Archive for December, 2009


The Burden of Proof & the Bat in the Attic

In the case for and against the existence of god, any theist making the argument that the burden of proof is on the atheist is guilty of fallacious reasoning. The burden of proof belongs to the individual making an assertion. The assertion is that a supernatural being created and governs the universe and involves itself with human activity.  This is the theistic position.  Atheists do not argue that that there is no god. Atheists argue that there is no evidence to support the assertion of any gods and it is therefore intellectually irresponsible to believe in the proposition.  Even outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are often quoted as saying, “there probably is no god.” (There are probably no fairies or amputees who have re-grown their lost limbs either.)  Atheism is simply the negation of the assertion of a god or gods.  Anyone who tells you there is any more to it than that is either ignorant or deceptive.

Theists who make the circular argument that the burden of proof is on the atheist do so because they believe the existence of god is intrinsically obvious and self-evident.  If that were the case, no argument against the supernatural deity would be sound.  Yet any one with a background in philosophy or logic will tell you that sound arguments refuting the existence of gods have been around for centuries.  These sound arguments would not exist if god were self-evident.  While the existence of sound arguments against god may not prove that he doesn’t exist, they prove that god is not intrinsically obvious.  Furthermore, we must then ask, which god?  Over 20,000 gods have been worshipped throughout the course of human history. Which of them is the theist claiming to be intrinsically obvious? The very fact that there are people who worship other gods and do not believe in the god in question shows that the existence of that god is not obvious.  Otherwise, Hindus would have abandoned their false gods long ago.

If a prosecutor charges me with murder, the burden of proof is not on me to prove I did not do it.  While I may offer evidence to counter the claim, thankfully, at least in US courts, the burden of proof is not on me to prove I’m innocent.  The claim was made by the prosecutor; therefore the burden lies with him to prove my guilt.  If he cannot, I would be found not guilty even without offering a single word in my defense.

If you were to propose to me that a bat was living in your attic, the burden of proof would not be on me to prove otherwise.  I might ask you, “How do you know that there is a bat in your attic?” You may reply that you know based on a subjective experience; “I heard noises coming from the attic.” Given that I know from past experience that things have a way of finding their way into attics, I accept your claim as supporting the idea that something may be in your attic, but I have no evidence that it is a bat and given the ambiguity of the claim of noises from the attic, I know that it is also possible that you could have heard any number of things or simply be mistaken.  I may then ask you, “Have you seen the bat?” if the answer is no we have made no progress.  But let us say that you instead respond by telling me that the day before last, you peeked your head into the attic and saw what you made out to be a dark shadowy figure that resembled a bat moving through the air, but when you turned on the attic light, it was gone.  Without any other witnesses to corroborate this story this is still a subjective experience that cannot be verified.  While you could have very well seen a bat, without photos or video footage that we could analyze I must conclude that it is just as, if not more likely, that you saw a bird; or perhaps the shadows coming through the attic window; or perhaps your eyes played tricks on you given that they had to quickly adjust to the darkness of the attic.  Finally I say “let’s go up in the attic and look for the bat.”  Upon doing so we find plenty of places where a bat might love to hang. We even find some insects that a bat might love to eat.  But this does not prove there is a bat and after an extensive search, no bat is found. We then search the attic for the presence of bat guano, which would be significant evidence that a bat was dwelling in the attic.  We find none.  To top it off, we find that a ventilation panel is a bit loose and periodically makes noise from the passing air current. You are not certain that this is the noise you heard coming from the attic, but given that we have found no evidence of a bat, it is very plausible that the vent panel was the source of the noise.

Given the lack of evidence and the existence of plausible explanations for the noise you heard and shadow you saw, I conclude that it is very unlikely that a bat is in your attic.  In fact, it is so unlikely that the only rational position would be to dismiss the idea unless new evidence comes to light at which point I would reanalyze and reconsider.

You on the other hand, see it differently.  You are absolutely sure it was a bat you saw when you peeked in the attic and have convinced yourself that the sound you heard could not have been a rattling vent panel.  Furthermore, you’ve grown accustomed to the idea of a bat living in your attic and can’t bear the idea of your house without it. It brings you comfort to know that there is a bat in the attic to which you can assign responsibility any time you hear or see anything you cannot initially explain.

In and of its self, this belief appears harmless until you then claim that my disbelief of the bat in your attic is a threat to you and that you cannot have anyone in your house who does not believe that there is a bat in the attic. You indoctrinate your children into believing that there is a bat in the attic by telling them the stories of your hearing of the noise and seeing of the shadow, yet you never mention your failure to find any evidence in the attic or the noisy vent panel.  Worse yet, you teach your children that those who do not believe there is a bat in the attic are fools and can’t be trusted.

By now I’m sure you see my imperfect analogy and some of you (including Ray Comfort) claim you have discovered some bat guano in the attic.  But upon examination all you have is some old paint chips, a shadow and a rattling vent.

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