November 24, 2013

What a Proof Isn't

"Present your case, says the Lord; bring forward your arguments, says the King of Jacob." (Is 41:21)
Hopefully, we have a handle on what words like "objective" and "absolute" mean. We haven't, however, explicitly talked about any particular idea as being absolute or relative, objective or subjective. We have to start using the terms still.

How might we use them? Well, we may want to say that something (say, God's existence) is objective; it is not a matter of a person's opinion. We may, after that, want to say (and we will!) that God's existence is true. The same question may rise in both cases: "can you prove it?"

That takes us to another surprisingly tricky word: proof. Our goal now is to comprehend the term "proof" and distinguish between types of proofs. This makes up another terminological brick of our foundation.

Let's start with a dictionary.'s definition, based on the Random House Dictionary, tells us that a proof is "evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth".  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2e) describes a proof as "(i)nformally, a procedure that brings conviction. More formally, a deductively valid argument starting from true premises, that yields the conclusion."

For now, let's consider what isn't said in these definitions. A proof is not defined as "the product of the scientific method". It is not defined as "something you can measure or weigh". It is not defined as "something absolutely certain".

The definitions do not tell us that evidence for a proof must be perfect, only that it must be sufficient.
The definitions do not tell us that a proof must follow from a particular method.

Now, we may find a particular method useful or especially compelling or especially appropriate to the circumstances. But, for now, let's get comfortable with how broad the definition really is.  Next time, we'll consider types of proofs and how we can develop proof. If you want to read ahead (you always sat in the front row, too, didn't you?), start with Dr. Peter Kreeft's short article "Can You Prove God Exists?"

proof. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: November 24, 2013).
proof. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. (accessed: November 24, 2013).

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