Where is the burden of proof? (a national teaching moment)

In some circles there have been claims proposing that religion and science are basically the same. Both, for example, are systems of beliefs, employ authority, have large self-protective institutions, and so on. This perspective is embodied in the sociology of science, which has unfortunately been misunderstood as supporting epistemological relativism of the kind: You have your beliefs, and I have mine.

Social and institutional similarity does not, however, mean that the epistemology of the scientific method is the same as that of assertions of faith. The same relativizing rhetoric that equates the two, or reduces both equally to matters of opinion, has been evident throughout the recent political campaign, and seems to have been part of the reason that some voters were immune to “fact-checking.” Further, because of a long campaign to discredit (“poison the well”) scientific, journalistic, and educational authority, there are now no authoritative sources widely accepted across society to adjudicate opinions in relation to truth.

This is also a consequence of the way that in much of popular American religious discourse “faith” has been reduced to beliefs to be held no matter what. Doubt and skepticism are rejected as “tests of faith.” This contrasts with an emphasis in some strains of Buddhist thought on doubt as an essential quality of understanding accurately—such as the importance of “great doubt” for Dōgen and Hakuin.

Defending Beliefs by Shifting the Burden of Proof

In both religious and political discourse, one of the defenses for beliefs that are challenged is the assertion “Show me it’s wrong.” That is, I choose to believe X, until you can prove to me that X is not true. The very imperviousness of this argument does not mean that it is valid, but rather a demonstration of it being invalid. (I remember trying to debate an Ayn Rand adherent during my freshman year of college—she was always able to re-interpret every human action as originating from selfishness. The fact that such an interpretive system is impervious to counter-evidence does not establish it as true.)

In the face of such “reasoning,” demonstrating the truth of a negative is impossible—facts don’t matter because they can always be explained away. Consider conspiracy theorists and paranoids—the less support for their beliefs, the more convinced they become of the cunning of their imaginary enemies. Consider also: Prove to me that aliens are not running the American government from Area 51. Prove to me that the earth is more than 10,000 years old. Prove to me that reincarnation does not take place. Until you prove it false, I choose to believe it true.

For assertions such as “aliens are running the government from Area 51,” “the earth was created 10,000 years ago,” “reincarnation is real,” the burden of proof is with the person making the claim. It is one of the most egregious fallacies to try to shift the burden of proof to the person denying the claim.

This epistemological issue is one of the places where religious belief as popularly conceived and science differ. Positive claims need to be supported by evidence and logic, which are the two sources of valid reasoning for Dignaga, Dharmakīrti and their heirs. The “show me it’s not true” defense is a fallacy.

The qualifying consideration here is that logic alone, even such as identifying fallacies, is not a guarantor of truth. Both evidence and logic are needed—and the evidence has to be true and the logic valid. These are the bases of knowledge, which is not the same as opinion.


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