Hitchens’ Razor

Hitchens’ razor is an epistemological rule of thumb which asserts that any person who makes a claim about ‘the way the world is’ takes on the burden of proof for proving it is so.

The razor is usually formulated as follows:

What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

It is a translation of the Latin proverb Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur (What is freely asserted is freely deserted). Near the end of the 20th century, the razor was revived and popularised by the British-Amercian journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, hence its modern name.


13 thoughts on “Hitchens’ Razor

  1. “Occam’s razor” makes sense. It’s practical. “Hitchens’ razor” is demagoguery. Anything can be dismissed with or without proof, but not everything is or should be. A bomb threat, for example, is taken seriously until proven false for obvious reasons.

  2. It would be demagoguery if it was an imperative and not a rule of thumb, but notice the can, there is no should. And as for the reason you gave, that makes sense.

  3. “Hitchens’ razor” makes sense in certain contexts (science, a court of law), it can cause harm in other contexts (a bomb threat or a tsunami warning). I don’t think it’s applicable in the context of a religious debate. It can be dismissed, according to itself, in the first place. It has the same value as other highly controversial statements: making people think about it – that’s all. It’s just rhetoric.

  4. “I don’t think it’s applicable in the context of a religious debate.” implies some science and religion dichotomy in the field of epistemology, which makes no sense to me. The phrase Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur is a rule of thumb that arises from the fundamental principle of placing the burden of proof on anyone who makes a statement about the way the world is. People make claims about the way the world is based on a certain assumptions/beliefs/ideas/hypotheses/et cetera. We all do this. All this science and religion labelling often creates the illusion of different modes of talking about the way the world is which do not exist.

    Now, for the sake of argument let’s consider fairies. It is only natural to say to someone who claims that fairies live in the petunias in his garden, that he should provide us with some proof. Otherwise, we would lumber ourselves with the exhausting assumption that he is right about his belief until we can prove otherwise. We often find ourselves employing our common sense here (whatever that may mean, I grant you), but there is also some arbitrariness invloved. Observe that the placement of the burden of proof is arbitrary here, but for a most practical reason: if it were the other way around we would all spend our lives disproving unfalsifiable claims – in vain, I might add.

    PS When people say, “It’s just rhetoric.” what do they mean in general do you think? Do they mean to say a statement is devoid of content?

  5. I don’t imply any dichotomies. I just think that material evidence is only required for beliefs regarding material world — in science or in court of law, for example. Even then it depends on the situation. For example, the burden is on security personnel to prove or disprove a bomb threat, not on the person who made the assertion. For moral, political, or philosophical beliefs, no evidence can be produced at all and requiring it does not make sense which is the case for the question of how the universe came about.

    One of Google definitions for “rhetoric” is “language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.” That’s exactly the case for the “Hitchens’ razor”, in my opinion.

  6. The phrase Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur is a rule-of-thumb, not an imperative. Claims about the way the world is can be called upon to provide evidence to prove its veracity. Whether a claim should be put through that epistemological ordeal is up to us.

    Consider the bomber in your example, he is rightly relieved of the burden of proof concerning his claim if the threat of an explosion – with possibly disastrous consequences – is deemed to be possible enough to be considered true. This is probably, in most cases, the most sensible or moral action you can take since it is probable to realize the most well-being for the largest amount of people.

    It is common sense, in other words, to treat everyone who claims he is going to blow up a building with a degree of caution; even more so when this person shares an office with you and is clearly wearing a sombrero adorned with dynamite; less so if you get a phone call from the bomber and you recognize his voice to be that of your brother, who is known for his poor taste in practical jokes.

    Common sense of the same kind is applied when you are asked by your partner to fetch a glass out of a kitchen cupboard; there is generally no need for you to reply “If you can prove there is a glass in the cupboard, dear, I’ll fetch it.” You could of course do this, and your partner probably could prove it to you, but based on previous experience, the insignificance of the claim, et cetera, most people will find this unnecessary.

    Notice also that a bomb threat, for it to be taken seriously, has to be a claim about the way the world is as well, better yet, falsifiable. In other words, it has to be realistic enough for it to be considered possible to be true. If it were not, it could be dismissed easily. Now, there may be bomb threats in which there is not enough time to verify their veracity, and those claims may constitute some kind of grey area here, but this is where our much ballyhooed ‘common sense’ must come into play again.

    This example reminds me of a similarly tedious anecdote about Soren Kierkegaard. It is said he had 50 coffee cups, and whenever he wanted a cup of coffee he instructed his secretary to select one of the cups and provide a valid philosophical reason for doing so.

    On another note, there are answers to moral, political and philosophical questions. It is not nonsensical to ask people why they think that spanking a child is a moral action, nor do two people need to refrain from discussing such a subject. If it is their aim to raise a child who has an understanding of trustworthiness and fair play, psychological and pedagogical research will surely demonstrate which course of action realises that aim. The same is true for political views. If someone campaigns for capital punishment based on the belief that it is a deterrent of crime, then sociological and criminological research will have something to say about that.

    I would therefore submit that when beliefs are related to, or talk about the way the world is they tend to become testable, provable, discussable – provided they are falsifiable of course.

  7. I agree with everything you say.

    …provided they are falsifiable of course

    and that’s the key. Claims about the existence of God are unfalsifiable. Therefore, “Hitchens’ razor” does not make sense in this context. Where am I wrong?

  8. Well, that’s an interesting point isn’t it?

    Falsifiable statements are testable, provable. Agreed. But consider this – and perhaps this is the point on which we disagree – I would submit that statements that talk about the way the world is are dismissable regardless of whether they are verifiable. This, by definition, must include unfalsifiable claims. A number of the way the world is statements are unfalsifiable and can (to my mind, should) be dismissed. Easily asserted, easily dismissed. The bottom line in my argument argument seems to be: it is not nonsensical to dismiss the unprovable. The opposite, I would argue, would be pandemonium.

  9. The “burden of proof” is not on the person who simply makes an assertion. It’s on the person who makes an assertion and wants another person to believe it. If the person has no interest in convincing others, there is no burden of proof on anyone.

    I can believe in tooth fairies and I have no “burden” to prove anything to anyone unless I want others to believe in them too. At which point, of course, the victims of my proselytism, can, at their will, a) accept my claims, falsifiable or not, with or without evidence, b) dismiss my claims, falsifiable or not, with or without evidence. Any claim, falsifiable or not, can be accepted or dismissed, with or without evidence, easily or painfully. In this regard, “Hitchens’ razor” is quite dull. The idea seems trivial and unexciting.

    Essentially, he meant “I am free to dismiss your claims about God”. That’s fine. But it has nothing to do with the truth of the claims. “Hitchens’ razor” is not that sharp to be called “a razor”. It’s not a criterion of any truth. It’s not applicable in most situations. I’m only bothered when it is elevated into some sort of epistemological principle or even construed as a valid argument against religious claims. I was actually banned from an atheist forum for posting a discussion topic about it as if I was questioning a sacred dogma. That was an interesting experience. It made me realize that people opposing dogmas can be even more dogmatic than their opponents.

  10. Difficult. That stance presumes the burden of proof only exists, or at least only comes into play, when someone is called to account for their statement. On the one hand this makes sense to me, I see your point “Never mind what I say,” I can hear your actor exclaim, “I do not ask you to agree with me! Leave me be.” On the other hand, I am inclined to find this stance a tad easy on the person making the statement.

    Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur does not help establish any truth claim I agree, in that sense it has ‘nothing to do with the truth of a claim’, but it could help prune the dead wood.

    Dogmas are embraced and guarded by more people than most will admit. This I have always found fascinating.

  11. Another situation is when a person making a statement has no vested interest in the truth of the statement whereas the person hearing the statement does. The burden of proof is on the interested party. Hitchens may dismiss a statement without evidence, but if he is interested in the statement being true or false more than the speaker, he should take on the quest of proving or disproving it. Atheists and agnostics don’t care much for gods. So, it’s logical that they want to dismiss the religious claims especially if they are not presented with any reasons to believe or credible evidence of God’s existence.

    On the other hand, when atheists say “God does not exist” and believers say “you have the burden to prove this statement!”, the atheists traditionally reply “you can’t prove a negative”. This is not the true reason why they don’t have the burden of proof. First, one can prove a negative the same way one can prove a positive. E.g. a statement “there is no milk in the fridge” is easily verifiable due to a limited scope of the places to search for the milk. A statement “white ravens don’t exist” is also verifiable by examining a large sample of ravens. If we can’t examine all possibilities as in the case of the fridge, we can establish the probability of the statement being true or false with statistical methods. Proving the non-existence of “omni” things where the scope is not just the fridge, not just the ravens, but “everything” may be impossible, but the statement that “you can’t prove a negative” is, in general, incorrect.

    The true reason why atheists don’t have to prove the non-existence of God is because they don’t care. Believers care whether God exists, so they should prove or disprove these statements. That’s how I look at the burden of proof issue. It’s a matter of negotiation. Some people are willing to accept beliefs without proof, some are not. Some people are willing to present proof for what they say, some are not. There is no legal requirement for anyone in this respect. Some discussion forums (e.g. science or court of law) have conventions on this matter. But these conventions do not apply everywhere.

    Anyway, I think we are more or less in agreement here and seem to understand each other. Which I appreciate.

  12. “[…] the statement that “you can’t prove a negative” is, in general, incorrect.”
    I agree, it’s feeble. I’d never heard that one as an argument before though.

    As for the epistemological point, in my limited experience, the traditional atheist reply is summarized as ‘there is no reason to assume what you believe’.

    “Some people are willing to accept beliefs without proof, […].”
    Quite. The definition of faith.

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