Proof | The Voice 13.10: March 05, 2023

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The Voice


“Prove it!”

Thus we heard when trying to explain how we arrived at an answer in geometry. We probably also saw it written on an insufficiently unsubstantiated part of our English or history paper. It seemed to be the foundation of science classes. And to this day we will hear it as the reflexive response whenever someone hears a claim or idea which does not conform to the way they currently understand the world.

Yet do we ever wonder why so many hold proof in such high esteem? How has proof come about, and does it even really work the way we might hope it would?

“Proof” has always been humanity’s goal in alleviating one of its greatest anxieties: we seek to know things, but how can we have any confidence in that which we think we know? From humanity’s beginning we have been trying to sort out how we can discern truth from error, accurate perception from inaccurate perception, and to grow accurate knowledge based on conclusions from accurately perceived truths. Much of the framework which the Western world uses to adjudicate such matters derives from the Greek philosophers of old who sought to explore knowledge and systematize it, particularly from Aristotle’s expositions on logic and categorizations, desperately seeking to hold off the destabilizing effects of the sophists, cynics, and skeptics regarding what can truly be known.

Aristotle’s framework would be adapted and refined until the nineteenth century to lead to the scientific method which we all learned in school: to observe natural phenomena, to develop a hypothesis about how a given phenomenon might work, to test the hypothesis via experimentation, to collect and analyze the data, interpret the data, and see if the hypothesis holds or whether there is a new line of investigation to continue; then all the results should be published, subjected to peer review, and when continually reproduced, the hypothesis becomes a theory and is to be recognized as proven.

There is much to commend about the scientific method and its framework in terms of exploring many aspects of the creation and to try to make sense of it. Nevertheless, the scientific method cannot sustain the claims, expectations, and hopes modern Westerners have imposed upon it. Somehow and at some point, a lot of people today have convinced themselves the scientific method is the only way we can have any assurance or confidence in what we know, and they assume a lot of what they think is true can be thus proven. And whenever they hear a claim they find suspect, they expect it to be proven according to the scientific method.

Such exposes the scientism that has powerfully affected modern Western consciousness. Ever since the Enlightenment elevated reason and scientific inquiry to the level of divinity, Westerners have put a lot of their faith in scientific endeavors to explain all things. We can understand how and why Westerners would want to understand scientific exploration in terms of the scientific method; yet they have gone well beyond and we see scientific sounding explanations given for plenty of aspects in the metaphysical domains. Society has lost faith in the cleric, the politician, the lawyer, and the philosopher, and puts all its faith in the doctor and the scientist, amazed and enraptured with all the things we have learned and all the technologies we have developed over the past two hundred and fifty years. How science tries to explain itself, and how science tries to explain everything else, becomes normative. And thus the way science is supposed to work becomes the default posture about everything.

Is this right and good? Should scientism and its concept of proof derived from the scientific method truly and well be our default posture toward how we understand what we think we know?

The scientific method cannot bear the burden modern Westerners have placed upon it, for what the modern Westerner desires is beyond what any human endeavor can provide: certainty. Even when science is at its best and scientists rigorously apply the scientific method to their inquiries and maintain a robust system of peer review, human frailty, limitation, and weakness remain. The development of the hypothesis remains an integral part of the scientific method: while we can consider many times and situations in which humans have developed excellent hypotheses, the development of the hypothesis will always involve a lot of assumption on the part of the scientist developing it and will always be constrained by the horizon of imagination which the scientist maintains. Many of the most powerful scientific advances of the past hundred years have involved domains in which the fundamental assumptions maintained by the scientific community as a whole were challenged and found lacking (for example, plate tectonics and quantum mechanics). Even though the current scientific consensus has adapted itself appropriately on the basis of such discoveries, we cannot escape the question of how many other assumptions are maintained by the scientific consensus that will be demonstrated by future generations to be fallacious. We often think of our ancestors living through darkened days marked by superstition and fallacious beliefs; but what will future generations think of our own? Thus, at its best, the scientific method can only indicate a given theory is supported by reproducible evidence and makes the best sense of all data as we currently understand it. The scientific method can never provide absolute proof.

These limitations and difficulties exist even when science is at its best; and as with any human endeavor, science is not always at its best. A fundamental component of the scientific method is the reproducibility of the evidence generated by an experiment; the realm of psychology today is being rocked by a reproducibility crisis in which many of the “gold standard” studies which have defined the operating assumptions of the field cannot be replicated and thus their conclusions have been rendered suspect. Much damage was done to the world’s initial response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 infection it caused because of misguided definitions of “airborne” versus “droplet” transmission rooted in an error, generated years before and mindlessly repeated even though it was never rigorously tested, and when tested, was found woefully lacking. For these we can appeal to “objective” evidence; beyond this, scientists are human and liable to the prejudices of their time. For many years scientists were actively invested in attempting to advance “race science,” and plenty of bogus and pseudo-scientific claims were advanced and promoted as a result. Emphasis on eugenics has led to untold suffering and death over the past one hundred and fifty years. Thus our society’s uncritical confidence in scientists to be able to best and fully explain all things proves rather delusional.

The scientific method works well with phenomena that can be observed and experimented upon in a laboratory setting. Yet very few things can be subjected to such a setting. It cannot be used to prove anything about the past or about anything which exists outside of what can be confined in a laboratory. Ironically, not one of us can prove we exist based upon the scientific method as we have explained it.

And such is why “proof” is a terrible standard of adjudicating what is true or false: we cannot prove much of anything according to the scientific method thus explained and understood. Even when we appropriately modify the methodology to conform to various domains like the social sciences, history, and the like, we still will not be able to “prove” very much; the best we can hope for is to explore what can be known about a given person, situation, or thing, and make the most reasonable argument which best explains all the evidence we have.

But what about proof as understood in legal terms? When many shift away from proof according to the scientific method, they then affirm the importance of proving beyond a reasonable doubt, as in criminal cases. Yet is such not as aspirational as everything else we have described? Plenty of people who have committed crimes have been found not guilty because the case against them was not demonstrated to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt; and plenty of innocent people have been found guilty, since it remains possible to convince a jury of a person’s guilt even when they have none. Furthermore, this standard is very important in criminal cases because a person’s freedom and the welfare of a society is at stake; is this kind of standard something truly sustainable in many other domains? Perhaps we do better to frame things in terms of the standard maintained in civil cases: to look at all the evidence and to demonstrate whether the case made is more likely to be true than false, or vice versa. Thus, as with the scientific method, so with the legal method: the best we can hope to do is to explore the evidence and make the most reasonable argument to best explain all the evidence we have.

As we have seen, it is not as if the scientific method or the burden of proof in legal contexts are the problem; the problem is in our desire to extend these methods beyond their domains to try to give us greater certainty about the things we think we know than we have any right to expect. We do well to really think about all the things we think we know and how many of them we have really examined or tested to any significant degree, or if we could ever really test them in a way which might lead to a satisfactory conclusion. In truth, most of what we believe we have accepted as true from sources we have trusted: our sense perception, our parents, our teachers, our society, etc. If we were asked to prove most of those ideas and beliefs, we would find ourselves at a loss. Furthermore, we should note well our predilection to want to have proven anything which does not align with our current perspective and our willingness to subject anything which does align with our current perspective to far less scrutiny.

And so it goes with our views on God and religion. We cannot “prove” God exists; as the Creator of heaven and earth, God cannot be subjected to anything in His closed system, and the entire endeavor of natural theology as understood by its original promoters is thus futile and an unfortunate misdirection. It was foolish to ever imagine we could “prove” God’s existence through what we can discover by the scientific method, and has led to the shipwreck of faith in many in the past 150 years. But we can give evidence of the power and nature of God manifest in His creation and especially in humankind as made in and for relational unity (Genesis 1:27-28, John 17:20-23, Romans 1:18-20, 1 John 4:8). We can maintain confidence in the prophetic word, both in terms of how the prophets spoke the words of God to the people of their time and place, faithfully recorded the story of how God worked with His people, and communicated regarding the salvation which would be revealed by God in Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12, 2 Peter 1:16-21). We can explain how the witness of what God has done in Jesus met the appropriate standard of historical evidence for the time and still makes better sense of all the available evidence than any other theory (cf. Acts 10:34-43, 1 John 1:1-4); as a result, we have every reason to maintain confidence Jesus is Lord, and we do well to heed what He has made known through His chosen witnesses as recorded in the New Testament. We can argue how the story of what God has done in Christ makes the best sense of all the evidence we have about the nature of the creation and humanity compared to other religious perspectives and philosophical theories, and thus commend Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life for everyone (cf. John 14:6). This may not be “proof,” but it is the best we can ever ask for as human beings, and thus we do well to maintain confidence God has worked in and through Jesus, and to trust in Him to obtain what is truly life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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