June 5, 2010
The Burden of Proof: And how it Applies to Near Death Experiences
The burden of proof is an idea that has a great importance in argumentation, but is rarely mentioned. This is unusually because either both participants understand the concept, or don't understand it at all, which, in either case, causes it not to be brought up.
The burden of proof is simply the understanding that if you are going to make a statement about something that you can support that statement and it goes a little further to say that if you are going to say something that isn't a well established fact or interpretation then your going to have to provide evidence that what you are saying can be established by something. It's like citing a study in an essay, which isn't just done to give credit where credit is due, but to also lend credence to the interpretation being brought up.
The importance of the burden of proof means that argumentation is inherently biased agianst new ideas/interpretations, but that is a good thing. There are a few reasons why this bias is good and I will point out a couple of those reasons.
1. The Coherence Factor: This is idea that the knowledge base that is made up of a majority of data that is coherent with each other, biology works with chemistry and chemistry works with physics which is consistent with cosmology.... so when a new idea is brought up it, it has a higher standard to meet. This doesn't mean that the information has to fit with what we already know, but that the burden of proof for things is on a sliding scale, with a minimum point of proof. The minimum is that the test has to be falsifiable and repeatable (This can simply mean that anyone can look up the quote you were talking about or that someone can do the test that is being referenced). Tests that find something coherent with all the other information just have to meet the minimum standard for the most part, while something outlandish has to meet a higher standard due to its incoherence.
This idea can be shown by someone referencing different quotes. Take for instance someone trying to make the argument that Einstein believed in a Christian God, and references the quote that "God doesn't play dice." That quote meets the minimum standard, it can be looked up and attributed to Einstein, but because it is inconstant with other Einstein quotes and known beliefs it requires more to back it up and to show that the quote can be used to mean that he believes in a Christian God. Counter that with someone saying that Oral Roberts said he, "Saw a 900 foot Jesus." Given the constancy with his beliefs that quote doesn't need nearly the same support. It can just be accepted by the minimum standard.
2. The Inability to Disprove a Negative: This problem can be easily demonstrated. If I was to argue, a la Bertrand Russel, that there was a tea cup in space between Earth and Mars, but it couldn't be seen because it was too small, it would be an unfalsifiable argument. There is no way to prove that there isn't a teacup between the Earth and Mars, but that doesn't make it true nor does it count as evidence for it. Someone once argued with me that a group of people in the past had a technology (I forget what it was), that couldn't be archeologically verified. Well that's good, but through that line of thinking I could say the same thing about the Dinosaurs. The point is that because you can't show that something that has no evidence to be false, the burden is on you to provide evidence for what you are trying to say.
When those two rules are understood it really creates a bias against new ideas, but it is a fair bias. This can be shown with how people use the evidence to support the notion that Near Death Experiences point to a dualist brain/person distinction. I'll talk about The Living Dead article from the Times Online which can be found here, but as always I'll summarize their best points.
The article starts out with a common setting of a NDE, someone is dieing, and they are described as clinically dead, but there brain still 'working' on some level. Then there is the white light, and you are seeing Jesus or whoever your god is and "Death, you now know with absolutely certainty, is an illusion."
The article then references the two best cases for NDE's as representing a mind body dualism,
"The two most famous cases are Pam Reynolds and Maria’s Tennis Shoe. Reynolds, an American singer, watched and later reported on with remarkable accuracy the top of her own skull being removed by surgeons before she moved into a bright glowing realm. But it was Reynolds’s account of the surgical implements used and the words spoken in the theatre that make the case so intriguing. Maria, meanwhile, underwent cardiac arrest in 1977. She floated out of her body, drifted round the hospital and noticed a tennis shoe on a window sill. It was later found to be exactly where she said it was. The shoe was said to be invisible from the ground and not in any location where Maria could have seen it."
It goes on to talk about Dr. Parnia who has attempted to prove that people are really floating above their body's through testing. Putting an image on a high place that could only be seen by someone really floating above their body. The results of these studies in the past is that not a single person has been able to identify the image that has been hidden but downplays that evidence by saying that, "In fairness, this may be because the last thing that a floating dying person, with Jesus behind him and his body being pounded in front of him, will notice is some odd picture left on a shelf."
The article then goes on to point out how universal the experience is now and has been in the past. It evokes quantum mechanics to explain why...I think quantum mechanics is the 'universal acid' of pseudoscience more then Evolution is the 'universal acid' of evolution, because it seems every pseudoscience can be supported by it.
Getting back to the article it then says that the world is made up of two different things, thoughts and things. In comes a laughable quote that has to be included saying, "Dualism is the default human conviction, embraced by religions, philosophies and, in fact, by everybody in their lives — if we didn’t embrace some degree of it, we’d be constantly worried about crashing our cars into other people’s thoughts." Wow..... I'll have faith that I really don't have to explain why that is crazy to anyone reading this.
Anyway it goes to to define dualism by the mind body distinction. The article implicates science as being in a plot agianst dualism, where science is actively and purposefully disproving dualism. The belief that consciousness is a product of brain function is described as, "A product of faith." It supports that statement by saying that, "Neuroscientists may be able to show what happens in the brain when we think or when we exercise “free will”, but this cannot be shown to be proof that dualism is wrong." and "For all our technology, nobody has yet seen a thought, nobody has shown how matter becomes mind."
Then Henry Stapp is brought in as someone saying that quantum mechanics works just as well at the level of the large as it does at the small and the mind could be 'non local' to the brain. (I guess we don't need to find a unified theory of physics anymore!)
This is clearly someone who fails to understand the burden of proof. Science doesn't have a plot agianst dualism. No one is actively working to show that materialism is the only way to look at the world while hiding dualistic evidence, nor is it premature to say that brain function creates a person. This isn't an assumption based on premature thinking, all the evidence from drugs effecting a person's thoughts and personality to how people change when the brain is inhibited points to the brain being the area that controls consciousness. This isn't to say that dualism can be ruled out, just that it has to meet the burden of proof, the burden that is fairly biased agianst it.
Dualism, if found to be true, would shatter the common picture of the world. It would be the first instance of the non-physical working on the physical and would cause profound changes in many areas. For that reason it would have to meet the heavier burden described in 1. It also has no real evidence for it, so it is like the tea cup in 2. As soon as it begins to meet the burden of proof, then it can be talked about seriously, until then we can be crude, but not premature in saying materialism is all there is evidence for and best accounts for what we know. Materialism is rightfully the standard.
Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic