Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pascal's Wager as a burden of proof argument

Dr. Vallicella has recently put up a series of posts on the notion of the who had the burden of proof in an argument, and I have some disagreements with the first entry and the most recent entry (which, from the last paragraph, looks to be the last entry).

First, I want to commend Dr. Vallicella overall, for an interesting and well-thought-out series. This is especially true in light of his statement that he had no worked-out position before these posts. I’ll discuss a couple of disagreements with the conclusions, below the fold.

In the first entry, Dr. Vallicella discusses a few different methods of assigning the burden of proof to one side of the other of an argument. They are the notions that burden of proof would rest on someone making a positive claim, an existential claim, counter-empirical claim, an improbable claim, a minority-opinion claim, and an unsafe claim. For example, claiming that there is a Saguaro cactus on a desert hillside in Arizona would be positive, existential, empirical, probable, majority-opinion, and safe. Overall, the burden of proof would be on the person who denies the claim. The assignation of the burden of proof can vary from field to field and situation to situation, though. A man carrying a crate of guns from a factory to a distributor has no burden of proof to show every single gun in the crate is unloaded, while a person handling a gun, even directly from such a crate, does bear this burden.

The difficulty comes in applying these different notions to God. In particular, Dr. Vallicella asserts that the theist accepts a majority-opinion claim, and bears no burden on that regard. I certainly don’t disagree there. He asserts that since some positive, existential claims do not need to be proven, there is no burden of proof attached to the positive claim for the existence of God, which certainly strikes me as fallacious reasoning (some things with A also have B, X has A, therefore X has B). Oddly, I didn’t find a name for that fallacy, although it would be some sort of faulty generalization. Just as badly, he assigns the burden of proof to non-theists on the basis that we would not want to lose our beatitude, which is Pascal’s wager dressed up in fancier language. I don’t feel a need to add to the criticism on the linked page.

In the latest post, Dr. Vallicella discusses the notion of the burden of proof in the competing notions that are or are not miracles. Firstly, I find that tense odd. Wouldn’t it make more sense to discuss if there have or have not been miracles? Is the existence of miracles in the present moment actually relevant to his discussion? However, that’s a minor inaccuracy. More serious is the very careful framing of the question as to the whole general class of miracles, avoiding the focus on individual miracles. Saying that there have been miracles offers no assurance at all about the truth of any individual putative miracle. It only offers emotional comfort in the notion you can’t be defeated on general principles.

Also, the notion that in the science game, the burden of proof will be on those who assert miracles exist, but in the religion game, the burden will be on those who assert they do not exist, is flawed. It confuses the procedural methodology of science with the ontological definition of religion. Science has no opinion on the existence of miracles. Religions do. However, any particular religion denies the existence for more miracles that it accepts.

As to whether the burden of proof lies with those who say morality and its presuppositions are illusory, I’m not sure what such a claim would truly entail in actual philosophical terms, unless you are denying the existence of thought at all, such as in eliminative materialism. Even then, the various collections of neural firings that we associate with morality would still be real, so morality as a behavior would still exist. I’m unsure what position is being assigned the burden of proof, here.

1 comment:

J said...

The MavP's usual semi-clever sophistries. His basic claim that since the majority accepts monotheism they don't have a burden of proof to prove it is bogus itself, or at best sort of informal, persuasive reasoning...a generalization as you say. The majority probably accepts astrology as well.

The context is what counts. Obviously dealing with sophisticated arguments--or semi-sophisticated (say, the implications of Darwinism) is not just ...scuttlebutt. That's one of the problems--MavP for all of his intellectual ...posturing, would let Vox Populi decide.

Russell's teapot analogy--while a tad...British for some (including me)--brought out this issue (make it a celestial space ship in Crab Nebula, etc if you want... same point holds). The one making the extraordinary claim has the burden, at least in collegetowns (tho perhaps not at the hardware store)

The miracle issue seems directly related: someone says he saw a ghost (loch ness monster/alien/chupacabra, etc). We don't believe him, and his testimony is disregarded (certainly in a legal context anyway). Only when he coughs up some convincing video or pic do we maybe ....have a moment of doubt. Even then most of us rarely believe. I don't see how ....the resurrection so-called is that different--at the same time, I don't think (as some hardcore skeptics do) that the Bible must be considered entirely...reliable/factual. More metaphorical, symbolic--obvious perhaps.

Pascal's wager to me is slightly different--not really deductive in any sense, but...a choice of sorts. Even granting the improbability of God's existence (who assigns odds??)--one might choose to ACT Christian, just in case. Not real profound either, but then...the Wager also might be said to include all faiths--doesn't one gamble even assuming God is ...Judeo-christian??? maybe one should act hindu or muslim. Bad joss when we die, and are then confronted by some deity speaking sanskrit, and He's really pissed about all the burgers we ate.