Burden of Proof

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One of the key factors in communicating learning is proof. Without it one could easily argue that learning is not possible.  What counts as proof is itself a lengthy examination but worth looking at briefly in order to make it clear what is meant by ‘burden of proof’

What is Proof?

The simple explanation is that proof is something that supports a claim and has two main categories:

Evidence

  • Physical: Could be literally anything from books to fossils, to videos or empirical data.
  • Non-Physical:  This includes logic, mathematics and deductive reasoning. Although these are typically expressed in a physical format (paper, computer…etc) they exist in a non-physical realm.

Classical empiricists claim that knowledge is gained through induction (repeated sensory experience). Bertrand Russell argued that evidence is sense data, mental objects in your consciousness that you are already familiar with. Willard Quine also held that evidence is the stimulation of one’s sensory receptors.

Logical empiricists hold that evidence rests upon public experimental verification and can be expressed in a single language common to all sciences.

Confirmation Theory

Confirmation theory is the study of the relation between evidence and hypothesis.  Any evidence can confirm or disconfirm any hypothesis making it more or less true.  While less concerned with what actually counts as evidence Baye’s conformation theory is important to understand in order to properly weigh for truth that of which we are psychologically certain.

The Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim. While it may not always required the burden is none the less on the claimant. Also, the proof doesn’t necessarily need to be conclusive. What counts as acceptable support is subjective, depending on the situation and the people involved.  Lastly, for proof to be a requirement the claim must positive.

Negative Statements

Negative statements cannot be proven. For someone to claim that ‘Blarg’ exists because there is no proof Blarg doesn’t exist is not logically possible.  In order to know for a person to be certain something doesn’t exist a person would have to be able to observe everything in existence simultaneously and see that it does not (omniscience).  Obviously, this is just impossible and so therefore a negative is impossible to prove.

It is possible to prove a specific negative claim by presenting supporting evidence. For example, I can prove pink bunnies don’t exist by showing that the only existing picture of one was altered on a computer. However proving a negative is an argument from ignorance.

The Objectivist Newsletter (April 1963) had to say on the logical fallacy of proving a negative:

“Proving the non-existence of that for which no evidence of any kind exists. Proof, logic, reason, thinking, knowledge pertain to and deal only with that which exists. They cannot be applied to that which does not exist. Nothing can be relevant or applicable to the non-existent. The non-existent is nothing. A positive statement, based on facts that have been erroneously interpreted, can be refuted – by means of exposing  the errors in the interpretation of the facts. Such refutation is the disproving of a positive, not the proving of a negative…. Rational demonstration is necessary to support even the claim that a thing is possible. It is a breach of logic to assert that that which has not been proven to be impossible is, therefore, possible. An absence does not constitute proof of anything. Nothing can be derived from nothing.” If I say, “Anything is possible” I must admit the possibility that the statement I just made is false. (See Self Exclusion) Doubt must always be specific, and can only exist in contrast to things that cannot properly be doubted. “

Anyone who refuses to accept that the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim is simply not using logic or reason and so therefore should be dismissed.

References:

http://sguthrie.net/empiricism.htm

http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/socialsciences/ppecorino/phil_of_religion_text/CHAPTER_5_ARGUMENTS_EXPERIENCE/Burden-of-Proof.htm

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-bayesian/

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