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The informal logical fallacy of shifting the burden of proof occurs when a person attempts to evade the task of demonstration by diverting that requirement to another person in conversation. Typically this fallacious tactic is used when a person is ill-equipped to defend his position, or simply holds to a position that is indefensible. In other cases its use might simply stem from a benevolent ignorance of the rules of proper reasoning.
In order to better understand this informal fallacy, we should first define what it means to bear the burden of proof. Greg Koukl nicely summarizes it as such:
The burden of proof is the responsibility someone has to defend or give evidence for his view. Generally, the rule can be summed up this way: Whoever makes the claim bears the burden.¹
From this we come to understand that when a person makes an assertion, both positive and negative in nature, he is communicating a proposition believed to be true. In general, people do not make assertions about things that they know they do not believe to be true unless they are trying to deceive someone, which in some cases may include themselves. A few statement examples might help to solidify this concept:
With the above examples,² each statement, including the contradictory claims, requires demonstration. Regardless of the context in which such a statement is made, the person who makes the assertion is responsible for demonstrating its veracity.³ As such, the Theist, in claiming that God exists, is just as responsible for demonstrating their statement as the Atheist, in claiming that God does not exist. Though the task of the Atheist, in demonstrating a universal negative, might prove to be a difficult one, it should in no way excuse the Atheist in having to do so at all. This is an example of where shifting the burden of proof can occur. The Atheist might attempt to dismiss any requirement given to demonstrate against the existence of God by asserting that they are merely objecting to what the Theist is stating. However, to assert that God does not exist is an assertion of certainty, and not simply doubt or ignorance. Even for the hard agnostic, who asserts skepticism about the existence of God, there still is an assertion being made, namely that the existence is not knowable, and that assertion requires some sort of demonstrative explanation. Therefore, it is important to hold people accountable for their statements and to ask people questions in order to procure a demonstration for their position. This glimpses the essence of Socratic dialectic, an important tool for the Apologist and Philosopher.
It is important to make a distinction between types of claims at this point. While it is imperative to affirm the principle of bivalence, the principle that all statements are either true or false (at least for statements with a truth value), there are some statements for which their truth or falsity are unknown. Regarding this point, Peter Kreeft states: “We may not know whether a given proposition is true or false, but every proposition must be either true or false.”⁴ In addition, we should not confuse the distinction between subjective preference and objective truth. If Sophia were to tell you that her favorite book is Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, that might seem to be a wise choice to some, but the statement would not be one that requires objective demonstration to others, since the statement is based on her subjective preference. In this case, the truth of the statement is determined by the subject and not by the nature of the object itself, regardless of who might share the same sentiment.
In conclusion, as we make declarative statements about things, we need to keep in mind that we bear the burden of proof and cannot shift that burden to our interlocutors for demonstrating their assertions instead. Holding other people accountable for their burden to give a demonstration will also give us an opportunity to learn why they believe what they say, as well as give us a chance to contend for the faith.
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