Monday, October 4, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Burden of Proof

Five hours into the debate the philosophers invented "Burden of Proof." Though records differ, the first draft of the "Burden of Proof" went something like this:

"You prove it!"

"No, you!"

Fifteen motions later, the concept of “Burden of Proof” was established as something like this:

"One party has the burden of providing substantial evidence for the veracity of its position."

However, it took fifty more motions to extract, "and that party is the other side" from their definitions.

The idea was never introduced to find the truth. It's not even mentioned in historical record what the philosophers were debating that night. Truth has very little to do with debates, after all. If there was a truth that could be got at through them, it would be clubbed, caged and wheeled out on stage. One debater would get the blue ribbon and go home cocksure.

Debating then, as now, was about charisma, showmanship, the appearance of logical complexity, and sounding clever. Either side in an elite-level debate could make a convincing argument no matter his side. For government? Look at the evils of corporations in need of regulation, and the abuse of warlords in states without police. Against government? Look at the evils of government that don't regulate themselves properly, and the abuse of power by police. For the rich, against religion, the ancients were smarter, the internet is making us dumber - the skilled debater, then and now, could champion either side and was raised to be able to embrace whatever platform was profitable.

What the philosophers invented that day was a substantial weapon in debate. “Burden of Proof” meant the other side had to prove its case or your side won by default. That day it went much as it does today:

"You've got a position. Prove it beyond my ability to object or you're wrong."

To which the second party replied, as anyone can and usually does in different words:

"By opposing my position you have also taken a position, and since I believe my position I don’t see it as a position at all but merely the truth, and if you do not prove your position beyond my ability to object, then you are wrong by default."

"No, you!" follows shortly thereafter, usually in different words.

On that campus, as today, Burden of Proof didn't matter. It didn't matter if things were unprovable - they hadn't even invented the clock, so couldn't prove what time something happened, and just like today, most events went unfilmed and unwitnessed, and therefore were also next to unprovable. But that Burden of Proof was a great wedge in the mouths of either side. Accuse with it, then dig it in with all your charisma, showmanship and ability to sound clever.

We don't know what those debaters were arguing over. We do know, though, how the audience voted. One hundred and four students of the campus were in the pews that evening. They were compelled to check 'For' or 'Against' the motion of the evening on their way in. 58 were For, 46 were Against. On their way out they were compelled to again check their positions on the matter, in a primitive attempt at polling. The poll found 58 were For, and 46 were Against. This suggests to some that public debates, then as now, were mostly for the entertainment of the already convinced.

Hard to prove it, though.


  1. "If there was a truth that could be got at through them, it would be clubbed, caged and wheeled out on stage. One debater would get the blue ribbon and go home cocksure."

    Ain't that the truth.

    I've pretty much learned not to waste my breath discussing politics, religion etc. Still sometimes get baited in though.

    Timely piece and well done!

  2. John, my mind's made up! Don't confuse me with the facts. There is no truth; there is no untruth. There is only perception. The only reliable "proof" is in a good whiskey. I'll have mine on the rocks, thank you.

  3. Aha, hence the introduction of the empaneled jury. Since A has a vested interest in B being wrong (and vice versa), things were adjusted so that they stopped trying to convince each other. Instead, they focused on convincing the jury, which would ultimately decide.

    Which brings us to O.J. Simpson...


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