Saturday, July 29, 2006

Burden of Proof

In an interesting review in the Times Literary Supplement (21 July) of the re-issue of Anthony Flew's God and Philosophy, Alvin Plantinga writes:
The thought seems to be that atheism is the baseline or default position: anybody who departs from it labours under a burden of proof. This idea makes sense in legal contexts, and also in the context of debates. But why think the believer is engaged in something like an Oxford Union debate?

Most believers in God aren't suing anyone or even arguing with anyone; they are just living their lives and minding their own business. Nevertheless, says Flew, they are still under some kind of burden of proof; they are obliged to have good arguments for their theism. But why so? And if they don't, then what, exactly, is their problem? Why think they owe the atheist or anyone else an argument?

Flew doesn't answer this question. Perhaps, however, the idea is that theists without arguments are irrational or unreasonable, or have failed to meet their intellectual obligations, or stand convicted in some other way of being intellectually second-rate. But a chief lesson of the history of modern philosophy from Descartes to Hume is that good arguments for our fundamental beliefs are not easy to come by. For example, there don't seem to be any good arguments for the existence of other minds; nonetheless nearly all sane people believe in other minds, and do so with complete propriety.... Why think belief in God is different along these lines? Bertrand Russell once suggested that for all that our evidence shows, the world could have spring into existence just five minutes ago, complete with all its memories, wrinkled faces, crumbling mountains, and the like. No one knows how to prove this false: does it follow that those of us who believe in a substantial past are irrational, unreasonable, unjustified, or in some other way deserving of abuse and contempt? If not, why think differently in the case of belief in God? Maybe there is a relevant differenced here, but if there is, neither Flew, nor, I think, anyone else has succeeded in saying what that difference is.
This is a very important point, I think, one that is difficult for the philosopher to make himself comfortable with. But I must remind myself of the various religious philosophers who have made little mottos out of it over the ages (Augustine's faith seeking understanding, Anselms I believe that I may understand, etc.). Contrary to what some might have us believe, plenty of really smart people have believed in God for very good reasons, and the burden of proof should not be foisted onto one side rather than the other--in the domain of reason-giving (i.e., philosophy) it ought to be shared by all.

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