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Philosophic burden of proof

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Title: Philosophic burden of proof  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Argument from ignorance, List of fallacies, Occam's razor, Razor (philosophy), Doubt
Collection: Doubt, Epistemology, Logic
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Philosophic burden of proof

The philosophical burden of proof or onus (probandi) is the obligation on a party in an epistemic dispute to provide sufficient warrant for their position.


  • Holder of the burden 1
  • In public discourse 2
  • Proving a negative 3
  • Example 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6

Holder of the burden

When debating any issue, there is an implicit burden of proof on the person asserting a claim. An argument from ignorance occurs when either a proposition is assumed to be true because it has not yet been proved false or a proposition is assumed to be false because it has not yet been proved true.[1][2] This has the effect of shifting the burden of proof to the person criticizing the assertion, but is not valid reasoning.[3]

While certain kinds of arguments, such as logical syllogisms, require mathematical or strictly logical proofs, the standard for evidence to meet the burden of proof is usually determined by context and community standards.[4][5]

In public discourse

Burden of proof is also an important concept in the public arena of ideas. Once participants in discourse establish common assumptions, the mechanism of burden of proof helps to ensure that all parties contribute productively, using relevant arguments.[6][7][8][9]

Proving a negative

When the assertion to prove is a negative claim, the burden takes the form of a negative proof, proof of impossibility, or mere evidence of absence. If this negative assertion is in response to a claim made by another party in a debate, asserting the falsehood of the positive claim shifts the burden of proof from the party making the first claim to the one asserting its falsehood, as the position "I do not believe that X is true" is different from the explicit denial "I believe that X is false".[10]


Matt Dillahunty gives the example of a large jar full of gumballs to illustrate the burden of proof.[11][12] It is a fact of reality that the number of gumballs in the jar is either even or odd, but the degree of belief/disbelief a person could hold is more nuanced depending upon the evidence available. We can choose to consider two claims about the situation, given as

  1. The number of gumballs is even.
  2. The number of gumballs is odd.

These two claims can be considered independently. Before we have any information about the number of gumballs, we have no means of distinguishing either of the two claims. When we have no evidence favoring either proposition, we must suspend belief in both. This is the default position. The justification for this zero-evidence epistemic position of non-belief is only over the lack of evidence supporting the claim. Instead, the burden of proof, or the responsibility to provide evidence and reasoning for one claim or the other, lies with those seeking to persuade someone holding the default position.

See also


  1. ^ "Argumentum ad Ignorantiam". Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic.  
  2. ^ Dowden, Bradley. "Appeal to Ignorance". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  3. ^ Michalos, Alex (1969). Principles of Logic. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. p. 370. usually one who makes an assertion must assume the responsibility of defending it. If this responsibility or burden of proof is shifted to a critic, the fallacy of appealing to ignorance is committed. 
  4. ^ Leite, Adam (2005). "A Localist Solution to the Regress of Justification". Australasian Journal of Philosophy 83 (3): 395–421 [p. 418].  
  5. ^ Leite, Adam (2005). "A Localist Solution to the Regress of Justification". Australasian Journal of Philosophy 83 (3): 395–421 [p. 403].  
  6. ^ Goldman, Alvin (1994). "Argumentation and Social Epistemology".  
  7. ^ Eemeren, Frans van;  
  8. ^ Brandom, Robert (1994). Making it Explicit. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 222.  
  9. ^ Adler, Jonathan (2002). Belief’s Own Ethics. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 164–167.  
  10. ^ T. Edward Dame (2009). Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments. Cengage Learning. p. 17.  
  11. ^ "The Atheist Experience". Episode 808. 7 April 2013. channelAustin 16.
  12. ^ Matt Dillahunty (2013). Does God Exist? (Debate). Texas State University. 
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