Philosophical burden of proof

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This article is about burden of proof as a philosophical concept. For other uses, see Burden of proof (disambiguation).

In epistemology, the burden of proof (Latin: onus probandi, shorthand for Onus probandi incumbit ei qui dicit, non ei qui negat) is the obligation on a party in a dispute to provide sufficient warrant for their position.

Holder of the burden[edit]

When two parties are in a discussion and one makes a claim that the other disputes, the one who makes the claim typically has a burden of proof to justify or substantiate that claim especially when it challenges a perceived status quo.[1]

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 and conventions.[2][3]

Shifting the burden of proof[edit]

One way in which one would attempt to shift the burden of proof is by committing a logical fallacy known as the argument from ignorance. It 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.[4][5]

In public discourse[edit]

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[edit]

A negative claim is a colloquialism for an affirmative claim that asserts the non-existence or exclusion of something. There are many proofs that substantiate negative claims in mathematics, science, and economics including Arrow's impossibility theorem.

A negative claim may or may not exist as a counterpoint to a previous claim. A proof of impossibility or an evidence of absence argument are typical methods to fulfill the burden of proof for a negative claim.[10][11]


Internet personality Matt Dillahunty gives the example of a large jar full of gumballs to illustrate the burden of proof.[12][13] The number of whole gumballs in the jar is either even or odd, but the degree of personal acceptance or rejection of claims about that characteristic may vary. 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.

Either claim could be explored separately; however, both claims tautologically take bearing on the same question. Odd in this case means "not even" and could be described as a negative claim. Before we have any information about the number of gumballs, we have no means of checking either of the two claims. When we have no evidence to resolve the proposition, we may suspend judgment. From a cognitive sense, when no personal preference toward opposing claims exists, one may be either skeptical of both claims or ambivalent of both claims.[14][15][16] If there is a dispute, the burden of proof falls onto the challenger of the status quo from the perspective of any given social narrative.[17] If there is no agreeable and adequate proof of evidence to support a claim, the claim is considered an argument from ignorance.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cargile, James (January 1997). "On the Burden of Proof". Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. 72 (279): 59–83. doi:10.1017/s0031819100056655. 
  2. ^ Leite, Adam (2005). "A Localist Solution to the Regress of Justification". Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 83 (3): 395–421 [p. 418]. doi:10.1080/00048400500191974. [t]he point of articulating reasons in defense of one’s belief is to establish that one is justified in believing as one does. 
  3. ^ Leite, Adam (2005). "A Localist Solution to the Regress of Justification". Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 83 (3): 395–421 [p. 403]. doi:10.1080/00048400500191974. justificatory conversation...[is]...characterized by a person’s sincere attempt to vindicate his or her entitlement to a belief by providing adequate reasons in its defense and responding to objections. 
  4. ^ "Argumentum ad Ignorantiam". Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic. Lander University. 2004. Archived from the original on 30 April 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-29. 
  5. ^ Dowden, Bradley. "Appeal to Ignorance". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2016-02-24. 
  6. ^ Goldman, Alvin (1994). "Argumentation and Social Epistemology". Journal of Philosophy. 91 (1): 27–49. doi:10.2307/2940949. JSTOR 2940949. 
  7. ^ Eemeren, Frans van; Grootendorst, Rob (2004). A Systematic Theory of Argumentation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 60. ISBN 0521830753. [t]here is no point in venturing to resolve a difference of opinion through an argumentative exchange of views if there is no mutual commitment to a common starting point. 
  8. ^ Brandom, Robert (1994). Making it Explicit. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 222. ISBN 067454319X. [t]here are sentence types that would require a great deal of work for one to get into a position to challenge, such as 'Red is a color,' 'There have been black dogs,' 'Lighting frequently precedes thunder,' and similar commonplaces. These are treated as 'free moves' by members of our speech community—they are available to just about anyone any time to use as premises, to assert unchallenged. 
  9. ^ Adler, Jonathan (2002). Belief’s Own Ethics. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 164–167. ISBN 0262011921. 
  10. ^ Steven D. Hales (2005). "Thinking Tools: You Can Prove a Negative" (PDF). Bloomsburg University. 
  11. ^ T. Edward Dame (2009). Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments. Cengage Learning. p. 17. ISBN 9780495095064. Retrieved 2016-02-24. 
  12. ^ "The Atheist Experience". Episode 808. 7 April 2013. channelAustin 16.  Missing or empty |series= (help)
  13. ^ Matt Dillahunty (2013). Does God Exist? (Debate). Texas State University. Retrieved 2016-02-24. 
  14. ^ "Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence: The Role of Multiple Beliefs and Metacognitions in Creating Attitude Ambivalence". 
  15. ^ "Reductionism, emergence, and burden of proof — part I". 
  16. ^ "Reductionism, emergence, and burden of proof — part II". 
  17. ^ "A Pragmatic View of the Burden of Proof". 
  18. ^ "Argument from Ignorance".