Prove it!

We had that “but you can’t prove it” discussion at our beer bash at work the other day. The one where your co-debater suggests that, if you believe something without proof, you are making a leap of faith.

Consider the proposition,

The cow jumped over the moon.

Those who consider the proposition true have no proof. But, according to the faith=belief without proof people, neither do those who consider it false. Both positions require faith because there is no proof either way.

The only rational position, according to the F=BWPs, is to say

“I don’t know whether the cow jumped over the moon”.

Yet everything I know about cows and moons and gravity suggests that it’s extremely unlikely that a cow jumped over the moon. The only evidence that it happened at all comes from an ancient nursery rhyme. One by one, the ancient nursery rhymes have turned out to be made up and I am certain that this one is too.

[At this point, I am obliged to acknowledge that some people believe in transcendental cows that don’t interact with the world as we know it and that ‘moon’ could be a metaphor for very small flowers or for the laughter of children]

Where the F=BWEs trip up, I believe, is in mistaking the standard of mathematical proof for the everyday standard of proof which is closer to the legal, beyond a reasonable doubt. Even in science, there is very little that can be proved to the mathematical standard.

Stanley Fish, in the New York Times (non-firewalled version), has a more sophisticated version of F=BWE theory:

I believe in evolution, Dawkins declares, because the evidence supports it; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it. Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who can’t see the evidence or refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book, but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula, in Fish has faith; I have confidence based on evidence, says

Fish is playing word games, using an imprecision in the English language to tag disparate phenomena with the same label. He can claim that the “faith” of the scientist is the same as the faith of the pious only because he does not understand the former. Accepting religious faith is to stand still and imagine a journey through a fantasy land, while science is about walking forward on firm footing towards a destination to which we may not have arrived yet, but can see glimmering on the horizon. It simply doesn’t matter that the faith-head is using his reason and imagination to extrapolate and create his fantasy world, so exclaiming that he has a brain and is using it doesn’t rescue him. The scientist will discover something new Fish considers that remarkable and a strong assertion, and unsupported by evidence, but it’s a commonplace consequence of using science and ignoring religion but that isn’t a matter of “faith” at all. It’s about as remarkable as understanding that the sun will rise in the morning.

Published by

Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

7 thoughts on “Prove it!”

  1. Cow bit isn’t very apt, nobody thinks that, was distracting to my tired mind.

    I think the sorts of folks who get hung up on leaps of faith as compromising the validity of a belief in the absence of evidence are insecure in their beliefs…
    they protest(eth) too much…

    For example, if someone said “I know God doesn’t (or does) exist” when they really mean they’re 99.999% sure and can’t prove it, which is “practically sure”, they may resent the notion that there was a leap of faith involved, despite it’s ironic value. They may even suggest that “practically sure” = “sure” for any reasonable value of sure. YMMV

    Agnostics may be less uptight about the distinction, but I can’t prove it.

    I’m comfortable calling my suspicion about the sun rising tomorrow a leap of faith. A meteor could strike tonight.

    I’m comfortable that things that can be proved need no leapage. Falling things accelerate in a vacuum at 9.8 m/s ^2 etc.

    Normal person (whatever that means): “XYZ is true”
    Pedant: “You can’t prove it, so you can’t be sure. You’re making a leap of faith”.
    Normal person: “Well, it’s practically true”
    Pedant: “Fair enough, but careful with the unqualified absolute statements”
    Normal person: “Pedant!”
    Pedant: “Linguistic anarchist!”
    [scuffle ensues, fade out, break for commercial]

    It does seem dangerously like arguing about what is is, or the cactii bit…

  2. The person who says that believing in evolution (which you can’t prove) is equivalent to believing in creation (which didn’t happen)… is he the pedant or linguistic anarchist? Or the normal person?

    And what is the ‘it’ that’s dangerous? Is it the assertion that believing in evolution is a leap of faith (just like believing in creation)? Or the challenge to that assertion?

    And what should schools teach? That some people believe in creation and some believe in evolution and let the kids decide? Teach the controversy?

    Look at the numbers again – 44% of Americans think evolution is not true (USA Today poll) including 3 presidential candidates – and then tell me what’s dangerous…

  3. >The person who says…

    Feels like a cop-out on my part, but I don’t think I can answer your question without the context of the statement. That person could be correct in a very narrow sense, if they further qualified it. “So we should treat them the same in school” doesn’t logically follow.

    >what it

    The it I mentioned? It = “arguments about semantic technicalities” are dangerous in that they can become conversational rat holes.

    I don’t see the relationship between the original message about a trivial leap of faith and teaching evolution. All you need is “OK, I can’t prove xyz, so believing it may technically involve a micro-leap, though xyz is obvious, and practically speaking it’s truth is clear enough to be taught in school”. Rather than challenging the existence of a non-zero leap, put the leap in context.

    “It’s a leap like trusting the sun will come up” rather than “it’s not a leap, as there’s no leap in faith in trusting the sun will come up”.

    I’m not trying to say that I’m right and you’re wrong, but that this line of reasoning may be more effective.

    I will continue to say teach evo in science class, and “the controversy” in social studies.

    I don’t think the 44% who think it ain’t true use “it involves a non-zero leap of faith” as their primary evidence.

  4. > I don’t see the relationship between the original message about a trivial leap of faith and teaching evolution.

    The context is the coming presidential election where three of the republican candidates (and 44% of population) do not believe in evolution.

    The context is the current president vetoing the stem cell bill and, when asked if he believed in evolution, answering

    “Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about”.

    When several of my friends start repeating the party line from Answers in Genesis – that ‘your beliefs are based just as much on faith as theirs’ – I start to wonder why that might be.

  5. I see.

    >your beliefs are based just as much on faith as theirs’

    I’d take issue with that point. There’s lots of evidence for evolution. I’d ask them if we should stop teaching about the revolutionary war because there’s a leap of faith that it really happened.

    To use the non-zero faith required to believe something as proof that’s it’s as real as the FSM demonstrates either:

    * A desire to manipulate disingenuously, which one of the few evils I recognize
    * Stupid
    * Intellectually lazy
    * Parroting something someone else said, probably in conjunction with one of the above 3 characteristics.

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