Burden of proof

October 25, 2006 | 5 comments

I’ve become involved in yet another email debate with an atheist friend. I forwarded our latest back and forth to my husband and he had these thoughts which, as usual, brought a lot of clarity to the discussion. (You can tell he’s a lawyer.) He writes:

I think there are two things this discussion is missing: (1) laboratory proof vs. court room proof, and (2) where does the burden of proof lie.

Burden of Proof
I didn’t create myself, and I definitely didn’t create the universe. Since it exists, I’m going to assume it got here somehow. I guess it *could* be just random chance, but it sure does seem a little too complex for that.

So, I think the first question one has to ask is, “Do I need to prove God’s existence or do I need to disprove it?” What is my first assumption? That some sort of higher power brought all this into existence, or that all of this brought itself into existence randomly somehow? Every good scientific enquiry begins with a definition of assumptions and parameters.

Lab Proof vs. Courtroom Proof
Very few things in life including lots of scientific stuff like meteorology, economics, some astronomy (such as, what is inside the Sun) can be proven in the lab using the scientific method (which, by the way, means nothing more than “have a control, repeat the experiment multiple times varying only one element of the experiment at a time.”) Yet we have learned much from all of these areas of learning.

Philosophy and psychology and sociology also have taught us much about ourselves, yet only a few things in these areas of learning can really be reduced to a repeatable experiment.

All kinds of very important things have to be determined (think of criminal trials) based on incomplete evidence. In those cases we don’t try to create a repeatable experiment that “proves” or “disproves” it. And we don’t throw up our hands when it becomes clear that an experiment is not going to answer the question with 100% certainty. Instead, we assemble the evidence and weigh it.

And that is the only kind of inquiry that we can do regarding God’s existence. At the end of the day, we have to ask, “Given all that I know, does it seem more likely that there is some sort of higher power out there, or is this all just randomness?”

If you put the burden of proof on God, and if you wait for a perfect experiment to come along, then you have already pre-determined the outcome. If you approach it that way, what would it take for God to prove his own existence? Would he have to come down to Earth and do a bunch of miracles?


  1. RobK

    I love your ending. 🙂

  2. Anonymous

    Three points from a former Catholic who is now an atheist:

    First, it is interesting that “intelligent design” is about the only thing left in the theist’s arsenal. In the past all kinds of things were attributed to the hand of God. Now we know that there are natural explanations for diseases, birth defects, droughts, rain, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. The world works in a rather mechanical fashion without any evidence that it is being directed by an intelligent Being. So the fallback position is to say that God designed it that way.

    But the fact is that there is a lot of waste, inefficiency, error, and purposelessness in nature that would not be there if it were intelligently designed. Theists will say that there is a purpose for everything; we just haven’t discovered it yet. Ultimately, I would say that what we humans call “intelligent design” is — like “good and evil” — a purely subjective label.

    Second, to say that the world is intelligently designed does not mean that the Intelligent Designer still exists. Who knows, maybe God was destroyed in the Big Bang?

    Third, even if God once existed — or still exists today — so what? What is the nature of this God? Is there just one God or many Gods? What, if anything, does He, She, It, or They want from us?

  3. c matt

    One difficulty with this subject is using essentially empirical methods to decide a non-empirical question. What science and the scientific method is designed for is to measure those things that are measurable (eg, how much liquid is in this tube, what is its composition, how will it react to this other substance, etc.). What the scientific method cannot measure is metaphysical questions. These are essentially philosophical questions. Asking for scientific proof of “God” is measuring with the wrong tool – it is like asking how much does ten yards weigh or how tall is five pounds?

    What science can do is possibley confirm or refute what empirical observations can be attributed to what influence – eg, the natural explanations for disease, etc.

    But b/c people in the past were mistaken about what phenomena were explicable by nature, does not answer whether God exists. In fact, I would expect almost everything has a “natural” explanation because most things exist within nature. But the real question is what created nature?

    The Uncaused Cause remains the logical explanation. In fact, it is bolstered by the fact that the Big Bang shows the universe had a beginning – if it had a beginning, it must have had a beginner without a beginning (else, that beginner would need a beginner, on ad infinitum).

    The argument for “random chance” beginning the universe borders on nonsense. In order to have random chance create the universe, you have to have chance (however slim) to begin with. If nothing existed prior to the beginning of the universe, then the chance was ZERO. As the song goes, nothing from nothing leaves nothing.

  4. c matt

    And that is the only kind of inquiry that we can do regarding God’s existence. At the end of the day, we have to ask, “Given all that I know, does it seem more likely that there is some sort of higher power out there, or is this all just randomness?”

    I think this does conflate two related but separate issues, and it tends to cause confusion – on the one hand, whether we can know for certain God exists, and on the other whether we can know His nature. I suspect many who think God’s existence cannot be proven are actually of the opinion that God’s nature cannot be known (see Former Catholic Now Atheist above).

    The arguments above can prove God’s existence (whether a particular person accepts that argument is a different matter). The kind of proof your husband alludes to goes more to determining God’s nature – i.e., what He has revealed to us about Himself, and whether you accept that revelation or not.

  5. John

    I read recently somewhere (where I can’t remember!) that much truth and fact are not scientific. Historical facts, for instance, are known to be true but can not be subjected to the scientific method to prove them. The battle of Gettysburg is not repeatable! What I love most about the question of the existence of God is that ultimately it rests on faith. At some point, you have to step out of the boat and walk on the water. It ultimately comes down to whether or not you believe the testimony of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament disciples, or not. It fills me with wonder that God has created the system we live in so that we can never definitively answer the question of His existence one way or the other, but instead leaves it open ended, so that mankind’s will remains absolutely free. Blows my mind….

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