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Wednesday, June 08, 2011


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Bill: You say that there is no (context-independent ) fact of the matter as to where the burden of proof lies. But consider what Martin Gardner writes (In the classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science). He says

"If someone announces that the moon is made of green cheese, the professional astronomer cannot be expected to climb down from his telescope and write a detailed refutation. “A fairly complete textbook of physics would be only part of the answer to Velikovsky,” writes Prof. Laurence J. Lafleur, in his excellent article on “Cranks and Scientists” (Scientific Monthly, Nov., 1951), “'and it is therefore not surprising that the scientist does not find the undertaking worth while.'”

I take him to mean that there is no BOP on the professional astronomer to write a detailed refutation of the thesis that the moon is made of green cheese: he cannot be 'expected' to do so. That would seem to be a 'context-independent' fact of the matter (but I don't entirely follow your 'context-independent').

I have some thoughts on this, particularly regarding the definition of 'miracle', 'supernatural' and cognate concepts, that I would like to share later. For starters I would question whether such terms signify an essence. Is there any such kind of thing as a miracle, or a supernatural event? How would they be differentiated from 'ordinary' events? Does a supernatural event violate 'laws of nature'? Exactly how, on the assumption that there are, or could be such events?

Following up. I claim that miracles have no essence or nature. The only plausible candidate – an exception to some law of nature – is a self-contradictory one. However, claims to the miraculous do certainly have an essence. Consider the parallel case of get rich quick schemes. Define “genuine get rich quick scheme” as a scheme which if systematically followed will give a high certainty of great riches, with very little effort. Do such schemes, if they exist, have an essence, a nature? I suggest not. I discount any scheme that gets you rich by chance - e.g. buying property on a leveraged basis, which would have made you a lot of money in the first half of the 2000s, but lost you just as much in the latter half, which does not satisfy the ‘high certainty’ criterion. Leaving out mere chance, logic suggests that any obvious scheme for getting rich quickly would (via the definition of obvious) have been spotted by many people, and thus everyone would already be rich, which is false. Or the method would not be obvious at all – I concede that such methods may exist, but they have no inherent nature, but rather have the relational property, relative to human nature, of lacking obviousness.

On the other hand, claims about such schemes do tend to follow a predictable pattern. I am often mailed, or read about, schemes that allow for easy money. I often get emails that suggest very plausible methods, usually beginning with a story about someone who has just died, leaving a large amount of money in a swiss bank account, and would I like to help acquire this money in return for a significant share of it? The stories are indeed plausible, but I reason that a genuine get rich quick scheme is best kept secret, and the fact that I am on a mass mailing list about a secret suggests that it is inauthentic.

I just found another interesting type which I won’t link to here in case it attracts unwanted attention. It begins by warning the investor about some of the appalling schemes that are purveyed on the Internet, with an analysis of what is wrong with each of them. It ends up with, wait, a promise of Ultimate Internet Riches. This tactic is wonderful – it presents the author as genuine, indeed as a victim for whose plight we may have sympathy. By the end of it, you are really trusting him and ready to hand over your cash. But of course, that is all part of the ‘essence’ of such schemes.

In conclusion. ‘Genuine get rich quick schemes’ have no nature, no essence. Rather, we characterise them by the form of the claim that is made, and the possible motives for making it. Can we not say the same of claims about the supernatural, bogus science, and so on?

Turning to the burden of proof bit, all such emails and letters go immediately into my ‘delete’ box. What about you?


The astronomer is under no obligation to refute the green-cheeser or Velikovsky. But note that the prof. astronomer and the green-cheeser (or the flat-earther, etc.) do not enter into debate, and so the question of who has the BOP does not arise.

BOP considerations arise in dialectical situations in which interlocutors take each other seriously and engage each other. For example, McInerny versus Parsons debating the ex. of God. Each of these men think the BOP is on the other. They think there is a fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies. I am questioning whether there is any sense to the idea that there is a fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies when two worldviews as different as theism and atheism are in collision.

I am never quite sure why "burden of proof" is relevant in philosophy or history or any other academic field. In a court of law, it is necessary to place the burden of proof on one of the parties because the jury does not have the option of returning a verdict of "we don't know." Therefore, the burden of proof gives a means of deciding cases where the evidence is insufficient or too evenly balanced to assess the probability of one side as any higher than the other.

When we played pick-up baseball games as kids, after we tired of arguing about whether the base runner was safe or out, someone would invoke the "tie goes to the runner" rule, which served a similar purpose to burden of proof.

In any scholarly inquiry, on the other hand, agnosticism should be permissible so I'm not quite sure why burden of proof is an issue other than the fact that one side or the other wishes to declare themselves the winner even though they cannot demonstrate the superiority of their position.

I agree that get rich quick schemes have no nature, but that claims on their behalf do.

I don't want to talk about miracles now but about BOP. See my Miracles category: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/miracles/

If A says that there have been miracles, e.g., the parting of the Red Sea described in Exodus, and B denies it, can it be reasonably assumed that there is an objective fact as to where the BOP lies? That's my question.

You understand that the question is not whether, objectively, there are miracles or there aren't. That question receives an affirmative answer. The question is whether, independently of the religionist's conceptual scheme and the naturalist's conceptual scheme, it is objectively the case that the BOP lies on one side or the other.


I agree with what you say. You are right to point out that in a court of law a decision has to be made and that is why a BOP has to be assigned. That it is assigned to the plaintiff/prosecutor reflects the judgment that it is better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to be incarcerated or executed.

I see where you are coming from, and I hadn’t fully appreciated the sidewind introduced by “interlocutors take each other seriously and engage each other”. But I am not sure that is always the case that interlocutors take each other seriously. There are many cases where you need to argue it out, not because you remotely take the other side seriously, but because their arguments are plausible-sounding enough that other people might. Perhaps you might want to show, to all parties, that the arguments are not very good ones at all, and that the ‘burden of proof’ is to provide a decent one. William Craig is a peeve of mine in this respect. I find his arguments altogether fatuous and inconclusive. But their form appears substantial, and I fear many will be taken in by his arguments. Thus, although I do not take him seriously at all, I would certainly debate with him.

Suppose we delete 'take each other seriously,' leaving 'engage each other.' Then I can say that BOP comes in only when people agree to debate. No physicist will debate a green-cheeser or a flat-earther, and so BOP does not come in here. But a biologist like Dawkins will debate a theist not because he has any shred of respect for the theist's position but because he believes theism to be extremely pernicious and widely accepted by influential people. So I take your point.

I would be interested in hearing which arguments of William Lane Craig offend you the most.

I have some thoughts here on what a ‘nominalistic’ account of the miraculous and the nonnatural would look like. This develops Ockham’s idea that some distinctions or classifications are not real, but only verbal.

On burden of proof (BOP), is your post here meant to be relevant?

On Craig, I would have to look at my notes (I studied one of his papers for my theology diploma but that was more than 5 years ago).

The relevance of Barry Mann's delightful hit from 1961 should be obvious to any clear-thinking person.

I didn't know you had a theology degree. We'be been in contact for five years or so; I'm surprised you never revealed your theological studies. What was your motivation, and what is the exact title of your degree?

I will now look at your post on the miraculous.

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