My Two-Cents Worth on Dawkins, Skepticism and the Burden of Proof
By Nathaniel Bates
I hope that Jason will allow me to “piggy-back” on his review of Dawkins with a few thoughts of my own. I want to comment on the issue of the burden of proof that most forms of skepticism tend to impose upon those who are “believers” in any form of paranormal or spiritual phenomena. The burden of proof argument posits that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This sounds reasonable enough. Yet, my purpose is to determine whether it is actually logical. The difference between “reasonable” and logical was played out during the controversy around the Monte Hall problem, in which the answer that was seemingly reasonable turned out to be false. So it is that the claim of the skeptic that the entire burden of proof falls upon the believer must be deconstructed to see if it is actually a fair burden or whether it is a socially constructed facet of western rationalism.
To begin, I want to focus on all forms of skepticism, not merely those modes of skepticism that focus on religion. Dawkins mainly focuses on mainstream religions and does not necessarily focus on alternative belief structures. There are yet other forms of skepticism that focus on alternative belief structures, be those UFOs, psychic powers, crypto-zoology, New Age religions, or Apocalyptic narratives of all stripes. There are schools of skepticism that focus on mainstream science narratives such as Panspermia, neo-Lamarckianism, and mystical interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. Some schools of skepticism even take issue with ideas within mainstream science and mathematics, such as the Big Bang, String Theory, and mathematical speculations on infinity as found in modern Set Theory. There are many schools of skepticism, but they all have the idea of the burden of proof in common. According to the skeptic’s narrative, one begins with the null hypothesis and arrives at a position by way of inductive reasoning that overcomes any objection to within the shadow of a doubt. On the surface the skeptic’s narrative is reasonable enough in that it parallels a form of skepticism which is a product of the Enlightenment, namely the presumption of innocence that prevails in our legal systems. The presumption of innocence is key to those systems of justice that emerged out of the Enlightenment, placing the burden of proof on the prosecution in any trial. In a way, one can argue that the presumption of innocence is a product of skepticism and rationalism. This is a powerful argument in the arsenal of rationalists and skeptics to the effect that their methodology has not only expanded the realm of science, but personal liberty as well.
Indeed, we must agree that the burden of proof argument as conceived in the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment was key to modern Constitutional liberty. The “burden of proof” argument is necessary to the preservation of freedom that we have traditionally known in America. On this point, the skeptic’s argument appears to hold up. Yet, it is here that a form of skepticism based on logic and argumentation actually deviates from what is “reasonable” according to the modern skeptic. In placing the burden of proof on the prosecution, the system of justice that Americans have known from the Constitution and the earlier English common law puts the rational state on the defensive. The “reasonable” assumption is that the rational state, with its detectives, its crime laboratories, and its bureaucracies, is presumably immune to private vendettas and would have the burden of proof in its favor. Yet, the burden of proof argument as applied in our legal system removes that assumption and actually states that the defendant should be believed over and above law enforcement, even if the defendant has many prior convictions. A defendant is presumed innocent regardless of having been previously convicted of serious crimes, whereas an honest policeman must be presumed to be in the wrong. This is the null hypothesis of any trial. The fruit of Enlightenment liberty restrains the ultimate fruit of Enlightenment rationalism itself, the rational state with its methodologies, crime laboratories, and even its claims to rule in the name of the People as opposed to the mysticisms of pre-Enlightenment states.
The legal “burden of proof” runs contrary to the argument used by the school of thought known as skepticism upon careful analysis. According to the skeptic’s use of the argument, one should take a defendant who has committed multiple crimes and begin with the presumption of guilt. An already convicted defendant is one who should be presumed guilty if we truly follow the use of the burden of proof argument as understood by the skeptic. It actually runs contrary to the assumptions of Enlightenment skepticism in which the actual null position in science is a healthy agnosticism until a claim is proven. Agnosticism is not the same as assuming that an argument is false. Agnosticism admits a lack of knowledge that is maintained until proof is given one way or the other. As such, it should be the de facto assumption in any scientific argument beginning with no previous workable theory and an inadequate chain of evidence.
Remember that in the legal system, “not guilty” does not mean that a defendant has not committed the crime. Rather, “not guilty” simply means that guilt has not been proven. It is a legal protection against the power of the state, with all of its resources, since the pre-Enlightenment State of Monarchs and the rational Enlightenment State are both capable of malicious attacks on individual liberty. A proper use of the idea of that particular mode of skepticism simply means that a particular phenomenon, be it Panspermia, Big Foot, or the existence of Fairies, has not been proven and thus cannot be called “scientific” until it is. It does not mean that such phenomena categorically do not exist. By contrast, the notion that the null hypothesis means that a phenomenon categorically does not exist unless proven I will call the “weighted” null hypothesis, meaning a null hypothesis that is seen as automatically affirming the skeptic’s argument in lieu of any evidence. For the skeptic, the “no religion” position is automatically valid in lieu of any evidence. The entire burden of proof is therefore on the religious parties to prove their claims. No such burden is placed on the skeptic to prove any point. Hence, we must question the skeptics’ improper use of the term “skeptic” to define themselves when their actual aim is to uphold a kind of consensus world-view that is both mechanistic and materialistic in the philosophical sense. Such a world-view should have the same burden of proof placed upon it that is demanded of either religious world-views or non-mainstream narratives within science itself.
As it is, there is much to be said for the scientific method as having produced a tremendous explosion in human knowledge. Remember, however, that much of what has come to be understood as mainstream science actually began as a series of religious or alternative narratives. Astronomers were once astrologers. Chemists were once Alchemists. Mathematicians were once mystics. Biologists were once Clergymen praising Nature’s design as God’s handiwork. Even Darwin studied to become a Clergyman since it was assumed that this path would suit his interests in Nature. Indeed, historians of science have even noted that the revival of theoretical Physics in the 1970’s was made possible by “hippie” philosophers who were inclined to see connections between Quantum Mechanics and Eastern mysticism. We should note that Isaac Newton speculated on the Book of Revelation. Much as Marx stated “I am not a Marxist,” so it was that Newton was not a Newtonian. Albert Einstein dreamed of riding on light beams, light beams which he would later claim were immune from the passage of time that we experience. If one were actually to study the history of science, one would not find a history of skepticism. Quite the contrary, one would find a history of strange leaps of logic and odd speculations that turned out to be true. The argument that science was built on skepticism alone is a-historical, a projection of current academic narratives back onto previous centuries when such narratives had little meaning.
Modern science is much more of a team effort than eighteenth century science ever was. There is even a peer review process that precedes publication. Peer review is inherently conservative, and often reinforces the biases of the group, which is a good thing when such conservatism acts as a proper restraint on unfounded speculation. Peer review is a necessary process for any kind of process of finding scientific proof. However, when it is made an onerous a priori restraint on publication, or a restraint on even considering an idea, then we are not dealing with science. We are dealing with an institutionalization of science that undermines reason and science within the scientific establishment itself. The scientific process requires skepticism and peer review, but a skepticism and peer review that is egalitarian and non-hierarchical. Forms of peer review that function as a means by which governments and universities censor ideas are no better than the “peer review” that religious bodies once perpetrated against science in centuries past.
I am not suggesting that there be equal time in the Science Department for religious narratives, New Age healing, or Panspermia. However, to be consistent with a true burden of proof argument I would also have to admit to a healthy skepticism that large leaps in evolution can be entirely explained by nineteenth century biological constructions. If I am to take a proper skeptic’s approach, then I should not trust any religious or scientific institution with a null hypothesis weighted in its favor. The reader will have to forgive my own form of skepticism if she or he is offended. It is not a system of doctrines. Rather, it is a mode of inquiry that may or may not produce truth but which will allow me to consider all possible avenues of truth. Of course, I have not proven that mine is the proper approach, and thus the burden of proof is still on me. Proper skepticism, even of my own claims to truth, keeps me humble, ever open to new approaches to truth viewed skeptically but with an eye for potential vistas that open up for exploration. I thought this was the approach of a scientist, or so I was taught. If not, then perhaps a greater compliment than the term “scientist” is “truth seeker”. I can live with that label.
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