Shifting the burden of proof

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{{sab||Is it OK to test (or tempt) God?}}
{{sab||Is it OK to test (or tempt) God?}}
'''Shifting the burden of proof''' is a kind of [[logical fallacy]] in [[argumentation]] whereby the person who would ordinarily have the [[burden of proof]] in an argument attempts to switch that burden to the other person, e.g.:
'''Shifting the burden of proof''' is a kind of [[special pleading]] [[logical fallacy]] in [[argumentation]] whereby the person who would ordinarily have the [[burden of proof]] in an argument attempts to switch that burden to the other person, e.g.:
{{quote|If you don't think that the [[Invisible Pink Unicorn]] exists, then prove it!}}
{{quote|If you don't think that the [[Invisible Pink Unicorn]] exists, then prove it!}}

Revision as of 18:50, 18 January 2016

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

Shifting the burden of proof is a kind of special pleading logical fallacy in argumentation whereby the person who would ordinarily have the burden of proof in an argument attempts to switch that burden to the other person, e.g.:

"If you don't think that the Invisible Pink Unicorn exists, then prove it!"

The burden of proof is a similar concept to "you can't prove a negative". However, the latter is more vaguely defined and potentially misleading.


Establishing the burden of proof

In an argument, the burden of proof is on the person making an assertion. That is, if a person says that the moon is made of cheese, then it is up to that person to support this assertion. Demanding that the other party demonstrate that the moon is not made of cheese would constitute shifting the burden of proof. Bertrand Russell argued for this principle in relation to a celestial teapot.

It can sometimes be tricky to determine who holds the burden of proof for a given assertion. If a bank's customer sues the bank, claiming that money was illegally withdrawn from his account, the customer is making a positive assertion, and should therefore have the burden of proving it. However, the bank has detailed financial records, and it is therefore easier for the bank to demonstrate that nothing illegal occurred, than it is for the customer to demonstrate that something illegal happened. For this reason, the person with access to evidence generally has the burden of proof.

Unfalsifiable claims automatically rest with the claimant because there is no evidence that could possibly decide the question.

A lack of belief generally does not have a burden of proof because it is not a positive claim but simply a description about one's own mental state. Without any evidence at all, doubt is generally the case for all a posteriori propositions. For this reason, skepticism generally does not require specific evidence to conclude "I don't know". However, extreme skepticism may also be unreasonable.

Further justifications

There is also a reason from practicality. If we accept one claim from a person on faith, why not accept everyone else's claims on faith? However, this leads to contradictory conclusions (i.e. it is a broken compass argument). If we only accept claims from the first person in question, we are being biased, unfair, and committing the fallacy of special pleading.

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.

Rebuttal using another positive claim

A rebuttal to a positive claim can also be a positive claim, which also must be supported by evidence. Imagine the following conversation:

A: The moon is made of green cheese.
B: That's not true: astronauts have gone to the moon and found that it's made of rock.

Here, the statement "the moon is made of green cheese" is a positive assertion, and person A has the burden of proving it. The second statement is a rebuttal of the first, but the statement "astronauts have gone to the moon" is a positive assertion. Since B is making a positive assertion (about space travel), B also has a burden of proof.

Burden of proof by claim


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.


A theist is someone who claims that there is a god. An atheist is someone who doesn't. Since the theist is the one making a positive claim, it is the theist's job to demonstrate that a god exists.

Conflating atheism with other views

Some apologists disagree and say atheists have a burden of proof because they must also have other views that require justification.

"your belief system is not neutral. Lack a belief in God is only part of a worldview. [...] The atheist has to answer the question, ”Why is there something” according to the atheistic worldview. The atheist has to justify their belief in rationality. The atheist must give reason for the existence of free will. While the word “atheist” may give the impression that it only has to do with a lack of belief in God, the reality is that they are “naturalists” (often materialists) and, as such, must give a positive explanation for the claims of their worldview. [1]"

While atheists generally have many other positive beliefs, it is a non sequitur to say atheism has a same burden of proof. Not all atheists accept naturalism and it is a hasty generalization to claim that they do. If naturalism is thought to need justification, that is a separate issue to the burden of proof of atheism.

Majority argument

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: [2]

"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).

Ad hominem

Apologists sometimes claim that skeptics' obsession with disproving theists is a sign that they tacitly admit the burden of proof lays on them: [2]

"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.

Well-established scientific theories

Often, in debates over well-established scientific theories, the person arguing against the mainstream view will say that it is not up to him to disprove the theory, but that it is scientists' job to demonstrate it.

This is true, in a sense: when a new scientific hypothesis is introduced, its proponents have the onus of demonstrating it. The rest of the scientific establishment has no obligation to disprove the new hypothesis. However, a hypothesis can only rise to the rank of theory by being repeatedly tested, and by accumulating evidence in its favor. This evidence must now be taken into account by the theory's critics.

Thus, if person A says that relativity is unproven, and person B asks A for evidence, this may be seen as shifting the burden of proof, but B is really asking A to support the positive assertion that the mass of evidence for relativity is not conclusive.

In online debates, when a person challenges a well-established scientific theory, it is almost invariably the case that that person does not know or does not understand the evidence for the theory.

See also


  1. [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ralph McInerny, Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist
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