Boiled down, ninety-nine percent of religious apologetics (and for that matter, new-age and psychic apologetics) consists of shifting the burden-of-proof. This comes up so often that it almost seems to be a defense hard-wired into the human brain when presented with any kind of inconvenient factual problem where evidence is lacking. This leads me to wonder what selection pressure might have favored this trait and for what reason. An interesting study for the evolutionary psychologists.
But no matter how often believers tout this tired defense, it never gets any less absurd:
Let’s drill down into this logic a little bit. It’s a far more widespread problem than the old religious canard “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist.” No we can’t prove that. And we don’t have to. Because the entire concept of negative proof is sophistry, which ignores how science works. Science never rules things out, it rules things in. Science correlates observed evidence with theories predicting the conditions under which such evidence should be observed. When the evidence matches the theory, under rigorous conditions, we consider that theory to be highly accurate. But it’s never a final theory. There’s always room for a new theory, if new evidence is discovered which doesn’t match the existing one. In short, science is an ever-evolving process. The term “proof” doesn’t apply broadly to science. It is better limited to narrow fields like geometry.
The class of bad arguments shifting the burden of proof, and the accompanying religious pop-apologetics is also related to the “argument from ignorance.” Which asserts:
…that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false or a proposition is false because it has not yet been proven true. This represents a type of false dichotomy in that it excludes the possibility that there may have been an insufficient investigation to prove that the proposition is either true or false. It also does not allow for the possibility that the answer is unknowable, only knowable in the future, or neither completely true nor completely false. In debates, appealing to ignorance is sometimes an attempt to shift the burden of proof. The term was likely coined by philosopher John Locke in the late 17th century.
Another way this claim about negative proof is often phrased is “absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence.” It’s trivially true, and it sounds convincing (you can’t look everywhere in the universe for evidence). But it’s also irrelevant. The quality we’re looking for here is falsifiability. This means that if you want to declare something to be “true,” you have to also define what conditions would make it false. The example used in the falsifiability article would be the claim “all swans are white.” In order to falsify that claim, you have to find at least one swan of a different color. The key point is that even if no black or purple swans were to be found, it’s still not possible to say with certainty that “all swans are white.” You can’t look everywhere. Even if there are no purple swans on Earth, there may be purple swans on another planet.
With me so far?
Now, if someone came up to me and said “I believe in purple swans,” and I said “I don’t believe in purple swans,” that person might say to me, “you can’t prove purple swans don’t exist.” And they would be right. But that’s not the same as saying that there’s any good reason to convince me to believe in purple swans. I want to see the purple swan!
If they say, “well, the purple swans are invisible to everyone except me,” that’s a big reason to doubt their claim.
Now imagine there’s five billion people who say the same thing about God. “God is invisible to everyone who doesn’t believe in Him, and I believe in Him, so I see Him.” Is there any more reason to take their claim seriously?
Carl Sagan doesn’t think so. He used the famous “Dragon in the Garage” analogy.
“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”
Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.
“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.
“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”
Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”
You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.
Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
This was also famously clarified by Bertrand Russell, with his thought experiment about a teapot.
Russell’s teapot is an analogy, formulated by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making empirically unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others.
Russell specifically applied his analogy in the context of religion. He wrote that if he were to assert, without offering proof, that a teapot, too small to be seen by telescopes, orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because his assertion could not be proven wrong.
Russell’s teapot is still invoked in discussions concerning the existence of God, and has had influence in various fields and media.
So when a misguided god-believer mistakenly thinks they’ve “stumped an atheist” by claiming “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist,” they can be easily dismissed as unserious. And uninterested in the truth.
Another lighthearted attempt by atheists to push back on this foolishness is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Finally, xkcd got in on the act, proposing launching an actual Russell’s Teapot.
Well played, well played.