Who says so?

by david on July 15, 2010

Burden of Proof

It’s true! No it isn’t! Is! Isn’t! There are so many claims made for personal truth how can one determine what should be considered valid public knowledge and what is no more than someone’s unsubstantiated opinion or personal belief? Anyone can write or say anything they like and make it sound like science when in fact there is no scientifically valid evidence to support their claim.

The Internet, television, radio, newspapers and magazines are cluttered with unsubstantiated claims hiding behind pseudo-scientific language and phony credentials. So how does one sort out these claims? How do we establish a valid body of public knowledge that we can depend on? There are several criteria for separating personal claims of knowledge from scientifically valid public knowledge, but perhaps first and foremost is the fundamental principle of the Burden of Proof.

Simply put, demonstrating the validity of a claim of personal knowledge rests on the shoulders of the person making the claim. It is not up to those who would challenge that claim to demonstrate its falseness. Furthermore, the more extreme or far reaching the claim the greater is the burden of proof.

Some argue those who deny a claim of personal knowledge must provide evidence of the falseness of that claim. In the case of free will this would mean I could not simply argue there is no evidence to support the existence of free will; which is my position. I would be required to produce evidence firmly establishing that free will does not exist.

At first blush the idea that evidence for both the positive and negative sides of a claim must be presented in order to determine validity sounds like an issue of fairness. However, it is an argument long ago deemed specious. One cannot prove something does not exist. Providing evidence to establish the negative of a claim of personal knowledge is impossible. There is no way one can demonstrate all the conditions under which a claim could be shown to be false. It would be like trying to prove Santa Claus or god does not exist.

I want to be absolutely clear. I do not claim free will does not exist. My position is simply there is no evidence, other than anecdotal evidence, supporting its existence. The amount of anecdotal evidence behind a claim of knowledge is irrelevant. From a scientific point of view it matters not how many individuals attest to the existence of free will if they cannot offer valid, empirical evidence to support their claim.

I have been seeking such evidence for over fifty years to no avail. I have explored the literature of science, psychology, philosophy and religion and found no evidence beyond the anecdotal to support the existence of free will. I have had untold numbers of conversations with the best and brightest and have never been offered any evidence outside of personal belief. If by chance you have any such evidence please do share it with me.

I will be the first to admit personal beliefs are not necessarily incorrect, but unfortunately there is no way to differentiate one unsubstantiated belief from another. Additionally beliefs cannot be challenged by evidence. All beliefs are ontologically true and inarguable. Also, if one is willing to put forth a claim of personal knowledge based solely on one’s beliefs, one must be prepared to accept the unsubstantiated beliefs of others, even though no beliefs ever seem as worthy as one’s own.

This is why the burden of proof is so fundamental to increasing our knowledge base. There must be a way of testing beliefs beyond anecdotal evidence no matter what the volume of that anecdotal evidence. For example, how many people during the fifteenth century and later would have been willing to swear to the flatness of the earth? How many over the centuries have offered anecdotal evidence to establish, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the inferiority of half the human race, women? How many groups of humans have been condemned to lives of inhumane suffering because of self-serving, anecdotal evidence that designated one racial group inferior to others?

If our knowledge system is to be based on beliefs whose foundations are anecdotal rather than empirical we might as well throw science out the window. Even so, I would offer a word of caution to those who blindly worship science. Science sometimes becomes too full of itself and believes it is the sole possessor of the “truth.” Such hubris poses a significant problem for science and in turn for our society.

Valid, scientific knowledge, unlike unyielding belief, is temporary and ever willing to give way to new evidence. When science pretends it actually knows the truth rather than the current facts, it leads us blindly down the garden path as destructively as any anecdotal belief system.

(Why need science search for truth unless it wishes to be worshiped? Truth is what gives information its illusory glint of god. Norman Edwell)

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