What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

-Hitchens’ Razor

The burden of proof is the idea that a person or party making any particular claim has to provide sufficient evidence that their claim is true. While this sounds a good idea conceptually, just how difficult is it to provide proof for simple, everyday actions. Lately, in an effort to find out, I have been disputing claims made by my friends in an effort to establish whether or not it is reasonable to put the burden of proof on the individual making the claim.

Imagine that you held the door for someone to get onto an elevator with you. You ask them what floor they are going to and push the button for them. You then quietly ride the elevator to your floor and wish the person a good day as you get off. Could you prove to someone else that you had actually done any of those things? There are no security cameras for you to show video evidence of your claim. Without the witness of the person you met on the elevator, how could you possibly offer meaningful proof that you didn’t ride the elevator by yourself?

Obviously, in this scenario not many people would doubt your claims. It is something that we have all done or seen done by others. In that way it isn’t remarkable and it isn’t life-altering to simply believe your claim. So what happens if we step up the scenario a little bit. Let’s imagine that the person you left in the elevator is found dead just a few minutes later. You are the last person that is known to been with the victim. Again, there are no security cameras. Everyone seems to believe that you held the door, will anyone believe that you didn’t kill the person that you were with? Aside from proving someone else is the murderer, what method could you use to prove your innocence?

Hopefully these two examples have shown how difficult it can be to prove that we did or didn’t do any particular thing in life. Without multiple witnesses or some kind of physical evidence, people have only your word and your character to influence their belief of your claims. In this way, the likelihood of society believing any particular claim decreases as the claim becomes more extravagant. If you claim someone was rude to you on the elevator, your claim will most likely be accepted. However, if you claim that someone must have murdered your elevator compatriot just a few moments after you left them and no one can corroborate your claim, it will likely be rejected.

Now imagine the following scenario. You get on an elevator by yourself and hit the button for your desired floor. No one else steps on the elevator with you the doors close. As soon as the elevator starts moving, God appears before you and commands you to spread His word and witness to unbelievers. Then, as soon as the elevator stops moving, you are alone again and the doors open to reveal the world just exactly how you would normally expect to see it. Could you prove what you just experienced? Would anyone that you know believe you?

It truly is quite a predicament that we Christians find ourselves in. We want to tell the world about a nice person we met on an elevator, but we don’t have any video evidence to prove our claims.

Perhaps it would be more realistic to put the burden of proof on the person disputing the original claim. This seems to solve the elevator problem. While you cannot offer proof that you rode the elevator with someone, no one can really offer evidence that you did not ride the elevator with someone. Unless your character is called into question based on historical evidence, the claim is assumed to be true or neutral (people acknowledge that they cannot disprove your claim and therefore it remains acceptable until evidence proves otherwise). This is supposed to be the way that our court system works in the United States and it seems like a good system to use if we intend to earnestly seek out the truth in any area of life, philosophy, justice, science, history, and so on. Perhaps these communities can learn to leverage a better way to find the truth. Or perhaps not.

Written by James Dusenbery

I am the Founder/Lead Editor at CanonOfReason.com. I do not claim to be an "expert" at anything, although the title is afforded to me quite often. I simply want to spread understanding of different Biblical positions and shine some light on the versatility and brilliance of the Bible. You can follow me on Twitter (@JamesDusenbery) and Instagram (@CanonOfReason).

8 comments

  1. I do agree that someone could take a concept like this and write a book about effective lying. However I think that a post about rationalizing dishonesty would address the moral implications of lying and then provide examples from the perspective of someone who is lying. You’ll notice that my examples are all from the perspective of someone that is telling the truth, or believes that they are, and focus on the difficulty of validating that truth claim.

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  2. Not all dishonesty is lying. Sometimes just trying to think of ways to shift the burden of proof to the other side when you know 1) you have it and 2) can’t meet it, as you freely admit in this post, is enough for the definition to fit.

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  3. Ah I see what you are saying. This is precisely the issue that I was calling out, the burden is placed on a person making a truth claim. However, we can all agree that it is not possible to accurately validate truth claims in a great deal of cases. I am simply questioning where the burden should be placed so that we can move forward in a way that is honest and reliable rather than predisposed to create conflict. In the end, I propose a solution that is in place in our court system. Innocent until proven guilty, even when accused of lying. Perhaps this is dishonest on my part. I suppose that is a value judgment that you will have to make.

    I would ask, if we agree on the fundamental impossibility of validating simple truth claims, how you would propose we deal with some of the example situations? What would be the best method of validation or simply just a method of promoting the best outcome for all involved?

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  4. Except… Atheists aren’t making the claim that God does not exist. They bear no such burden. The effort to change their claim and give them one is dishoenst.

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  5. I am not making any claims about Atheists in my article. I only reference folks that would make a claim that something stated by an individual is false. If I make a truth claim, any truth claim at all, and openly admit that it cannot be validated by anyone else using any known means, such a claim cannot be disputed without evidence that my claim is false. Ex.) I said “I love you” to my wife before I left my house this morning. I know this is true, but my wife was asleep, no one heard it but me, and there is no physical evidence to back my claim. If someone tells me that my claim is false, should they have to provide some kind of evidence? In a legal trial they certainly would.

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  6. I’m sorry James, but neither do people have the burden to prove you wrong or accept your claim if you have no evidence for your claim. That’s just not how the burden of proof or the courts work. I’ve tried explaining it the best I know how, but It’s just plain dishonest.
    You bear the burden of demonstrating your claim to be true. Others don’t bear any burden of proving you wrong or your claim somehow “stands” without evidence for it.
    I realize the difficulty, but you just cant rationalize shifting the burden. It’s not honest.

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  7. I am not describing how the burden of proof works, I am describing issues with it and proposing that a change is considered in light of this issue. If you do not like the proposal, that is fine but proposing a change in how we handle unprovable claims is not dishonest, it is simply a proposal.

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