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On Negatives and the Burden of Proof

July 3rd, 2008 by Matt

One common reason I hear for atheism is the claim that there is no proof that God exists. Several questions can be asked about this objection. What exactly does the objector mean by proof? If all things need to be proved to be sensibly believed then what is the proof that all things require proof? Further, what is the proof for the claim that there is no proof? Finally, if some things can be believed without proof, why is God in the “must be proved” category?

There is however another question. If the absence of proof for a thesis provides rational grounds for claiming the thesis is false then wouldn’t absence of proof for atheism provide grounds for claiming that atheism is false? The person who is an atheist on the basis of this objection seems, on the face of it, to work with a double standard here. He claims that theism requires proof and that the absence of such proof requires us to reject theism as false. However, he thinks that atheism can be believed in the absence of proof for it.

What is the basis for this distinction on the atheist’s part? To avoid this prima facie inconsistency the atheist needs to provide some reason why theism requires proof but atheism does not. In the absence of any good reason his position seems simply arbitrary.

This brings me to the issue I want to address. One common reason, one I often hear expounded is that theism asserts a positive claim, it affirms the existence of something. Atheism, however, makes a negative claim, it denies the existence of something. According to the line of argument I want to address negative statements cannot by their nature be proven. The objector argues that it is impossible to prove a universal negative; however, positive claims can be proven. Hence, for this reason, positive claims need to be proved and negative ones do not. We can assume the denial of somethings existence in the absence of proof but we cannot affirm the existence of something without proof.

I have heard this claim repeated in cyber space over and over. I think it’s a very bad argument for three reasons.

First, the claim that “you cannot prove a negative” is false. Here are some examples of negatives which can be proved:

a) there is no 1,000,000 mile high pile of African elephants in New Zealand
b) there are no promiscuous virgins
c) there are no married bachelors
d) there is no planet between earth and the mars
e) there is no such thing as a square triangle

One can prove a negative statement in several ways. One can show that an existential statement would, if true, entail a contradiction or metaphysical absurdity or the denial of things which we know are the case.

Second, if one claims that positive existential statements always need to be proved, one is lead into a fairly radical skepticism about everything. Take the claim that there exists a physical world independent of my senses. Or that other people (with thoughts and feelings) exist. Or that there exists a world that is more than six seconds old. There are well known problems with being able to prove these things and yet each one is a positive existential statement. On the view sketched above we are committed to denying these things exist.

In fact I think a little reflection shows that it would, on the assumption that positive existential always need to be proved, be almost impossible to prove everything. If I prove the existence of something I do so by appealing to other premises which assert facts. But facts are things that exist in the world. Consequently, I would need to prove these facts exist before I can appeal to them but I can’t prove these facst unless I appeal to them as proof.

It follows that if I cannot prove anything, and one should deny the existence of whatever cannot be proven, then the only option is to deny the existence of everything.

Let me turn to my third reason for thinking this line of argument is flawed. Suppose one grants [a] that it is impossible to prove negatives; and also that for this reason, [b] one should deny a positive existential statement unless proof is provided. Both [a] and [b] create problems for an atheist. Consider the following claim, there exist some material objects that were not created by God. This claim is a positive existential statement. Hence, until the atheist can provide proof that it is true, until he can prove that some material objects were not created by God, he must deny that such objects exist. However to deny this statement is to affirm that every material object was created by God and hence that God exists.

In conclusion, the claim that theists bear the burden of proof because they are making a positive claim and that the denial of positive claims is the default position until proven is a problematic claim.

Matt

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Hi there,

    I’ve just recently come across your blog and enjoyed what I’ve read so far. As my background is biblical studies (BA hons; MTh; proceeding to PhD), to be honest, I’ve never really been that interested in the arguments surrounding theism/atheism. However, given the increase in anti-theist rhetoric here in the UK, I thought I’d better start my course of education in the subject. May I ask for your advice on where to begin? I’ve been listening to Bill Craig’s debates and have just bought his “God?” co-authored with Sinnott-Armstrong. Otherwise I’m a newbie.

    Many thanks,

    Jonathan

  • I have been thinking about this post for a while, hence by late response.

    People belive in the existence of many things e.g. ghosts UFOs telepathy. To prove these phenomena exist various experiments are conducted using a range of instruments. If these experiments do not detect the phenomena the conclusion is that the phenomena do not exist.

    The exception is God. God cannot be detected by our senses or by any instrument. God’s existence can only be established by the use of logical arguments. But then almost anything can be proven or disproven by carefully wording a logical argument.

    No one outside the individual believeing in God can conduct a test to confirm that the God the individual believes exists in fact does exist. The existence of God is personal to each individual believing in God.

    My position is not that I deny God exists, but that I am not convinced by the arguments that he does exist.

    Simply someone claims that God exists, I look about me and cannot see this God so I ask the person to prove this God exists. My response would be the same if the person claimed to belive in ghosts or telepathy.

    I enjoy visiting your blog, the carefuly reasoned posts are often challenging.

  • Hi Jonathan,

    The Craig -Sinnot debate is good. Sinnot was probably Craig’s best opponent. I would also suggest his book length debate with Quentin Smith in Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology and his debate with Anthony Flew. I also would as an intro recommend Reason for the Hope Within Edited by Michael Murray.

    Another must would be Plantinga’s three “God and Other Minds” “Faith and Rationality” and “Warranted Christian Belief” and also Swinburne’s “The Existence of God”. J L Mackie’s the Miracle of Theism is probably one of the best and most accessible defence of Atheism.

    Thats just a start, much of the literature is specific to topics. William Alston is best on Religious Experience. Craig on the Kalam Cosmological Argument. John Hare and Robert Adams on the Moral Argument and Robin Collins on Fine Tuning. Plantinga is best on the topic of the rationality of theism and on rebutting objections to Theism.

    Regards

    Matt

  • Many thanks Matt. Much appreciated.