fairy-advocates wish to justify their position, they need to demonstrate that CT is false and then erect positive arguments for the existence of fairies. I cannot just sit back and tell people that just because fairy-proponents are unable to provide sufficient evidence that they are therefore false. It would be absolutely arrogant to do so."

What the Apologist did, in so many words, was play a game called Shifting the Burden of Proof and calling me arrogant in the process, but let us ignore the obvious hypocrisy of it for a moment. To expand on my earlier clarification that atheism is not a worldview I have chosen, atheism is a reaction to the claim that God exist. If no one in the history of mankind have conceived of the idea of God, then atheism cannot exist. Atheism is not a claim or even a counter-claim. It is the rejection of a claim.

Now, the Apologist basically wants me to prove that there is no God. To demonstrate how crazy and illogical that is, consider the following picture,

Burden of Proof Comic
Yeah, that is how theists who ask me to prove the non-existence of God sound to me.

In a court of law, one of the manifestations of the burden of proof is the presumption of innocence - or as it is popularly expressed, "innocent until proven guilty". If you want to accuse someone of committing a crime, you must furnish the proof. The defendant is assumed to be innocent until you can prove him or her otherwise beyond reasonable doubt.

Moving out of law and into science, there is a concept known as the null hypothesis - something I picked up in from my statistics, research and journal-writing lectures in med school. So what is it? Let's pretend we are running a scientific experiment to investigate if being Christian affects a person's susceptibility to catch HIV. So, we will get a bunch of people, divide them into non-Christians and Christians, and then test them for HIV. There can be two possible inferences or outcomes,
  • There is a relationship between being Christian and the susceptibility of catching HIV.
  • There is NO relationship between being Christian and the susceptibility of catching HIV.
The first one is what we call the alternative hypothesis, or the claim we are really testing for. The second one is our null hypothesis, which is the default or negative statement. Experimenters with try to disprove the null hypothesis and an experiment can only reject the null hypothesis, or fail to reject it. So, drawing from the example above, if we cannot find evidence that being Christian is correlated with HIV infection, then we would have failed to reject the null hypothesis. To bring it to a real world example, in a drug trial which fails to reject the null hypothesis, we would consider that the drug is useless for what it was tested for.

Anyone with half a brain can immediately see the parallel between this and the god question, which can be formulated as the following hypotheses,
  • God exists.
  • God does not exist.
If we cannot prove God's existence, then we would have failed to reject the null hypothesis of "God does not exist." And therefore, we should assume the agnostic atheistic position until proven otherwise. After all, we aren't going to take a drug that failed to show any evidence that it works.

In all aspects of life, we expect the burden of proof to fall upon the claimant. In court, a person is innocent until proven guilty. In science, we assume the null hypothesis until the alternative hypothesis is proven true. If someone tells you that he had seen Batman, you wouldn't believe him until he proves to you that he did, right?

Only when it comes to God do theists like the Apologist ask for special treatment for their personal beliefs. They want you to prove that there is no God. You know why? It is because they have utterly failed to prove that God exists, and all they can do is muddy the issue and try to shift the burden of proof when it is really their burden to bear.

On Realising When the Burden of Proof is Being Shifted.

"I am not arrogant. It is just that you are crazy for asking me to prove that you don't have a baseball God doesn't exist," I told the Apologist, which elicited the following response from him,

"You are right about one thing - that namely we are innocent until positive proof of guilt can be found. Atheism claims that all worldviews are guilty of falsehood and yet promptly denies the responsibility of providing positive arguments in its favor. I guess that's supposed to be a logical proposition to you. Anyhow I want to suspend this conversation with you because I think when intelligent arguments fails and name-calling emerges there can be no decent outcome. Thank you though for engaging in dialogue."

Bitch please, I was right about everything.

See what I mean about apologists trying to muddy the issue and stealthily attempting to pass off baloney as logic? To repeat myself, atheism is the denial of a claim, the DIRECT OPPOSITE a claim. He disingenously re-characterised the atheistic position as one that claims that all other theistic worldviews are false, essentially turning rewording atheism to make it sound like a positive claim, a worldview comparable to Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and other such fairytales. Forgive me if I remain unimpressed at this cheap syntactic trick that essentially tries to say that blue is really red. That is theistic logic for you.

Remember, I never said "There is no God." I am always asking, "Where is the proof of God."

Incidentally, this is also what we call building a strawman, and if you can picture a man made out of straw, you'd see it as something that superficially resembles a man (but isn't one) which is flimsy and could easily be knocked down. Likewise, the Apologist's description of atheism is one that only superficially resembles atheism (but isn't), so he gives the appearance of having refuted my argument, while slyly avoiding the substance of my argument. However, I am too experienced in spotting logical fallacies to let this one slip by me.

I see what you did there bird
You have to wake up way earlier than that to sneak one past me.

Besides, characterising atheism as a worldview comparable to any number of theistic beliefs smells of that tired "atheism is a religion" canard oft-repeated by theists. Saying atheism is a religion is like saying not-collecting stamp is a hobby, that baldness is a hair colour, or that unemployment is a job - further demonstrating the Apologist's poor grasp of informal logic.

He also tries to sit in the admittedly very cushy chair of being "innocent until proven guilty" in his reversal of the courtroom analogy. To read between the lines, he is basically saying God exists until you prove he doesn't. He had come full circle and assumed the role of the stickman in the comic above who claim he has a baseball, and when asked to produce said baseball, announced indignantly that no one can prove he doesn't have a baseball. Even if we search every crag and crevice in the entire universe to look for this elusive baseball of his, he could still claim that his baseball is invisible and lies outside of time and space. Sound familiar? Using this strategy, anyone can claim that anything exists on the virtue that it has not been disproven. Like Delos Banning McKown said, "The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike." My money is on non-existent.

As you can see, the Apologist also chose to end the discourse because he thought I was insulting him by calling him crazy. What a hypocrite, I thought to myself. He had the cheek to call me arrogant first and then got his panties all in a bunch when I responded in kind. Why, his absent God's book has something to say about that in Romans 2:3,

"And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?"

Judging from this one specimen I interacted with, I am starting to see why they have chosen to call themselves apologists. They seem like a sorry bunch to me.

Burden police,
k0k s3n w4i


Anonymous said...

These diehard Christians don't give a shit about your freedom of choice in embracing or not embracing a faith outside of their doctrine. What they want you to say in the end is 'I accept Jesus C as my saviour etc etc.' Circumcision of independent thought is their aim. You can write a million posts and they will still wank you. Even if you have a personal problem and you want to discuss it with a friend who goes to church, you will get the answer 'come to my church'. Fakin kriast, I have a problem and he/she must bring in jc to solve it and hence show me the power? I will be helped only on condition? Dr kok, please don't spend more time than necessary to debate these pricks. Save your energies for your patients.

Edo fe Errol said...

O hai thar,

It's been a long time since I last heard about you, which was back in high school. Nice write up there. Lookin' forward fer more :D

Dropping a video link that echoes the same Burden of Proof sentiment.


k0k s3n w4i said...

Anonymous: I happen to enjoy teasing out the minutiae of disagreement.

Edo fe Errol: Hey, I remember you! QualiaSoup is frightfully good at explaining things through infographics - I wish I can be half as effective. I didn't know you are a sceptic :)