On default rational intuitions in pop #atheism

‘The burden of proof is on you to prove your claim!’

Just about every conversation about atheism ends up with somebody asserting the other person has the burden of proving their claim.  The most commonly asserted ‘rule’ is that the person making an assertion has the burden of proving the assertion true.  ‘After all,’ they say, ‘You can’t prove a negative!’

I have lost count of times I’ve had to patiently explain to the other person that it’s a bogus rule.  Oddly, instead of having anybody engage in the question of whether it’s a reasonable rule, I’m almost immediately dismissed as a theist (which is quite strange, given that I’m an atheist).

So I’ve written this entry so I can just link to it and call it a day.  Feel welcome to do the same.  Also: a shout out to BL who first encountered me when I was an insufferable atheist undergrad who could parrot all the standard pop-atheist lines and knocked them out of me.  Being an atheist who can defend their views is difficult work, something our current generation of megaphone atheists simply do not appreciate.


Only the Sangfroid Presents

~~ A Tale of Three Epistemic Positions Regarding Default Rationality ~~

A Play in One Act

Dramatis Personae:

Reverend Black – A reverend.

Batman – The Goddamn Batman.

The Wicked Witch of the West – The musical version.

Scene: INT: A tavern – Night


It is a principle that hardly needs arguing that the person making an assertion has the burden of proving their claim.


Say what?


It is intuitively obvious.  Verily, you cannot prove a negative.


It’s not intuitively obvious at all.  It’s intuitively obvious that tautologies are, by definition, always true.  In any dialogue there will be an assertion and its negation.  We know that the statement ‘Either P or not-P’ is tautologically true.  Therefore, the default rational position is that any person who denies either P or not-P has the burden of proving their claim, because they are no longer asserting a tautology.


Poppycock and baldernonsense to both of you.  There are no ‘default rational’ positions.

BATMAN and REV BLACK are visibly shocked at this outburst of radicalism.


So we have three people asserting very different conceptions of the default rational position…  How do we deduce which is correct?


Easily.  Reverend, you claim that the person making an assertion has the burden of proving their claim, yes?


That is correct.


Then prove the claim ‘The person who makes an assertion has the burden of proving their claim’.


It’s…  It’s just a law of rationality.


Says who?


Like…  Nobody believes in Flying Spaghetti Monsters or Invisible Pink Unicorns, do they?


What the hell are you babbling about?


If I said to you ‘The world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster!’ you would expect me to provide some evidence.  The onus wouldn’t be on you to disprove my claim, would it?


Why would you claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world?


I wouldn’t.  It’s a parody concept.


Are you often confused about whether parody concepts exist?  This sounds like you might need some therapy, Reverend.


No, no.  It’s just an example.


If you claimed that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world, I wouldn’t expect you to provide evidence for your claim.  I would wonder why you think parody concepts can create worlds.  This is because people are not automatons — there is a social aspect to information and confirming or rejecting propositions.  The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a stupid idea and doesn’t help conversations.


Perhaps I can help with some mathematics.  The number of things that actually exist is finite.  The number of things that are fictitious is infinite.  Any finite number divided by infinity is practically zero, the Reverend might argue that we should disbelieve everything until we have proof of its existence.


Yeah!  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!


You’re not helping yourself, you know.


First, what counts as extraordinary…?


I’d probably ignore that outburst.


… and, second, that’s not how people reason.  There’s a social, human element to understanding how the world works.  If a person comes and tells me that there are free sandwiches in the kitchen, I don’t sit there and scream: ‘FUCKING PROVE IT!  ANY FINITE NUMBER DIVIDED BY AN INFINITE NUMBER IS ZERO!’

It seems that we only adopt and assert these rules when they advantage a particular style of argument.  They are also used to exclude particular perspectives from the agora.  I’m hardly going to be quiet in a conversation just because some old white guy declared — simply because it suits his mode of discussion — that my arguments are somehow ‘invalid’.

This rule isn’t about being rational or logical, or protecting a person from making an error — they’re for privileging a particular viewpoint at the expense of the opposing viewpoint.

The same applies to your position, Batman.


I was beginning to suspect that this would happen, but I wonder if your viewpoint and mine are so radically different.


Wait… No.  We’re still discussing my default rational position!


It’s clearly nonsense.  We’ve been through this.


No!  No!  But, look, if we can’t even accept that my default rational view is correct, it’s hardly a surprise that you’d dismiss it as irrational. [Ed. This was actually said to me in a conversation]


Your claim is that a person making an assertion has the onus of proving the assertion, but you can’t prove that assertion.  The only thing left to discuss is why so many people still think that yours is a reasonable position to assert.


I’m neither your therapist nor your babysitter, Reverend.  We’re discussing Batman’s position that only tautologies are default rationally true, and so the onus of proving an assertion rests on anybody who thinks one side or other of the disjunct ‘P or not-P’ is false.




And you think this is similar to my view?


In a sense.  When two people disagree over the truth of a particular statement, they both still agree that either the proposition is true or it is false.


That’s where we’re going to have problems in a moment, Batman.


Hmmmmm…  So if we apply my standard to myself, either it’s true that a person denying one part of a tautology has to prove their claim, or it’s false that a person denying one part of the tautology has to prove their claim.  If it’s false that the person denying one part of the tautology has to prove their claim, then nobody has to prove their claims as all claims which affirm something that is not a tautology are claims why deny one part of a tautology (specifically, the disjunct of their claim and its opposite).  As this is clearly absurd, it is false.


Nice Batlogic there.


I liked it.  It’s an inclusive position which privileges neither side of the argument.  Both sides are treated equally, with the person who wants to shift from the equal position being required to demonstrate why.


The first problem with your position is formal: a tautology might not adequately express the complete discussion.  For example, I might claim that Zeus created the world, while you might claim that Jupiter did it.  What’s the structure of the tautology?  Are there two tautologies (Zeus/Not-Zeus and Jupiter/Not-Jupiter)?  Are we even in the same conversation?

Instead, in ordinary dialogue, we’re not advancing a position and its negation — we’re advancing two positive ideas.  Sure, this is slightly different in the atheist conversation — we one position is reacting to the alternative position.  Even then, it’s merely a matter of convention, as most atheists are not engaging in the question of whether or not God exists — by their own admission, this appears to be the pop-atheist default position — but are affirming that the atheist position is justifiable — although usually in terms of the flawed position advanced by the Reverend.

But the real problem with your characterisation is that it again treats these sorts of conversations like there’s an objective set of rules.  It’s like you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons instead of being rational, reasonable people.  Would the conversations be harmed in any way if you abandoned these bullshit ideas about ‘default rational’ positions?

There’s a certain group of people who can only argue in terms of identifying ‘logical fallacies’.  If you present an argument to them, all they can say in response is ‘This is an ad hominem!’ or ‘This is an ad populum!’ or whatever.  They can’t tell you why what you’ve said is incorrect, only that it relates somehow to an imaginary list of ‘logical’ fallacies — even though these logical fallacies don’t have a structure in formal logic, defeating the whole point of formal logic.

And so these rules cripple our ability to engage with people meaningfully in the conversation.  I don’t care whether or not you think your viewpoint is default rational — I only care whether or not you can defend it from a range of perspectives.  If you have to hide behind a shield which privileges your point of view, carefully constructed by people who are just like you, then you haven’t really got much in the way of a convincing argument.

Forget the so-called rules.  Reject them when they come up in conversation.  Learn how to debate issues like real people.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

8 thoughts on “On default rational intuitions in pop #atheism”

  1. So does that mean god does or doesn’t exist? /jks

    So shorter version are you saying “there are no rules”? On what basis does any one argument “compare” against another argument? With no (logic) framework to use for comparing them, then the “default rational position” is that all positions are valid? At this point do we need to define a rule for what is rational?

    If someone is arguing that something doesn’t exist (e.g. god), then how does that conversation run if starting from first principles? You would have to start with a null hypothesis, and then build a “something exists” case from that. For every point the theist makes, the only response by the atheist could ever have would be “prove it”.

    I guess I’m not seeing it being a “one thing or another” argument, but rather “nothing or any possible alternative something”. If you leave ahteists out of it, then consider how would the discussion between to theists go? Each trying to prove that *their* god is the one that actually exists. Neither can win, so would that invalidate their own arguments and give it to the atheist by default?

    1. Privately, my view of these things aligns more with Batman’s. The onus should be on the person who wants to assert a proposition that is not shared in common with the interlocutor. My position — as was Batman’s — is extremely vulnerable to the attack which says that rules are designed to render invisible the power relations in language. When we turn discourse into a game, the rules are going to advantage whoever controls the rules.

      I’m not sure why you’d start with a null hypothesis. Null hypotheses belong in science where that project is about parsimony: they’re going for the smallest possible ontology. But there’s no reason to think that the universe is parsimonious.

      What this post does is show something very different: pop-atheists cannot defend their views. Where you say: ‘The only response by the atheist could ever have would be “prove it”.’ I say: ‘The atheist needs to have the intellectual chops to back up their position.’

      1. But if your position is that something doesn’t exist, how do you backup that position? I can see how your blog applies to discussions of the “something vs something else” variety, but when it’s “nothing vs anything else”, what defense is possible for that position? If the person arguing in favour of “anything else” proves even a single point, then the “nothing” argument is invalidated (it then becomes a “which something” argument), but until such a point is made, the “nothing” case must stand by default.

        1. how do you backup that position?

          Using other tools in our kit. If I say that there’s a regular, Euclidean triangle with angles which add up to 360 degrees, you would have no problem in demonstrating that such a triangle does not exist, would you?

          1. You can present your proof (flawed as it may be) that it adds up to 360 degrees which I can then disprove or show where your calculations are incorrect. As soon as I provide proof that your triangle doesn’t add up to 360 degrees, the discussion then turns turns to “so how many degrees”. I don’t actually need to know how many degrees there are to disprove the specific claim of 360. I have something to argue against.

            In the god vs nothing argument you can only demonstrate that the nothing is wrong by showing that something exists. I’m not presenting a flawed proof of “nothing”, I’m not presenting any proof of anything that can be corrected.

            A person could start from a “nothing” position on ANY argument if they really wanted to be annoying, but they would be shown wrong as soon as “something” was shown to exist, regardless of what that something is.

            If someone can prove any single aspect of anything divine, then that would disprove the nothing position of atheism. Just one thing is all that is needed. The biggest danger to this approach is a claim for something that we don’t have the knowledge to explain at this time.

            Your own statement of who controls the rules is correct in that the “rules” are controlled by the theists in this case. They can just keep creating whatever new thing they want limited only by imagination, and it would be up to the atheists to disprove each one (hence god of the gaps). On that basis alone the atheist could never prove their position as long as the theist could imagine up some new thing.

            1. ‘You can present your proof (flawed as it may be) that it adds up to 360 degrees which I can then disprove or show where your calculations are incorrect.’

              If somebody came to me and said they had a regular triangle with internal angles adding to 360 degrees, I wouldn’t need to wait for them to say anything else. I know it’s incoherent.

              That’s what I mean about other tools. We can prove the absence of things. Married bachelors, for example. For the theological debate, we need high quality tools but we can still do it.

              ‘Your own statement of who controls the rules is correct in that the “rules” are controlled by the theists in this case.’

              That has not been my experience.

  2. You know it’s incoherent based on “established knowledge”. You can also however take it back to first principles to prove the point if it was required. If that established knowledge was itself flawed (without you being aware it was) then your claim of incoherence would be false as going back to first principles would demonstrate the flaw. The point is that while you can use established facts as the basis for your claims, those facts themselves also need to be provable, including facts that were used in establishing those facts.

    What are these “other tools”? You don’t mean common sense do you? 🙂

    Yes we can prove absence of things such as the example you gave, but that is entirely due to the contradictory definition of the terms you joined. I’ve never been a student of theology or philosophy, so I don’t know what “higher quality tools” would be used that are different to those other tools you mentioned. That may complicate further discussion, but claiming the existance of “other tools” means nothing to me without naming what those tools are.

    On the point of who controls the rules… really? I’d say I’ve experienced it both ways, it really depends on who initiates the discussion (as you also said above). Christians going at Richard Dawkins with “prove god doesn’t exist” or atheists going at George Pell with “prove god does exist” would both grant the control of the rules to different sides in each case.

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