Atheism, Axiomatic Truths and the Burden of Proof

In a previous post, I took a brief look at the issue of who has the burden of proof in the God debate.  When I originally wrote that post, I had a few tidbits that I wanted to weave into a post and the burden of proof seemed like a good focal point for these disparate ideas.  I had, firstly, a discussion about human rights abuses in China a while back and I wanted to mention it.  I had also engaged in some reflection on the societal benefits of imposing an onerous burden of proof on the prosecution in criminal cases and I wanted to mention these ideas.  Add in a discussion that I had with an atheist on the burden of proof a while back and voila, a quick and dirty post on the burden of proof in the God debate.  Surprisingly, that post became the most popular post I have written on this site and the many objections made by atheists demonstrated that it was deeply flawed.

Most of the flaws in the previous post were my fault because I was not clear about the scope of what I was discussing.  In that previous post, I expressed my frustration with atheists who claim that western societies should be governed in accordance with philosophical nihilism and offer only the most feeble argumentation in support of nihilistic claims.  “A finger movement experiment demonstrates that in certain cases nerve impulses can precede the conscious experience of choosing to move the finger, therefore choice is an illusion, criminals are not responsible for their actions and jails should be abolished.”  The idea that nihilists should have a burden of proof before making their beliefs the law of the land was mistaken by atheists as the claim that they must prove there is no god before they can choose to believe there is no god.  The demand that someone believe in something without good reason, however, is contrary to what I believe and it is not how I have lived my life.  How should a human being approach the biggest questions of life?

Human Limitations

Any discussion relating to the nature of reality must begin with an understanding of the limitations of the human capacity to know and demonstrate truth.  Though human reason is an astonishing gift and represents the most powerful evidence we have for the existence of the divine, it is far from infallible and has very real limitations.  One of these limitations is that we cannot prove absolute truth beyond any possible doubt.  In Biblical terms, there is a veil between humanity and absolute truth and we cannot know absolutes except by faith.  The Apostle Peter acknowledges this when he limits our responsibility in discussions with others to defending “the hope that is in our hearts with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).  As Christians, therefore, we recognize that we cannot offer absolute proof for truths we believe to be absolute.  The best we can do is hold up the guttering torch of human reason and demonstrate the rationality of our hope.  In this quest, where do we begin?

Axiomatic Truths

If we consider the work of Kurt Godel and his Incompleteness Theorem, it is clear that the result of any reasoning process is going to depend on the unprovable set of axioms which serve as the starting point.  As Godel has shown us, these axioms must themselves be accepted without conclusive proof.  This has been proven to be a fundamental limitation of mathematical reasoning and, by extension, of human reasoning.  Mathematical reasoning is the most powerful form of human reasoning and its conclusions are more certain than the results from any other field of human endeavour.  If even mathematics suffers the severe limitation that axioms must be accepted without proof, then how much more limited are weaker forms of human reasoning?

So the result of any process of human reasoning is going to critically depend on an assumed starting point.  What should be the starting point in our discussion about the nature of reality?  What standard of proof should we adopt?  What axioms should we accept without conclusive proof?

It seems only rational to accept as one of our starting axioms that human experience is essentially real despite the undeniable flaws in our perceptions of reality.  Despite the fact that optical illusions can trick us into seeing things that are not there, for example, we must assume that our visual experience can give us trustworthy information about the physical universe.  We must, likewise, make similar assumptions about other human faculties.  However the meat computer between my ears works and however flawed it may be, my reason is capable of reaching “truths” that are statements about a real and external reality.  Whatever the flaws in my conscious perception of choice, I am capable of acting in accordance with the “truths” reached by my reason and these actions will have some effect on reality.  However flawed my ability to love might be, I can care for others and make choices to value the welfare of these others.  Whatever the flaws of human capacities, they are essentially real and not some kind of delusion.

Though these transcendent aspects of human experience cannot be proven, this does not mean that they cannot be defended from skepticism.  (see, as an example, my arguments concerning free will)  If a skeptic insists that he will not believe in love, reason, morality or free will without proof, then we can point out that his argument is self -refuting.  Do you claim that your beliefs are rational?  How can you refute the ability of human beings to reason and, as a human being, make that claim?  And if you constantly speak and act as though free will, love and morality actually exist, how can you trust your reason if these things are not also real?  Why would a materialistic universe trick us into believing in love, morality, reason and choice?

Though the reliability of human faculties can be defended in this way, the axiomatic nature of these fundamental truths has always been understood and accepted by first-rate thinkers.  It was for this reason that Einstein would not allow himself to be called an atheist and Spinoza was a deist.  It was for this reason that Descartes started with his famous axiom, “I think therefore I am”.  It was for this reason that the founding fathers of the United States started by asserting that transcendental truths were “self evident’.

Despite the fact that transcendent truths are an essential starting point for any rational discussion, some skeptics still deny their truth on the basis that they cannot be proven.  Like a five-year old who first grasps the fact that if they ask the question “Why?” enough times they will soon exhaust the knowledge and patience of their parents, these skeptics delude themselves into believing that they are smarter than other people because their beliefs are unassailable.  To them all that can be said is what Jesus said when he taught, “He who has the ears to hear, let him hear.”

The Burden of Proof

Having established that certain aspects of human reality must be accepted without conclusive proof, we turn to the question of what is the appropriate burden of proof on the question of the existence of god.  I posit that the burden of proof must be assigned on an argument by argument basis using an analysis of possible consequences and recognizing the fact that a poorly chosen burden of proof could result in erroneous conclusions.  To illustrate why I believe this to be the case, let us  imagine that someone comes to you and asks you to give them money.  What is the rational way to respond to such a request?

In order to see how the circumstances can change the appropriate burden of proof from situation to situation, let us consider three different scenarios.  Let us first consider a person who has a gun in their hand and they are asking for the money in your wallet.  Let us next consider a homeless person asking for spare change for a bite to eat.  Let us finally consider an inventor who wanted your life savings to start the next Apple and make you rich.  Though the assertion “The best course of action is to give this person the money.” is the same in all of three scenarios, the differing circumstances demand a different burden of proof.

The Robbery Scenario

In the case of the robbery, it is by no means certain that the robber would actually shoot you or that the gun is not a fake.  Do you demand absolute proof of the threat before surrendering the $27.00 that is in your wallet?  Maybe you do if you are suicidal, but if you value your life the prudent thing to do is to be as cooperative as possible in order to avoid injury.  When the consequences of skepticism are high and the consequences of being fooled minimal, a rational person lowers the burden of proof concerning certain assertions.

Does this scenario mean we should choose a low burden of proof for the existence of deities that threaten violence or injury?  For an unprincipled person, the answer to this question might be yes.  Such a person would hedge their bets by paying lip service to as many violent gods as possible in the hope of avoiding divine wrath.  For a principled person, on the other hand, a god who wants obedience through fear and intimidation is not a god worth serving.  In this case, outright rejection or a very high standard of proof are going to be the most reasonable choices.  (I take the principled stand here and impose a higher burden of proof for deities like Allah than for Jesus Christ.  Atheists who think this is inconsistent because of the teachings of Christ on hell should see my post the nature of hell.)

The Charity Scenario

In the case of the homeless person asking for change, it is by no means certain that this person is really homeless or that they need money for food.  There are people who pretend to be homeless but actually live a comfortable lifestyle.  Do you perform a background check on a homeless person before giving him some pocket change?  Because the consequences of being correct or incorrect are negligible, a rational person would  assign a very low burden of proof on the assertions made by the homeless man and make the decision to give or not to give on other grounds.

Does this scenario have any relevance to debate concerning the nature of reality?  No.  The question of whether or not god exists must be more significant than whether or not a person is telling the truth when they claim to be homeless and ask for spare change.  For this reason, this scenario has no real relevance to the burden of proof concerning the existence of the divine and is included merely to illustrate the idea that a rational person imposes different burdens of proof depending on the circumstances.

The Investment Scenario

In the case of the inventor seeking investors, it is by no means certain that the inventor has the rights to a valuable invention or that a company founded on a valuable invention will succeed.  Many charlatans seek to lure unwary investors and many genuine investment opportunities fail to make money.  Though the risks are great, rejecting every investment opportunity without consideration would have consequences of its own.  What is a rational burden of proof in this scenario?  Should you just accept what the investor says with no skepticism?  Should you reject what the investor says without consideration?  Or should you be skeptical of what the investor says and investigate to see if this is a genuine opportunity?

It seems pretty clear that the person who chooses the inventors claims without independent investigation will soon be penniless.  Likewise, the person who only invests in government bonds will only ever realize the smallest rate of return.  (And, given the global government debt crisis, that person still runs a significant risk of losing all their money anyway.)  For this reason, it seems like a rational person must choose to investigate claims of this kind skeptically but with an open mind.

Questioning the Divine

As we have discussed above, human reason has enormous limitations and we must accept certain truths as being “self-evident” without conclusive proof.  For any discussion to even be possible, for example, the reliability of human reason must be assumed even though there is precious little evidence for this reliability in most online comments.  As we have also discussed, the burden of proof is not some universal absolute that should be applied to all arguments equally.  Rather, the burden of proof needs to be assigned on a case by case basis after an examination of the possible consequences and other relevant factors.

From the assumed starting point to the burden of proof, therefore, every thinker must make a series of choices when considering an issue.  These choices inevitably determine the result of that thought process and the thinker is responsible for these choices.  Unfortunately, a generation of atheists seems to believe that radical skepticism is a reasonable way to approach the questions of life.  These people impose an onerous burden of proof on whatever they don’t want to believe, ridicule those who disagree with them and label this process “reason”.  This is a closed-minded way of thinking and must lead to disaster for our society and for the individual.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Atheist Arguments and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Atheism, Axiomatic Truths and the Burden of Proof

  1. Pingback: The Atheists Cudgel: The Burden of Proof | A Thoughtful Christian

  2. Pingback: The Demand for Evidence | A Thoughtful Christian

  3. Pingback: A Rational Approach to Christianity | A Thoughtful Christian

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