dimanche 28 mai 2017

Burden of Proof

One key tool to effective critical thinking, it seems (as someone who’s somewhat new to this game, I mean to self-consciously/deliberately critical thinking), is being able to identify the “null hypothesis”, and to be able to decide which way the burden of proof lies.

How exactly do you decide what this zero-position should be? Occam’s Razor and all that, sure, but … okay, let me recount a discussion I had just the other day, “IRL”, the content of it I mean :

When you see the sun go round you every day (not today, but say a thousand years ago), and you are to reason out from scratch which actually circles which : then I suppose the position you must start from is that what seems to be happening is indeed happening. To prove the counter-intuitive, you need proof. You need to actively prove that the earth goes round the sun, by showing (in the absence of more sophisticated tools) that the sun-centric model explains other elementary astronomical observations better than an earth-centric model. Am I right so far?

So then it would seem that in some cases it is not a question of which scenario is more “parsimonious”, but which scenario is more intuitive, more in agreement with plain common sense. (Invoking many gods will always be less parsimonious than invoking one god, and invoking one god will always be less parsimonious than invoking no gods : but you can’t be so miserly, so unthinkingly parsimonious, that you fail to explain anything at all!) As with the sun-going-round-the-earth question, I mean, back in times when we did not have tools and observations that made the right answer obvious.

Have I got that right? (Not a rhetorical question ; I could be wrong, in which case I’d like to know where exactly I’ve got it wrong.)

If I’m right thus far, then if we take this to that old old question of whether there is God, back in a far more primitive time when we knew so much less than we do now, in fact when we knew almost nothing other than what we could see and hear and touch and smell directly : back then, the intuitive, common-sense interpretation of life around us must surely be polytheistic, with storm-spirits and sun-or-day-gods and moon-and-night-sprites and water-and-flood-gods and disease-spirits and so on, perhaps all of them marshaled by some sort of uber-god. What we know today of all this (almost certainly no gods at all, and most certainly no storm-godlings, etc) is something we would need to actively prove (in those primitive times), since it would be so counter-intuitive.

Which, of course, is exactly what we (humanity) have actually done, down these long ages. Polytheism made the most sense to begin with ; then we reasoned (kind of, using the word “reasoned” very very broadly!) our way to monotheism ; and finally to atheism. (Atheists there have been even in olden times, documented atheists even millennia back, but I think -- simply think, nothing “researched” or corroborated, but I hope think not incorrectly -- that widespread and unqualified atheism is a fairly recent phenomenon.)

What I’m wondering and asking, I guess, is this : we always say that no-God is the default position, that the presence of God is the position that needs to be proved. That’s true enough today, given what we know of ourselves and the world : but was/is that always true? Would a near-perfect skeptic, a near-perfect critical thinker, someone equipped with all the tools of critical thinking and logic but with the actual observations and actual knowledge of a few centuries back (or if that’s too advanced, then certainly a few millennia back), be justified in taking the God(s)-does(do)-exist position as his null hypothesis, and actively need to prove the absence of god(s)?


TLDR : The atheist keeps on saying (quite correctly) that no-god-or-gods is the default position, and the burden of proof lies on those who choose to invoke a god (or gods). But is that always true? Specifically, when the only answer forthcoming to everyday non-esoteric questions (e.g., what is thunder, what is lightning, how do floods happen, how do diseases and death happen?) is supernatural, and the only alternative, non-supernatural answer is a non-answer (the I-have-no-clue-at-all answer) : is it still correct then to hold that atheism is the default position? Or does the burden of proof shift to the other side then?

via International Skeptics Forum http://ift.tt/2r1tL8i

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