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I have heard that agnosticism seems to be the only position with respect to god that doesn’t have a burden of proof. What I find troubling about this is most people do not as a practical matter think they have no knowledge on whether 10,000 mermaids are surrounding them right now. They simply don’t believe it.

Why isn’t this the case for god? A further problem is in this. Let us suppose that there are many nonexistent entities. Presumably, there are an infinite number of them.

Isn’t it more rational to simply assume that an entity without evidence doesn’t exist rather than give them a small chance of existing. For starters, it is impossible to distinguish between an entity with no evidence and a nonexistent one. Secondly, this wouldn’t necessarily make you dogmatic. You can simply assume X doesn’t exist but change your mind if evidence came forth for X.

Should one do this for god if one finds no evidence?

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    Whoever makes an assertion has the burden of proof.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 1, 2023 at 2:09
  • 3
    Does this answer your question? Does a negative claimant have a burden of proof? Sep 1, 2023 at 6:08
  • 2
    What, precisely, do you mean by "agnosticism"? Assuming that no gods exist sounds more like atheism. If one takes "agnosticism" to mean holding no belief one way or the other about the existence of God or gods, as some would do, then that does not require proof and is not open to disproof because there is no proposition in the first place. Sep 1, 2023 at 15:46
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    There is no burden to prove any personal belief. If I believe that the number 13 is unlucky I am free to believe that without any burden of proving it to anybody. Sep 1, 2023 at 19:59
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    @ScottRowe Let me embellish that bit: "Whoever urges a specific course of action based on an assertion has the burden of proof." If a man says that there is one God, no gods, or twenty gods, it means nothing on its own; but if the atheist argues that the believer must justify his belief before he may offer up his prayers, it is the atheist who brings upon himself the burden of proof. And in a like manner, the theist who demands that we join his five daily prayers bears the burden of proving that his opinions are the truly correct ones.
    – EvilSnack
    Sep 3, 2023 at 13:03

10 Answers 10

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First of all "the burden of proof" is a matter of "sportsmanship" not logic. Where the idea is that the person making a claim, demanding change or accusing someone of something is the one that has to defend their assertion. A similar principle can be found in a court of law with "in dubio pro reo" (when in doubt, in favour of the accused).

However that doesn't mean that it is better to remain stagnant, that the accused is not guilty or that the claim is false. It's just a matter of politeness and sportsmanship that acknowledges the fact that it's much easier to simply spout claims and allegations than it is to defend oneself against them and to debunk them. So for the sake of fairness in that regard the burden of proof is with the one making a claim. A similar logic applies to the believe in non-existent entities, it's easy to make them up it's virtually impossible to confirm/debunk them, so the burden of proof is placed on the side that is claiming their existence.

The other problem is that theism and atheism can only be formulated as universal truths. So either a god does exist or it doesn't, while the agnostic claim that "we can't know", can be formulated as a weaker "we can't know (yet)". And unlike the other two which have to rule out all the possible and impossible options how a god could or couldn't exist, the agnostic would just need to point to the status quo and cite both the theists and atheists arguments and their lack of conclusive evidence as evidence/reason for their own claim. So not only do they have a weaker burden of proof for a weaker argument, they're also somewhat able to comply with that.

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    You're talking specifically about strong atheism (and not weak atheism), but even a strong atheist can say: we don't know for sure (like we don't know anything for sure), but we see no evidence for deities, so we'll reject their existence until evidence shows otherwise. The line between agnostic and atheist are blurry in a lot of ways.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 1, 2023 at 11:40
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    would have thought that atheism and theism are really the edges that believe in the presence or absence while agnosticism ranges from agnostic theism to agnostic atheism.
    – haxor789
    Sep 1, 2023 at 11:47
  • Agnostic atheists are still atheists. Gnosticism (certainty) is a spectrum, with no clear line between agnostic atheists and gnostic atheists. "True/pure agnostics" (people who just don't know one way or the other) lack a belief in a deity, which is still one definition (the most general definition) of atheism. Although agnostic theists obviously wouldn't be atheists.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 1, 2023 at 12:01
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    Saying nothing costs everyone nothing. If you open your mouth, you are making a claim on people's time and attention, so it had better be worth it. Life was better when it cost money to say things on TV, or mail out stuff. Unlimited phone calls only helped spammers. Callers should have to pay for Caller IQ, not individual phone owners. Putting up a mailbox should be free, sending mail should require "Putting your money where your mouth is." (I paid good money to post this)
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 3, 2023 at 13:52
  • 3
    Burden of proof isn't merely sportmanship. It's a question of what is reasonable to believe. Sep 4, 2023 at 4:08
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It seems like the other answers so far, and the question itself, do not clarify what is meant by "God". The definition really matters.

If God is treated as an entity just like any other conceivable entity, like a tree, or a teapot around the sun, or 10,000 mermaids surrounding them, then sure, we can justify an approach that refuses to believe in its existence until we have evidence to support otherwise. We can use our experiences in life to shape some educated guesses about what kind of entities are extremely improbable to exist.

But God isn't just another entity among entities. Notably, the concept of "God" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. If we define God as a gigantic bearded old man living in the clouds, there are a lot of reasons why we might think of such an entity as unlikely to exist as the 10,000 mermaids in the question. A belief like that goes against our normal understanding of the way the universe works, and it's difficult to reconcile the two. But this is not the only understanding of "God" that exists.

What if we use the definition, like many believers do, that God is the original cause of all existence? In a universe where our experiences suggest that every effect comes about by a cause, it seems logical to wonder about some original uncaused cause from which all other causes and effects came about. If God is defined this way - and all other properties of God are deduced, rather than inserted into the definition - then it becomes a lot easier to understand why someone might place belief in God as the default position, and put the burden of proof on the atheist. Isn't it a simpler assumption to believe that a chain of cause-and-effect is finite, rather than going endlessly backward? If every other effect has a cause, why would the existence of the universe itself be the exception?

The point being made here is not that God must exist, or that this is the correct way to define God. The point is that not all entities are equal when it comes to assuming existence or non-existence by default. How the entity is defined matters.

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    "Isn't it a simpler assumption to believe that a chain of cause-and-effect is finite, rather than going endlessly backward? If every other effect has a cause, why would the existence of the universe itself be the exception?" Putting these together, isnt a world that endlessly goes backward simpler than alternatives? Adding God just pushes the question about the cause of the universe to a question about the cause of God. Endlessly going backwards doesnt require any of that. It seems so much simpler to me than trying to have cause and effect outside of cause and effect.
    – JMac
    Sep 1, 2023 at 16:02
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    This is called operationalization: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operationalization It is very important. Without defining your terms properly you can have two people who use the same words to mean slightly different things and then disagree strongly without realising they actually mostly agree with each other at the object-level.
    – Frikster
    Sep 1, 2023 at 21:15
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    Monotheists believe it’s self-contradictory for everything to have a cause other than itself. The argument “for God” and not “for infinite gods” always turns out to be that there must be an uncaused cause. But if we accept that something had no cause other than itself, the laws of physics tell us that there was no such thing as “a time before the Big Bang.” So it could not have had a cause in the sense of an preceding state in time.
    – Davislor
    Sep 2, 2023 at 4:09
  • Almost no one refers to God as merely being the “first cause”. God comes with attributes.
    – user62907
    Sep 2, 2023 at 10:35
  • 100% agree with this answer, and I think this is the crux of the problem. There's also something interesting in the question of "burden of proof" in relation to it - the position of suspended belief - the Weak Agnostic position - does not depend on any given definition. If combined with semantic refusal, the position that no coherent definition is admissible, you get the Strong Agnostic position To take either a positive or a negative position of any sensible sort seems to be to have at least some semantics, so I think there is something useful in the questioner's position.
    – Paul Ross
    Sep 2, 2023 at 15:16
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A few, ex mea sententia, salient points:

  1. A positive claim precedes a negative claim. The statement God exists comes before its negation that God does not exist. The onus probandi falls on the shoulders of theism.

  2. Imagine a universe of 10¹⁰⁰ (googol) balls. You claim at least one ball is red (theism, one thing is god) . You wouldn't have made that claim if you hadn't seen a red ball. Now come to someone who wants to say none of the balls are red (atheism, nothing is god). They would have to check each one of those googol balls, one by one, in order to demonstrate that none of the balls are red. Which is easier? I think this problem regarding proofs goes by the name you can't prove a negative which is hyperbole for it's more difficult to prove a negative. Theism has the burden of proof.

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 2, 2023 at 8:29
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    Are you suggesting that only one of two contradictory positions bears a burden of proof, as though philosophical arguments are like lawsuits and one party should be declared a defendant and presumed correct from the outset? Sep 14, 2023 at 22:06
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    @StevenHarder, courts do have that intriguing protocol Sep 15, 2023 at 1:19
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    They do. And philosophical arguments do not. Sep 15, 2023 at 15:36
  • @StevenHarder, my gosh, you ask really tough questions. Keep it up. Confiteor I don't have an satisfactory response to your counterpoint. All I can say is, negation is impossible unless you affirm and once you affirm, the onus probandi is all yours. Sep 16, 2023 at 4:32
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It is unreasonable to expect people to accept that you have arrived at a conclusion as the result of a rational process without giving them the opportunity to evaluate that process. The expectation that your claim should be accepted as reasonable is what incurs a burden of proof, and upholding that burden means demonstrating to a competent person that your rational process does not contain any fundamental errors that would prevent your conclusion from being given the benefit of the doubt.

When considering a claim for which you have no evidence (whatever that means) it would be a fundamental error to assume that assigning a probability of zero is equivalent to not assigning probability. Since it is "more rational" by definition not to assign probabilities arbitrarily, the answer to the question within your question is no.

Insofar as theism (or agnosticism) is presented as being worthy of belief (or unbelief), the person presenting it as such incurs a burden of proof.

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    How does "I don't know" incur a burden of proof? Do we rough people up an yell "Yes you do!" at them?
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 3, 2023 at 13:31
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    @ScottRowe There are varying definitions of agnosticism, but one is "the view or belief that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable" (Wikipedia). Either "unknown" or especially "unknowable" is a stronger claim than "I don't know." But even "I don't know" can incur a practical burden of proof, e.g. in a case where a suspect is placed by witnesses at the scene of a murder, alone with the victim, murder weapon, etc. and is asked questions about the event. Of course "I don't know" may be true and even demonstrable, but it's not burden-free.
    – LarsH
    Sep 4, 2023 at 12:47
  • @LarsH why must we make things so complicated? Was reading about "the right to say nothing" in the book, How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 4, 2023 at 12:52
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    In my view, reality is complicated; and sometimes you have to get into the hairy details if you want to get the right answer. Some bacteria are harmless and others can be deadly, but the difference is in the details. Re: saying nothing -- it's not the same as saying "I don't know" (let alone "it's unknowable").
    – LarsH
    Sep 4, 2023 at 14:59
  • @Scott Rowe I can't imagine how any burden of proof could attach to statements of that form. "I don't know" isn't a way of presenting something as worthy of belief/unbelief. It's just a statement of fact. It would be incredibly narcissistic to think that other's beliefs should mirror your own simply by virtue of your having uttered them in their presence. Sep 6, 2023 at 22:17
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It depends on the statement being made.

As Haxor correctly notes, "burden of proof" is not a concept of pure logic but is more something that is used for fairness and convention. (Nb: Burden of proof has very specific definitions in law and the contours are both complex and vary by jurisdiction.) Under standard conventions, the party making a claim generally has the burden of proving it.

A theist as the term is usually defined must be asserting that there is a god of some kind. When the theist advances this claim, as the advancing party they have the burden of proving it.

Atheism has a slightly more nebulous definition. It is usually defined as someone who does not believe in a god. If the atheist states this as "There is no evidence for the existence of a god, therefore I do not believe in it" then the burden of proof remains firmly with the theists to bring forth evidence or argument.

However, there are some atheists who wish to go beyond this. They wish to advance the affirmative statement there is no god. At that point, they accept the burden of proof by making a claim.

Some might argue that it is impossible to prove a negative. But this is obviously not true. There are lots of areas where you can affirmatively prove a negative and other areas where you can advance strong evidence to show the nonexistence of something. It is trivially easy to prove that there is no even prime greater than or equal to 3 in the set of natural numbers.

One can advance genuine arguments for why there are no six legged species of mammals. Those arguments stop short of formal proof, but biologists can and do produce arguments that show that such a species should not exist on earth. While short of logical proof (which is rarely possible outside of mathematics and certain types of philosophy), it meets any reasonable conception of crossing the burden of proof to show that we will never find a mammalian species with six limbs no matter how thoroughly we search the Earth. (Rare individuals with congenital abnormalities notwithstanding).

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    Maybe we should create a word like Naytheist for those who "wish to advance the affirmative statement there is no god"?
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 3, 2023 at 13:26
  • Your "proof" of a negative is pretty fast and loose. There may be even less agreement on the existence of numbers than on the existence of God ;) Sep 14, 2023 at 21:46
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Isn’t it more rational to simply assume that an entity without evidence doesn’t exist rather than give them a small chance of existing.

It is still possible that such entity does exist. Likelihood is potentially incredibly small, but it is never zero. Now, it seems that you are rounding the probability down to exactly zero, saying it is a rational thing to do.

If it was just about your own personal belief, you can do this, but if you are going to discuss the subject or even debate, this is not acceptable.

However, if your position is that you don't know, what else can you say about it? You just don't know. There is no claim to prove, so there is no burden of proof either. (Unless you are accused of lying about your position on the subject, but that is an entirely different matter, and not related to the subject at hand at all.)

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    you're opening yourself to being proven that you know literally nothing fairly quickly
    – njzk2
    Sep 1, 2023 at 13:50
  • @njzk2 Given enough pseudo-rigor for what constitutes valid evidence, nobody knows less than the atheist Sep 1, 2023 at 17:27
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The theist unquestionably has the burden of proof. When we have tried looking for evidence of god, we failed to find it. You cannot just ignore the history of how we proposed godly explanations for things we didn’t understand and found naturalistic causes instead.

Hypotheses for immaterial gods weren’t conceived of from scratch. Many were conceived of ad hoc, knowingly or unknowingly, because we never interacted with a physical kind of god or seen evidence of it. God isn’t hidden because He is testing us or because He is an entity that we conveniently “can’t understand.” God is conceived to be hidden or vague enough to not understand because we never found evidence of Him.

The philosopher who states that the agnostic is the only one without the burden of proof because god can’t be disproved must then be a perennial skeptic. But of course, these “philosophers” usually limit their skepticism to god while going on about their day believing in things like “planes fly” or “cars run because of engines” even though those claims can’t be proven “without doubt” any more than the claim “god doesn’t exist.”

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    "When we have tried looking for evidence of god, we failed to find it." Can you elaborate this claim? At best this is a very subjective claim. I think you should first establish what you would consider evidence of God. If you think neither the existence of something rather than nothing nor the existence of life despite the impossibility of "natural" abiogenesis nor a universe that follows physical laws perfectly is evidence for God, then what would be evidence that you would count as evidence? Sep 1, 2023 at 10:01
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    @12431234123412341234123 If God (the Christian God, at least) were really all-powerful, or capable of what the Bible claims, it would be trivial for them to just show up in some physical form and talk to us (or to manipulate matter in such a way to generate and control some physical form, so no need to cause blindness). Theists say that this is an unreasonable request because we don't see God doing such things (Biblical claims notwithstanding). And yeah, exactly, we don't see God doing much of anything. Kind of like maybe perhaps he doesn't actually exist.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 1, 2023 at 11:29
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    "just show up" And then atheist would say it isn't God. If he would come in a human form atheist would say: He is just a normal human (speaking of the bible, that is exactly what happens). If he would show his power by manipulating nature, then atheist would say it is just physics we don't understand or it is a physical law (as they do). This is why: If you make the claim "When we have tried looking for evidence of god, we failed to find it." you have to specify exactly what evidence you would accept as evidence (we are talking about evidence not about a prove). Sep 1, 2023 at 12:30
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    @NotThatGuy Noah's ark wouldn't be evidence for God any more than we already have and no atheist would accept the ark as evidence for God. It would be evidence that there was a ark, or to use a less fancy word: ship. Would you consider the finding of a ancient wooden ship to be evidence for god? Sep 1, 2023 at 12:37
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    @12431234123412341234123 Proving Biblical claims doesn't prove God, but it does make God less implausible. If he shows up just as a normal human, then... yeah, of course we won't accept that to be God. I'm sure you can find plenty of people who have claimed to be God in mental institutions. Even theists don't accept that. If nature does inexplicable stuff, then it's just that: inexplicable. If you combine the two, however... If a being descends from the sky, and controls any and all matter with a wave of their hand, and calls themselves God, that would be some pretty good evidence, I'd say.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 1, 2023 at 12:47
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I have heard that agnosticism seems to be the only position with respect to god that doesn’t have a burden of proof. What I find troubling about this is most people do not as a practical matter think they have no knowledge on whether 10,000 mermaids are surrounding them right now. They simply don’t believe it.

There, you seem to be using "agnosticism" in the sense of having no belief either for or against the existence of God (or of gods, if you prefer). That is the definition I would use, too. This position does not require proof and is not open to disproof because it does not assert any proposition. In that sense, it has no burden of proof. The same is not true of any theistic belief. I would say it is not true of atheism, either, but some who claim to be atheist take positions that I would characterize as agnostic, myself.

Why isn’t this the case for god?

I don't believe I am surrounded by 10,000 mermaids because I think that if I were, I would perceive them. The same is not necessarily true of God. A person can rationally refuse to take a position on the existence of God based in part on a belief that they would not perceive God whether He exists or not. This is in line the ideas of gods that many people hold.

A further problem is in this. Let us suppose that there are many nonexistent entities. Presumably, there are an infinite number of them.

I guess by "there are" you mean something along the lines of "we can imagine".

Isn’t it more rational to simply assume that an entity without evidence doesn’t exist rather than give them a small chance of existing.

This has nothing in particular to do with agnosticism. Assuming is not the same has holding a belief, and assuming something does not exist is not inconsistent with allowing a small chance that it actually does exist.

For starters, it is impossible to distinguish between an entity with no evidence and a nonexistent one.

Well yes, I would take that to follow fairly directly from the definition of "evidence". But what does that have to do with belief? You seem to be working from an unspoken premise along the lines of "we should disbelieve that for which we have no evidence", but that is not sound.

Consider: I have no evidence of extraterrestrial life. Is it then rational for me to affirmatively believe that there is no life in the universe other than that which originated from the Earth? No. Extraterrestrial life might or might not exist, and I submit that the most rational belief to hold on the question is no belief either way.

Now, if we were to instead tweak our rule to "we should not believe that for which we have no evidence" then what problem does that present for agnosticism? The agnostic does not believe in God. Neither do they disbelieve, but that's irrelevant to the rule.

In practice, of course, people do not necessarily accept even the revised rule, and I think you would have trouble justifying it other than as an axiom (i.e. something you believe without evidence).

Secondly, this wouldn’t necessarily make you dogmatic. You can simply assume X doesn’t exist but change your mind if evidence came forth for X.

I have no idea how dogmatism comes into the picture, but again, assumption is not the same as belief. In practice, I think most agnostics do live day to day as if God does not exist, which is something like your "assume [God] doesn't exist". I think many would be prepared to consider evidence of God if it were presented to them. And those who would reject such evidence without consideration would be better characterized as atheist. So again, where's the problem with agnosticism?

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  • +1 for "Assuming is not the same has holding a belief". I guess I don't know is really the only sound position to take, unless something bites you on the nose.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 3, 2023 at 13:36
  • "This position does not require proof and is not open to disproof because it does not assert any proposition." But if one claims to have no belief or no knowledge of something, that in itself is asserting a proposition, which may be true or false.
    – LarsH
    Sep 4, 2023 at 12:50
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I shall herewith make the case that the burden of proof falls, in fact, on the atheist.

Let me begin by noting that the way we, as humans, assess the burden-of-proof question in the first place is not only by engaging our intellect. Rather, intuition - or, an inherent claim to certainty/knowledge - is another aspect that we actively use to come to conclusions.

Now, since the overwhelming majority of humanity - throughout space and time, and independently of each other - based on using both intellect and intuition, have always been and still are in agreement with regard to the existence of at least one Almighty God, and since you are a member of that same group, the burden of proof falls on you to prove otherwise.

If the same was the case with regard to the 10000 mermaids example that you cited, then likewise the burden of proof would fall on you.

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    Many people have believed in "at least one god" (not necessarily "almighty"), but many of those different beliefs directly contradict one another, and you don't get to group yourself with people who has beliefs that contradicts your beliefs. But also, your argument is mostly just a fallacious appeal to popularity. We should evaluate their reasons for believing, not just believe it because they did. Appealing to intuition is a fallacy too.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 1, 2023 at 11:47
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    @NotThatGuy but many of those different beliefs directly contradict one another - They don't contradict each other in the position that a God exists, which is the question at hand. You pointing to the theological differences has no bearing on the question of ontology. We should evaluate their reasons for believing, not just believe it because they did - I never said we should, so what you just did is the straw man fallacy. But you are right that we should evaluate their reasons for believing, as it is upon us to prove their reasons wrong indeed. Sep 1, 2023 at 13:42
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    pretty much all humans have agreed that a lot of gods don't exists, too
    – njzk2
    Sep 1, 2023 at 13:46
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    @csstudent1418 "A god exists" is too broad to be considered a meaningful truth claim, when you can't agree about whether that god(s) lives in the sky or exists in another realm or exists outside of space and time or whether they are nature itself and whether that god is actively and directly responsible for every lightning bolt or whether they just triggered the Big Bang billions of years ago and whether we have souls and they have a son which is also them which they sent to save us from a torture realm that also exists or whether they're a bunch of drunkards that just like to have fun.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 1, 2023 at 14:58
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    @JaniMiettinen I would say the simplest agreeable definition is simply "a supernatural cause/Creator of the universe exists", as that captures the essence of the claim and ignores the irrelevant theological details. Sep 1, 2023 at 17:07
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All claims about the world are "positive", so there is no intrinsic "advantage" or greater likelihood for any of them, prior to the provision of justification. This is true of God claims, or any other kind of claims.

Justifying a claim is to attempt to satisfy a "burden of proof". However, no empirical question, and "what is the nature of our world" IS an empirical question, can be "proven", only supported to a greater or lesser degree. Therefore a "proof" is never possible, only some degree of support.

Relative to the existence of any entity, there are four basic types of claims one can make relative to it: Entity A exists, entity A does not exist, we do not yet know enough to render a judgement on existence/non-existence, or there is some feature of entity A that renders the evaluation of its existence/nonexistence impossible.

Therefore, like for all other clams about our world, God claims for: existence, nonexistence, current ignorance, or perpetual ignorance -- ALL such claims have an equal "burden of proof".

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  • Maybe we should just leave everything with option 3 unless it is clearly in option 1? If you can't kick it, then move on.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 3, 2023 at 13:29
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    @ScottRowe -- for all questions, we start from a position of ignorance -- option 3. But for most questions, we have been able to move off total ignorance, such that we can offer SOME degree of support for one (or several) of the other options.
    – Dcleve
    Sep 3, 2023 at 14:06
  • Then we'll all just have to be comfortable with 'some' and stop trying to get to 'all'. There are bigger fish to fry. Or, smaller, but at least edible ones. It's been a while since belief filled bellies.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 3, 2023 at 14:12

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