The term “default position” refers to a belief (or lack of belief) that is preferable prior to debate or before any evidence is considered. Many people claim that some belief (or lack thereof) are default positions, so everyone who disagrees with those positions has the burden of proof. What exactly is a default position, and do default positions exist?
Philosophers don’t generally talk about default positions or burdens of proof. Those terms might be more suitable for determining good debate than help us better understand knowledge or rationality. We might wonder if these concepts are useful at all when considering what we should actually believe.
An illustration of a default position.
Some entities seem so ordinary that they should be assumed to exist without significant evidence. I have two sisters, and you are likely to believe me even if you don’t know me personally. I think it’s perfectly rational to believe me. These are two entities in the universe that make a difference in the world. They eat food, raise children, and do lots of interesting things. It could be argued that you know you can generally trust people who make claims like this and that the fact that I tell you that I have two sisters is genuine evidence because you know the claim is ordinary.
It could be further argued that it would be irrational to believe that I have two sisters out of nowhere if you had no evidence whatsoever. In that case the “default position” prior to evidence is that my sisters don’t exist, but it is perfectly rational to believe that I have two sisters considering the evidence that is presented.
The default position concerning atheism.
To understand what the term means, we should consider a context in which it exists. Perhaps the most popular argument involving the “default position” is that atheism is the default position (at least in the sense of not believing in gods)1 and therefore theists have the “burden of proof.” This is the sort of context that I am interested in.
The argument that atheism is the default position.
I believe that the concept of a “default position” was popularized by Antony Flew who introduced us to the argument that a skeptical form of atheism should be presumed prior to debate in his essay “The Presumption of Atheism,” which can be found in his book from 1984, God Freedom and Immorality: A Critical Analysis, (or on the website Positive Atheism). Flew argues that a skeptical form of atheism (not believing in gods) is the default position and those who say gods exist (or don’t exist) have the burden of proof.
Flew doesn’t use the term “default position” but there does seem to be a concept of a “default position” at work—the burden of proof is only against theism prior to the consideration of evidence and arguments.
Flew’s essay seems to present something like the following two arguments:
- An onus of proof against theism will help us avoid believing in gods without knowledge.
- We want to avoid having beliefs without knowledge.
- Therefore, we should require an onus of proof against theism while having debates.
- If we have an onus of proof against theism (prior to argument), then (prior to argument) there will be no reason to believe in gods.
- If we have no reason to believe in gods, then it’s irrational to believe in gods.
- We should not be irrational.
- Therefore, we should have an onus of proof against theism (prior to argument).
An argument against believing gods don’t exist.
Note that Flew does not seem to give us a strong reason to treat theism as more problematic than the denial that gods exist. We could rephrase his arguments in the following way:
- An onus of proof against the belief that gods don’t exist will help us avoid believing gods don’t exist without knowledge.
- We want to avoid having beliefs without knowledge.
- Therefore, we should require an onus of proof against the belief that gods don’t exist while having debates.
- If we have an onus of proof against the belief that gods don’t exist (prior to argument), then (prior to argument) there will be no reason to believe gods don’t exist.
- If we have no reason to believe gods don’t exist, then it’s irrational to believe that gods don’t exist.
- We should not be irrational.
- Therefore, we should have an onus of proof against the belief that gods don’t exist (prior to argument).
However, many people want to say that the default position should be against those who disagree with them. Theists sometimes claim that the burden of proof is on atheists, and those who believe gods don’t exist sometimes claim that the burden of proof is on theists.
The meaning of the term “default position.”
In consideration of the arguments given by Flew, the “default position” seems to refer to either of the following:
- The proper starting point of debate.
- Positions that are rationally required prior to debate and without one’s background knowledge being considered.
Flew does not want to say that we know that believing that gods exist is irrational precisely because he is only talking about believing in gods prior to debate and without considering our background knowledge. Default positions (as he understands them) do not generally tell us what to believe. They only tell us what we can rationally believe given absolutely no evidence for or against a belief. According to Flew, we can’t rationally believe anything without evidence, so it’s trivially true that a skeptical position (what he calls atheism in the theist debate) is the starting point of any debate given his principles.
When is something a default position?
Not everyone agrees about what should count as the “default position” because people have different attitudes concerning debate and often disagree bout what principles of justification are true. I will discuss three views concerning what default positions we should have. One, we might think that various far-fetched entities should be rejected within the default position. Two, we might think that we should assume things don’t exist as a default position. Three, we might think that we should reject beliefs as a default position when there are two or more alternatives to the belief. I do not personally endorse any of these views and I will touch upon the reasons why I do not endorse them.
1. Shouldn’t assertions for far-fetched entities be rejected as a default position?
Perhaps a case can be made that the default position is against those who believe in unicorns, dragons, goblins, and fairies—that it’s rational to believe these things don’t exist prior to debate and without considering our background knowledge. However, I find it plausible that those who believe in such entities have the burden of proof precisely because such entities conflict with our background knowledge. These entities have never been scientifically proven to exist and we find it more likely that people made them up. The “default position” should not include our background knowledge, and I don’t think we can generally know which beliefs are “far fetched” without considering our background knowledge.
2. Shouldn’t we assume things don’t exist as a default position?
It has been suggested that anyone who says something exists has a special burden of proof and the non-existence of that thing should be the default position. This principle could seem useful to explain why we should believe that unicorns, dragons, goblins, and fairies don’t exist. If we accept this principle, then the default position is that unicorns, dragons, goblins, and fairies don’t exist. We are likely to struggle to prove they don’t exist, but we are still rational in thinking they don’t exist anyway.
I do not currently agree that claims of existence should be rejected as a default position. Consider the following two beliefs:
- The past resembles the future. – We justifiably believe that induction is reliable, which means we justifiably believe that we can generalize facts about the future based on facts about the past. For example, we justifiably believe that the same laws of physics will probably exist in the future. This seems to imply that we believe that we live in a universe with unchanging laws of physics—that a universe exists with unchanging laws of physics. We ultimately can’t prove anything like this without fallacious reasoning. If we should assume something exists without proof, then the principle that default positions deny the existence of things is false.
- The external world exists. – We all live in a shared world of tables, chairs, animals, and so on. The world does not only exist in a dream. It isn’t clear what kind of evidence we have for believing such a thing exists, and many philosophers struggle to prove such a thing. At the same time the assumption that the external world exists is rational, even if we don’t know how to prove it’s true. If such an assumption is rational, then we should deny the principle that default positions deny the existence of things.
Rather than accepting that claims of nonexistence should be the default positions, we could accept something like Karl Popper’s epistemology. We could invent hypotheses and assume they are true until we have a good reason to reject them. We could be rational in holding assumptions until there are better alternative beliefs available.
3. Shouldn’t it be a default position to reject beliefs when there are two or more alternatives?
For example, if I roll a six-sided die, then the odds of rolling a 2 are 1:6. I will only roll a 2 (on average) once out of six rolls. It seems like the default position (prior to knowing if the die is weighted and so on) is to reject the belief that I will roll a 1 because (as far as I can tell) there are five other possibilities and I have no way to say one possibility is more likely than the rest. The default position would require me to withhold judgment in this case because there’s no reason to think any number in particular will be rolled. In a similar way it has been suggested that it can be irrational to believe anything else as a default position when there are two or more alternatives because as far as we know each belief in particular is “probably false.” (As far as we know when we have no evidence for any of the possibilities.)
Another example is that the belief that only one god exists and it’s Zeus seems irrational because the god could also be Jehovah, Isis, or Thor. Given these four gods, there’s only a 1:4 chance that one god exists and the god is Zeus (as far as we know when in a default position). Assuming we should believe whatever is likely true (and reject likely false beliefs), we should believe that it is false that one god exists and it is Zeus because there’s at least a 3:4 chance of such a belief to be true (prior to debate and without considering our background knowledge).
I am not convinced that the default position is to reject beliefs when there are two or more alternatives.
First, the alternatives we consider can be arbitrary and can lead to strange default positions as a result. We might wonder if fairies exist and decides that (1) fairies might not exist, or (2) fairies might exist and be blue, or (3) fairies might exist and be green. When considering these options, the default position would be to reject all three possible beliefs. However, the default position would seem to endorse the view that fairies exist because two possible beliefs are mentioned and only one possible belief is mentioned in which fairies do not exist. In that case we might think fairies probably exist—as far as we know there’s a 2:3 chance that fairies exist.
Second, I can imagine that there are at least two alternatives to the view that induction is reliable because the laws of physics will probably be the same in the future. It’s also possible that (1) induction will not be reliable because the laws of physics will be radically different in the future, (2) induction will not be reliable because laws of physics won’t exist in the future at all, or (3) induction will not be reliable because the laws of physics will only be the same in the next 100 years. If the default position is the reject beliefs when two or more alternatives are available, then (given these options) the default position is to reject the belief that induction is reliable. In fact, three of four possibilities are that induction will not be reliable in the future. Even so, I think the default position (assuming there are default positions) should be that induction will be reliable in the future. For some reason the principle in question seems to be giving us the wrong answer in this situation.
Are there any default positions?
Philosophers almost never talk about “default positions” and we might wonder if such a concept is useful or if it refers to anything at all. The problem with default positions is it requires us to analyze what beliefs are rational prior to evidence and without considering our background knowledge. However, almost nothing in philosophy is ever considered in such abstract isolation and we might wonder if it’s even possible.
Does giving people who make assertions a burden of proof help us achieve knowledge?
Flew seems to suggest that we should give a burden of proof to everyone making an assertion because it will help us avoid having beliefs without having knowledge, so we should give theists (and those who believe gods don’t exist) a burden of proof during debates for that reason. This is an interesting argument, but the conclusion seems either trivial or too extreme.
Is it trivial? – First, I agree that anything controversial in a debate should at some point be challenged and the challenge should be responded to. Second, I agree that all debates—such as the debate over theism—should start with arguments on “both sides.” And I know of no one who would disagree with Flew if that’s what he wants to say.
Is it too extreme? I think we should make the clarification that not all assertions made in debates should be challenged. There are limits to what the “burden of proof” should cover and sometimes premises of arguments should not be questioned precisely because adequately rational people will already agree with them. Questioning every premise would become a waste of time at some point.
Are beliefs irrational unless we have a reason to believe them?
Flew tells us that all beliefs are irrational unless we have a reason to believe them and Argument 2 trivially followed from that belief. If all beliefs are irrational until they are justified by an argument, then of course all assertions should be given justifications (and those who make assertions will have a burden of proof until they give the justifications).
However, I do not agree that all beliefs are irrational unless we have a reason to agree with them. I have many beliefs that I don’t know how to give evidence for, but I think I know they are true anyway. I know “1+1=2” even though I can’t prove it. I know the induction is reliable, even though I can’t prove it (and I realize it’s possible that I am wrong).
Additionally, few to no people can prove that “all beliefs are irrational unless we have a reason to agree with them.” Anyone who can’t prove it and believes it anyway is being irrational. The principle itself seems self-defeating.
Finally, imagine that you can prove that “all beliefs are irrational unless we have a reason to agree with them.” In that case you will need an argument containing evidence. But that argument containing evidence will have premises that must also be proven to be true. We will need an argument to prove all of our premises are true, and that will go on forever (and clearly we are incapable of doing that)—or we will end up reusing certain premises and rely on a circular argument, which is fallacious.
If is possible that the assertion that “all beliefs are irrational unless we have a reason to agree with them” is self-evident, but I see no reason to think it is.
Perhaps one reason to believe in “default positions” is if we believe that some beliefs are irrational prior to debate and evidence. Perhaps a default position of that kind exists, but we need to know what criteria determines certain beliefs to be irrational within default positions, and I don’t agree with the criteria given by Flew.
There is at least one trivial concept of a default position that I have no problem with (concerning who has a burden of proof prior to debate), but it is less clear that a stronger sort of default position exists that concerns what beliefs are irrational prior to debate or evidence.
I find Argument A to be plausible and agree that theists should have a burden of proof prior to debate (at least when that’s the topic of the debate), but Flew’s argument was a bit deceptive because people who believe gods don’t exist should also have the burden of proof for the exact same reason.
1Perhaps a more common way to use the word “atheism” is to refer to the belief that gods don’t exist. It’s different to believe that gods don’t exist than to simply not believe that gods do exist because some people might neither believe that gods do exist nor that they don’t exist.
- The Presumption of Atheism
- What is the Burden of Proof?
- Beliefs are Innocent Until Proven Guilty
- No, We Don’t Have to Agree With You!
- Being Risk-Adverse, Hedging our Bets, and Secularism in Philosophy
- Is Knowledge Impossible?
- Five Tips for Better Debates
- Theoretical Virtue Epistemology: A Common Sense Philosophy