Absence of proof

scientist-evidence

Recently, on another forum, a person posted asking whether anyone could provide evidence leading to proof of the existence of a spiritual force in their life. I answered the following:

The problem with your question is in the word proof. I do not need to try to answer your question to show that all the evidence in the world may not constitute proof to you if you are not disposed to consider the evidence leading to a proof.
Consider the people who, contrary to the evidence, do not believe:

  • that we ever really landed on the Moon
  • that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii
  • that the supposed link between autism and vaccines is false
  • that Napoleon was tall (he was actually 5’7″ which was taller than the average man of his time)

Skeptics are not innocent themselves. They use a variety of techniques in order to appear to be disinterested scientific types. For instance:

  • for almost any evidence of divine healing, they need only respond by calling it spontaneous regression or spontaneous healing, etc.
  • for almost any weather event, they need only respond by calling it a poorly understood rare weather phenomena
  • for almost any apparent alteration of the natural order, they need only respond by saying that the mechanism of this apparent discrepancy will surely be better understood in the future, thus putting off any answer perhaps for centuries

So, I could give you evidence, but I cannot give you evidence that “proves.”

In both of the cases cited above, people will admit to the evidence, they simply disagree with the conclusion.

Disagreement with a conclusion is not necessarily wrong. For instance, in science, all conclusions ought to be tested by a group of peers. Thus, if your peers repeat your experiment but do not get the same results, then it is fully correct to disagree with your conclusion. Alternatively, another researcher may posit a different pathway to explain your evidence. In this case the disagreement is not wrong, but competing experiments should be set up by a peer group in order to try to ascertain which of the two conclusions, if either, is correct.

Disagreement with a conclusion is also not wrong in the social arena if you can show that the observations have been given a mistaken interpretation. For instance, let us imagine that you go to a part of the USA in which you observe people sticking what looks like meat hooks into someone’s back and hoisting them in the air. You are aghast and sickened by the torture of a fellow human being. That is, until you find out that this is a religious ceremony and that the person being hoisted has given their full consent and does not wish to come off of the hooks. You realize that you have drawn a mistaken conclusion and that your interpretation was inaccurate.

But, the problem is that we have often taken legitimate disagreement and mixed it up with inappropriate disagreement. Or, another way to say it is that we use legitimate disagreement to justify our inappropriate disagreement. What do I mean?

We often are not rigorous about checking into the evidence. We will read an article, or catch a “news” program, or hear someone make a claim. Now, there is nothing wrong with initially believing a normally reliable source. But, what do you do when you hear a disagreement about the evidence? What we all ought to do is to stop and check out why two different conclusions are made. Is it a difference in wording? Is one clearly right and the other clearly wrong? Are both drawing wrong conclusions? What additional evidence may I need in order to see which conclusion is more correct? Is there some evidence twisting that is going on? And so on and so on.

All too often, we tend to shortcut the process inappropriately. You like one person and do not like the other, so you go with the person you like. One person supports your prior beliefs, the other one does not, so you go with the person who supports your beliefs, and so on. Frankly, most often there is no problem in taking a shortcut. It is impossible for us to check out the evidence on everything. Shortcuts are helpful ways to organize our mind and our beliefs quickly without having to “reinvent the wheel.”

But, on important issues, in which the disagreement is important, we need to stop using shortcuts and dig into the evidence. On serious matters of the faith, on serious matters of the future of our country, on serious matters of politics [yes, they do exist], on serious social issues, etc., we need to take the time to examine the evidence and to consider different viewpoints in order to reach a supportable conclusion. At those times, it is often not appropriate to simply say, “well because XX XX said so.” Too much of that is going on today in our country.

And, so, I urge you to think. I urge you to look at the evidence. Go ahead and shortcut think when it is appropriate. But, on important issues, make sure you consider the evidence, that you consider alternate explanations, that you be ready to support your opinion with something more than that you support that conclusion because you do. Pray, think, consider, evaluate, draw your conclusion.

Comments

  1. says

    Yes, there is strong evidence all around us everyday that there is an intelligence behind the natural world…but still, people want proof there is a God. I say, huh?! The intricacies, the beauty, the amazing variety…and the way life….plants/animals/humans and etc. interplay and depend on each other/compliment. Wow! >>>God is all around us.<<<

  2. Leon M. Green says

    Dear Brother Ernesto:
    You have reminded me of my favorite quote from Walter Scott:
    “…there is a vulgar incredulity, which, in historical matters, as well as in those of religion, finds it easier to doubt than to examine, and endeavors to assume the credit of an ‘esprit fort”, by denying whatever happens to be a little beyond the very limited comprehension of the sceptic.” Mrs. Balliol to Mr. Croftangry in the “Introduction” to ‘The Fair Maid of Perth'; Walter Scott. (A friend asked for a translation: after my Walter-Scott-like long answer, this succinct summary was given: Some people prefer to be loud doubting Thomases than searching, believing disciples.)
    Blessings,
    Leon+

  3. says

    One of the problems, of course, is that repeated experiments have shown that we mostly do not reach rational and considered decisions following the process you outline, yet we deceive ourselves into believing that we do.

    Our recognition of that basic human failing is actually, in large part, what lies behind the process of scientific peer review. (My father and a number of other family members are scientists, so I have something of a second-hand insider perspective on peer review. It’s a messy and not always effective process, but it’s the best counter to human tendencies toward even self-deception that we’ve been able to devise.) In our society, which at least asserts that it glorifies reason and rationality, even those who reach what seem to be absurd conclusion believe they are rational and reasonable conclusions. (It doesn’t hurt that there’s now a massive propaganda-based set of major media outlets supporting some of those conclusion.)

    So I have little faith in the rationality of humanity. Nor do I except myself from our tendency toward self-deception, though I pray it never carries me too far afield. ;-)

    Take care and thanks for all you write, Father Ernesto.

    • says

      Post-modernism fully supports your statements. One of the best results of post-modernism, has been their ability to show that there is no such thing as neutral rationality. Sadly, an over-extension of that conclusion has led to the current American ability to believe whatever they wish regardless of any evidence that may be presented. Even worse, there has been an overreaction that has led to the crazy belief that “my” belief is rational while everyone else is not.

      • says

        Indeed. Given that I was raised as much by a mother who was exploring many forms of spirituality throughout my childhood (among other things) as much as by fathers of a more scientific bent, the influences of both modern and postmodern formation are threaded through my core. I spent the first few decades of my life constructing my beliefs, taking what I liked or found useful and leaving those parts that I didn’t behind. So I don’t actually say I was ever Hindu in belief, more that for a time I was strongly influenced by Hindu and other Eastern religion belief and practice.

        When I began to give Christianity the same serious look I had afforded other beliefs and practices (actually more complicated than that), I tended to distrust anything I thought might be a novel thought of my own and often kept those to myself. I had learned some of my own propensity for self-deception. (Actually, in some sense I suppose I always knew it.) But I also never automatically accepted an interpretation of Scripture or practice and it was never my instinct to try to confirm it within the text itself because that was a circular process. Rather my question was where did this interpretation originate. And I found that in modern Christianity, I could often trace a practice or interpretation of the text to a specific, comparatively recent individual. And that it was often a novel interpretation at the time.

        My first actual encounter with Orthodoxy came when I was reading a book by a Protestant author about prayer. By that time, I had read “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Br. Lawrence and was making some poor effort at what he describes as breath prayers. There was one short prayer that came to me and which had become my most common prayer. I hadn’t told anyone about it (or really about my practice at all). I reached a point where the book began to describe one of the most ancient prayers and prayer traditions of the Church that continued to this day mostly within the Orthodox Christian context. I then read the short prayer that had, by then, become the main prayer I had been praying as I could or remembered or needed throughout the day for the past couple of years. Of course, as you can probably guess by now, it was the Jesus Prayer.

        I still tear up as I recall the moment. I wouldn’t say I’m any less muddled or confused. But that’s when I knew in my bones I could never say I was anything other than Christian, even if not a very good one.

        Ah well, sorry again. Guess it’s a rambling sort of morning.

        Thanks again.

        • Leon M. Green says

          Hey, Scott! If you haven’t read any Ravi Zacharias along the way, you might find it of interest. Blessings!

Leave a Reply -- who knows what might happen?