In online conversations I have seen and engaged in, the debate about who is meant to provide evidence for their beliefs and who isn’t often comes up. What starts off as an interesting dialogue can quickly become an argument around the abstract distinctions of justification and responsibility. I would like to suggest that the answer to this problem is to start asking more genuine questions. These questions should steer the conversation back on track, holding the appropriate person responsible for explanation while genuinely seeking to understand them.
What about Questions?
There are so many wonderful things about questions that it is rather surprising we don’t use them more often. Perhaps it is a result of our childhood, being told to stop asking “why” by our family or being shamed in our classrooms for asking a “dumb question”.
Why is it that most of us, particularly those in teaching positions, get frustrated when somebody asks “too many questions”? Could it be that part of the frustration is the internal struggle of not knowing how to comprehend much of what we take for granted as true? But what is it about not knowing the reasons behind our beliefs that gets under our skin? I have come to suspect that it is an innate sense of obligation, to have a reason for our beliefs, that Philosophers have come to describe as “The Burden of Proof”. Surely if we didn’t feel an obligation to answer a particular question, then we wouldn’t have a problem with it, right?
Who’s Burden?! What Burden?!
There is a decent amount of discussion in philosophy around what the burden of proof is, but like many things studied in philosophy, “the burden of proof” is usually understood clearly without the need of an explicit description. Nobody needs to explain the burden of proof to someone who already feels the responsibility to provide justification for what they think is true.
I have had many worldview conversations with people claiming that, because they don’t believe in God, it is up to me, positing a “positive phenomenon” (God), to bear the burden of convincing them of my worldview. In these situations, the most effective solution is avoiding any discussion of what “the burden of proof” is and who is responsible for bearing it. Responding by asking questions under-girding the assumptions they might have, or where they might be coming from, often leads the conversation to where it needs to be. It seems that we all have an innate recognition of this responsibility to answer questions, regardless of our status, education level, or how much we agree/disagree with society and mainstream views.
I propose that we all begin to ask more questions, relishing in the fact that many times we don’t have the answers to others’ challenges, but that this is actually OK. More often than not, people who are challenging you on your views won’t actually know what they think about their own views. Before volunteering to take on the burden of proving everything you think, take a step back and ask some clarification questions. Ask where their ideas come from and why they disagree with yours. Ask for what reasons they believe their further underlying views. Ask where they got their facts from and what relevant academics testify to these facts upon which their conclusions lie. Ask questions in the name of wanting to understand, wanting to learn, and not knowing all the answers, while under the protection of humility. Ask questions to put the responsibility of explanation where it needs to be, without bringing up another abstract debate on “the burden of proof”.