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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Some comments on Brian Knapp's post

Unfortunately it has become somewhat common for atheists to deny that they have any burden of proof in religious debates. While this may sometimes be true in some limited sense, I find it problematic for at least three reasons: First, it seems quite evident that many of the atheists who employ this tactic are in fact positive atheists, which is to say that they take the assertive position that there is no God, rather than the weaker position of unbelief in the existence of God. Now, it may be more interesting to talk about the justification for theism rather than that for positive atheism, but nevertheless the position of the nonexistence of God does indeed require some justification, and so anyone defending that position certainly has a burden of proof in that regard. Second, even a negative atheist has basic obligations to facilitate communication. In any two-way conversation, each party shares some measure of responsibility not just for communicating clearly, but also for assisting the other in doing the same. So for example, if a Christian offers an argument for the existence of God to an atheist, then the atheist, to the extent that he is part of that discussion, has a duty to respond in some substantive way. Third, although a negative atheist may not have any actual tenets to justify, depending on the context he may well owe the theist another kind of explanation for his position.

That said, there really isn't much to defend when it comes to mere unbelief. Once one notices that he has no reason to believe a particular proposition, then, given that we want to minimize such unjustified beliefs, we ought to give it up. The interesting question, then, is whether or not we can find a reason to think that God exists, and that is where the theist has a striking burden of proof.

Calvinist blogger Brian Knapp of recently posted his own complaint to this situation. According to him, while we might not have a burden of proof defending unbelief in other gods, the Calvinist God is different, because it insists that we all know it exists (presumably this doctrine is based on his reading of Ro 1:18-25, and possibly other Biblical passages). He writes:
Now, if the God of the Bible was like any other god, they could get away with saying "no" and leave it at that---no burden of proof. However, the God of the Bible isn't like any other God. He claims that everyone knows he exists. He claims that he created the world. He claims that his existence is necessary for knowledge, ethics, aesthetics, etc. In short, he makes a bold claim about everyone's ability to reason, weigh evidence, draw conclusions, etc. He claims that none of those actions that we all do on a daily basis would be possible unless he existed as described in the Bible.

So that opens up an interesting challenge to the atheist. They aren't explicitly denying the existence of God when they say "I don't believe he exists", but they most definitely are *implicitly* denying his existence. Why is this? Well, it is because they are doing all these things that the God of the Bible claims ownership to, while at the same time they are saying "I don't believe he exists." They are relying upon all these basic beliefs that the God of the Bible claims *only* make sense if he exists.

To say they don't believe he exists is to say that it is *possible* to do these things (reason, weigh evidence, etc.) without him existing. But God says it is not possible to do them without him existing. Therefore (by implication) they are saying "This kind of God *does not* exist".

It isn't an explicitly positive claim that God does not exist, but is rather an implicitly positive claim. Either way, it is a positive claim, and therefore they own a burden of proof.

For Brian, the fact that we all believe God exists is corollary to something like an essential property of the Calvinist God. So to insist that we don't believe in his Calvinist doctrine is to deny the existence of his God; and this constitutes a positive claim in need of defense.

Now, before I address this, we may wish to make clear a certain distinction: for in one sense it is quite true that any self-professing atheist has his own sort of burden of proof with respect to the authenticity of his profession, insofar as a skeptic of genuine unbelief in God such as Brian might challenge him to defend it. This is not, however, the same as a defense of the negative atheist position itself. In other words, to challenge the accuracy of his self-identification as an unbeliever is not to challenge his justification for unbelief. The question of whether or not a person who declares himself negative atheist is justified in so doing is wholly separate from that of whether or not he ought to actually be an atheist, or other similar issues. So, maybe the Calvinist thinks this person is lying or self-deluded, and secretly believes in God despite insisting that he does not. Yet even if that's the case---indeed, even if we can prove it to be so---to the extent that we're interested in discussing the justification for negative atheism, we've made no progress.

Even so, Brian may be right to point out that in order to be consistent even a negative atheist must deny the existence of his highly specialized Calvinist conception of God (though even this is questionable). Yet the defense for disbelief he provides himself: our initial unbelief quite directly disproves the existence of the special Calvinist God which everyone knows exists. What additional proof does he require, the burden of which he thinks the atheist should shoulder? Now, he could always challenge our very unbelief, but that would, I think, move the conversation in a largely unproductive direction. We all trust our own ability to tell the difference between that which we do and do not believe. So for instance if I take myself not to believe one way or the other on the existence of a fifth moon of Pluto, that should be the end of the matter. It seems unlikely that any deeper self-reflection in that regard would be fruitful. Unless there is some outstanding reason to think ourselves in the throws of an unhappy delusion resulting in the subconscious repression of our belief in a fifth Plutonian moon, why should we consider the matter any further? I find myself in a similar situation with respect to my unbelief in God. It's possible that I'm just self-deluded, and that I really do believe in God, despite my second-order belief to the contrary. Yet we can say the same for any of our beliefs. Why afford this one special attention?

So while I appreciate Brian putting his finger on an interesting implication of Calvinist dogma, I must disagree that it has much bearing on the burden of proof had by negative atheists. Again, it seems like the most important issue is whether or not we have reasons to believe in God. It is certainly true that, as negative atheists, we should be responsible communicators and charitable interpreters, doing our best to understand and respond to the case for theism. However, in the end, the burden is on the theist to provide reasons for his belief.


Ben Wallis said...

I hope that Brian takes the time to stop by this blog and leave a comment, or else respond at his own blog Apparently Chris Bolt has noticed this post. He left a strange comment here, noting that he hasn't actually read my post through, and speculating that it might be a rehearsal of some previous comments I made about our Skype debate last year. I should probably clarify that while those covered a related issue, Brian appears to be discussing something slightly different. Chris had made an argument, ostensibly against the rationality of holding the agnostic position, which runs as follows: (1) If God exists, then everyone knows that God exists; (2) I do not know that God exists; (3) therefore, God does not exist. By taking the agnostic position, then, he thinks me guilty of an inconsistency whereby I deny knowing (3) while implicitly affirming that (3) is true. Needless to say, this argument deeply flawed; in fact it was so bizarre that I only bothered to give it a brief response in the debate itself. Later I gave it a more thorough treatment in this blog entry (notice also the comments following the main post). After reading Chris's rebuttals to these responses, I realized that he was not going to budge on the issue, and so I decided not to discuss the matter further with him (although if Brian wants to pick up where he left off I would be happy to talk about it once more).

In contrast, Brian is not (that I can tell) making a direct argument in his blog post against agnosticism. Rather, he seems concerned with the conversational responsibilities of negative atheist disputants over the existence of God, and this is the subject of my response to him.

Paul said...

Having trouble following here:

Aside from the merits of Knapp's understanding of Romans 1, let's just assume it says what he says it says.

So you brought up your lack of belief about a 5th moon of Pluto. Do you know of anything that asserts that you do believe in a 5th moon?

So, here's a disanalogy:

(Assuming) Knapp's interpretation, the Bible says you do not lack belief in God. But, you say you do. Thus, you are committed to the claim that the Bible is false. Which commits you to the claim that either its God is mistaken, or that the author simply made this up. Either way, the existence of the kind of God revealed in that Bible can't exist if you do lack the belief in his existence. Thus, you are committed to a positive belief that that God doesn't exist. So you bear a burden. If you're right that you lack belief, then you must believe that that God doesn't exist. So how would you argue for this? You could either argue directly against that God, or you could say, "Okay, yeah, since I don't have a belief, then it follows that that God doesn't exist." Let's say you take the latter posture. The response will be that you're self-deceived, and suppressing the truth. You will say, "No, I am not. I mean, I guess it's possible, but you could say that about any belief, what affords this one privileged status?" The response will then be that this situation is quite unlike the Pluto situation, for your actions and beliefs show that you actually do believe in this God. They will then go TAG on you and claim that your moral beliefs provide evidence that you're not totally successful at suppressing your belief, same with your belief in laws of logic, etc." You will no doubt say that this must be wrong, and the two of you will be entangled in a debate, one where you share a more interesting burden than you suggest in this post.

Now, I'm not saying anything here about the merits of Knapp's case, just that it doesn't seem to me you've adequately answered the position.

Ben Wallis said...


Thanks for the comment!

When a theist presents an argument for the existence of God, the atheist (even the negative atheist) often has some conversational responsibility to respond to the argument in question. For instance, suppose a Christian trots out the Kalam argument in a debate. An atheist might be tempted to shrug it off and say, "well that just doesn't persuade me," or something similarly noncommittal. But ideally, provided the atheist is genuinely interested in having a fruitful exchange of ideas, he should address the argument with specific criticisms, and explain why he doesn't think the argument is sound, or cogent, etc. So in this sense he does have a burden in the conversation. But this role is largely *responsive* to attempts by theists to justify their god-belief. If the theist doesn't bother to even try to provide any reasons to think God exists, then there's not much the atheist needs to say.

On the other hand, I don't see even what conversational burden the atheist has to respond to arguments which are only indirectly related to the existence of God. For instance a zealous Christian might argue that atheism is an evil force in the world which causes enormous suffering. But with respect to the question of whether or not God exists, such a criticism (by itself) is simply not relevant. Similarly, a presuppositionalist might (as you suggest) argue that I really do believe in God, despite my insistence to the contrary. But, again, this isn't going to help us determine whether or not belief in God is *justified*.

Now, maybe the atheist and theist want to discuss whether or not we should outright reject the Calvinist doctrine of universal knowledge of God. But that would be a very different conversation from whether or not we should believe in God, i.e. a debate over negative atheism versus theism. Moreover---and this is what my plutonian moon analogy is meant to illustrate---the conversation seems distinctly uninteresting. I can see why it might be worthwhile to discuss how we can know whether or not we hold a given belief, but there seems to be no reason to direct any extra skepticism on unbelief in God, as opposed to unbelief in a fifth plutonian moon, the fact that some people *claim* we all believe in God notwithstanding. I'm just not interested in that kind of conversation, and I doubt many others are, either. Instead, I want to talk about whether or not we should believe in God---and in this regard, the onus is ultimately on the theist to provide a reason to do so.


Paul said...

Hi Ben,

I'm not sure that gets at things, I probably didn't put it well. You wrote,

Similarly, a presuppositionalist might (as you suggest) argue that I really do believe in God, despite my insistence to the contrary. But, again, this isn't going to help us determine whether or not belief in God is *justified*.

But the presuppositionalist who takes this line will say, "And here's the evidence for thinking you do, in fact, believe in God while claiming not to: _________ and _________ and, etc. Now, what goes in the blank not only

(a) supposedly provides evidence that you in fact believe in God at some level


(b) attempts to show the belief is justified since the argument is that your ethical evaluations and behavior, your cognitive evaluations and behavior, etc., show that not only (a), but also that those things "require" God (in some sense).

So you can see that your claim,

but there seems to be no reason to direct any extra skepticism on unbelief in God, as opposed to unbelief in a fifth plutonian moon, the fact that some people *claim* we all believe in God notwithstanding.

doesn't get at the matter since a relevant disanalogy is not *just* that some people *claim* you believe in God while no one makes a similar claim about your belief in a fifth Plutonian moon, but that there's *evidence* that you hold that belief, evidence which you must deny, along with holding the positive belief that the God of the Bible (on this interpretation) does not exist (rather than merely lacking belief).

Any better?

Ben Wallis said...


Perhaps we don't disagree as much as it might appear. If the theist can present enough compelling evidence to get the atheist interested in doubting his very unbelief in God, then may both of them enjoy discussing the matter! I'm only pointing out that this seems a detour from the central question of whether or not we should believe in God. Only if the theist wants to use universal belief in God as one part of a larger case for the existence of God would it become relevant.

Consider what would happen if the atheist granted the presuppositionalist all his points, just short of having reasons to believe in God. So in this case the atheist might say something like,

"Suppose you're right that I really do believe in God. But this doesn't change the fact that I have no *reason* to believe in God. It just makes me---like you---irrational for being a theist when we should both be negative atheists."

Now, maybe the theist can use this admission to construct an argument for the existence of God. But unless he does so, the self-professed negative atheist has no need to further justify negative atheism.


Paul said...

Hi Ben,

"I'm only pointing out that this seems a detour from the central question of whether or not we should believe in God."

I understand, but it's not so much a detour as it is a *response* to the claim of *the atheist* that he has no burden because he lacks a belief. This claim itself entails a positive rejection of at least one God: the God that claims the atheist does not lack the belief. Upon hearing of this God, he must, if he wishes to maintain his claim of lack of belief, say, "Okay, fine, I believe that God doesn't exist."

The Plutonian moon rejoinder isn't analogous since it's not a bare assertion that you believe in a moon without any reason for thinking so. It's a claim that your behavior and beliefs betray the claim of unbelief. It'd rather be more like a man who claimed he didn't believe in a 5th moon of Pluto yet was overheard mentioned a 6th moon (which presupposes a 5th), and was seen to have astronomical charts hidden in his mom's basement that included a proposed orbit of a 5th Plutonian moon, not only that, but he wore a t-shirt to a kegger which read: "I visited Pluto's 5th moon and all I got was this stupid t-shit."

So, I'm not sure how much we disagree or not (hopefully not much), but it just seemed to me that Brian's point wasn't totally engaged with. Thoughts?

Ben Wallis said...

Hello again Paul!

I understand that presuppositionalists think there is a special reason to doubt a person's professed unbelief in God which is not analogous to a fifth Plutonian moon. But remember that from the perspective of this atheist, the two appear no different. Indeed it seems unsurprising that many of us would be disinterested in talking about it, in which case, what burden do we have?

Now, as I mentioned before, the presupp'ist may well manage to change the mind of the atheist, and get him interested in the topic by presenting evidence and arguments, and such. Or it may happen that the atheist is already interested, for whatever reason. But in my case, I'm just not that interested in discussing (with presupp'ists) their case for my alleged crypto-theism. I'm looking for evidence that God exists, not that I secretly believe in it.


Paul said...

Hi Ben,

Hmm, let me try to get at it another way.

The issue was whether atheists have a burden of proof. It's been admitted that Strong Atheists *do* have a burden of proof, since they believe that God does not exist. However, the Weak Atheist is said to escape this burden because they do not believe that God exists. These two can be put like this

[SA] = S believes(God does not exist).


[WA] = ¬(S believes that God exists).

The distinction here is between 'believing not' and not believing. SA has burden since belief has wide scope, WA doesn't. WA says, "Oh, but I simply do not have a belief that God exists, I lack it. Now, one might quibble that this is actually agnosticism (as many atheists have), but we won't quibble here.

So, the question is; does WA have a burden? One way we can show burden is to get WA to hold a SA. Since it has been admitted that SA has a burden, then this would mean that WA has burden.

So, let's do it (and let's bear in mind I actually don't think *all* men know that God exists, if we define 'know' in JTB, or WTB terms. If it's defined in some other sense, okay, I don't know what that is so I'll wait until the philosophical analysis is supplied. I say this to show I'm not committed to their argument, as construed above, but am a neutral :-) party):


Paul said...


WA: I lack a belief in God, so I don't have a burden. However, my strong atheist brothers do have a burden.

PRESUP: Okay, so you are saying you do not believe God exists rather than you believe that God does not exist?

WA: That's right. If I held the latter, I'd have burden.

PRESUP: I see. Well, from my worldview, you don't lack a belief in God, because all men believe that God exists; hence, etc.

WA: That's ridiculous! You must understand, from my perspective, this sounds like you're saying I believe in a 5th Plutonian moon.

PRSUP: Well, I am not claiming you believe in a 5th Plutonian moon, but in the God of Christian theism. Aside from that difference, my claim isn't really about your perspective. I fully agree that from your perspective it sounds like I'm saying you believe in a 5th Plutonian moon, or even Santa Clause.

WA: Okay, go on.

PRESUP: Right. Okay, so you believe that you lack a belief?

WA: Yes.

PRESUP: So we can assign a T to this proposition:

∂ = WA believes(WA lacks a belief that God exists).

WA: Yes.

PRESUP: Okay, so, since you believe that ∂ is true, then you must believe this is false

ß = WA believes(that God exists).

WA: Yes. By the way, I love the level agreement we've reached!

PRESUP: Me too. So let's go for more. Given ∂ and ß, you must believe that for any person P, if P says you believe that God exists, then P is wrong.

WA: Yes!

PRESUP: Good. So this would entail that you believe that for any person P, if P says you believe that God exists, and it is essential to P that P not utter a falsehood, then either: (i) we are mistaken about what P has uttered, (ii) you believe that God exists, or (iii) P does not exist (by definition, it would not be a compossible state of affairs for an inerrant x that says y, if ¬y obtains).

Now, since we have granted ad arguendo my interpretation of what God says, and since you're not willing to affirm (ii), that leaves us with (iii). So, through a proof by cases, that leaves us with:
You believe that for any person P, if P says you believe that God exists, and it is essential to P that P not utter a falsehood, then . . . (iii) P does not exist.

Since in this case, God can be substituted for P, then it follows:

* = WA believes(God does not exist).

But, * = SA. So, WA entails SA when it comes to the Christian God, and since it was admitted that SA has a burden, then WA has a burden too. Right?

WA: I want to say "No," but, "Yeah."

PRESUP: Right. Look, the presuppositionalist hears you say you don't have burden since you lack a belief, and the presuppositionalist believes that according to his worldview, you don't lack a belief, so you could only say what you say if he were wrong, but to hold a position that implies that your opponent is wrong, places a burden on you.

[/imaginary dialog]

Paul said...


Now, saying one is not interested in talking about it doesn't get to the issue, then. It looks to the presuppositionalist like a dogmatic stance, one where you (WA) refuse to meet the burden it appears you have. On that score, the presuppositionalist might as well assert to atheists that the atheist believes in God and this is so obvious that the presuppositiuonalist isn't interested in talking about it. That stance would receive howls from atheists. Perhaps your stance receives howls from presuppositionalists? On that score, fruitful dialog has broken down, and thus it'd be better for both sides to meet their own burden :-)

Lastly, as you can see, this isn't directly an issue over the justification for belief in God, it is a rejoinder to the claim that some atheists do not have a burden because '¬' has wide scope rather than 'believes'. To ignore the rejoinder because it's not directly about positive reasons to believe in God is to misunderstand the nature of the dialectic.

I'll take blame for the bad transmission of my side of the covo, does that help explain more clearly what I've been struggling to get at above?

Ben Wallis said...


Thanks for the clarification, but I still must stand by my previous comments. You seem to be suggesting that if the presupp'ist can show that we believe X about God, then we ought to go and defend X. But this is not necessarily so. Now, if a negative atheist happens to disbelieve in a particular concept of God, then I agree the onus is on him----should he wish to convince others to join him in disbelief. But this all depends on what conversation he is interested in having! If he doesn't think it's important to convince others that the God does not exist, then in what sense does he have a burden of proof? Even a full-blown positive atheist doesn't have a burden of proof should he choose to merely defend negative atheism. It is simply not the case that we have to prove all of our beliefs---even all our related beliefs---in every conversation about God. And if that seems cheap or unfair, well, I would suggest that it seems to the negative atheist even more inappropriate for the presupp'ist to try to shift the topic of conversation from the justification or lack thereof for God-belief to some kind of bizarre skepticism towards unbelief itself.


Paul said...

Hi Ben,

This will be my last comment on the matter since we probably won't make any headway! I'll make some final remarks:

"You seem to be suggesting that if the presupp'ist can show that we believe X about God, then we ought to go and defend X."

I make no claim about 'ought' to defend a burden, only that if you believe that God does not exist, you do *have* a burden. I showed that on the presuppositionalists' assumptions, WA = SA via transitivity. This, if it is admitted that SA has a burden, then so does WA.

"Now, if a negative atheist happens to disbelieve in a particular concept of God, then I agree the onus is on him--should he wish to convince others to join him in disbelief. But this all depends on what conversation he is interested in having! If he doesn't think it's important to convince others that the God does not exist, then in what sense does he have a burden of proof?"

I find this very odd, to say the least. On this view, an objective fact of the matter (whether one *has* a burden) dissolved into a subjective psychological state (whether one wants to defend a view!). This doesn't seem to be what most people have in mind. You don't lose a burden of proof simply because you don't want to prove what you assert is the case.

The context that Knapp and others are making their claims in is the well-known claim by atheists that: "He who asserts has burden." We can see that here:

It is likewise the position of Flew in The Presumption of Atheism. Or as Michael Martin says in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification: "The Burden of proof should instead be on the believers, since the negative atheists are not making any claims to knowledge that believers are" (p.30).

Thus, the context of Knapp and others' claim arises in a *context of dialog* between theist and atheist, where the theist says God exists and the atheist says, "Well, that's a positive claim, and I only claim not to believe, so I don't have a burden, thus you must sit back and do all the work." I have shown above that this claim, on certain presuppositionalist understandings, actually is a positive assertion; thus, if the claim is: "Whoever makes a positive assertion has the burden," then I have shown that on this understanding, which is the context of Knapp's comments, the weak atheist has a burden too.

"It is simply not the case that we have to prove all of our beliefs---even all our related beliefs---in every conversation about God."

Of course, that position hasn't been argued here, so this move does no work for you.

No, the matter is simply this: those who claim that they have no burden *because they lack a belief* have been shown, by me above, to actually not have a lack of belief, but a positive belief that God does *not* exist. Now, if they don't think they have any job to do in arguing that God does *not* exist (which is a strong claim), then that's fine by me. But let's not pretend the atheist only lacks a belief, for as I showed, this isn't so (on the presuppositionalists position). Therefore, the atheist who comes into the debate and says, "He who asserts has the burden, and I don't assert since I merely *lack* a belief," is wrong and simply unable to follow the logical steps laid out so clearly above. And *that* is the context Knapp et al. are responding to, and it is *that* context that I have demonstrated shows a dual burden (on presuppositionalist understandings).

Now, if you want to *redefine* the position of burden to the one who psychologically wants to prove or justify his position to the other, you are free to do that, but FYI, *no one else* means that in this discussion, which has a fairly long history, longer than you've been involved in the game.

That probably didn't help either, but I hope it did!

Thank for the convo

Ben Wallis said...


Thanks for the conversation. I will try to wrap things up as best I can.

I'm pretty sure there is no hard and fast conception of a "burden of proof," but I should probably clarify that I agree at least it involves more than just our psychology.

That said, if Brian wants to call the position of the negative atheist with respect to the doctrine of universal knowledge of Calvin's God a "burden of proof," I suppose I cannot stop him. But it is the sort of "burden" that I for one don't care about, and which makes no difference to a conversation about whether or not we have reason to think God exists.

Consider the following analogy: Referring to your latest comment, you have asserted that

"This will be my last comment on the matter"

On your view, by asserting you have inherited the burden of proof. Suppose I complained that you had not met your burden, and sardonically pointed out that you could not possibly do so, since it would require you to disprove the very proposition you must show. In that case, what should be your response?

I think it's fairly clear that demanding you to justify that assertion would be inappropriate and unhelpful. It would still be a "burden" (on your view), but obviously it is the sort of "burden" we should ignore. Similarly, if Brian wants to argue that he has some precise definition of the phrase "burden of proof" which atheists happen to satisfy, then he is welcome to do so. Label it what you will---I'm only pointing out that such a "burden" isn't worth shouldering.

Thanks again for the exchange. Feel free to come back some time!


GoodnessOverGod said...

I'd like to point out that there is no inconsistency in not judging a proposition B to be true, even if one believes a set of propositions, A, to be true and the truth of A entails the truth of B.

Even if the presuppositionalist were right in supposing that the beliefs the non-believer does hold entail the existence of the Christian God, that would not shift the burden of proof to the non-believer, for we don't always see what is entailed by our beliefs. What is a proof in logic or mathematics but an attempt to DISCOVER what is entailed by a set of propositions that one may believe? Was the burden of proof on those who would fail to affirm Fremont's last theorem, or upon Andrew Wiles who proved it? Would such people be 'suppressing the truth'?
We need to be 'allowed' to abstain from affirming propositions until we SEE that we have some reason to suppose they are true, otherwise a fifth moon of Pluto is going to be just like God, even if we actually had good reasons to believe in God.

GoodnessOverGod said...

This is Michael, btw, using the Google account that Ben and I share.

I want to add that I recognize that the presuppositionalist actually affirms that in some sense purported non-believers do believe that 'the Christian God' exists, not merely that their beliefs entail the existence of the Christian God. My point in the previous post was simply that one who makes no affirmation does not bare a burden of proof even granting that one's conscious beliefs entail the unaffirmed proposition. Even if my non-belief entails the non-existence of the Christian God, it does not follow that I have affirmed that the Christian God does not exist.


GoodnessOverGod said...

One last post for tonight: Given that Chris Bolt was not accusing Ben or other confessing negative atheists generally of LYING about their lack of a belief in God, but of not realizing that we believe in God (If I understand Chris correctly) we seem to be talking about some sort of 'unconscious belief'. Given that the public stands we take we take consciously, and that we can debate only consciously held propositions, the possibility that we are wrong about our (unconscious) beliefs isn't obviously relevant to a discussion that isn't specifically about the psychology of one of the participants. This is, of course, just to re-state a point that Ben already made quite clearly and well, in my judgement.

Ben Wallis said...

Thanks for the points, Michael! They remind me of some ideas I've been turning over privately, but which so far I've left out of my public discussions on this topic. I shall break my silence presently.

The thing is, I'm pretty skeptical that we can be so deeply mistaken about our beliefs, as the presupp'ist holds we are. Now, maybe we would not be as surprised as we would expect to (consciously) learn that God exists, but that's a far cry from saying that we *believe* God exists. Given our experiences, all we have to do is determine whether those experiences have the same character as other sets of experiences which we classify as "unbelief." If we are incapable of this---if we are unable to accurately classify this or that as examples of our own unbelief---that appears to me tantamount to not understanding what unbelief *is*. So in effect, if Brian suggests that I unconsciously, unwittingly believe in God, he's challenging my very concept of unbelief. On this view, I wouldn't actually have any second-order belief in unbelief, so to speak, because I wouldn't have any coherent concept of unbelief in the first place.

To put it another way, the experiences which I classify as "unbelief in God" serve to shape my concept of "unbelief" in general. When I think of "unbelief," examples of experiences which I associate with unbelief swirl into my mind's eye, including those I presently connected with my unbelief in God. When I use the word in natural language, I do so in reference to such experiences (not to mention in a manner quite clearly supportive of propositions such as "I do not believe in God," or "I have unbelief in God," etc.). If I oughtn't mix up what I take to be God-unbelief experiences with my other unbelief experiences---i.e. if they don't fit together in a coherent classification scheme---that would leave me largely incapable of properly understanding the meaning of the word, or of any language where we employ it.

So this is why I'm willing to go out on a limb and agree (at least tentatively) that my conscious identification of unbelief entails the nonexistence of the presupp'ist God. But if I'm mistaken about belief always being consciously identifiable (according to my concept of belief versus unbelief) then I don't know how to distinguish between having or not having whatever it is the presupp'ist wants to call "unconscious belief" (UCB). This is not to say that it's impossible to have unconscious beliefs in the mundane sense of not taking the time to reflect on one's own experiences; but for a person who considers his experiences and judges them to be incompatible with belief, or indicative of unbelief (however we wish to characterize them), I don't know what it would mean for the presupp'ist to insist nonetheless that this person has UCB in the sense of "suppressing the truth in unrighteousness," or some such religious idea. Supposing, then, that UCB is itself a coherent and meaningful concept, I wouldn't know whether or not I'd have UCB, given that I wouldn't understand what on earth it means! And of course in that case I would not be obliged to deny the existence of the presupp'ist God (PG).

It seems to me, therefore, that either UCB is a nonsense concept, or else a negative atheist such as myself need not deny UCB. If we stand by the first case (which I tentatively do), then we must either deny the existence of PG on the grounds that our own unbelief disproves it, or, less charitably, regard PG as itself an incoherent concept insofar as it is partially constructed out of the incoherent UCB. If we stand by the second case, then we have no reason to deny PG as long as we don't deny UCB. Whichever way you slice it, though, the presupp'ist case doesn't seem to gain any traction, not even in this one particular regard.


Paul said...


I hadn't been back over here since my last comment and I just looked at Chris Bolt's site and saw your response posted. As I feel further defense of the position is unnecessary, not to mention repetitive, I did see this comment and thought I'd remark on it:

On your view, by asserting you have inherited the burden of proof. Suppose I complained that you had not met your burden, and sardonically pointed out that you could not possibly do so, since it would require you to disprove the very proposition you must show. In that case, what should be your response?

1. The "he who asserts has the burden," is not *my* view. As I thought I made clear, it is the position of *the atheist* who is being responded to with. My argument has been ad hominem, i.e., *given the atheists position* on burden (which I documented), then *on their own standard* they must concede that they have burden too.

1.a. As for Goodness over God's remark, it seems he's too misunderstood the dialectic. The claim that was being responded to was this:

[C] I admit that those who have a "believe ... not" position carry a burden; however, those who have a "not ... believe" position do not carry burden. I then showed, logically, that, given certain presuppositionalists' premises, you can get the latter to the former—in which case, *per the admission made*, the atheist must admit he has burden.

Since it appears the dialectical context of dialog has been misunderstood, I at least feel a litter better about shouldering the entire burden for the transmission of ideas. :-)

2. An overly pedantic read might get you your self-referential defeater, but the above type of statements should usually be read as conditional, as in: This will be my last response unless I see something worthwhile to respond to, or my interlocutor as advanced the dialog.

Hope that clarifies

Ben Wallis said...


If you agree that "he who asserts has the burden" is an incorrect characterization, then so much the better! I just don't see how that helps Brian's case, especially when you seemed to base it on that very characterization which you just disavowed.


Paul said...

Ben, again, I'm concerned with one single response to those atheists who claim "those who assert a 'believe . . . not' have burden, when those who hold a 'not believe' position, do not have burden." I can take that position, along with some of the presuppositionalist's premises, and show that those atheists have committed themselves to burden. I believe this is the context of Brian's post. There may be others who have a more idiosyncratic def. of burden, and they'd need to be addressed differently.

Ben Wallis said...


Hopefully you're not suggesting that any other view of a burden of proof is "idiosyncratic." After all, you apparently join me in rejecting that view. (And in a previous comment I gave one example of how it can lead to trouble.)

But I just don't think Brian was arguing about appropriate versus inappropriate definitions for the term "burden of proof." On the contrary, it seems to me that he was suggesting that negative atheists have some kind of conversational duty to show that the Calvinist God does not exist. But as has been argued, this is not so. For if we do not reject the possibility of having hidden beliefs (this is probably a better term than "unconscious belief," of which we have many of the mundane sort), then there is no reason for the negative atheist to be a positive atheist with respect to the Calvinist God, and hence no hint of a problem should ever arise. Yet if we reject hidden beliefs, then our epistemic duty to disprove the existence of the Calvinist God is privately met, and to the extent we wish to defend only *negative* atheism there is no further need to convince the theist of our authenticity. So the theist isn't going to advance the conversation by demanding the atheist stake out one view or the other.

Now, I could be wrong about Brian's point. Maybe he just wants to show how the aforementioned definition of "burden of proof" is faulty. But that's not the impression I got, and I don't think it's what he intended to communicate.