[This is the second part of my reply to Dr. Andrea Weisberger's critique of my arguments in the first Loftus-Wood debate.]
Theists maintain that God exists. As such, it’s quite reasonable to hold that theists bear the burden of proof when they argue that the proposition “God exists” is true. The issue becomes less clear, however, when we consider propositions such as “God does not exist” or “Atheism is true.” Who bears the burden of proof here? The theist would be inclined to say that, since the atheist is making a truth-claim (i.e. that God is not a part of reality), the atheist bears the burden of proof in making such a claim. Atheists have done quite a bit of work rejecting this view. For instance, they define “atheism” not as a belief in the non-existence of God, but as the absence of belief in God. Thus, former atheist Antony Flew comments:
Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ‘someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively. . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter. (“The Presumption of Atheism”)
Difficulties with this tactic arise for the following reason: Many atheists are positive atheists—that is, they assert that God doesn’t exist. But when debates arise, they suddenly become negative atheists, i.e. people who merely aren’t theists. It is therefore interesting to discuss burden of proof with atheists such as Andrea Weisberger, who is a positive atheist. For although she is what we might call an “evangelical” atheist, she nevertheless claims that, even when arguments for atheism are being investigated, the burden of proof is on the theist.
Thus, when the Argument from Evil is being assessed, some atheists are in the awkward position of saying, in effect, “I have an argument that proves the non-existence of God, though I don’t bear the burden of proof in showing that my argument succeeds.” Yet nearly everyone would agree that, as Flew states, “The onus of proof lies on the proposition, not on the opposition.” And what is the proposition? That God does not exist, and that we can know that God does not exist because of a certain argument.
In order to see the problem with Dr. Weisberger’s view, an illustration may be helpful. Consider the following three claims.
(1) Substance Dualism is true.
(2) Substance Dualism is false.
(3) The Problem of Other Minds shows that Substance Dualism is false.
Substance Dualism is the view associated most commonly with Descartes. It holds (i) that physical properties and mental properties are distinct, and (ii) that physical properties and mental properties inhere in different substances. Now suppose a substance dualist tells her physicalist associate that Substance Dualism is true. Who bears the burden of proof? The substance dualist, of course. But what if the physicalist replies that substance dualism is false? I would think that the physicalist bears the burden of proof, but I agree that this would be debatable. Now let us suppose further that the physicalist makes claim (3), that the “Problem of Other Minds” proves that Substance Dualism is false. (The Problem of Other Minds is this: If Substance Dualism is true, then we have little or no knowledge of other minds, since we only interact with bodies. But we clearly know lots of things about other minds. Hence, Substance Dualism must be false.) I can’t see how it can be denied that the physicalist would bear the burden of proof in such a situation. For what is at issue is not merely the truth or falsity of Substance Dualism, but whether a particular argument has a particular effect upon this view of reality. It should be noted here that this debate could easily take place between two people who reject Substance Dualism. That is, one physicalist could argue that the Problem of Other Minds shows that Substance Dualism is false, while another physicalist responds, “Of course Substance Dualism is false. But the Problem of Other Minds proves nothing. Rather, the Problem of Interaction is what shows that Substance Dualism is false.” (The “Problem of Interaction” concerns how a mental substance can interact with a physical substance.)
The topic of my debate with John Loftus was “Does the extent of suffering in our world make the existence of God implausible?” As I noted in my opening statement, I would have denied this proposition even when I was an atheist. While I was convinced that theism is false, I simply didn’t believe that suffering is what makes the existence of God implausible. Hence, we could imagine a debate between two atheists who disagree about the significance of suffering as it relates to theism. The first atheist argues that suffering proves the non-existence of God. The second atheist argues that suffering does not prove the non-existence of God. Who bears the burden of proof? Weisberger can’t point to the theist, since no theist is involved. Here we would have to agree that the person making the claim must bear the burden of proof, and the claim being made is that suffering proves something about reality.
Now how does the situation change when the person objecting to this claim is a theist? As far as I can tell, there is no difference at all. The atheist is still arguing that a certain piece of evidence, when presented in an argument, proves something. The theist is merely denying this claim. What is at issue, then, is not simply whether or not God exists, but whether suffering tells us something about whether or not God exists.
In my opening statement, I said that Loftus bears the burden of proof in our debate, since he was the one defending a claim. That is, my purpose in the debate was not merely to defend theism, but to show that Loftus hasn’t proven that his proposition is true. Given our analysis of burden of proof here, I can’t see how this can reasonably be denied.
Nevertheless, Dr. Weisberger has rejected my claim, leaving us with an odd position: The atheist is free to announce that he has an argument that proves something and that he is submitting his argument for critical evaluation, yet the atheist bears no burden of proof. Consider Weisberger’s comments:
Another issue to be addressed is the burden of proof which, Wood claims, lies with the skeptic. But his position here appears to rely on a misunderstanding. The entire terms of the debate rests on a response to the god hypothesis, initially offered by the theistic view. The problem of evil, which is the focus of the debate, could not even arise unless a particular theistic worldview were presented beforehand.
This worldview, as Dr. Hatab noted in his introductory comments to the debate, is peculiarly western: god is assumed to be all powerful, (inclusive of all knowing), as well as wholly good. If we round out what these terms mean in their most profound sense, we should conclude that we are referencing a deity which is as powerful as logical possibility would permit, and so perfectly good that this being would be opposed to evil in every respect. So this god, no matter what other attributes might be claimed of it, would be powerful enough to eradicate evil (provided it was not logically impossible to do so) and motivated to do so by absolute goodness, which we can suppose is the opposite of evil.
If we posit the existence of an omnipotent (and omniscient), and omnibenevolent deity, then one might wonder why there is such an abundance of suffering or evil in the world. It is only if we posit the existence of such a god that evil becomes a "problem." So we see that the questioning of the existence of god, or the plausibility of the god hypothesis, only occurs in response to the god hypothesis. As a result, the burden is on the proponent of the hypothesis or the presenter of the initial claim.
Notice what Dr. Weisberger has done here. She presents the Argument from Evil, then says that the burden of proof is on the theist, since the theist’s worldview is the ultimate issue. But what could she mean here? Quite obviously, she means that the theist must respond to the Argument from Evil. But I’ve never denied that. Of course the theist must respond to the Argument from Evil! The point is what the theist must accomplish in such a response. The theist, in addressing the Argument from Evil, must show that the argument doesn’t withstand scrutiny. If the theist shows that there is a problem with the argument, then it can’t be said that the argument refutes theism. The atheist, then, must defend his argument against the theist’s criticisms. If he can’t defend the argument, then the conclusion hasn’t been proven. If the conclusion hasn’t been proven, then it can’t be said that the Argument from Evil refutes theism.
Thus, the burden of proof in this particular debate rests on the atheist, not the theist. The atheist must show that his argument is logically valid and that it contains true premises. If the atheist can’t do this, it simply makes no sense to say that the burden of proof lies on the theist, for the theist’s only job in such a debate is to show that the argument doesn’t work. If, at the end of the debate, several problems with the Argument from Evil have been pointed out, and the atheist hasn’t answered these problems, then the atheist has lost the debate. He hasn’t shown that the extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God implausible.
Interestingly, Dr. Weisberger tried to support her assertion with a strained analogy:
An analogy would be if someone were to claim that invisible, green gremlins power all microchips. Confronted with this hypothesis, one might ask how this is so, how it is known that these gremlins are green if they are invisible, and many similar questions. It is simply not convincing for the proponent of the invisible, green gremlin hypothesis to then claim, 'Well, since you question the gremlins' greenness, it is up to you to prove that they are not green!' This does little to persuade anyone of the viability or plausibility of the gremlin hypothesis. Similarly, anyone making claims about the existence of extraordinary phenomena, such as invisible, green gremlins, the burden of proof lies with the claimant. And the claim about the existence of a wholly good, all powerful being, in the face of such abundant and excruciating suffering in the world, appears to be an extraordinary claim! It is the proposer of the god hypothesis, no matter what the flavor (classical or personalist), who must bear the burden of making sense of the claim that an all good, all powerful being -- one who is powerful enough to eradicate at least some of the tremendous suffering that exists, and one who is opposed to such suffering by its very essence -- exists.
Let’s take a closer look at this analogy. Suppose I claim that invisible, green gremlins power microchips. You complain that something is not green if it’s invisible. Here you are pointing out an internal contradiction in my hypothesis. You aren’t claiming that some piece of evidence falsifies my view, but that my view is logically incoherent. But is that what the atheist claims in the Argument from Evil? Is the atheist claiming that there is an internal contradiction among the attributes ascribed to God? No. The atheist is saying that evidence gathered from the world proves that God can’t have certain attributes, and there is a tremendous difference here (since no explicit contradiction is involved). To see this, consider the following statements.
(1) An all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being exists.
(2) Intense suffering exists.
There is no explicit contradiction here, so the atheist must show that there is an implicit contradiction. That is, the atheist must analyze terms so that a clear problem emerges. For instance, the atheist might argue that “wholly good” means, among other things, “eliminates suffering as far as possible.” But notice that the atheist would have to make this case, and that if his case fails, his argument does not stand. The point here is that (1) the atheist would have to make an argument, (2) that the argument must be defended, and (3) that the atheist bears the burden of proof in showing that his argument does what he says it does.
Hence, to correct Weisberger’s strained analogy (while retaining her condescending view of theism), let’s say I make the following claim: “Microchips are powered by invisible gremlins.” Weisberger responds, “My invisible-gremlin detector proves that these gremlins do not exist.” Like it or not, if she wants me to believe that her evidence refutes my claim, she has to show that her argument succeeds. Otherwise, whether my belief in gremlins is true or false, it has nothing to do with her gremlin detector.
Appendix: Plausibility vs. Probability
Since we have concluded that an atheist who makes a claim must show that his claim is true, what did John Loftus have to show in our first debate? Again, the topic was “Does the extent of suffering in our world make the existence of God implausible?” In my review of the debate, I argued that to answer this question in the affirmative is to make an extraordinary claim. It is to say, not merely that the existence of God is implausible, but that the Argument from Evil makes the existence of God is implausible.
An issue arose, however, when I said that the claim “X is probable” is stronger than the claim “X is plausible,” while the reverse would be true of improbability and implausibility. Some atheists have objected, including Dr. Weisberger, who argues that the claim “the existence of God is improbable” is stronger than “the existence of God is implausible.”
I must confess that I have never understood this objection, which has been made by several people. My reasoning is as follows. Let’s say that there is a certain piece of evidence, and that there are four possible explanations for that evidence. Hypothesis A has a probability of .4; Hypothesis B has a probability of .3, Hypothesis C has a probability of . 2999, and Hypothesis D has a probability of .0001. Which of these hypotheses is probable? Since each has a probability lower than .5, none of the hypotheses is probable. But could we say that one or more of the hypotheses are plausible? I would argue that Hypothesis A is certainly plausible, since it is most likely to be true, and therefore the most worthy of belief. But I would also argue that Hypotheses B and C are also plausible, since they aren’t far behind A, while Hypothesis D, though possible, is clearly implausible. What does this mean? It means that we have at least one plausible hypothesis, but no probable hypotheses. This would mean that “X is probable” is a stronger claim than “X is plausible.”
Now we simply have to reverse the reasoning. To say that X is improbable is to say that it has a probability lower than .5. But to say that X is implausible is to make a much stronger claim—for instance, that X has a probability lower than .2. This means that the claim that suffering makes the existence of God implausible is an extraordinarily strong claim, and this is what Loftus was required to prove in our debate.
This issue only arose because some atheists, in addition to denying that they have the burden of proof in defending their argument, also want to maintain that Loftus really didn’t have to prove much. But as we have seen, he had to prove a great deal, and he never accomplished his goal. Indeed, I don’t think John proved anything in our debate. While he gave some excellent examples of suffering in our world, the arguments just weren’t there. And contrary to Dr. Weisberger’s evaluation, the arguments are absolutely necessary if the atheist is going to prove that the Argument from Evil is successful against theism.