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  1. #1
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    The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    The Burden of Evidence for Philosophical Atheism – Can it be Met?

    Key Terms Defined:

    Burden of evidence: obligation on a party in a dispute to provide sufficient warrant for their position.
    Philosophical atheism: the claim that no god(s) exist.

    Thus: The obligation on a person in a dispute to provide sufficient warrant for their claim that no god(s) exist.

    Note the extent of the claim – no god(s) exist i.e. without any exception, universally to all gods, not any god(s) exist.

    It seems at this point the disputer of the claim could simply declare victory as it would seem impossible for the claimant to be able to provide the sufficient warrant required. Showing that a god, or most gods or every supernatural god or every god they have heard of isn’t sufficient but only showing that no god at all exists for that is their claim.

    However, here is at least one reasonable out for the claimant:

    Atheism is a response to claims about god or gods existing, a denial any of those claims are true.

    If this be the case then the only obligation on the claimant that no gods exists is with respect to gods that are claimed to exist. This seems more reasonable and excludes gods created out of thin air of all strange and convoluted sorts but for the sole purpose of trying to set the bar too high on the burden of evidence for the claimant that no gods exist.

    This would flesh out as follows:

    Philosophical atheism: the claim that no god, seriously proposed as existing, does exist.

    The burden of evidence for this is still high, given that there are numerous such proposed as existing gods, but at least the claim being made by the atheist has been taken in the most charitable way and, it could be said, without ‘cheating’, which would be a cheap victory indeed where the atheist was not able to meet the less reasonable standard.

    Further, it seems obvious and trivially the case, that the burden of evidence on the atheist is higher and more difficult to attain than is for the theist for the theist has but to demonstrate one thing has existence – a god – whereas the atheist has to show that no gods exist, not a single one of all the many which are seriously proposed to exist.

    Indeed, it would seem that no atheist could meet their burden without an extraordinary amount to work through all such seriously proposed gods unless they had some means to cut out a whole load, or all of them in a single or few strokes.

    Consider the followings scenarios:

    Scenario (1):

    Atheist: I claim that no seriously proposed to have existence gods, do in fact exist.
    Theist: That’s interesting, could you meet the obligation for that claim by maybe going through all seriously proposed to have existence gods and showing they do not exist?
    Atheist: Well... if I had a whole load of time, maybe i could do that.
    Theist: So you are not able to meet that burden of evidence as we are having this dispute?
    Atheist: Well, no, the task is too large to achieve as we are having this dispute.
    Theist: And that is a problem for me or for you given it is your burden of evidence and you are not able to readily discharge it upon request?

    Scenario (2):

    Atheist: I claim that no seriously proposed to have existence gods, do in fact exist.
    Theist: That’s interesting, could you meet the obligation for that claim by maybe going through all seriously proposed to have existence gods and showing they do not exist?
    Atheist: Well that would be a lengthy task but I have a way to make that much shorter. Here is an argument that, if you accept it as to its conclusion, excludes all proposed supernatural gods.
    Theist: Ok, please present said argument.
    Atheist: Sure, it is an argument with the conclusion that philosophical naturalism is true or probably true.
    Theist: Ok, let’s grant you arguendo that works, what of gods proposed to exist naturally?
    Atheist: Well I have individual arguments against those also, and we could have a talk about them if you would care to present them

    I think this shows that, at least theoretically, the atheist could meet their burden of evidence. Whether that could transfer in practice is maybe another question with it not being obvious what the argument would be for philosophical naturalism or how many seriously proposed natural gods could be presented
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  2. #2
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    The biggest problem with this OP is with how you start out by describing "philosophical atheism", which appears to be something different from basic atheism and more like strong atheism, but then at some point drop the "philosophical" part and continue to talk loosely about atheists. It is vitally important that you make the distinction throughout your entire argument.

    So, it's not:
    Atheist: I claim that no seriously proposed to have existence gods, do in fact exist.
    It's actually:
    Philosophical/Strong Atheist: I claim that no seriously proposed to have existence gods, do in fact exist.
    Therefore:
    The Burden of Evidence for Philosophical Atheism – Can it be Met?
    Quite simply, no, it probably can't.

    The rest of the OP is largely irrelevant, as the burden of proof will always rest with the party making a claim, regardless of whether it is theistic, positive, or negative. Since basic atheism is not making any claim and is instead merely rejecting theistic claims as having not met their burden of proof, atheism at its core has no burden of proof.

    This confusion of strong atheism (the claim that a deity doesn't exist) with atheism (the rejection of a theistic claim) is quite risky business indeed, since it can appear to be a tactic of shirking the burden of proof on theistic claims.

    Further, it seems obvious and trivially the case, that the burden of evidence on the atheist is higher and more difficult to attain than is for the theist for the theist has but to demonstrate one thing has existence – a god – whereas the atheist has to show that no gods exist, not a single one of all the many which are seriously proposed to exist.
    Again, you are referring to strong atheism, so we can fix your statement thus:
    Further, it seems obvious and trivially the case, that the burden of evidence on the strong atheist is higher and more difficult to attain than is for the theist for the theist has but to demonstrate one thing has existence – a god – whereas the strong atheist has to show that no gods exist, not a single one of all the many which are seriously proposed to exist.
    Now, this does indeed seem at first trivial & obvious, but one must consider all the implications of atheism vs. those of theism before making such a judgement and comparing the difficulty of the various proof burdens each party has.

    With basic atheism (the rejection of a theistic claim), one must must merely say:
    1. I have not been convinced of the truth of the theistic claim that deity X exists. Therefore, I don't believe that deity X exists.

    With strong atheism (the claim that a deity doesn't exist), one must say:
    1. I believe that deity X does not exist.

    However, as a theist you believe in a specific deity, and by holding this belief you are not only not holding a belief in any other deities (implicit atheism), but also rejecting any claims of any other deities (explicit atheism), and also claiming that those deities don't exist (strong atheism).

    So you are actually making more than just one claim or statement when you hold a belief in deity X:
    1. The theistic claim that deity X exists
    2. The atheistic statement of belief: I don't believe in deity Y, Z, ..., or any other possible deities
    3. The atheistic rejection of other claims: I reject the claims of deity Y, Z, ..., or any other possible deities
    4. The strong atheistic claim that deity Y, Z, ..., or any other possible deities do not exist

    I think this shows that, at least theoretically, the atheist could meet their burden of evidence.
    Again, atheists have no burden of proof unless they're also claiming that a deity does not exist.

    Whether that could transfer in practice is maybe another question with it not being obvious what the argument would be for philosophical naturalism or how many seriously proposed natural gods could be presented
    Depending on how a proponent of philosophical naturalism presents their justifications for rejecting the existence of the supernatural, there may not be any relevance to it. I personally think methodological naturalism is the safer & more valuable route, anyway.
    But why is it important how many natural deities could be seriously proposed? They would regardless each have their own burden of proof to be addressed separately.

  3. #3
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by Scotsmanmatt View Post
    Further, it seems obvious and trivially the case, that the burden of evidence on the atheist is higher and more difficult to attain than is for the theist for the theist has but to demonstrate one thing has existence – a god – whereas the atheist has to show that no gods exist, not a single one of all the many which are seriously proposed to exist.
    This is a flawed statement. A theist does not argue that A God exists. A theist argues that HIS God exists. For example, Christians don't argue that A God exists but argue that Yahweh exists. If it were shown that Yahweh does not exist but Allah does exist, the Christian theist would not hold that his theistic position was proven right.

    So every single theist argues that a particular God exists and they have the burden of showing that that particular God exists when they argue that God exists. Likewise if an atheist challenges their position, they are arguing that their particular God does not exist.

    But as you state, the philosophical theist will argue that every particular God from every religion does not exist. If this atheist were to challenge theists in a debate, it would be series of one-on-one debates - one opponent for each individual God that someone claims exists.

    So let's say that the number is 1000 (it's almost certainly more but 1000 is nice round number for a hypothetical). The atheist would be engaging in 1000 individual debates with 1000 different theists. I see no reason to conclude that within any particular debate the atheist has a higher burden than any of the 1000 individual theists.

    So therefore I disagree that the philosophical atheist has a higher burden than a theist.

  4. #4
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by mican333 View Post
    A theist does not argue that A God exists. A theist argues that HIS God exists.
    This isn't always the case. Sometimes a theist begins by arguing that a god exists and after that has been established tries to show that the God he worships is in fact the true God. These are two separate arguments.
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by mican333 View Post
    This is a flawed statement. A theist does not argue that A God exists. A theist argues that HIS God exists. For example, Christians don't argue that A God exists but argue that Yahweh exists. If it were shown that Yahweh does not exist but Allah does exist, the Christian theist would not hold that his theistic position was proven right.

    So every single theist argues that a particular God exists and they have the burden of showing that that particular God exists when they argue that God exists. Likewise if an atheist challenges their position, they are arguing that their particular God does not exist.
    Theists will sometimes argue that an uncaused, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect entity exists. Theists will sometimes argue about transubstantiation. Theists don't always argue for all the particulars of their particular theological commitments.

    If a materialist and a theist are arguing, there's a big disagreement that occurs way before the more general concept of a divine being gets endowed with particulars (like "is triune, and one person of the trinity was incarnated in roughly 0 BCE", etc.). If you believe X, but X requires Y which requires Z, and I object to Z in principle, then it's probably best to focus our discussion on Z before we talk about Y (and before we talk about X).

    Of course, the main point here is that the thesis under consideration isn't always the same in every discussion, so talking about "the" evidentiary burden of theists doesn't make sense except in the context of a particular theistic dialectic.
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    The point is regarding the burden of proof inherent to the theist vs. the philosophical atheist, not a specific argument either of them may choose to make at any time.
    That is, for a theist, their burden of proof extends far beyond merely arguing that a nebulous deist concept of a deity exists.

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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by CliveStaples View Post
    Theists will sometimes argue that an uncaused, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect entity exists. Theists will sometimes argue about transubstantiation. Theists don't always argue for all the particulars of their particular theological commitments.
    But wherever they set the bar (generic or incredibly specific) to make their argument that God exists, they have to settle on a particular God. In other words, if one is to argue the "it" exists, they will have to define "it".

    So this doesn't really effect the gist of my argument. Any debate that a philosophical theist would have with any individual theist would be a one-on-one debate focusing on the God that the theist forwards as existing and therefore their burden is equal. So the PA does not have a higher burden than any individual theist in a debate.

    -----------------

    So a conversation might go like this:

    A: I claim that no proposed Gods exist and I will address them one at at time. Let's start with Allah
    T: Don't bother. I don't believe in Allah. I'm a Christian.
    A: So you concede that Allah does not exist?
    T: Yes.
    A: And do you concede that no Gods exist save for the Christian God?
    T: Yes. I hold that only the Christian God exists.
    A: So I only need to debunk the Christian God to win the debate against you.
    T: Right.

    So the burden between the PA and most theists is pretty equal.
    Last edited by mican333; July 27th, 2016 at 08:02 AM.

  8. #8
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    But wherever they set the bar (generic or incredibly specific) to make their argument that God exists, they have to settle on a particular God. In other words, if one is to argue the "it" exists, they will have to define "it".
    And this is precisely what happens for all the philosophical arguments for the existence of God. See e.g. Anselm's ontological argument, Aquinas's Five Ways, Plantinga's modal argument, Spinoza, Tillich, etc.

    So this doesn't really effect the gist of my argument. Any debate that a philosophical theist would have with any individual theist would be a one-on-one debate focusing on the God that the theist forwards as existing
    Why would this be the case? A theist and an atheist could argue about, say, whether materialism is true (or physicalism, or whatever). They could argue about whether anything like classical theism is true. They could argue about how such-and-such a verse in such-and-such a text should be construed.

    What makes you think that every single philosophical discussion between a theist and an atheist--or even just arguments about whether God, or anything like God, exists--are constrained to talking about only the kind of God that the theist affirms? In the classical form of dialectic, the model is something like this: the discussion participants are gathered around a table, and each in turn tries to shed light on the nature of the object on the table in front of them. Here, the object would be the person of God. One participant might argue that such a person is necessarily fictive, since God's nature entails contradiction, and so on.

    The discussion would by no means be restricted (by what force--logic? Reason? Manners?) to specifically the Christian idea of God.

    So a conversation might go like this:

    A: I claim that no proposed Gods exist and I will address them one at at time. Let's start with Allah
    T: Don't bother. I don't believe in Allah. I'm a Christian.
    A: So you concede that Allah does not exist?
    T: Yes.
    A: And do you concede that no Gods exist save for the Christian God?
    T: Yes. I hold that only the Christian God exists.
    A: So I only need to debunk the Christian God to win the debate against you.
    T: Right.

    So the burden between the PA and most theists is pretty equal.
    It could also go like this:

    A: I claim that God doesn't exist, because God isn't physical and only physical things exist.
    T: I object; here are some arguments against physicalism.
    A: Ah, I see. But even if physicalism isn't true, I claim that God doesn't exist because of the logical problem of evil.
    T: Here are some arguments against the logical problem of evil.
    A: Ah, I see. But even if God could possibly exist, I think it's likely that God doesn't exist, and exceedingly unlikely that the Christian God exists. Here are some arguments to those ends.
    T: Ah, I see. Here are my objections to these arguments...

    And so on. The discussion has been substantive and productive way before the participants began considering arguments for and against the God of Christianity in particular. Starting the other way, the argument might go like this:

    T: I think the God of Christianity exists. Here are some arguments.
    A: I object; the God of Christianity can't possibly exist, because materialism is true, and materialism precludes the Christian God.
    T: Ah, I see. I don't have any great rebuttals to those arguments; I'll have to consider the matter further...

    And so on. The atheist doesn't have to object to the Christian God on grounds that apply only to Christianity. So even if the thesis under discussion is that Christianity is true (or that the God of Christianity exists, etc.), it's not necessarily true that the arguments advanced will attack theological or philosophical elements that are unique to Christianity.

    Quote Originally Posted by futureboy
    That is, for a theist, their burden of proof extends far beyond merely arguing that a nebulous deist concept of a deity exists.
    Well, perhaps the theist believes only in the nebulous deist concept of a deity.

    Atheists and theists alike share the burden of supporting their beliefs with reasoning. If someone concludes that such-and-such a proposition is false, they should be able to offer some compelling reasons to think that the proposition is false. If someone concludes that such-and-such a proposition is true, they should be able to offer some compelling reasons to think that the proposition is true.
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by CliveStaples View Post
    Why would this be the case? A theist and an atheist could argue about, say, whether materialism is true (or physicalism, or whatever). They could argue about whether anything like classical theism is true. They could argue about how such-and-such a verse in such-and-such a text should be construed.
    I'm not saying you are incorrect about that but it doesn't really address my argument, which is a rebuttal to the OP.

    The OP is arguing that a philosophical atheist has to debunk ALL Gods (let's say there are a 1000 for the sake of simple numbers) and the theist only has to prove 1 so the burden of the PA is 1000 times greater, which puts him at a disadvantage.

    So my rebuttal is showing that this is not the case. A theist will have to define God before he can support that God exists and therefore will reject any definition of God that falls outside of how God is defined by that particular theist. So that theist must reject the 999 other Gods (for the most part saying that they don't actually fit the description of God) in order to argue for his 1 God and therefore the atheist only has to debunk that one God in order to defeat that particular theist. So the burden is equal, not 1000 to 1.

    Of course there are other ways to offer a rebuttal. An atheist can find the common denominator for ALL Gods (I believe every God is defined as immaterial) and then argue that that which is immaterial cannot exist and therefore, if successful, can debunk all 1000 Gods at once.

    But I'm offering a different argument for my rebuttal. So while you are bring up many interesting and relevant issues, I don't think they really debunk my very specific argument agains the OP.

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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by mican333
    I'm not saying you are incorrect about that but it doesn't really address my argument, which is a rebuttal to the OP.

    The OP is arguing that a philosophical atheist has to debunk ALL Gods (let's say there are a 1000 for the sake of simple numbers) and the theist only has to prove 1 so the burden of the PA is 1000 times greater, which puts him at a disadvantage.

    So my rebuttal is showing that this is not the case. A theist will have to define God before he can support that God exists and therefore will reject any definition of God that falls outside of how God is defined by that particular theist. So that theist must reject the 999 other Gods (for the most part saying that they don't actually fit the description of God) in order to argue for his 1 God and therefore the atheist only has to debunk that one God in order to defeat that particular theist. So the burden is equal, not 1000 to 1.


    Polytheists are theists. A theist doesn't have to believe in one deity and disbelieve in all others.
    If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. - Soren Kierkegaard
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by CliveStaples View Post
    Polytheists are theists. A theist doesn't have to believe in one deity and disbelieve in all others.
    You're still missing the point. While polytheists believe in the deities which are part of their polytheism, they still have to disbelieve all the other deities which aren't.
    So, correcting for semantic doges: A theist has to believe in their deity(ies) - one if they're mono, many if they're poly, and disbelieve all others.

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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    I corrected mican333's erroneous assumption that theists are monotheists. So it's not so much that I missed his point, it's that I was pointing out an error in his argument.
    If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. - Soren Kierkegaard
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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by CliveStaples View Post
    Polytheists are theists. A theist doesn't have to believe in one deity and disbelieve in all others.
    True. But that still doesn't effect the gist of my argument.

    I assume by polytheist you are referring to a religion that says that there are multiple Gods, such as the Greek pantheon (Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite, etc). Assuming that one believes in those Gods, there still is a definition of God just like there is a definition of "human being" even though there are multiple human beings on this world. And this particular theist would concede that all Gods who fall outside of the definition of God that he uses don't exist so the atheist still has to tackle only one particular definition of God when debating that particular theist.

    So the atheist still doesn't have a greater burden than the theist.

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    Re: The Burden of Evidence and Philosophical Atheism

    Quote Originally Posted by mican333 View Post
    True. But that still doesn't effect the gist of my argument.

    I assume by polytheist you are referring to a religion that says that there are multiple Gods, such as the Greek pantheon (Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite, etc). Assuming that one believes in those Gods, there still is a definition of God just like there is a definition of "human being" even though there are multiple human beings on this world. And this particular theist would concede that all Gods who fall outside of the definition of God that he uses don't exist so the atheist still has to tackle only one particular definition of God when debating that particular theist.

    So the atheist still doesn't have a greater burden than the theist.
    Right, I actually agree with the conclusion of your argument. Even if someone were a "general" theist, whose belief was merely that someone or something like God exists, they would have the same burden as the atheist: both have to provide reasons to think that their belief is true.
    If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. - Soren Kierkegaard
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