Burden of proof

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It has been suggested that this article be merged with Shifting the burden of proof

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:
For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Bible article:

Burden of proof is the position, in argumentation theory, that the individual making a claim that something is true is required to support the claim with evidence or sound argument sufficient to warrant acceptance of the claim by the other party. If the claimant cannot provide sufficient evidence, the other party is allowed to disregard the claim without having to disprove it.



The primary reason why this is important is that the person who is making a claim tends to be the one who has access to the information and evidence. That person is thus the one in the best position to prove it, not the person who's just hearing about it.

Another reason for the burden of proof being on the claimant is that such claims are propositions. Propositions in and of themselves present models of something. For example the proposition "Earth is a sphere" is presenting a model of Earth, in this case Earth being a sphere. For a proposition to be true two conditions must be met: the proposition is comprehensive, the model must be accurate. For humans to even be able to tell wether or not a proposition is true or false the proposition must be comprehensible. This means that we can comprehend the model. A model of a mind without a brain or similar physical system is not comprehensive nor is a god outside of time or space. Since we cannot comprehend such ideas, they cannot be proven nor disproven. Next the model must be accurate. Humans evaluate the accuracy of models empirically through evidence. Evidence and the analysis thereof is the only way for humans to know wether or not a model is accurate. The one who presents the model is in the best position to provide such evidence and the model is their proposal. Thus they have the burden of proof.

There is also a reason from practicality. It is much more practical for example to be agnostic towards all religions until the said religions meet their burdens of proof rather than try and disprove over 30,000 different religions.

In addition, just as each person is responsible for their actions, each person is also responsible for their claims. Such responsibility includes not only explaining the claims but also proving the claims. In a market place of ideas, accepting the claim can be viewed as a bargain: the claimant's end of the bargain is to prove the claim and the audience's end of the bargain is to accept the claim if and only if the claimant has upheld their end of the bargain.


Main Article: Falsifiability

A burden of disproving a theory cannot lie on a skeptic if a theory is unfalsifiable in practice. When considering unfalsifiable claims, Bertrand Russell used an analogy of a celestial teapot. If a teapot was drifting in space between the Earth and Mars (making it unobservable), he claimed it would be unreasonable to expect belief of the teapot based on their inability to disprove the teapots existence. He compared the belief in God to the belief in a celestial teapot; in both cases it is not the responsibility of disbelievers to disprove its existence.

Consequences of discarding burden of proof

A consequentialist reason is as follows, and is related to the market place reason mentioned above. If we accept one claim from a person on faith, why not accept everyone else's claims on faith? If we only accept claims from the first person in question, we are being biased, unfair, and committing the fallacy of special pleading. If we accept all claims on faith, in other words we do not demand evidence for any claims and anyone can just make up any claim, then there is no point in discussing anything for the truth. What would be the point of, lets say, a trial if we can just convict a defendant without demanding evidence from the prosecution because the prosecution made their accusation on faith? This leads us to a contradictory situation: we would have to accept both claims on faith if they were made: the defendant is guilty, the defendant is not guilty. The defendant cannot both be guilty and not guilty, the defendant is one or the other. Therefore if we accept faith as a substitute for the burden of proof, we will either commit a biased case of special pleading or we will run into contradictions. However if we require each claimant to meet their burden of proof, both of these problems are avoided. Thus the burden of proof is the best way of evaluating claims.

Apologetics and the existence of god

When asked to support the claim that a god exists, it's not unusual for an apologist to respond with "You can't prove God doesn't exist", or similar statements. Essentially, this is an attempt to shift the burden of proof (a logical fallacy).

A rephrasing of "I believe that god exists" into "I don't believe that god does not exist" is also an attempt to dodge the burden of proof - the proposed equivocation seeks to convert a claim acceptance to a claim rejection, but the two are not logically equivalent. "I don't believe that god does not exist" can be (and often is) a position held by atheists, and says nothing about how the person stands on the claim "god exists".

Therefore, apologists are claiming knowledge about a fact. This claim is unfalsifiable. Gods may exist in an inaccessible spiritual world or be immune from testing. "It is said: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test." Luke 4:12 Bible-icon.png For this reason, the burden of proof for the existence of God lays on believers and not with skeptics.

Apologists some times argue, using the majority argument that it is more natural to consider theism as the default position and skeptics have the burden of proof: [1]

"I am asking whether the skeptic is justified in calling into question the truth of 'God exists.' Why not put the burden on him? Why not insist that he is attempting to convict of irrationality generations of human beings, rational animals like himself, whole cultures for whom belief in the divine and worship are part of what it is to be a human being? Were all those millions, that silent majority, wrong? [...] Is there thus a prima facie argument against atheism drawn from tradition, the common consent of mankind both in the past and in the present time? I think so."

The problem with this reasoning is it employs the majority argument in an attempt to shift the burden of proof to the skeptic; this tacitly admits that the burden of proof originally lays with the apologist. Also, the argument itself fails because general belief in something (or even the general predisposition to believe) does not reliably indicate the truth of the belief (i.e. it is the fallacy of argumentum ad populum).

Apologists sometimes claim that skeptics' obsession with disproving theists is a sign that they tacitly admit the burden of proof lays on them: [1]

"Does not the burden of proof then fall on the shoulders of the skeptic? Yes. And the skeptic is the first to admit this-or at least to exemplify it. I would hazard the view that more attention is paid to theism, religious belief, the existence of God, as a problem to be dealt with, as something that is an intellectual task, by the skeptic than by the believer. I have met many more militant skeptics than I have believers who look as if they were going to toss and turn all night unless they developed an airtight proof for the existence of God."

Apart from having questionably factual validity, it is also an ad hominem since shifts the argument on to the red herring of skeptic's behaviour, which this tells us nothing about the actual burden of proof.

Standard of evidence

While each individual is free to set their own standards of evidence, there are rules and accepted conventions which determine the evidentiary standards in courts of law, formal debates and other settings.

Some familiar examples:

  • In the United States legal system, the burden of proof in most criminal trials is on the prosecution (claimant) to prove to a judge or jury that the defendant is guilty (the claim) beyond a reasonable doubt, because there is a presumption of innocence (thus presuming the claim to be false) going into the proceedings.
  • Again in the United States, in most civil trials the burden of proof is on the plaintiff (claimant) merely to "tip the scales" in their favor, so that their claim is "more likely true than not" (also known as preponderance of the evidence or balance of probabilities). In this case, there is much more "symmetry" between the two sides of the case, and yet in the unlikely case of a "tie" — complete parity between the two cases presented — judgment must be in favor of the defendant.

Other legal burdens of proof include air of reality, probable cause and clear and convincing evidence. Other non-legal notions of burden of proof include benefit of the doubt and tie goes to the runner. In Of Miracles, David Hume argued that no miracle testimony has yet meet a reasonable standard of proof.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ralph McInerny, Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist

See also

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