But back on track. This is the email that I received:
If you have time, could I get your opinion on this?
Let's assume that God exists and created the human race. Also assume that there is a person who would like to decide whether they believe he exists. With the character of the Judeo-Christian God in mind, do you believe the burden of proof would lie on God or on the person?
I put some measure of effort into my reply (much to the annoyance of my lovely wife, who eventually got fed up waiting for me and went to bed) and figured that it may be of some interest to others.
So here it is.
That's an interesting question.
The term "burden of proof" is generally used in cases when two people are discussing an assertion (such as "entity x exists", "I have been to place y", or "substance z is the cure for all disease"), and in this case the burden of proof always lies with the claimant. What this means is that the person making the claim cannot reasonably expect to be taken seriously unless they back up their claim in some way (usually with evidence proportional to the claim); as Carl Sagan would remind us, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." So the claim "I have a pet dog" will generally require less evidence than the claim "I have a pet leprechaun", as we know that dogs exist and that some people keep them as pets.
This isn't arbitrary, of course: it's necessary. The reason the burden of proof lies upon the claimant to prove his or her claim, and not the respondent to prove the claim false, is that the latter rule would force us to believe every concept presented that is beyond our understanding or the current scope of our investigation. What is less obvious, perhaps, is that it would also require us to hold contradictory beliefs! If I were to say to you (as Bertrand Russell might have), "There is a small china teapot orbiting the planet Venus,"
youthe second maxim would require you to believe me unless you were able to perform an exhaustive search of the second planet's skies. If I were to then tell you, "There are no china teapots in outer space," you would have to believe that, too! (Unless you were up for a somewhat protracted scavenger hunt in space.)
And so it seems clear that the burden of proof must lie with the claimant. Consequently, if someone were to make the claim "some god exists", the burden of proof would require that person to provide evidence for that assertion. Likewise, if someone were to make the claim "no gods exist", the burden of proof would require that person to do the same. (It's worth noting that I don't know anyone who would make the latter claim; although certain god concepts are logically inconsistent or contradict certain observable facts of the universe, there are plenty of god concepts that are completely unverifiable.) I have simply found no convincing reasons to believe that any gods exist (barring any "god is love" utterances and equivocations of the sort).
So what about the scenario that you mentioned?
The question you might ask is this: Does God want you to believe that he exists? If he were trying to convince you that he did exist, the burden of proof would lie with him. If the person is trying to decide whether or not God exists, he or she is simply evaluating evidence. Think of it like a trial: the prosecution is presenting evidence in an attempt to meet their burden of proof, while the judge is simply evaluating that evidence; the judge has no burden of proof. (It is worth noting in this case that the defence does not have to provide positive evidence, but simply has to refute the evidence of the prosecution.)
So the burden of proof doesn't lie with the person evaluating the evidence. If God wants that person to know that he exists, he has the burden of proof (and, assuming an omniscient god, presumably knows exactly what it would take to convince the person).
There's a lot more to discuss here (some of the common arguments, for example), but I'll leave that for another time. I do want to take a moment to discuss faith, however, just briefly.
Faith is something that I've never particularly understood, and it's never really been explained to me in a way that seemed coherent and reasonable—but perhaps "reasonable" isn't what it's supposed to be. In any event, it's been put to me in the past that if God were to provide sufficient evidence that he existed
: we have to choose to believe, orhe would be in violation of our free will*, and we would have no choice but to worship him. Perhaps you've encountered this one as well.
This particular argument fails spectacularly in several places. First, if we're speaking of the God of the Bible, there is a perfect counterexample readily at hand: Satan. I'm fairly sure that this character is meant to have known God pretty well, and still passed on the whole worship thing—instead fomenting rebellion and whatnot—so it seems clear that knowing that God exists doesn't prevent us from exercising our freedom of choice. This argument also flies directly in the face of empiricism: this one belief, among all beliefs in the universe, is not allowed to be made on the basis of evidence. This is called special pleading, and it is generally frowned upon. The argument may also assume that belief is governed by the will (a fault it shares with Pascal's Wager). Unfortunately, I don't feel particularly at liberty to believe whatever I want: my beliefs are dictated by evidence and by persuasive arguments.
When it comes right down to it, I don't think that anyone really believes based on faith—I could very well be mistaken, but I think that most people, if not all people, who believe do so because they think that they have a good reason, or they avoid thinking about it because it's uncomfortable. And hey, I certainly know that feeling—I really didn't want to give up steak.
Well, that's enough rambling for one night. I think that buried somewhere deep in the above you may find the answer to your question. If I missed it somehow, my apologies! Just let me know.
All the best.
* I should mention in passing that I don't actually believe in free will, the way most people mean it. But that's a discussion for another time. ;)
I went to bed, but realised that there was one more thing that I wanted to add. So back to the computer I went.
I should also mention another place in which the "proof denies our free will" argument fails, just to put a more personal spin on things. I can tell you that if God does exist, and the Christian Bible (both New and Old Testaments) accurately describes his actions and character, I don't find him particularly worthy of worship. Not to belabour the point, but this god does strike me as a bit ruthless,
prettypetty, and barbaric, and although the New Testament is often praised for its "turn the other cheek" mentality, it also introduces the concept of infinite punishment for finite crimes: in the Old Testament, once you were dead, that was that—no more suffering, whether inflicted upon you by God or by men—but with the New Testament we get the idea of Hell. The thought that any crime could warrant torment without end is simply morally repugnant to me, and many of the crimes listed in the Bible barely seem worthy of the name.
You may be interested to know that by denying the holy spirit I have committed what is called in Matthew and Mark the only unforgivable sin. If true, there's nothing for it: it's an eternity of torture for me! But doesn't it seem odd that a serial child rapist could repent upon his deathbed and spend eternity in paradise while those pursuing reason and free inquiry would be damned?
If I ever do meet this Yaweh fellow, I hope that he has time for a nice long chat before he throws the lever and trap door opens below my feet, because if nothing else he would certainly be capable of sating my curiosity on a great many subjects.
I apologise for the typos in the above: it was written well after midnight.
Any thoughts? Did I get it right?