Win By Default

In any serious discussion the participants must present arguments for their respective position.  Both people bring an opinion into every discussion.  Most people understand this, but sometimes someone comes to the table under the impression that their view is correct by default.  A classic example of this can be found in the comment section of The Complaint Dept. Is Closed #12.

What we have is someone who misunderstood the burden of proof, as well as mistakenly believed his view was correct by default.  GOD argued that as a skeptic, his view did not have to be defended because skepticism was the default position in the discussion.  I see no reason to repeat my comments from the discussion since they accurately represent why I believe GOD was incorrect.  But a quick review may be helpful.

In any discussion there is no default position, since once a proposition is offered, there are only three options, and two of them must be defended:

  • Affirm the proposition.

If someone offers “P is true”, and you concede P is true, there is nothing more to discuss.  The debate is over.

  • Deny the proposition.

If someone offers “P is true”, and you deny the truth of P, your position of skepticism does not protect you from defending your position.  Neither the one affirming, or the one denying the existence of the plane is correct by default.  Since before the claim is made, there is no position at all, there is nothing to defend.  But once P is offered in either direction, no one is correct by default.  A denial is in fact a position.

  • Withhold judgement for further information.

Here you are neither affirming or denying P, and thus are offering no position, and have no burden of proof.  It is only this soft-Agnosticism which bears no burden.  But this is not what GOD or the skeptic argues.  Like affirming P, this also ends the discussion.

It is important to realize no one sits in a position of privilege in any discussion.  Everyone has an opinion, and every opinion requires justification.


  1. John, I’ve had some version of that discussion with “skeptics” numerous times. It’s maddeningly frustrating. Good job trying to educate this guy.

  2. rautakyy says:

    Hahaha! Very funny! Since you are on a memory lane here, do you remember John Barron Jr, when you said “nonsense”, when I claimed Santa Claus to be more likely to exist than any other supernatural character? I even had sound evidence to back up my claim, did I not?

    Did you really not understand what GOD meant while referring to magic, or were you simply parrying the point?

    • If I remedber correctly, you tried equating the “evidence” for Santa with the evidence for Jesus, which is nonsense given the differences in the natures of the subjects. Also, I did not just declare nonsense, I gave a couple reasons. This person I am in dialogue with felt justified in declaring nonsense and leaving it at that.

  3. rautakyy says:

    Yes, in deed, there is a difference here, but only a slight one. As you yourself put it, claiming something is “nonsense” does not make it so. Same applies to the comparrison with Jesus and Santa. You did give a couple of reasons you thought valid to disqualify my claim. However, if you remember a bit further I did challenge your “reasons”.

    You see, it is our cultural backround that often determines what we see as “nonsense” and why we will not give it a second thought, before someone has put an effort to prove their claims in a manner we find compelling or even plausible. My claims that Santa must exist are as valid as any you can put up to defend Jesus as a divine character, but not nearly enough scientific to prove any of our claims to GOD or any scientist who has no faith.

    From religious perspective people see gods as valid explanations to the mysteries of the surrounding world. However, religion is based on faith of the supernatural. In the past world people explained a lot of things they did not understand by the existance of supernatural and they went as far as to give explicit explanations of the gods they hoped would help them, give them life after death or what ever fanciful hopes man might come up with, if they worshipped these imaginary entities. Even today these cultural traditions give hope, comfort, social and political power to people. Some gods have been forgotten as the cultures that relied upon them have disappeared, while newones have risen to fame and/or infamy.

    For who knows how long, but possibly tens of thousands of years supernatural was an explanation for the unknown, which was not challenged. Nowadays rather few things need supernatural explanation, if you have the acces to the basic results of modern scientific research. Our desicions are less and less determined by the religious, fancifull explanations of the world. Many religions even have started to lean more on the scientific explanation of the world, than the former religious one.

    From scientific perspective so many superstitious explanations have come under suspicion or have been revealed as “folklore”, that any supernatural explanation seems like utter “nonsense”. As a result a person with scientific worldview will expect religious claims to be backed up by more evidence than faith. Otherwise they are seen as “nonsense” claims, just as my claim about Santa. Do you understand?

    • First of all, no, your reasons for Santa are not as valid as the reasons for Jesus, and the fact that you think so show you do not take the issue seriously enough to investigate the diffeences.

      Lastly, the point of this is not that someone must decisively “win” their argument, but rather no one is in the priveladged position of being correct from the outset. There is no default position. I’m not suggesting you can’t believe someone’s claims are nonsense, but your belief that the supernatural is nonsense is not the default position, and does require reasons for belief in the supernatural is nonsense.

      This person GOD was under the impression that his skepticism was the correct position until I could intellectually force him to my position, which is false.

  4. I’m going to agree and disagree with you here John.
    First, this whole conversation plays into the presuppositionalist debating strategy of trying to accomplish as much as possible without ever making any positive claims. It comes across as disingenuous, though it seems to score points in the Christian camp, so I understand its utility.

    Secondly, I think you are taking good logic to a ridiculous conclusion making this argument. Though I agree that claims must be accompanied by evidence, I do think that there are some claims that can be all but dismissed on their face.

    Should we really require sufficient evidence to dismiss the claim “Peanut Butter causes AIDS”?
    Basic logic dismisses that claim as it is being stated. Why should claims be judged as equal when they are clearly not?
    If someone tells me that the new Chevrolet Volt will sell for $25, or 2.5 million dollars, why should I bother to give those claims any of my time? If someone says $24,000, or $42000, then I might require some evidence; but when a claim is ridiculous, it ought not to require any thought on my part. I ought to be able to call “BULL$#*%” on claims that defy basic knowns in reality.

    I won’t make the claim that the existence of God falls under this category, but as someone who thinks naturalism and monism have yet to fail us, I can see why others might.

    I think this lies at the heart of what GOD was trying to express, though he/she did so poorly.

    • I’m not sure what you see in my argument that is presuppositional. My main argument with GOD (aside from him attempting to divert away from the topic) was two fold:

      1) That he misunderstood the burden of proof
      2) That there is no default position

      The reason I stopped the discussion to address these two things is I know what discussions look like when someone doesn’t understand/observe either. 1) If I make a claim, A is true, he does not just get to dismiss it out of hand free of responsibility to defend his rejection. I appreciate your analogies, but I don’t think they are good representations for addressing my point. First, you wouldn’t just dismiss PB causes AIDS. The reason you can say “nonsense” is because AIDS is a virus which is spread by bodily fluids, not PB. However, some bodily fluid could be present in the PB thus spreading the virus. I know this isn’t really the point he was making, but it would be on you or I to ask the question, “what do you mean?” or something like it. In the case he was positing AIDS is caused just by PB, we still wouldn’t say “nonsense” we would answer with the correct information about how AIDS is spread. I know it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but I think the distinction is important.

      The same is true with the Volt. If someone tells you the cost is $25 or $2.5M, we also wouldn’t just dismiss it out of hand. I think initially we would conclude our friend was mistaken, that he read the ad wrong, or someone was pulling his leg based on what we know about new car prices. In this case, again, we would ask what he meant, or why he thought a Volt would cost $25/2.5M and procede from there.

      However, your examples are casual real-world scenarios, i.e. general convo between two people. On the internet, especially blogs which deal with the subject matter we deal in, trying to be as precise as we do, need more than declarations of “nonsense”. I think we can agree that GOD was not intending to get into a casual discussion, but was steering the discussion in a philosophical direction which requires more precision than “nonsense”.

      2) He was attempting to argue from the privelaged position of “correct by default” (cbd). He was under the impression that skepticism was the starting point. I don’t think this is true. Once an idea is presented, in any direction, arguments must be made in order to attempt to show the truth of the idea. No one gets to start from cbd. As you read, he believed he was correct and could just declare “nonsense” until I could intellectually force him to abandon his position, which is nonsense. rdrr.

  5. John,
    I’m not arguing that he was right that the proper position is to dismiss your position on its face. What I am arguing is that you are wrong to assume that their is no such thing as a default position when faced with a proposition.
    Your conclusion assumes that all positions deserve or warrant the same degree of skepticism, which is logically false. Their are many propositions which deserve little to no skepticism (Life requires energy, for example), some which require some skepticism (I have a net worth of $300000), and some that defy a need for consideration or skepticism (PB causes AIDS).

    It appears to me that in your quest to remove any sense of “privileged position”, you are willing to go beyond what is logical and into an absurd “Hyper-skepticism” where every claim has equal merit.

    I agree that GOD had it wrong, but you get it equally wrong in your rebuttal.

    • But I don’t think everything warrants the same degree of initial skepticism. What I think you are not taking into consideration is your prior “leg work” which you import into every discussion. You don’t just know life requires energy, you already learned that somewhere. You aren’t accounting for the fact that some of your background information is already provided for. So you aren’t actually simply dismissing “PB causes AIDS”—you already have some opperational knowledge of the nature of HIV and its modes of passage to people, so when someone says it’s passed by PB, you can say “nonsense”, not because it’s nonsense on its face, but you already know about AIDS. If you have a net worth of $300K does not require the same amount of skepticism as some other things given your current background knowledge of whether $300K is a lot or little amount of money given your particular economy and occupation.

      In most discussions we are not starting at the ground floor when it comes to background knowledge of the issues. However, in the commentary which GOD was discussing, his views are not as established as the method of HIV transmission. Do you see this?

  6. rautakyy says:

    John Barron Jr, you are right about the fact that all we know is based on information we have recieved. Even as the choises we make are based on information we have. One thing we choose is who do we believe and on what grounds. The priest or the scientist, for example. The religious scientist or the atheist scientist. The researcher on the tobacco industry payroll or the one in cancer research institute. As you know, humans have also the tendency to believe people whose “truth” pleases them most.

    As you are concerned about “The Truth in Religion & Politics”, you will end up running into people, who have had other kind of information to yours or have come into different conclusions based on the same information. If you have come to a conclusion of Santa Claus as not a supernatural entity, but Jesus is such, that is your priviledge. However, GOD may have become into a conclusion that any deity is such an implausible suggestion, that it first requires proof, before even seriously discussed in the context of “truth” your headline suggests.

    The fact of the matter is that the gods are invisible (it says so even in the bible), and not measurable in any scientific method, so their existance is a purely philosophical question. Most personal expirieces recorded people have about the supernatural are these days also explainable by measurable scientific methods of psychology. In this light and in comparrison to the knowledge we have aquired about the universe, the position of GOD on gods is as valid as yours on Santa Claus.

    I do not take religious issues seriously untill they start to have an impact on politics. I understand it would be a tangent to the question at hand to discus the plausibility of Santa in comparrison to Jesus, but as you yourself put it, even nonsense claims require opposite opinion to explain why something is seen as nonsense. Or do they not?

    • I don’t think the topic of God is of the type, even if you are fully convinced of your position in either direction, that mere dismissal of an opposing view is warranted or justified in a discussion.

  7. John,
    What I am doing is exactly to take into consideration prior “legwork”. That is what you are not doing when you argue that all claims deserve equal weight until proven otherwise.
    Either you can concede that you didn’t really mean to say that

    It is important to realize no one sits in a position of privilege in any discussion. Everyone has an opinion, and every opinion requires justification.

    or you can insist that prior knowledge is unimportant in all circumstances, but you can’t say both.
    The position of privilege exists, and it exists for claims that are so true they are trivial. To expect every conversation to begin at first principles is impossible and ridiculous.

    Yet according to you, this is not what you said. In generalizing a good “rule of thumb” in debates, it in fact is exactly what you said.
    There either is or is not a position of privilege. I stipulate, and you seem to concede in your previous comment, that claims that shoulder no reasonable questions are privileged positions; that they are capable of a priori acceptance. I claim that privilege exists and that it can be derived from consistency with available laws of logic, reason, mathematics, and physics- coupled with materialistic observable truth.
    If there are five bananas on a table, and I state “there are five bananas on that table”, I am not required to prove that 2 + 3 = 5, or that the yellow curved tube shaped fruit on the table are not, in fact, oranges.
    This is an oversimplification, as is your PB causes AIDS analogy. But just because two people disagree on a proposition, does not mean that it must always be proven. If you tell me that there are 32 apples on that table, when there are only 5 bananas, it is safe to assume that no amount of reasoning is going to change your unreasonable position.

    Just so that we are clear, I never said that GOD’s arguments fall under this a priori rule. In fact, I distinctly said otherwise. If anyone can appreciate the subtleties of my argument with you, it should be you, John Barron Jr.
    I’m only arguing that your statements are wrong, not the spirit in which they were given.

  8. rautakyy says:

    John Barron Jr, wether you think gods are subjects of the type that could be simply dismissed is a result of the information and conclusions you personally have.

    Let us face it. Gods in general are philosophical hypothesis, that presume rather far reaching assumptions. “Counting noses” does not reveal the truth of such matters. Therefore in terms of logic, to borrow the banana example of George W, to claim gods exist is much the same as claiming there are not only the five bananas we see on the table but also the invisble originator-banana, that exists everywhere with other bananas, and evidence for this is found from ancient texts that are such a great part of cultural heritage in banana producing cultures. For us to accept the possibility of this notion, we might need little bit more evidence than just the ancient texts, even if they could be presented.

    It may be that GOD did not enter your conversation on a particularly polite manner, but being polite does not require us to abandon our position. On the other hand it is true enough, that there is not much conversation in simply stating someone is wrong. Even so, conversation does not mean one conversant requires others to meet all the questions on his/her terms. This is what you tried to say, did you not? It is a good point, but it applies to you also.


  1. […] other is a post by Christian friend of this blog John Barron Jr. of Truth in Religion and Politics, where he waxes nostalgic about a debate he had with an atheist on the subject of the burden of proof….  Both are worth checking out for entirely different […]

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