Invisible burden of proof

Progressive Evangelical apologist Randal Rauser has just written a fascinating post about the way professional Skeptics systematically deny a claim they deem extraordinary.

 

I’ve talked about God and the burden of proof in the past. (See, for example, “God’s existence: where does the burden of proof lie?” and “Atheist, meet Burden of Proof. Burden of Proof, meet Atheist.”) Today we’ll return to the question beginning with a humorous cartoon.

Religion cartoon

This cartoon appears to be doing several things. But the point I want to focus on is a particular assumption about the nature of burden of proof. The assumption seems to be this:

Burden of Proof Assumption (BoPA): The person who makes a positive existential claim (i.e. who makes a claim that some thing exists) has a burden of proof to provide evidence to sustain that positive existential claim.

Two Types of Burden of Proof

Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear how exactly BoPA is to be  understood. So far as I can see, there are two immediate interpretations which we can call the strong and weak interpretations. According to the strong interpretation, BoPA claims that assent to a positive existential claim is only rational if it is based on evidence. In other words, for a person to believe rationally that anything at all exists, one must have evidence for that claim. I call this a “strong” interpretation because it proposes a very high evidential demand on rational belief.

The “weak” interpretation of BoPA refrains from extending the evidential demand to every positive existential claim a person accepts. Instead, it restricts it to every positive existential claim a person proposes to another person.

To illustrate the difference, let’s call the stickmen in the cartoon Jones and Chan. Jones claims he has the baseball, and Chan is enquiring into his evidence for believing this. A strong interpretation of BoPA would render the issue like this: for Jones to be rational in believing that he has a baseball (i.e. that a baseball exists in his possession), Jones must have evidence of this claim.

A weak interpretation of BoPA shifts the focus away from Jones’ internal rationality for believing he has a baseball and on to the rationality that Chan has for accepting Jones’ claim. According to this reading, Chan cannot rationally accept Jones’ testimony unless Jones can provide evidence for it, irrespective of whether Jones himself is rational to believe the claim.

So it seems to me that the cartoon is ambiguous between the weak and strong claims. Moreover, it is clear that each claim carries different epistemological issues in its train.

Does a theist have a special burden of proof?

Regardless, let’s set that aside and focus in on the core claim shared by both the weak and strong interpretations which is stated above in BoPA. In the cartoon a leap is made from belief about baseballs to belief about religious doctrines. The assumption is thus that BoPA is a claim that extends to any positive existential claim.

I have two reasons for rejecting BoPA as stated. First, there are innumerable examples where rational people recognize that it is not the acceptance of an existential claim which requires evidence. Indeed, in many cases the opposite is the case: it is the denial of an existential claim which requires evidence.

Consider, for example, belief in a physical world which exists external to and independent of human minds. This view (often called “realism”) makes a positive existential claim above and beyond the alternative of idealism. (Idealism is the view that only minds and their experiences exist.) Regardless, when presented with the two positions of realism and idealism, the vast majority of people will recognize that if there is a burden of proof in this question, it is borne by the idealist who denies a positive existential claim.

Second, BoPA runs afoul of the fact that one person’s existential denial is another person’s existential affirmation. The idealist may deny the existence of a world external to the mind. But by doing so, the idealist affirms the existence of a wholly mental world. So while the idealist may seem at first blush to be making a mere denial, from another perspective she is making a positive existential claim.

With that in mind, think about the famous mid-twentieth century debate between Father Copleston (Christian theist) and Lord Russell (atheist) on the existence of God. Copleston defended a cosmological argument according to which God was invoked to explain the origin of the universe. Russell retorted: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.” With that claim, Russell is not simply denying a positive existential claim (i.e. “God exists”), but he is also making a positive existential claim not made by Copleston (i.e. “the universe is just there, and that’s all”).

In conclusion, the atheist makes novel positive existential claims as surely as the theist. And so it  follows that if the latter has a burden to defend her positive existential claim that God does exist, then the former has an equal burden to defend her positive existential claim that the universe is just there and that’s all.

Here is was my response.
This is another of your excellent posts, Randal!

Unlike most Evangelical apologists, you’re a true philosopher of religion and don’t seem to be ideology driven like John Loftus (for instance) obviously is. This makes it always a delight to read your new insights,

I think that when one is confronted with an uncertain claim, there are three possible attitudes:

1) believing it (beyond any reasonable doubt)
2) believing its negation (without the shadow of a doubt).
3) not knowing what to think.

Most professional Skeptics automatically assume that if your opponent cannot prove his position (1), he or she is automatically wrong (2), thereby utterly disregarding option 3).

skeptik

All these stances can be moderated by probabilities, but since I believe that only events have probabilities, I don’t think one can apply a probabilistic reasoning to God’s existence and to the reality of moral values.

While assessing a worldview, my method consists of comparing its predictions with the data of the real world. And if it makes no prediction at all (such as Deism), agnosticism is the most reasonable position unless you can develop cogent reasons for favoring another worldview.

Anyway, the complexity of reality and the tremendous influence of one’s cultural and personal presuppositions on reality make it very unlikely to know the truth with a rational warrant, and should force us to adopt a profound intellectual humility.

This is why I define faith as HOPE in the face of insufficient evidence.
I believe we have normal, decent (albeit not extraordinarily) evidence for the existence of transcendent beings. These clues would be deemed conclusive in mundane domain of inquiries such as drug trafficking or military espionage.
But many people consider the existence of a realm (or beings) out of the ordinary to be extremely unlikely to begin with.
This is why debates between true believers and hardcore deniers tend to be extraordinarily counter-productive and loveless.

The evidence are the same but Skeptics consider a coincidence of hallucinations, illusions and radar deficits to be astronomical more plausible than visitors from another planet, universe, realm, or something else completely unknown.

magonia

In the future, I’ll argue that there are really a SMALL number of UFOs out there (if you stick to the definition “UNKNOWN Flying Objects” instead of a starship populated by gray aliens)

Of course, the same thing can be said about (a little number of) miraculous miracles.

 

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56 thoughts on “Invisible burden of proof

  1. In conclusion, the atheist makes novel positive existential claims as surely as the theist. And so it follows that if the latter has a burden to defend her positive existential claim that God does exist, then the former has an equal burden to defend her positive existential claim that the universe is just there and that’s all.

    ??? So if Jones claims that A exists, and Chan agrees with Jones that A exists and further claims that B exists as well, then Jones is making a novel *positive* existential claim by NOT agreeing with Chan that B exists? I don´t think Randal has thought this one through…

    This is why I define faith as HOPE in the face of insufficient evidence.
    I believe we have normal, decent (albeit not extraordinarily) evidence for the existence of transcendent beings. These clues would be deemed conclusive in mundane domain of inquiries such as drug trafficking or military espionage.

    Well, if you define “faith” like this, then it all seems to boil down to a semantical disagreement. Neither one of us finds the evidence for your God to be persuasive, but you prefer to call yourself a “Christian” who has “faith” while I don´t.

    But many people consider the existence of a realm (or beings) out of the ordinary to be extremely unlikely to begin with.

    Erm… think about what the string of words “out of the ordinary” means. “Out of the ordinary” could easily be substituted by “unlikely”, so you are effectively saying that some people consider unlikely things to be unlikely (or extremely unlikely things to be extremely unlikely). Well, yes, they do, and I´d say that “some people” is actually “everyone”, at least everyone who understand what the word “unlikely” means.
    Lets test it: “I have won the lottery jackpot ten times” – do you, or do you not, consider that to be “extremely unlikely”? Would you believe me without any further evidence beyond my testimony that this is actually true? Evidence that is roughly as unlikely as the claim “I have won the lottery jackpot ten times” itself? How about I tell you that I was born of a virgin and that my “daddy” who is actually me created the universe – would you consider that to be “extremely unlikely”? If you do, then you are not at all disagreeing with the “many people” that you talk about here.

  2. I think Randal misfires on this one, and the reality is a lot simpler.

    The person who makes a claim, has a burden. Talk about ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ doesn’t matter: if you claim that God does not exist, you have a burden. If you claim that God exists, you have a burden.

    Simple, straightforward, reasonable. Still enough to send most Cult of Gnu style atheists heading for the hills.

    This would change the approach to those examples. Who has the burden of proof: the realist or the idealist? Well, insofar as the realist claims that realism is true and the idealist claims idealism is true – they both do. Let them make their case.

    • This is why I define faith as HOPE in the face of insufficient evidence.
      I believe we have normal, decent (albeit not extraordinarily) evidence for the existence of transcendent beings. These clues would be deemed conclusive in mundane domain of inquiries such as drug trafficking or military espionage.

      I think you may be communicating poorly here.

      Do you mean faith is hoping X is true when you don’t have enough evidence to reasonably believe X is true?

      Or do you mean that faith is hoping X is true when you do have enough evidence to reasonably believe X is true, but not enough evidence to be absolutely positive X is true?

  3. Theists aren’t making only metaphysical claims based on hope; they assume the metaphysical claims they make based on faith are legitimate premises that accurately reflect reality and are in this sense assumed to be ‘true’ in order to empower the deduced conclusion to therefore be representative of reality arrived at by the proper use of the logical form. It is on this basis I find that the average theist then makes causal claims about our shared physical reality and when asked for evidence reverts to the metaphysical defense without appreciating why this is so problematic or, to pull a typical WL Craig move, turn the request into a statement of denial in order to shift the burden of proof. Using Rauser’s lexicon, causal claims about physical reality are statements of ‘strong interpretation’ requiring evidence adduced from reality and bearing the burden of proof. The form of how metaphysical conclusions are justified fits the notion of a ‘weak interpretation’ because we have to first assume the premises really do link to the physical reality they supposedly describe. But going back and examining each of these premises turns us back into making a ‘strong interpretation’ and assuming the burden of proof. What Rauser is attempting to do is avoid the burden altogether by doing a bait and switch: make a baiting causal claim about reality and, when challenged to produce compelling evidence for it, revert to a metaphysical defense and switch the challenger’s request to a negative claim in order to pass on the burden of proof. This is what we see WL Craig do in his debates time and time again. It may work to sway an audience in his favour, but it yields zero evidence for the ‘strong interpretation’ made by the theist. It’s a diversionary tactic to protect theists from ever having to produce any evidence for all metaphysical claims permitted to describe reality and empowered by faith-based belief alone. It’s intellectually not just dishonest but bankrupt of demonstrable knowledge value.

    • Theists aren’t making only metaphysical claims based on hope;

      Indeed, they’re not. They make them based on arguments and evidence as well. At times, expert opinion.

      they assume the metaphysical claims they make based on faith are legitimate premises that accurately reflect reality and are in this sense assumed to be ‘true’ in order to empower the deduced conclusion to therefore be representative of reality arrived at by the proper use of the logical form.

      No, they make metaphysical claims based on reason, evidence, expert opinion and otherwise. Yes, people make use of premises, at times what amount to basic beliefs, in the course of their reasoning – they take these as true. So?

      What Rauser is attempting to do is avoid the burden altogether by doing a bait and switch:

      Rauser is arguing – in my view, clumsily – that an atheist who claims that God does not exist (or who claims that naturalism is true, or… etc) is making a claim, and has a burden to meet.

      As for your rambling diatribe about WLC, Craig and plenty of theists give evidence for their metaphysical claims – they make arguments, observations, etc. The pathological inability for many Cult of Gnu members to acknowledge that there does, in fact, exist evidence for theistic claims never bodes well for the rest of their arguments.

      Also, calm the hell down and learn how to make use of these little things called ‘paragraphs’.

    • tildeb, here’s the logic you have, repeatedly, given us:

      1) You tell us it’s impossible to be a Christian and also be rational about our faith.

      2) We say, “No, we have a LOT of reasons behind our faith. We can point to metaphysical arguments for the existence of God and to the historical record for the existence of Christ and the events of the Gospels.”

      3) You say, “No, you can’t, because your beliefs are unreasonable. Therefore you can’t have logical reasoning for your faith.”

      4) ?????

      5) Profit!

      tildeb, I hate to break it to you, but this is a pretty terrible “argument”.

  4. Christians like to pretend all atheists are gnostic (or “strong”) atheists. The agnostic atheist need only show the implausibility of the god hypothesis based on the evidence presented, in order to be relieved of his/her burden of proof.

    • Christians like to pretend all atheists are gnostic (or “strong”) atheists.

      There’s no pretending going on. There really are quite a number of ‘strong atheists’ around, and yes, that includes strong atheists who fall back to weak atheism tactically. More on them below.

      The agnostic atheist need only show the implausibility of the god hypothesis based on the evidence presented, in order to be relieved of his/her burden of proof.

      Here’s where the ‘weak atheist’ is left, intellectually:

      Does any God or gods exist? They make no claims one way or the other.
      Is any God or gods likely to exist? They make no claims one way or the other.
      Is naturalism true or likely true? They make no claims one way or the other.
      Is nature guided/designed/etc by God or gods or likely guided by God/gods/etc? They make no claims one way or the other.

      That’s the position one is in when one wants to play the game of ‘atheism as a lack of claims’. The number of ‘weak atheists’ who stay weak when that’s pointed out is… well, I can only go by anecdotes, but they don’t take it well.

      • Crude: with regard to your first sentence, really? You’re maintaining that there is no pretending (or misunderstanding) going on with respect to general Christian perceptions of what atheists think? I don’t think that’s even tenable.

        The weak atheist is left to a weak position in no small part because the definition of “god” is so impossible to nail down. For myself, I can happily make the following statements:

        The vast majority of gods claimed by humanity appear to be cultural inventions and contrivances. On this background, any particular god claim that I encounter on the lips of a human, or in the written works of a human, has a high intrinsic likelihood of also being a contrivance. This sets a high burden of proof for the claimant of a specific god, like the Christian one. It also relieves the non-believer of a specific burden in dismissing various god claims, until and if they come with some very, very good supporting evidence.

        The evidence we do have indicates that the bible is very likely a mere product of human beings, and very unlikely to have a divine author somewhere behind it. Similarly, it is very likely no more authoritative about who/what god is than any other religious texts. It fails to provide profoundly different evidence for itself than the other false god claims, and the nonbeliever has no special burden to justify dismissal.

        Since the atheist cannot locate a definition of god that is both (1) specific and (2) backed by weighty and specific evidences, he can take the position that there simply isn’t a god. Because a “god” must a definable concept, and the defined concepts thus far appear to be inventions.

        I have said many times that, if there is a god, it is very likely to be entirely different than any portrait that I’ve seen thus far. The portraits that I have seen are either untenable or unsupportable. So if it is a god by some quite other conception, how then can it be called “god”?

        Weak atheism probably must remain weak indefinitely, because the definition of “god” is weakly constituted. And where the definition is constituted strongly, the definitions appear to be false or unsupported. It is easier to make strong atheism claims about strong “god” definitions. It is very hard (and probably quite inappropriate) to make strong atheism claims about weak or vague “god” definitions.

      • Matt,

        Crude: with regard to your first sentence, really? You’re maintaining that there is no pretending (or misunderstanding) going on with respect to general Christian perceptions of what atheists think? I don’t think that’s even tenable.

        Based on what? Your subjective experience? Fine, but mine differs. Some objective measure? Alright, I’m game – provide it, and we’ll see what’s what. My own experience is one of hardly coming across any self-proclaimed ‘weak atheists’ who remain ‘weak’ once I outline what weak atheism entails, so I go with that.

        As for misunderstanding, the Gnus seem to have a tremendous amount of misconceptions of theism going on – or they would be misconceptions if evidence didn’t indicate they were intentional misrepresentations.

        The weak atheist is left to a weak position in no small part because the definition of “god” is so impossible to nail down. For myself, I can happily make the following statements:

        But who are you, and why should I care what you personally think? I pointed out what follows if someone is truly a ‘weak atheist’ in general, as opposed to countering any specific individual’s claims. If you wish to cop to my list, congratulations – you are a consistent weak atheist. Otherwise I’m not that concerned with your vague attestations about your personal evaluation of the evidence.

        Since the atheist cannot locate a definition of god that is both (1) specific and (2) backed by weighty and specific evidences, he can take the position that there simply isn’t a god.

        He sure can if he so chooses. But at that point, he’s not a weak atheist anymore – now he’s making a claim, and the burden is on him to support it. And ‘supposed lack of evidence for a specific God or god(s)’ is not an argument or evidence that even begins to establish the non-existence of God or god(s).

        Also, 1) is simply wrong. If on the whole the evidence and arguments available support the existence of a God in general, that impacts atheism: namely, it renders it false or likely false. “But we don’t know enough details about that God!” doesn’t matter all that much.

        As I said: make a claim, get a burden. If you say ‘there is no God or there likely is no God’, you’ve got yourself a burden. If you say ‘I merely lack belief in God or gods, I’m not claiming that God or gods don’t exist or are unlikely to exist’, that’s great – enjoy your weak atheism, and remember what follows from it. But you can’t have the position of a strong atheist while at the same time enjoying the lack of burden of the weak atheist.

      • Crude, if Matt’s comment is supposed to just be taken as an anecdote of personal experience, why should yours be taken any differently?

        In my experience, weak atheism more closely matches what Matt laid out. Very few of us question the existence of the natural world, so if someone posits the existence of something beyond that, it makes sense that they would need to provide evidence. One who is unconvinced by the evidence is not bound to prove the negative, just as one who isn’t convinced unicorns exist is required to prove they don’t. No one would expect that person to remain completely agnostic about unicorns.

      • Nate,

        Crude, if Matt’s comment is supposed to just be taken as an anecdote of personal experience, why should yours be taken any differently?

        Who argued otherwise? Experience is experience.

        In my experience, weak atheism more closely matches what Matt laid out.

        I think it matches insofar as it indicates the bait and switch – weak atheism is pleaded initially, but it morphs into strong atheism when it’s suspected no one will notice.

        Very few of us question the existence of the natural world,

        Actually, a tremendous number of people question the qualities of the natural world. We argue about whether purpose is intrinsic or wholly derived. We question whether the processes are guided or non-guided. We question what its ultimate basis is. Or we don’t even think about the question in much detail whatsoever.

        And you probably don’t want to play the popularity card here, since last I checked atheism was a minority view worldwide, and certainly in the US. Isn’t it a fallacy besides?

        so if someone posits the existence of something beyond that, it makes sense that they would need to provide evidence.

        If someone posits anything whatsoever, makes a claim about the foundation of reality, or ultimates – in any direction – then it makes sense to ask them for evidence.

        The pushback I get on this is always a sight to behold. What you’re arguing here is that you should be able to make claims and hold beliefs without having any reason for them, any evidence in hand. That’s a hell of a thing for an atheist to do, given the rhetoric.

        One who is unconvinced by the evidence is not bound to prove the negative, just as one who isn’t convinced unicorns exist is required to prove they don’t.

        Remember the distinction between strong and weak atheism. There’s a divide between ‘lacking a belief X’ and ‘believing/claiming X’.

        One who is unconvinced by the evidence is, put that way alone, making no claims. They simply lack a given belief. The moment they make claims, they’re in a whole new situation.

        No one would expect that person to remain completely agnostic about unicorns.

        What I would expect is that if someone claims ‘unicorns do not exist’ or ‘unicorns are very unlikely to exist’, they’re able to support that claim. I sure can do it, and I assume you can as well. Actually, I assume you can unless you’re embracing certain forms of multiverse speculations – if you do, then it actually becomes a bit difficult to make the claim without qualification.

        In practice, most people simply don’t even make much of the issue because really – who cares about the existence of unicorns? And once again, talk of what people would expect doesn’t do much here.

        What’s really funny is that I’m the theist, I’m saying one shouldn’t believe things without evidence and should remain agnostic when evidence is lacking – and the atheists are coming at me about how this is an unreasonable standard, apparently on the grounds that agnosticism feels icky. Which side is championing reason again?

      • I’m saying one shouldn’t believe things without evidence and should remain agnostic when evidence is lacking

        Before someone tries to snipe me on a technicality, I’ll note that you need some axioms to do reasoning from the start – the laws of thought, etc. But that’s beyond this discussion anyway.

      • Nate,

        So how would you demonstrate that unicorns don’t exist?

        First, hold up. ‘Demonstrate’? If you mean ‘compel everyone to accept that unicorns don’t exist in any way, shape or form, anywhere, with no possible outs’, I’m not interested in playing that game. ‘Support my claim with arguments and evidence’? Different story.

        Either way, I’d have to amend what I said, since I actually decided to read up further about unicorns. What with it being on my shoulders to support my claim.

        Having a look at the list of possible origins regarding claims of unicorns existing, there’s all kinds of speculation ranging from ‘it was this animal, just poorly described and depicted in art’ to otherwise. So if the unicorns reported in antiquity and the middle ages were what we call rhinos or one-horned animals, or even genetic anomalies of a given animal, but idealized and exaggerated in art, did/do unicorns exist? It seems like I should say yes, with some qualifications in mind.

        Otherwise, my response and examination will depend on the particular claims and background assumptions in mind. ‘No large white equine creature with a single horn exists, period, anywhere throughout all existence’? I wouldn’t make a claim that it does or doesn’t exist on those terms. In fact, as I said, if you’re assuming certain multiverse views for the sake of argument, I’d probably have to say it likely does exist somewhere. ‘No large white equine creature with a single horn is in my garage right now’? I’d make that claim if I was in or recently in there, since the creature as described would be readily apparent, and it’s a claim about the state of the garage besides. If I wanted to prove that to someone else, I’d show them it, take video or pictures, etc.

        So there’s a basic overview.

      • First, hold up. ‘Demonstrate’? If you mean ‘compel everyone to accept that unicorns don’t exist in any way, shape or form, anywhere, with no possible outs’, I’m not interested in playing that game. ‘Support my claim with arguments and evidence’? Different story.

        But this is what most of us mean when we talk about weak atheism. We wouldn’t make the claim that no god of any type exists in any way whatsoever. That’s an incredibly difficult claim to support.

        However, when someone posits a particular god, like the Christian one, then we offer evidence and arguments for why we don’t believe that particular god exists.

        Now it may still be true that most atheists, even of the weak variety, don’t believe in any god(s) at all, but that’s not a point that most of us would bother to argue about. In fact, most of us readily admit that there could be one, even if we don’t actually believe in it.

        Does that seem like a fair description of “weak atheism” to you?

      • Nate,

        But this is what most of us mean when we talk about weak atheism. We wouldn’t make the claim that no god of any type exists in any way whatsoever. That’s an incredibly difficult claim to support.

        However, when someone posits a particular god, like the Christian one, then we offer evidence and arguments for why we don’t believe that particular god exists.

        I think you’re confused about what ‘weak atheism’ is. More below.

        Now it may still be true that most atheists, even of the weak variety, don’t believe in any god(s) at all, but that’s not a point that most of us would bother to argue about. In fact, most of us readily admit that there could be one, even if we don’t actually believe in it.

        Does that seem like a fair description of “weak atheism” to you?

        First, I don’t buy this ‘most’ stuff. Sounds like we’re back to experience alone, and mine differs.

        Second, let’s take a look at the Google Defined definitions for strong and weak atheism.

        Weak atheism: Weak atheism is a lack of belief in any gods. Unlike strong atheism, there is no positive assertion that no god exists. Weak atheism is occasionally called negative atheism, negative meaning it makes no positive claims.

        Strong atheism: Strong atheism is the positive belief that no god exists. Arguments for strong atheism. It is often said that one cannot prove a negative.

        What’s key here is that weak atheism is defined as a lack of belief – and not ‘a belief that X does not exist’. If one claims that X does not exist, then one gets burden. If one makes no claim that X does not exist, but merely lacks belief that X exist, there’s no burden in play.

        Now, maybe you can argue that someone can be a mix of these – a strong atheist with regards to Christianity but a weak atheist with regards to the God of classical theism (or, oddly enough, a theist with regards to the God of Classical Theism), but when you make a claim, you get a burden.

        The appeal of weak atheism is that it’s free of burdens. But in exchange, one is committed to silence on the list of examples I gave. You can’t say ‘I’m a weak atheist, I make no claims about God existing, I just lack God belief! But God is 99.9% likely not to exist.’ Welcome to claims land, time to shoulder your burden.

  5. I’m clearly not much of a philosopher, as I was thinking what Rauser was saying seemed mostly reasonable until everyone started critiquing it… 😉

    I just don’t find these kinds of discussions very helpful or fruitful. From my perspective as an spectator, they invariably seem to end up in a morass of accusation and counter-accusation, mutual misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and finally complete breakdown of useful communication.

    And at the end of it all, we all believe what we did at the start, no-one’s any further forward, and everyone thinks everyone else is an idiot or worse. And for the most part, they really aren’t – though in these debates, even good people can start to behave like idiots.

    So I see little value or benefit in trying to shoot our ‘opponents’ down and prove ourselves right. There’s room for disagreement on metaphysical matters without having to insult or attack each other. Few of us are professional philosophers or theologians, and few of us hold our beliefs or views purely on rational, evidence-based grounds. Yet equally few of us – Christians and atheists alike – are complete cretins who hold our beliefs on the basis of no evidence or utterly flawed logic.

    • “So I see little value or benefit in trying to shoot our ‘opponents’ down and prove ourselves right.”

      Your mouth to God’s ears. Too many of these conversations break down under ad hominem attacks and insults.

  6. Wow, this thread is lively. Unfortunately, and in spite of the fact I checked the little box, I’m not getting any notifications on this thread. Not sure why.

    But no doubt that will be found an inadmissible observation, because who am I? 🙂 Jeez, this is one of those threads where you can’t hear someone because they’re talking so loudly.

    But to provide background in response to the query of who I am, I was a Christian for 35 years, and now I’m an atheist. During my days as a Christian, I was born into one cult and was eventually landed in another before finally studying my way out of the crap and into normal orthodox belief. As such, I have some practice sifting nonsense, whether inside the faith or outside of it. I’m a research engineer by profession. If you want to know anything else, my road out is documented on the Journey pages at Jericho.

    In any case, how good are you at math, Crude, and how familiar are you with Bayesian approaches to determining the burden of proof threshold for epistemic claims?

    • What led you to start studying your way out of “the crap”? Did you encounter something that sparked your curiosity, or did you find Christianity to be oppressive or hurtful to you? Just curious, myself. I’m still a Christian, but I ditched fundamentalism because what I heard from the pulpit didn’t match what I read in the Bible for myself. I’m glad I ran across your comments, here.

      • Hi Sheila,

        The long version is over at my blog, JerichoBrisance, under the “Journey” pages. The initial fault line started with Genesis, evolutionary theory, and Adam. That started me into a very long study of a range of sources covering the full gamut. The historicity of the Exodus and the authorship of the Pentateuch were serious considerations. For me, the collapse of credibility for Judaism took Christianity with it. Solution to non-existent crisis, etc.

    • Matt,

      But no doubt that will be found an inadmissible observation, because who am I?

      It was apt. In a thread about the burden of proof you rolled in and confidently stated your opinions on a variety of subjects relating to God and otherwise. Keep in mind that ‘who are you’ was followed up by ‘and why should I care what you think?’

      In any case, how good are you at math, Crude, and how familiar are you with Bayesian approaches to determining the burden of proof threshold for epistemic claims?

      Familiar enough to realize that trying to figure out mathematical formulae for determining burdens of proof, the likelihood of God’s existence or otherwise is pretty well a sham, and typically cashes out to mean ‘If I go through the motions of making a mathematical calculation, that sure looks more authoritative, right?’ Pardon my cynicism, but I’ve been in multiple conversations about the utility of math in these general topics, and it’s always turned out to be a joke – and I mean that from both sides of the debate.

      The one who makes a claim has a burden. Make no claim, have no burden. That may leave someone in the unfortunate position of being paired with a claim for which they can’t meet the burden, but my advice would be to either try, or consider abandoning the claim. Not searching for some way, any way, to be able to make claims yet have no burdens.

      But to provide background in response to the query of who I am, I was a Christian for 35 years, and now I’m an atheist. During my days as a Christian, I was born into one cult and was eventually landed in another before finally studying my way out of the crap and into normal orthodox belief. As such, I have some practice sifting nonsense, whether inside the faith or outside of it.

      See, I’ve encountered presentations like this before, once again on both sides of this issue, as well as in unrelated topics. What always strikes me as amazing is the following:

      A person can, by their own reckoning, have spent 10, 20, 30 or more years believing what they now affirm at the very least to be wrong, and at the very most to be utter nonsense that no one in their right mind would ever believe. What so rarely happens is the following realization: “Holy hell, I have a decades-long track record of being wrong about things I not only believed in, but may well have been absurdly confident that I was entirely correct about. From now on I’m going to be far more skeptical of myself, qualify my statements appropriately, and generally be cautious. No more supreme confidence for me!”

      Instead, lo and behold – the person who was confident and utterly wrong for a significant portion of their life takes their track record to be evidence of their expertise, and typically, a reason to be as or more confident now than they were during their whole time being wrong. It’s like watching someone flunk out of college, then immediately go on to write a book about how to get good grades in school. After all, they have great experience with failing classes, so surely they’d know better than anyone else how to avoid that.

      One of these days, I’d like to meet someone who, after spending 20 years wholly devoted to an idea that they now regard to be utterly wrong, becomes more humble from the experience, rather than doubling down and being even more sure of themselves than ever before. Instead the pattern seems likely to remain ‘Oh God, the guy who previously wouldn’t shut up about how dinosaur bones are constructs of the devil now won’t shut up about how the matter to energy conversion that would be required by the resurrection would be equivalent to howevermany thermonuclear warheads and thus couldn’t have happened according to modern scientific theory.’

      • Sigh. Crude, you seem to be under the impression that I’ve said a number of things I did not say. You also seem to be under the impression that I claim a degree of confidence that I do not. Your penchant for hyperbole is going to land you in a bear trap.

        You talk like a person with confidence problems and some rather deep seated insecurities, attempting to cover with accusations and condescension. I’m sorry about that, because it doesn’t wash off the realities on the table.

        I never asked for mathematical proofs, nor the assignment of numbers. I asked whether you understood the principles of Bayesian analysis. Your answer isn’t very promising on that front. We can stick with qualitative discussion, but the principles stand in any event. I’m wondering whether or not you know *why* they stand.

        The problem that your approach faces is rooted in hyperbole, basically. This is a very common problem. Your approach is admonishing humility in knowledge claims, but then swinging to a Boolean approach to positive claims versus complete agnosticism. This is not reality. A more robust approach involves a continuum of varying levels of confidence, scaled to the evidence, where the necessary thresholds are gauged per reasonable thresholds of support. And those thresholds are set based on the size of the claim.

      • Matt,

        Sigh. Crude, you seem to be under the impression that I’ve said a number of things I did not say.

        That’d be quite a trick, since my quarrel was with your attitude and approach, rather than ‘things you did not say’.

        You also seem to be under the impression that I claim a degree of confidence that I do not.

        When I look at your few posts in this thread, and the attitude presented at your blog, it’s pretty easy to come to the impression that I’m coming to. If somehow you’re actually lacking confidence in the certitude of your beliefs – past or present – or your own ability to properly even suss out how much confidence you should have in them to begin with, then you’d do well to consider whether you’re critically failing to communicate your actual views on a regular basis.

        You talk like a person with confidence problems and some rather deep seated insecurities

        No, I talk like a person who’s not particularly patient with your brand of amateur street apologetics, and who isn’t impressed at your proffered credentials on these topics. By the way? The immediate fallback to psychoanalysis isn’t doing any favors for the image you’re presenting.

        I suppose I should now suggest that your passion for manner of presentation is owing to a likely lifelong need to think of yourself as an authority even when you’re not, coupled with embarrassment at having eventually come to the suspicion that you deluded yourself gravely for decades, which fractured an already fragile ego. I mean, if we’re going to play the psychoanalysis game, I assure you – I can play it too.

        I never asked for mathematical proofs, nor the assignment of numbers. I asked whether you understood the principles of Bayesian analysis.

        No, you didn’t. Your question was far more narrow: “In any case, how good are you at math, Crude, and how familiar are you with Bayesian approaches to determining the burden of proof threshold for epistemic claims?”

        I gave a straightforward reply – I’ve seen Bayesian approaches to these topics in general, and have been singularly unimpressed with each manifestation I’ve seen of them, on both sides of the equation. Likewise, the suggestion that a ‘Bayesian approach for determining the burden of proof threshold for epistemic claims’ has authority – or even much utility when it comes to these questions – is pretty laughable. I know, that means I’m scoffing at an approach you wish people would have respect for, but what can I say? Watching Richard Carrier and Tim McGrew try to calculate hard odds relating to what confidence anyone should have in the resurrection of Christ, or watching other people give fumbling analyses of the likelihood of the existence of God based on given horseshoed-in mathematics, has made me nicely cynical.

        And by the by: understanding the mathematical concepts fundamentally at work wasn’t the problem, because a good share of the problems come at the start of the project to begin with.

        Your approach is admonishing humility in knowledge claims, but then swinging to a Boolean approach to positive claims versus complete agnosticism.

        While we’re analyzing each other’s problems, I’ll continue to analyze yours: you display the typical problem of someone compensating for confidence issues by asserting what someone believes based on minimal evidence, rather than engaging in a self-acknowledged conditional analysis of their words and what follows from them given a reasonable interpretation.

        And that’s part of the reason your analyses are going to be likely to fail, like they’ve failed here.

        I do not take a ‘Boolean approach to positive claims versus complete agnosticism’. What I’ve said is that whoever makes a claim, has a burden. That’s entirely compatible with having a claim with a ‘varying level of confidence’, in part because claims themselves do not need to be strictly boolean – which you should have picked up on quickly, given that I expressly included probabilistic claims in my discussion.

        That’s only the first of several failings you had in your very short response to me. Remember when I asked you why I should care what you think, ie, why should I put much stock in your personal evaluations of evidence and arguments? This is part of the reason why.

        • Still covering. You haven’t answered the question of whether you yourself are any good at math, whether you understand the precepts, or whether you grasp how thresholds of evidence are assigned. Lot of hand waving, but this is just a dodge. Being unimpressed with people who are adept does not answer the question of whether you understand any of it.

          Bayes simply gave a formalization of proper reasoning, which is deeply relevant. He didn’t invent the reasoning process, but he did provide a framework that gives a clear definition of how it works and why it is formally correct. I for one utilized BT in probabilistic codes long before looking at medical, legal, and epistemological applications of it. Old hat, broadly applicable to many fields of knowledge.

          You seem to simply dislike me, and I’m sorry about that. But the attempt to draw inferences about my history or whatnot is all unnecessary – you can just read the long version of my autobiographical account in the “Journey” pages of my blog. I’ve been pretty forthright… If you want to think badly of the candor expressed there, I can’t stop you. Whether difficult for me to swallow or not, I will alter my positions with new and more complete information. For some this is anathema. For others, it’s considered a virtue.

          But back to actually talking burden of proof: lets just get to it. I offer the following maybe-true-maybe-not “positive claims” for your consideration…

          (1) I have an education in engineering. Positive claim. Do you believe me or not? For how much? In other words, with what certainty? How much evidence would you demand on that claim? How much evidence would be reasonable, and why?

          (2) I recently developed a functional solution for cold fusion, the first such method that actually works. Positive claim. Same questions again.

          (3) I am immortal, owing to an internal belief that I hold. Positive claim. Same questions again.

          Are the thresholds of evidence demanded by each claim the same? Is your degree of “agnosticism” on all four claims the same? No numbers required – just qualitative labels, of “high confidence”, “moderately uncertain”, “very likely false”, “false”, etc. None of these has to do with god per se. Just burden of proof on claims made – where it falls and how big the burden is.

      • Matt,

        <Still covering. You haven’t answered the question of whether you yourself are any good at math, whether you understand the precepts,

        Already implicitly answered. Decently so, and yep. I reject the analyses in question in this context.

        Lot of hand waving, but this is just a dodge.

        Learn what handwaving is, because it hasn’t been done here.

        Being unimpressed with people who are adept does not answer the question of whether you understand any of it.

        And I should care about whether you’re impressed why?

        Bayes simply gave a formalization of proper reasoning, which is deeply relevant. He didn’t invent the reasoning process, but he did provide a framework that gives a clear definition of how it works and why it is formally correct.

        No, Bayesian formalization has been attempted to be used to formalize proper reasoning. Whether any formalization has been successful is a matter of debate, and my view is that – insofar as it pertains to discussions about God and metaphysics in particular – it’s largely been comedy.

        You seem to simply dislike me, and I’m sorry about that.

        You? I barely know you, and don’t feel a need to know that much more. What you communicate, both here and at your blog, hasn’t been impressive.

        But the attempt to draw inferences about my history or whatnot is all unnecessary – you can just read the long version of my autobiographical account in the “Journey” pages of my blog.

        Already done, and it’s informed my responses.

        Did you miss the part where the only reason I drew inferences is because you immediately dove to psychoanalysis in order to muster a response to me – which is thoroughly unimpressive, not to mention amateur?

        Whether difficult for me to swallow or not, I will alter my positions with new and more complete information. For some this is anathema. For others, it’s considered a virtue.

        While for almost everyone, this is a stock claim. All the young-earth creationists will tell you that they’re willing to change their minds about evolutionary theory if only, gosh darn it, someone brought them evidence. Dawkins used to yammer about the importance of evidence in evaluating God’s existence until someone finally asked him what it would take to change his mind, and he came up blank.

        My criticism of your presentation has not been an inability to evaluate evidence. It’s been an apparent inability to gain any amount of self-skepticism for your beliefs about grand metaphysical and theological topics, despite – by your own count – a multi-decade track record of being dead wrong.

        (1) I have an education in engineering. Positive claim. Do you believe me or not? For how much? In other words, with what certainty? How much evidence would you demand on that claim? How much evidence would be reasonable, and why?

        Filed under “I don’t care, so I’m not even considering the question at this point.”

        (2) I recently developed a functional solution for cold fusion, the first such method that actually works. Positive claim. Same questions again.

        See previous.

        (3) I am immortal, owing to an internal belief that I hold. Positive claim. Same questions again.

        See previous.

        Are the thresholds of evidence demanded by each claim the same? Is your degree of “agnosticism” on all four claims the same? No numbers required – just qualitative labels, of “high confidence”, “moderately uncertain”, “very likely false”, “false”, etc. None of these has to do with god per se. Just burden of proof on claims made – where it falls and how big the burden is.

        Did you miss the part where I said you were flat out wrong – in fact, in the context of this thread, demonstrably wrong – to go on about my supposed blind spot of having a boolean approach to claims and burdens of proof when I already included probability estimations as examples?

        And in all three cases, there’s a common thread: claims are made, and thus burdens exist if you wish to prove these things to anyone. What the particular burdens may be for an individual may in and many cases likely will depend on their background knowledge and commitments.

        Likewise, talk of ‘how big the burden is’ can be deceptive, since those very factors – background knowledge, commitments, assumptions – are left out of the conversation. ‘I went to the supermarket today’ can well be said to have a sizable burden – what happens is we operate with shared assumptions and experience and really, even levels of care, which results in us bypassing a lot of those burdens many times, or flat out ignoring them.

        • I don’t get to be a prophet very often.

          I have tried to garner some kind of tangible, specific, non-generic engagement regarding burden of proof and requisite thresholds. The headwind stood the flag from the mast, of course, but sometimes it is possible to beat up in any case.

          I presented three claim/questions as a catalyst to hopefully emerge from the bluster. And indeed, the surplus of words in the response presented a formidable challenge to rebut:

          Crude response to claim/question 1:

          Filed under “I don’t care, so I’m not even considering the question at this point.”

          Crude response to claim/question 2:

          See previous.

          Crude response to claim/question 3:

          See previous.

          A daunting clarity of insight with which to contend…

          The prophetic aspect was electronically graven earlier today, when I sent Ratamacue0 an email with reference to this thread:

          I’ll give him a little time to engage with my last comment and see if he’ll actually talk turkey. But I’m kinda doubting it at this point.

          Indeed. It is probably both humorous and curious that – even upon issuing prophecies – I still seem to attenuate them with proper caveats. Probably not hyperbolic enough for this conversation.

          I’ve invited you up, but you seem to keep finding ways to never quite get in the ring. Instead, you offer yet more ringside trash talk. That’s fine, and I can’t make you actually engage. But at this point it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, and your response was foretold because the bull-rusher simply is predictable. Methinks thou dost protest too loudly – continually voicing your deeply unimpressed opinion of everyone. That’s certainly never been thought of before.

          I believe that I’ll have to agree with Tildeb on the Crude vitriol. Then again, a visit to the Crude blog reveals a five year history coupled with a blank “about” section. Anonymity makes sense for those in transition, and for those in the closet. But it also makes a good license for vitriol, if that’s your game. On the other had, you know my name.

          So, I’ve offered some fair pitches, and you watched them sail over the plate. Apparently you’re a crusher, and you could crank them over the wall. You really do know your epistemology, and you really can discriminate actual information properly. But you don’t feel up to it.

          That being the case, I’ve lost interest. I’m off to find a batter that will actually do some swinging, and some pugilists that don’t mind trading.

      • Matt,

        I don’t get to be a prophet very often.

        Considering your track record in this thread, I’m not surprised – your resume would leave a lot to be desired.

        I’ll give him a little time to engage with my last comment and see if he’ll actually talk turkey. But I’m kinda doubting it at this point.

        I did talk turkey, Matt. Here’s the big problem – the complaint that has you riled, and the reason why you’re pulling out of the conversation immediately: I didn’t give you the response you wanted.

        It’s not that I didn’t respond to you at all, or that my responses weren’t relevant. I pointed out the fundamental problem with the approach you were taking in trying to rank three distinct claims in order of their supposed burdens – namely, that it wasn’t that all three claims only differed in terms of what burdens needed to be overcome in order to meet them, but in the background assumptions and claims that were at work with them to begin with. Those constitute burdens of their own – we’ll just typically agree, even without saying so, that those burdens have already been met, so we put them off to the side.

        But when those background assumptions differ from the outset? Then we have a problem.

        The real issue here is – you seem to realize this, and you don’t really have much of a response to it. Or at least you realize that actually responding to it – getting into the subject of background assumptions, of what axioms we work with, of what we know and what we estimate – is going to not just complicate your case, but fatally wound it. So, better to pull out as soon as possible than stick around. I was, after all, curt with you – and as we see by your own blog, you believe that flippant attitudes towards one’s ideological opponents is something you reserve for yourself.

        So by all means, flee the conversation. Do blame it on the fact that when you offered up your supposed expertise on these subjects, I had the audacity to point out a flaw in your reasoning. Add in the fact that I mocked the very idea of trying to approach these questions in the manner you assume is best. And best of all, do it while agreeing with tildeb – the internet’s closest thing to an angry rant-machine – about my vitriol. The unintended irony there speaks for itself.

        But I wish you luck in your search for pugilists that don’t mind trading, even if it’s clear that what you really want is someone you can land a hit on – not one who puts you on the ropes too quick.

  7. Matt, you write Crude, you seem to be under the impression that I’ve said a number of things I did not say.

    What a surprise (not).

    You can perhaps see better now why I don’t respond to Crude; misrepresenting what others say (and telling atheists what they mean, what claims they make, what reasons they use, and why they deserve contempt) is his modus operandi because it provides him with a platform to be obnoxious and rude to those he hates. And I use that term ‘hate’ intentionally because he demonstrates nothing but contempt and intolerance and assumes it is pious.

    He’s not worth your effort or the effort of any intellectually honest person – atheist, agnostic, or theist – to engage because he’s quite satisfied with himself and those who pay him in agreement what he considers his proper homage… no matter how dishonest he must be to maintain it. He doesn’t care about what’s true and has no desire to change his ways.

    Why should anyone care about what he has to say about anything… other than perhaps enjoy his fictions for their entertainment value?

    Crude’s disingenuous to the core and demonstrates this over and over again. Nothing you can say less than full agreement with him will suffice to quell his vitriol and intentional misrepresentations he imposes on others.

    • tildeb,

      You can perhaps see better now why I don’t respond to Crude; misrepresenting what others say (and telling atheists what they mean, what claims they make, what reasons they use, and why they deserve contempt) is his modus operandi because it provides him with a platform to be obnoxious and rude to those he hates.

      I love how the evidence offered for ‘misrepresenting what others say’ is a quote by an atheist who A) offered no evidence of that claim other than the utterance, and who B) then proceeded to interpret my words – wrongly. Which, by the by, I proceeded to illustrate by citing quotes and evidence.

      He’s not worth your effort or the effort of any intellectually honest person – atheist, agnostic, or theist – to engage because he’s quite satisfied with himself and those who pay him in agreement what he considers his proper homage…

      Yes, how dare I make the rude and vicious demand that those who make claims support their claims with arguments and evidence. I know, I know – a grave personality flaw of mine.

      But I appreciate your comment, tildeb, because you illustrate something unintentionally: here you come, making all kinds of histrionic personal attacks on me. Claim after claim.

      And yet… no evidence to speak of. No support for your burden. Not a scrap.

      Par for the course for you. Others – atheists and progressives alike – do better, and put you to shame. Perhaps you should pay attention to them sometime; you may learn a lesson.

      … No. Probably not. 😉

  8. Crude said: “Likewise, talk of ‘how big the burden is’ can be deceptive, since those very factors – background knowledge, commitments, assumptions – are left out of the conversation. ‘I went to the supermarket today’ can well be said to have a sizable burden – what happens is we operate with shared assumptions and experience and really, even levels of care, which results in us bypassing a lot of those burdens many times, or flat out ignoring them.”

    We rarely ask for a burden of proof if someone says he went to the supermarket. We know that supermarkets exist, because you, and others including myself, have been to supermarkets. Unless we uncovered that the person had some hidden agenda – perhaps instead he went to see his mistress, or had a visit to his doctor and doesn’t want to divulge his private health issues – there would be no reason to ask for a proof. OTOH, if someone would say” I died three days ago, and now I’m back,” you can bet your sweet life you would be asking for very convincing arguments before you would take this person at his words, even if this person would be your best friend.

    • Joseph,

      We rarely ask for a burden of proof if someone says he went to the supermarket.

      We also rarely give much of a shit.

      Unless we uncovered that the person had some hidden agenda – perhaps instead he went to see his mistress, or had a visit to his doctor and doesn’t want to divulge his private health issues – there would be no reason to ask for a proof.

      Not ‘for a proof’. To support the claim. And if someone demanded that I accept their claim that they went to the supermarket, it would be entirely reasonable for me to expect them to support their burden if they truly expected me to accept this.

      This isn’t a really hard concept to get: make a claim, get a burden. I know, I know – it makes life inconvenient for you when you just wish people would accept your claims by default. But it’s a pretty fundamental part of reasoning.

      • @ Crude said: “This isn’t a really hard concept to get: make a claim, get a burden. I know, I know – it makes life inconvenient for you when you just wish people would accept your claims by default. But it’s a pretty fundamental part of reasoning.”

        Which part of “OTOH, if someone would say” I died three days ago, and now I’m back,” you can bet your sweet life you would be asking for very convincing arguments before you would take this person at his words, even if this person would be your best friend” don’t you understand?

      • Joseph,

        Which part of “OTOH, if someone would say” I died three days ago, and now I’m back,” you can bet your sweet life you would be asking for very convincing arguments before you would take this person at his words, even if this person would be your best friend” don’t you understand?

        What, in that statement, do you think is relevant to anything I’ve said here? Are you honestly taking the view that I’m saying a person who claims the resurrection took place has no burden? If so, I question your reading comprehension.

        I simply pointed out that ‘I went to the grocery store’ is yet another claim, and it has a burden to. Yes, in practice most of us, upon hearing that, don’t ask for hard evidence of that. Most of the time, we don’t really give a shit. But if you told me ‘I went to the grocery store’ and especially if you wanted me to believe as much, you’d have a burden.

        Make a claim, get a burden. Don’t like burdens? Then stay away from claims.

      • Make a claim, get a burden. Don’t like burdens? Then stay away from claims.

        I think it´s mostly a disagreement on whether “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is true or not. And if it is true, about what exactly constitutes “extraordinary claims”. There is a bias at play here in any case, the claims that we have already accepted often do not appear as extraordinary to us as they actually are. When it comes to religious claims, this becomes most obvious when you observe how casually people who believe in one set of religious claims, dismiss comparable claims from different religious frameworks, even when the supporting evidence is comparable. For example – how easily westerners find it to dismiss the claims regarding alleged miracle workers coming from an eastern religious background (and vice versa).
        And coming from the side of the skeptic, even if I adopt most of the plausibility framework of, say, theists for the sake of the argument, then it would still be true that miraculous healings or resurrections or what have you, are at best extremely rare / very extraordinary (even if *every* single alleged miracle healing actually happened as reported, it would still be an extremely rare event). And if I don´t accept the claim that Sathya Sai Baba was a miracle worker, based on eyewitness evidence coming from many *living* eyewitnesses, then it seems only consistent to dismiss the claims regarding the miracles of Jesus as well (again, assuming for the sake of the argument that there actually is a God and that it would be in principle possible that those miracles happened).

      • Andy,

        I think it´s mostly a disagreement on whether “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is true or not.

        It’s not just a question of whether it’s true, but how to determine what is or isn’t extraordinary to begin with on either side of not only the issue, but the statement itself.

        There is a bias at play here in any case, the claims that we have already accepted often do not appear as extraordinary to us as they actually are.

        What is so often missed is that the non-religious and the naturalist are typically biased as well.

        For example – how easily westerners find it to dismiss the claims regarding alleged miracle workers coming from an eastern religious background (and vice versa).

        I don’t think it’s a case of their being quickly dismissed. I think most people simply are unaware of the claims, and don’t really care. The ones that are aware often seem quite content to admit there was a non-‘natural’ source for those claims – they differ about the explanation, not the event, nor even that the event was something other than typical nature at work.

        I also don’t think frequency helps much here. If someone tells you they visited Disney World when they were 10, does the fact that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them plummet your estimation of whether they’re telling the truth? Should it?

      • It’s not just a question of whether it’s true, but how to determine what is or isn’t extraordinary to begin with on either side of not only the issue, but the statement itself.

        Yup, that´s why I said “And if it is true, about what exactly constitutes “extraordinary claims”. ”
        But quite often, the point where one could discuss exactly what constitutes “extraordinary” (and how you would know) is never reached because many people do not disagree with the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to begin with.

        What is so often missed is that the non-religious and the naturalist are typically biased as well.

        No disagreement at all.

        I don’t think it’s a case of their being quickly dismissed. I think most people simply are unaware of the claims, and don’t really care. The ones that are aware often seem quite content to admit there was a non-’natural’ source for those claims – they differ about the explanation, not the event, nor even that the event was something other than typical nature at work.

        That such events could happen in the given cultural and religious context is granted virtually always. That the *specific* events (say, Sai Baba´s “miracles”) in question actually happened as reported (i.e. were true miracle healings for example), is granted rarely – and if it is granted, then it is usually attributed to the devil or demons or what have you (it would be a miracle worker who is aware of christianity but rejects its truth after all). And when the case is explained in detail, and it is laid out why a guy like Sai Baba was as certainly a fraud as Peter Popoff or Benny Hinn or Pat Robertson are, most theists have no problems accepting that. But accepting that has quite some implications about the reliability of eyewitness testimony when it comes to miracles.

        I also don’t think frequency helps much here. If someone tells you they visited Disney World when they were 10, does the fact that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them plummet your estimation of whether they’re telling the truth? Should it?

        No, because that would be the wrong frequency. What makes the claim that you won a few millions in the lottery extraordinary is not that this happened to you for the first time (in fact, this happening to you more than once would make the claim MORE extraordinary, not less), it is extraordinary because the overwhelming number of people are neither lottery millionaires, nor do they know a lottery millionaire personally. And while reports of miraculous healings are quite common in some communities, miracle healings would overall still be extremely rare – even if every reported one actually happened. That´s what makes the claim extraordinary and that is the reason for why mere hearsay wouldn´t be acceptable for most people to accept the claim as being true (and it seems to me that the Catholic Church accepts the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” principle + that miracle healings are extraordinary claims. If it wouldn´t, the Lourdes Medical Bureau would be superfluous and a canonization process wouldn´t involve an advocatus diaboli).

      • Andy,

        To skip past the usual overwhelming back and forth, I’m going to try something different – zeroing in on a single claim in any given response with you.

        (and it seems to me that the Catholic Church accepts the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” principle + that miracle healings are extraordinary claims. If it wouldn´t, the Lourdes Medical Bureau would be superfluous and a canonization process wouldn´t involve an advocatus diaboli).

        See, that doesn’t seem to follow at all. What the Church seems to accept is that claims require evidence. “Extraordinary” is superfluous there.

        As for the claims about what ‘most theists accept’, I simply don’t see it. I think this is one of those cases where people talk about what ‘everyone accepts’ but what they mean is ‘I sure bet they think this.’

        Call it a claim that requires some evidence. Nothing extraordinary, mind you.

      • See, that doesn’t seem to follow at all. What the Church seems to accept is that claims require evidence. “Extraordinary” is superfluous there.
        ….
        Call it a claim that requires some evidence. Nothing extraordinary, mind you.

        Eyewitness testimony is evidence. If I would be paraplegic after a car accident, visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes with two friends, pray, and am suddenly able to walk again, which is confirmed by my two friends and some bystanders, then this claim would absolutely be supported by evidence. Yet this evidence would not be deemed sufficient, not by skeptics, and not by church authorities whose plausibility framework would absolutely allow for such a miracle to happen.
        It would be deemed a “miracle” only if the Lourdes Medical Bureau doesn´t think that I´m obviously lying or deluded when I report my experience, thus not dismissing it and instead referring it to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes, which would investigate my claim, my condition and my medical history. And only if they confirm my claim after investigating it will it be acknowledged as a miracle. That is the “extraordinary claims require extraordinay evidence” principle at work. If my claim would have merely been that I had been at Lourdes as a tourist, then the eyewitness testimony from me, my friends, and whoever we´ve met while we were visiting Lourdes, would have been more than enough to establish the claim – because visiting Lourdes is not exactly an extraordinary claim, quite unlike the claim of being spontaneously cured from paraplegia after praying at Lourdes.
        You don´t have to call it “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, or “bayesian reasoning” or whatever – but the idea that some claims require higher standards of evidence to establish them than others seems obvious enough, scientists stick to that principle, courts of law stick to that principle, and the Catholic church does as well.

        As for the claims about what ‘most theists accept’, I simply don’t see it. I think this is one of those cases where people talk about what ‘everyone accepts’ but what they mean is ‘I sure bet they think this.’

        Well, I´m just reporting my experience – I´ve brought up this issue often enough (including on this blog) and this is what I saw. But I´m not asking you to accept this claim based on mere eyewitness testimony of course 😉

      • Andy,

        That is the “extraordinary claims require extraordinay evidence” principle at work.

        It seems more to be the ‘claims require evidence’ principle at work.

        You don´t have to call it “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, or “bayesian reasoning” or whatever – but the idea that some claims require higher standards of evidence to establish them than others seems obvious enough, scientists stick to that principle, courts of law stick to that principle, and the Catholic church does as well.

        Where did ‘higher standards of evidence’ come into play in your example? One thing I’ve argued here is that the talk about ‘higher standards’ doesn’t always cash out that way. Instead what often happens is that we just don’t really care to question given claims, or we deal with people who implicitly accept from the outset a lot of what would intellectually be required in making the claim.

        Well, I´m just reporting my experience – I´ve brought up this issue often enough (including on this blog) and this is what I saw.

        Sure, and I’ve done the same. Maybe the real lesson here is that two people can reasonably come to different conclusions about a particular claim, and neither is irrational in doing so, eh?

        The problem is that would gut the approach being taken by some here.

      • Where did ‘higher standards of evidence’ come into play in your example?

        At the point where neither my testimony (evidence) was deemed sufficient to establish the claim, nor my testimony + that of my friends (even better evidence) was deemed sufficient, nor my testimony + that of my friends + that of bystanders which didn´t know me before and would have no plausible reason to lie in order to support my claim (even better evidence than before) being sufficient, nor all that + an office experienced with these kind of claims finding my claim credible enough to warrant further investigation (and again, even better evidence than before) being sufficient.
        If that is not about a higher standard of evidence, what is it about then? You say “claims require evidence”, period. Cool, I say I was cured after me praying at Lourdes, my friends support this claim, so there is evidence for my claim – why are we not done now? Why doesn´t the church accept this as a miraculous cure?

        One thing I’ve argued here is that the talk about ‘higher standards’ doesn’t always cash out that way. Instead what often happens is that we just don’t really care to question given claims

        Sure, but there´s no point in discussing claims that we either all accept anyway or simply don´t care about. I gave a different example – I report being miraculously cured at Lourdes, and skeptics would care whether this is true (and bother to investigate) and the church would care whether this is true (and also bother to investigate).

        Sure, and I’ve done the same. Maybe the real lesson here is that two people can reasonably come to different conclusions about a particular claim, and neither is irrational in doing so, eh?

        Sure, happens all the time.

      • Andy,

        At the point where neither my testimony (evidence) was deemed sufficient to establish the claim,

        Cool, so any person or organization arbitrarily demanding evidence until they personally feel satisfied with a claim is where ‘higher standards of evidence’ come into play?

        I gave a different example – I report being miraculously cured at Lourdes, and skeptics would care whether this is true (and bother to investigate) and the church would care whether this is true (and also bother to investigate).

        I finished, “or we deal with people who implicitly accept from the outset a lot of what would intellectually be required in making the claim.”

        I think you’d find most skeptics wouldn’t care to investigate beyond, perhaps, personally grilling you if you contacted them directly and pushed. And what evidence we demand in turn is going to depend on where we’re coming from intellectually, and more.

        So again, ‘higher standards of evidence’ often seems to trade on the fact that people disagree about background information to begin with, or they implicitly agree regarding said information – which makes the talk of ‘higher standards’ dodgy.

      • Cool, so any person or organization arbitrarily demanding evidence until they personally feel satisfied with a claim is where ‘higher standards of evidence’ come into play?

        The evidence supporting the claim should be at least as unlikely as the claim itself, if it isn´t, then it is rational to doubt the claim. That´s not arbitrary, that is the formally correct way of reasoning.
        In practice, we will evaluate both the claim and the evidence differently if our background knowledge and beliefs differ (i.e., the evaluations will virtually never be identical), but that still doesn´t make this arbitrary.
        I certainly would require a higher standard of evidence to establish the claim that praying at Lourdes can be causally linked to spontaneous cures of serious medical conditions than many Catholics would require. However, I strongly doubt that you could find many Catholics who genuinely believe that the claims “I visited Lourdes as a tourist” and “my paraplegia was spontaneously and completely cured after I prayed at Lourdes” come with the exact same burden of proof, or that the former requires a higher standard of evidence to establish it than the latter instead of the other way around (in fact, I´d be very surprised if you could find a single one).
        I understand that religious people often have a problem with “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” because they parse it as a rethorical trick to handwave any evidence they could come up with away – and some atheists probably use it like that, that doesn´t mean that the principle of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence is false though, it just means that the atheist in question is dishonest or an idiot. And a consistent rejection of this principle would be next to impossible to live by, if you could honestly say that if an acquaintance told you “I have a great business idea and if you invest 1000$ in my start up, I´ll double your investment in three years!” vs “I have the best business idea ever, and if you invest 1000$ in my start up, I´ll pay you back a million after one year”, you´d believe both based on the exact same evidence and wouldn´t even require an iota more proof for the latter over the former claim, then you´d be so ridiculously gullible that your family would probably (and succesfully) challenge your legal competency after you´ve lost all your money.
        The relevance that this principle has for debates about religion, IMO, is that we have a natural bias to go easy on claims that we have already accepted or even grew up with (and yes, that cuts both ways and is just as relevant for the atheist as it is for the religious person). This doesn´t mean that no evidence could be adequate to establish any given religious claim, it just means that one should try to apply the same standards of evidence claims you do not (yet) believe in compared to those that you do believe in (e.g. if there would be a christian who believes in those “Bible code” ideas, but rejects islamic numerology based on arguments that, if they were consistently applied, would just as easily refute his Bible code ideas, then this would be irrational – based on his *own* standards.)

        • Since I’m not a Bayesian, I don’t feel rationally compelled to hold fast to these principles when scientific theories are concerned.

          However I do believe that Bayes theorem can be applied to events following the methodology I once explained:
          https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/knowledge-dependent-frequentist-probabilities/

          So if you can show that the probability that God would do a miracle during a Catholic event is extremely low, it’s okay to be skeptical. The problem is that I don’t see any way to do that without begging the question and already assuming that miracles are really rare so that a different standard must apply.

          In a future post, I’ll argue that we have normal, decent evidence that UFOs ( NOT understood as alien spacecrafts but as flying objects whose identity is really unknown ) are real and that the debunking explanation would look utterly ridiculous if the sightings had involved something mundane such as drug traffickers or known military aircrafts.

      • Since I’m not a Bayesian, I don’t feel rationally compelled to hold fast to these principles when scientific theories are concerned.

        I´m not talking about bayesianism per se. We might disagree about the nature of probabilities (I´m completely agnostic on the question of what probabilities actually *are* – ontologically) and on when they are meaningful and / or knowable. But when we are dealing with some claim where we can agree that there is a meaningful concept of “likelihood”, then the concept that the evidence supporting the claim should be as unlikely as the claim itself, *is* the formally correct way of reasoning.

        So if you can show that the probability that God would do a miracle during a Catholic event is extremely low, it’s okay to be skeptical. The problem is that I don’t see any way to do that without begging the question and already assuming that miracles are really rare so that a different standard must apply.

        That is beside the point, I explicitly pointed out that those differences in background knowledge and beliefs exist and are completely relevant. However, would you, or would you not (note the “you”, I am talking about what *you* believe, not about what anyone “should” believe) require more evidence for the claim “Andy was a paraplegic and after praying at Lourdes, Andy´s paraplegia was spontaneously and completely cured” compared to “Andy visited Lourdes as a tourist”? A simple yes or no please. (alternatively the question “Do you consider the Lourdes Medical Bureau to be completely superfluous since the testimony of any random shmuck that (s)he was spontaneously cured from what have you at Lourdes should be good enough for the church to declare it a miracle?” Yes or no.)

        However I do believe that Bayes theorem can be applied to events following the methodology I once explained:
        https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/knowledge-dependent-frequentist-probabilities/

        Well, as I already said back then – what you say amounts to the claim “I believe that Bayes theorem can be applied if the people that do apply it keep doing exactly what they are doing right now” 😉

        In a future post, I’ll argue that we have normal, decent evidence that UFOs ( NOT understood as alien spacecrafts but as flying objects whose identity is really unknown ) are real and that the debunking explanation would look utterly ridiculous if the sightings had involved something mundane such as drug traffickers or known military aircrafts.

        And who would disagree with that? Seriously, who would disagree with that? We also have “normal” evidence for precognition (a peer-reviewed study even), homeopathy, bigfoot, morphogenetic fields and pretty much EVERY other claim under the sun.

  9. Crude said: “Are you honestly taking the view that I’m saying a person who claims the resurrection took place has no burden?”

    Exactly, as you have no proof, except for your “faith”.

    • Oh my gosh, you’re doing it too now.

      Look, you can’t just say “The person who claims the Resurrection took place has no proof, because there’s no proof for the Resurrection! Therefore, he believes it on faith. QED.”

      You need to actually listen and see if the religious believer really does think they have proof besides faith for the Resurrection, and then judge their claims accordingly. You can’t just say “No they don’t!” and call it a day.

      But then again, I’m talking to the man who called me a “Hitler admirer” because I pointed out that he was using weak logic, so not exactly the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

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