Scientific Method and the Burden of Proof
Supporters of religion sometimes argue that atheists first need to prove that there is no god. “Look at the complexity of nature and the Universe”, they say. “It has to have been designed! Prove that there was no designer for all of this!”.
This point of view is actually back-to-front, and comes from ignorance (also see argumentum ad ignorantiam) about how we understand objective reality in a coherent way.
In thinking about nature and our place in it we are sometimes struck by deep questions about how the world and Universe works. Our curious minds have a strong urge for answers to fill that gap of “not knowing”. Some people are satisfied with traditional answers, or ones handed down from some “authority”. Scientists, on the other hand, follow a set of guidelines to attempt to discover the best possible explanation.
The actual process is called the “scientific method”, which is a system that is carefully arranged to prevent us from fooling ourselves as we discover how the Universe really works.
Filtering Out Delusions and Wishful Thinking
It is easy to deliberately, or through mental illness, imagine things that do not exist. Examples that immediately come to mind are time-machines, leprechauns, hairy blue frogs, elephants that fly. Anyone could make up such things all day with no real effort. And there are an infinite number of these non-existent things that could potentially be imagined.
But it is nearly impossible to prove that these things do not actually exist, or have never existed.
You would have to show you had looked everywhere the object could be and still not found one. Even then it could be said that the thing was hidden, or moved while you were looking for it, or you looked at the wrong time.
To illustrate the great difficulty of refuting mythical objects, atheists talk of orbiting teapots out past Mars, and of their satirical “religions” of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn. The point being that there is just as much proof of these satirical entities as for any other gods.
The same principle applies in general science. For this reason the onus probandi is always on the believer to provide convincing evidence that the object believed in is not merely a laughable fantasy but actually exists. This is called the “Burden of Proof”.
Burden of Proof
There is a really solid reason for placing the burden of proof on the person who is proposing that an object exists, based on the balance of effort required to provide evidence for or against something.
As we have seen, the proof on an object's nonexistence is actually impossible in practice. On the other hand, it is not necessary to produce the object itself to show that it does exist – all that is required is convincing evidence for it - which in principle is a much simpler task.
So the balance of effort is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the person who is dreaming up these imaginary objects, and against the person who seeks to disprove them. That is why we require a higher level of up-front commitment by anyone who proposes that an object exists. They must first provide convincing evidence of a proposed object's existence before any serious discussion about it can begin. Until that happens there is literally nothing to discuss.
This process is necessary to weed out half-baked ideas that would otherwise endlessly waste people's time trying to debunk, or tie them up in fanciful discussions about nonsense. At least in getting the originator to provide evidence, the worst they can do is waste their own time.
There is an important consequence to this - if an object cannot be shown to exist, the default position is that it does not exist. It is axiomic (axiomatic) that something does not exist unless shown otherwise.
In science an axiom is a statement that is taken as true until proven otherwise.
This serves as a rational starting point for any analysis. An axiom could be later falsified by direct evidence or by logical proofs. But until this happens it is taken as being correct.
Other features of the Scientific Method
Proposing a possible solution to a scientific question is called a “hypothesis”. We often have several hypotheses for a given question, and the key is how to tell which one fits the evidence the best, and which ones need to be reviewed or discarded because they don”t work.
To identify the best hypothesis they should each ideally make clear predictions that are different from all the other hypotheses. We can then test the different predictions to see which still stand, and which can be ruled out.
When several hypotheses make the same predictions and we can”t find the correct one by its results, other things being equal, we use “Occam’s Razor”. This principle is named after 14th-century Franciscan friar and logician, William of Ockham. This states that we should prefer the hypothesis that postulates the fewest entities and makes as few assumptions as possible. Why? Because the extra assumptions and postulates add nothing to the end result.
This principle “shaves away” the hypothetical “foam and stubble”, giving the cleanest explanation.
It is vital that the results of any hypothesis testing must be objective, so that others can detect the evidence too. It is not enough to say the evidence is “internal” to you, you have “faith” or you “feel” it to be true, or the thing has special properties that make it impossible to detect. How else other than by objectivity could you tell reality from a delusion, or sanity from madness?
Some hypotheses are impossible to test, because they can fully explain every possible result of every possible experiment. They are called “unfalsifiable”.
For example, one unfalsifiable hypothesis is extreme solipsism, where a person says “I know I exist, but you and everything else I experience are mere figments of my imagination”. There is nothing you can do to prove to this person they are wrong.
Because unfalsifiable hypotheses are untestable, they are also undecidable and hence unscientific.
Before experimental results are published, they undergo “peer review” where several experts in the field check the work for faults in the method or conclusions. The review is impartial, and is often anonymous to prevent undue bias or influence.
Experimental work that has not undergone peer review is generally treated with suspicion as being potentially unreliable.
A “scientific theory” is a comprehensive, logical, testable model of all available evidence which also allows predictions to be made in order to continue to check it. A theory must be falsifiable, so it can be tested.
It does not mean an unsubstantiated guess or hunch, as it can in everyday speech.
How this applies to religion
The burden of proof (onus probandi) remains squarely on religious people to provide evidence for the existence of their deity before anything can be claimed or done in the name of this deity – and this includes moral claims!
For those who say that a god started the Universe but has since left it alone, or is otherwise undetectable today, this can be dismissed using the principle of Occam”s Razor.
Claims of a “personal” god lack objectivity and falsifiability, as do claims that a god is somehow “outside” of time and space (argumentum ad ridiculum; reductio ad absurdum).
Intelligent Design, the purportedly scientific face of creationism, has no impartially peer reviewed scientific papers to its name. It is also not a scientific theory as it makes no testable predictions.
Consequently, in the absence of any sensible evidence, by default we can take it that no gods exist. There is no reason to think otherwise.
Science has multiple checks and balances to constantly prevent and correct errors, to get closer to a comprehensive understanding of reality.
Religions have no objective rationality checks, no evidence for a god, and completely fail as realistic explanations of the Universe and our place in it. Consequently, religions have no authority to make any truth claims whatsoever.
• Richard Dawkins - The God Delusion
• Daniel C. Dennett - Breaking the Spell
• Richard Dawkins - RichardDawkins.net
• PZ Myers - freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula
If you cannot understand why scientist, in the least, cannot accept and refuse to accept your preposterous claims for the existence of any deity. Even if they may not realize it, any atheist who uses rational thought, deductive reasoning, and critical thinking to derive the same, also uses the Scientific Method. Perhaps not as rigorously as a scientist.
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Also This Thread by Calilasseia: A Question For Supernaturalists
Here is a PDF version.
Formatted for duplex printing and tri-fold pamphlet.
@arakish: You want to contact my publisher at Oxford University Press? Holy Cow, that's a lot of writing! Is it okay that I just read the summary. *AGREEMENT* by the way. But I wonder...... Do theists read?
@Cog Re: " But I wonder...... Do theists read?"
Only those things that already match with their preset programming.
I'm going to offer what I hope will be constructive criticism of a part of what's written here. Let me add that not only am I an atheist, I've never been a believer, and I highly value the scientific approach to discerning the mechanisms at work in our shared reality. Hopefully my contribution will be recieved as an attempt to strengthen our approach when having these discussions with theists.
My main objection here is with the position that there is a burden of proof needed to prove there's a god. There's nothing else in the scientific method that works that way, seems there's no reason this should be any different. You see, if a god existed, it would be directly, consistently, objectively observable. Saying one must prove it exists would be like saying one must prove a mountain exists, or the color blue, or the planet Mars, or anything else in our shared reality.
See, we atheists get so tied up in trying to prove ourselves right that we don't stop to understand a very fundamental idea: no god had every been empirically observed by anyone, anywhere, at any time in history. Further, if a god did exist, then we would either have instructions on how to directly, consistently observe it, or tests to perform that would provide repeatable results that support a "god model."
We do this all the time in science. For instance, I can give detailed instructions on how to build an instrument, then tell you to look through it at a certain time of night, in a specific direction, and you'd be able to see Mars. Any attempt by theists to do this always involves one of two approaches: take second and third hand accounts as entirely truthful and accurate, or use your imagination ("open your mind" "feel jesus in your heart" "don't you see the beauty in the universe" etc). The fact that there isn't a set of concrete steps to the observation of a god means there's no justification for a god belief, and strongly implies that it's all a product of the human imagination.
Oh, and an aside: scientifically speaking there is no such thing as "the supernatural." If something exists, or something happens, then it is part of our natural universe. We may not have a scientific understanding, but that doesn't make it "supernatural."
I think everyone here agrees including arakish that the burden of proof of fantastical claims like the various god(s) religions falls on those that make the claim.
However these religious people are lost in the lie, the brainwashing, etc. To help them we can try to do somethings. While we can not falsify their infinite goal post changing god ideas (now frequently defined as not even part of this universe,) we can make our own claim and prove that the various god ideas is a human created fiction.
We can claim that the various god ideas /religion is made up by humans. And even better, we can prove that, with an abundance of evidence rather easily. And the amount of powerful evidence is simply staggering once examined.
▮I am an atheist that always likes a good debate
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My main objection here is with the position that there is a burden of proof needed to prove there's a god. There's nothing else in the scientific method that works that way, seems there's no reason this should be any different. You see, if a god existed, it would be directly, consistently, objectively observable. (AND IF IT WAS OBSERVABLE - HAD ANY OBSERVABLE ASPECTS TO IT - THAT WOULD QUALIFY AS PROOF. PRAYER, MIRACLES, HEALING, PROPHECY, WE HAVE NOTHING!) Saying one must prove it exists would be like saying one must prove a mountain exists, or the color blue, or the planet Mars, or anything else in our shared reality. NO! THINGS THAT INTERACT WITH REALITY LEAVE TRACES. PLANET 9 IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE.
This is just demonstrably wrong and is exactly the way science works. I just finished watching a video where scientists were looking for the 9th planet in our solar system. The movement of the planets suggest it is there. They found another small Pluto like structure orbiting the sun but are still looking for the planet. They have made the assertion, HYPOTHESIS - There seems to be a 9th planet large enough to affect the orbits of the other planets. It is in fact the job of the scientists to prove their claim. "The person making the positive claim has the burden of proof. "
THE SEARCH FOR PLANET 9
You are confounding Evidential BoP and Prudential BoP.
@Cognostic - I think you read something into my statement that isn't what I said. I agree with you entirely. A 9th planet in our solar system IS a hypothetical model that fits all the available empirical evidence. Either the planet will eventually be directly observed, a better hypothesis will replace the current one, or a nullifying piece of empirical evidence will be found to contradict the current hypothesis. My bet is that the really smart people doing really smart things find the planet.
@WrongVerb: Complete agreement with the 9th planet post. It's your main objection "There is a burden of proof needed to prove there is a god.?" AND "Science doesn't work that way." Is what I am not getting. I thought my example was better than a mountain simply because the planet may or may not be there. Obviously we do have some evidence for it or we would not be looking. I think your getting at the fact that science does not prove anything but builds models but I do not get how that excuses the burden of proof.
This is where the analogy begins. We have tested prayer, we have looked at prophecy, we have taken a hard look at faith healing, and we have looked deeply into miracle claims, all in an effort to find this god thing. Finding no evidence that withstands critical inquiry, the claim for a God can be rejected. The default position is to reject a claim until such time as it has been substantiated with facts and evidence. (I intentionally avoided the word "proved" here. Science does not prove nor demand absolute proof.) Is that what you are getting at. We are in agreement here it seems. So how do you get to your "main objection."
I am not intending to challenge out of malice but actually wish to understand the point being made. Of all the people on the site I am probably one of the strongest proponents of keeping the "burden of proof" firmly on the theist. As the article pointed out, this is a philosophical law "The Law of the Burden of Proof."
I fully agree: "The fact that there isn't a set of concrete steps to the observation of a god means there's no justification for a god belief, and strongly implies that it's all a product of the human imagination." My argument for the non-existence of God is based on this exact logic. The lack of evidence is in fact "Evidence of Absence." I won't go into that.
Great OP arakish
Very informative and to the point. Good reference point for those lacking the knowledge and info.
I do not think a 9th planet will be found. Of all the Trans-Neptunian objects we have found, Pluto is the largest with the most mass. Beyond that, the other objects are just too sparsely scattered in order for a 9th planet to be found.
Definitions of a planet:
Even Pluto does not meet these. And beyond Pluto is the Kuiper Belt, as said, too sparsely scattered for any other large objects to meet those three.
Actually, Eris has a mass 27% greater than that of Pluto.
Mass of Pluto is 1.303 × 10^22 kg, while the mass of Eris is 1.66 × 10^22 kg.
Interestingly, Pluto has a slightly larger mean radius than Eris, meaning that Eris is a denser body. Mean radius for Pluto is 1,188 km, whilst the mean radius for Eris is 1,163 km.
As a corollary, the mean density for Pluto is 1.854, whilst that for Eris is 2.52.
This also means that Eris will exert a slightly stronger gravitational attraction upon nearby objects than Pluto.
However, sending a probe to examine Eris and its moon Dysnomia, will take rather a long time. Estimated flight time to Eris from Earth is of the order of 24 years. A probe launched this year to head for Eris won't arrive until the year 2043 at a minimum, and this assumes the flight runs perfectly according to plan for the whole of its duration. New Horizons took 9 years to reach Pluto with a multiple gravity assist trajectory, whereas an Eris mission would be aiming at a target nearly 3 times more distant from Earth than Pluto.
Thanks. I forgot about Eris.
However, Eris is still so far out into the Kuiper Belt, I seriously doubt it has cleared its neighborhood.
At over 90 AUs from the Sun at aphelion, the idea that Eris has a neighbourhood to clear is probably in doubt itself. :)
Not if the Kuiper Belt extends out to 120 to 150 AUs as hypothesized...