Monday, August 16, 2010

Burden-Shifting Arguments and God

Never let it be said philosophers are shiftless layabouts. Indeed, we do a great deal of shifting, and it is not precisely laziness that leads us to such shifting. Nonetheless, it is often burdens, more precisely, the burden of proof we shift, and that shifting is always an attempt to take the onus off ourselves and place it on our opponent.

Gary Gutting, writing in the New York Times philosophy blog, argues that the atheist attempt at burden-shifting fails; the burden should remain on atheists, not on theists, or, at least, not exclusively on theists. Before we examine his argument, I want to make clear why philosophers care so much for shifting of burdens.

In most ball-sports--basketball, football--only the team with the ball can score, so having the ball is necessary for winning. Philosophy is not that kind of game. It's more like a game of chess if one's opponent spots you his/her queen; as long as you don't make any egregious mistakes, you are practically guaranteed a victory. Or, maybe, it's like that TV gameshow Wipeout when you've inexplicably traversed the course successfully and have the time to beat. All you have to do is make sure the people racing after you slip up or get knocked down. Philosophers want the other side to bear the burden of proof so they get to play defense, only needing to undermine the other side's arguments, without needing to prove a positive case themselves. Burden of proof matters in philosophy the way it does in a criminal trial: all you need to do is show that the prosecution has not made its case and the defendant is (one hopes) declared innocent. Given that any philosopher worth his/her salt can find flaws in even the best arguments, it's easy to see why the burden matters. If S bears the of proof, S has to present clear, complete, compelling evidence and overcome every niggling objection his/her opponent can conjure up. If S's opponent bears the burden of proof, S gets to be the one raising niggling (or, in extreme cases, actually compelling) objections. If both sides bear the burden of proof, the game most likely ends in stalemate. Thus, philosophers try to shift the burden of proof to the opposition.

Traditionally, then, the burden of proof is taken to be on the side of one making a positive existential claim, a claim that such-and-such exists. This, it is thought, is only fair because it is theoretically easy to prove that something does exist. You just find it and show it to people. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to prove a negative existential. There are few circumstances in which it would be reasonable to ask someone to prove that something does not exist. It's possible to disprove the existence of the Loch Ness monster if you could, say, drain the entire lake and show that Nessie was not left flopping in the ooze. In practice, however, such disproof is unlikely. And with generous escape clauses, it is impossible. Disproving the existence of Bigfoot is rendered nearly impossible by adding that Bigfoot is shy and elusive.

On the point of the present inquiry, to disprove the existence of a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God, it ought to be sufficient to show that there is one instance of totally unnecessary evil, one case of suffering that served no greater good or purpose (or to show that God would not be morally vicious enough to torture people in order to achieve such a greater good). Theists, however, claim that, for all we know, all the suffering we see really is necessary for some greater good that God has a moral obligation to create despite our inability to see it. Thus, God's working in mysterious ways renders such empirical falsification impossible. Such a generous escape clause means that disproof of God's existence is impossible, and, for basic fairness' sake, it would appear that the burden of proof should be borne by those attempting to prove God's existence, not on those attempting to prove God's non-existence. (And with an uncountably infinite number of epistemic possibilities, shouldn't we err on the side of caution and only add things to our ontology only when necessary? Ontological explosion appears the only alternative.)

Now we come to Gutting's burden-shifting argument. He writes,
Of course, philosophical discussions have not resolved the question of God’s existence. Even the best theistic and atheistic arguments remain controversial. Given this, atheists may appeal (as many of the comments on my blog did) to what we might call the “no-arguments argument.” To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

Here's where the importance of burden-shifting becomes obvious. Gutting must know that the testimony of believers based on their mystical experiences, revelations or direct awareness of some divinity are highly problematic. No responsible philosopher would rely on these as evidence for the existence of God. Here are just two quick reasons:

1. The experiences are not intersubjectively verifiable: they rely on no known perceptual apparatus that others can use to verify or falsify the claims.

2. The experiences are inconsistent: people from different religious traditions have qualitatively similar experiences but interpret them differently according to the religious tradition of which they are part. Christian mystics see God; Buddhists see their connection to all reality without a God; Voodoo practioners see Loa. The experience means what it is interpreted to mean within the tradition itself.

My point is that this direct awareness is not reliable evidence for the existence of God and so could not be considered an argument for God's existence, but Gutting does not expect it to do that work. Instead, all Gutting wants this evidence to do is shift the burden of proof onto the atheist. Given, then, a competent theist who gets to play defense, the atheist cannot win the game.

I have two things to say here. First, we should find this move highly suspicious because this burden-shifting argument against the atheist starting point really plays the role of an argument for theism. If something functions like an argument for P, it ought to be acceptable to evaluate it as an argument for P.

Second, and this is true even if one rejects my first point, this evidence should not be taken seriously enough even to shift the burden of proof to the atheist. Lots of people have claimed to see Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster or space aliens. In fact, they even relied on perceptual experiences that, while imperfect, at least we understand and have the capacity to evaluate. Does this mean we should suspend judgment about the existence of Bigfoot or Nessie? Obviously not. We require good evidence before we shift the burden from the positive existential claim here, and we should require no less for God.

So, God, the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good creator and designer of the universe who exists eternal and unchanging outside time, knows and sees everything directly throughout all time and space, yet nonetheless intercedes in the workings of the universe, who somehow maintains the universe in existence at every moment, who cares about and loves us, while inexplicably allowing millions to suffer and die for apparently no purpose whatsoever, lacks intrinsic probability. I don't know exactly what "intrinsic probability" is, but I'd say that being doesn't just lack intrinsic probability, it's outright intrinsically improbable. That's a damn sight more intrinsically improbable than Bigfoot.

Gutting needs to shift the burden of proof given, as he admits, the inconclusive nature of arguments for (and against) the existence of God. He wants testimonial evidence from direct awareness of God, mystical experiences of the divine, to shift that burden while (presumably) reckoning these experiences to be inadequate as arguments for the existence of God. However, the burden does not budge based on this knowably inadequate evidence. Showing that people sometimes have experiences they interpret as having a divine cause does not imply that people (e.g. theists) bear any less obligation to prove the experiences accurate. When my students claim to see ghosts, that is no reason (given all the problems with such experiences) to suspend judgment about the existence of ghosts until such a time as I can explain what the nature of their misperception was. Denying the existence of ghosts is still the rational thing to do even when someone claims to have seen them.

Before leaving Gutting, however, I want to highlight his connection of this issue to contemporary philosophy of mind. Gutting notes that Dawkins could hitch the improbability of God to the probability of materialism. If there's good reason to think everything is material, then there's good reason to deny that God exists absent compelling argument to the contrary.

But what is the evidence for materialism? Presumably, that scientific investigation reveals the existence of nothing except material things. But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science.

One hopes that Gutting is not serious here, that he is just throwing things to see what sticks, because it's bloody obvious that "our experiences of our own conscious life" is simply not good evidence that our minds are immaterial. Our first-person experience has no access to the real nature of anything, including our minds. How something appears to us is no indication of what it ultimately is. Moreover, it is increasingly unclear to me why our experiences are supposed to appear to be immaterial in the first place. How, precisely, is it that our experience of our minds could reveal that they are immaterial? (I know, I know, lack of spatial location, etc. But I just cannot take this seriously.) Obviously, they do not appear to be immaterial any more than they appear to be material. Even Nagel, in his highly flawed argument in "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?" only ever suggests agnosticism about materialism.

At this point, the dispute between theists and atheists morphs into one of the most lively (and difficult) of current philosophical debates—that between those who think consciousness is somehow reducible to material brain-states and those who think it is not. This debate is far from settled and at least shows that materialism is not something atheists can simply assert as an established fact. It follows that they have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

Gutting commits a strawman/false dilemma here. The alternatives are not reduction and dualism. There are non-reductive accounts of the mind that are not substance dualist accounts. The "lively" current debate is not between reductionists who think that conscious is a brain state and dualists who think that it is not. Dualism, the view that the mind consists of a non-physical, immaterial stuff that "occupies" and perhaps interacts with a physical brain, is effectively defunct in contemporary philosophy of mind. "It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisibule." The lively debate is between varieties of materialism, reductive vs. non-reductive, not between materialism and dualism. Is the mind identical to the specific type of physical brain one finds in humans and similar organisms or could there be other types of physical entities (say, properly programmed computers) that also can accurately be described as thinking things? The question debated is only which variety of materialism best coheres with the evidence and our pre-theoretic intuitions, not whether materialism is true at all. If Dawkins' argument for the improbability of God depends on the debate in philosophy about the tenability of dualism, then Dawkins is on very firm ground indeed.

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