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Proof Is a Four-Letter Word (Can You Prove It's Not?)
2009.01.08 (Thu) 14:13
Stupid Evil Bastard Les Jenkins posted a link to a quick essay by Steven D. Hales.
Everyone's quite aware of the constant refrain of fundies, woos, and other creduloids, which can be boiled down to: weird, contradictory shit we've never proven the existence of...exists. A rational skeptic replies that, since we've seen no evidence for said weird, contradictory shit...no. The creduloids then declare: "Since you can't prove it's not true, then it is!" In response, as we've often explained ourselves, we have to laboriously examine why it is, in fact, impossible to "prove a negative."
That's where Steven Hales takes us on...though, strangely, he seems to think that it's the believers claiming that you can't prove a negative. It's like the guy has heard our plaintive cry, supports what we're about...and then promptly mixes it all up and decides the creduloids are the ones he heard. What, was he in the next room with the door shut?
What we're confused about, judging by Les' (and his commenters') corroborative reactions, is this: when did this become a creduloid argument? We've had pretty extensive interactions with creduloids over the years, and we've never heard a single one use the "you can't prove a negative" argument on us to back up their own beliefs. In fact, it's been quite the opposite — we've been the ones making this assertion (with clarifications, of course) when confronted with the woo argument that the burden of proof falls on skeptics to show that their pet beliefs are not real.
Usually, the conversation goes like this:
Woo: Unicorns are real.
2%: How do you back up that stupid assertion [obligatory "asshat" type reference]?
Woo: I know they exist. It's up to you to prove that they don't exist.
2%: No, moron. It's not possible to prove that something doesn't exist. To understand why, see our post called "Only God Can Prove a Negative, and There Is No God." The burden of proof is on you to prove that your fantastic claim is true.
In our experience, it's the skeptics who need to use the "you can't prove a negative" argument, not the creduloids. However, some pretty smart people seem to be indicating that they've seen this happening in the other direction. So if the creduloids are using this argument, then someone please give us an example, any example. In all sincerity, we can't recall ever seeing an example like that, and we can't even come up with a viable way (or reason!) for the woos to use this approach. It seems like, since the assertion is "proven wrong" (not really — as this Rant discusses), some skeptics are disavowing it, and attributing it to "the enemy." If you've got a link to an actual example of a creduloid trying this one on for size, or even a sample dialogue like the one above, please let us know.
It makes little sense to us. It's to the creduloids' advantage to believe that we can prove a negative — because, if it's possible to do so, but we can't actually "satisfy" them with a proof that no, their bullshit isn't real, then they've "won" (based on the "absence of evidence" stickiness, which is one logical fallacy they're all too happy to embrace, for obvious reasons). On the other hand, it's our contention that proving a negative, given the connotation they expect, is impossible. Steve gets it the wrong way round.
He starts here:
A principle of folk logic is that one can't prove a negative.
But there is one big, fat problem with all this. Among professional logicians, guess how many think that you can't prove a negative? That's right: zero. Yes, Virginia, you can prove a negative, and it's easy, too.
Um...Steve? You're missing the point, here.
This isn't about logicians. Nor is it about "folk logic." Nor is it solely about abstract thinking without any other field of exploration thrown in (though certainly, as with anything humans examine, we must employ abstract thinking in order to investigate it).
The problem comes when you look all the way down at the bottom of Steven D. Hales' essay:
Steven Hales is professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania.
Ugh. And that's why Steve is missing the point.
Listen, we have nothing against philosophers who stick to philosophy. (Just as we have nothing against economists who understand that economics is not a hard — by which we mean purely empirical and mathematical — science.) And formal logic can be a pretty fun exercise — not only did we love working that stuff through way back in school, but as we often code computer applications in both a professional and personal capacity, we apply formal logic (and its corrolated axiomatic foundations and rules of reasoning) frequently.
But when we (not the believers, Steve) explain that you "can't prove a negative," we aren't limiting ourselves to the realm of philosophy. It's not about strictly formal logic absent all empirical observation and investigation.
Steve correctly invokes the law of non-contradiction — that is, if something is P, it is not not-P, and vice versa — in his effort to show that you can prove a negative. Of course you can, Steve — in formal logic, where everything (and, more to the point, every person) is cooperative.
While seeming to imply that there are scads of reasons why you can prove a negative, Steve really only gives us three: the aforementioned law of non-contradiction (which he expands on at length in a recursive, almost "law of non-non-non-non-non-contradiction," kind of way), the power of deductive reasoning, and the power of inductive reasoning. On deductive reasoning, he says this:
Can you construct a valid deductive argument with all true premises that yields the conclusion that there are no unicorns? Sure. Here's one, using the valid inference procedure of modus tollens:
- If unicorns had existed, then there is evidence in the fossil record.
- There is no evidence of unicorns in the fossil record.
- Therefore, unicorns never existed.
Someone might object that that was a bit too fast — after all, I didn't prove that the two premises were true. I just asserted that they were true. Well, that's right. However, it would be a grievous mistake to insist that someone prove all the premises of any argument they might give. Here's why. The only way to prove, say, that there is no evidence of unicorns in the fossil record, is by giving an argument to that conclusion. Of course one would then have to prove the premises of that argument by giving further arguments, and then prove the premises of those further arguments, ad infinitum.
Wow, this is maddening — no offense meant, Steve (really!), but this is what comes of philosophizing rather than diving into reality and seeing how reason and critical thought apply in real life. We often liken philosophy (for the sake of philosophy) to masturbating with ideas — even if that is offensive, we still believe it, and Steven D. Hales hasn't given us any reason to think otherwise with this essay.
See, we buy your reasoning, Steve. We agree that the three-step proof you've offered is pretty solid, since we're willing to accept the premises you assume. In fact, we can even go the next step and prove those premises with you; and the premises those premises are based on. That's why we're not the ones you should be addressing...
...because the believers are the ones who fuck up your nice, neat little package there, and not because they're claiming "you can't prove a negative." You've misaimed that attribution egregiously.
What happens, in your example, Steve, is that we offer the pretty solid logic you've written out...and the creduloids claim that the premises are incorrect. They don't do this ahead of time, of course, because none of their "hypotheses" are well-defined or thought out in the first place. But when we use the kind of logic you've demonstrated to poke holes in their hypotheses, they move the fucking goalposts.
Tell us, Steve, how would you react when, after you've presented this clever logical throughline proving that unicorns don't exist (to wit: a negative), the Unicornist purrs: "Why would there have to be fossil records of unicorns? Your first premise is flawed, Mister Smarty Science Guy."
Oh, right...explain the basics of bone structure, mineralogy, paleontology, and a few other scientific facts for them. Good thinking, Steve. Then what do you do when they explain: "No, unicorns don't have bones." Or (in a much better reflection of what these fuckholes do): "No, upon death, unicorns turn into a mystical crystalline pink powder which floats away on the wind."
See, you seem to think that deductive reasoning holds up with people who, as you yourself state, have "a desperate desire to keep believing whatever one believes, even if all the evidence is against it." And it simply doesn't. Those of us dealing with actual believers all the fucking time, instead of simply playing games with logic and semantics, know this. They will move the goalposts every goddamn time, Steve, and your logical brilliance is not going to stop that, and it's not going to change their minds, and it's not going to do...well, pretty much anything, really.
Which, of course, is why the narrow field of "philosophy only" fails abysmally in a real world context. It's like spending your whole life as a swordsman, sharpening your sword, practicing thrusts and slashes...and never realizing that an actual, live opponent might think to block or parry your attack! Boy, would you be in for a surprise.
Steve moves on to a discussion of inductive reasoning, which is very good and all, and we agree with much of it. In fact, we use his arguments ourselves on many occasions, to deflect the usual moronic fence-sitters who think they're "enlightened" because they've come up with the ever-so-original concept that maybe we're all in the Matrix and none of what we expect is real, anyway. Steve is absolutely correct in that, in order to function in the real world, we all apply inductive reasoning not just on a daily basis, but practically a million times every minute, most of it completely unconsciously. Doing otherwise risks becoming Douglas Adams' Man in the Shack.
But his acknowledgement of the efficacy of inductive reasoning in the real world is all the more frustrating in that he can't leave his philosophical ivory tower (or even stick his head out the window) long enough to incorporate that real world knowledge into his understanding of how believer/skeptic debate works, in practice. This is very similar to why Libertarians (with a Big L) or self-professed "anarcho-capitalists" (and their ilk) fall down so fucking hard when clinging to their irrational bullshit — they rely on their own idealistic conditions as applied across the board, and fail utterly to take real world conditions into account. They miss the real world consequences of their ideas and propositions, and that's why we laugh our asses off at them.
Steve, we don't want to laugh our asses off at you, but you're forcing our hand. You've thoroughly ignored the actual world of Believer-Skeptic Conflict in your efforts to dissect the epistemological arguments. Don't like our assessment? Then stop making statements like this one:
Which premises we should take on credit and which need payment up front is a matter of long and involved debate among epistemologists.
Such blanket statements are Ivory Tower to the Max, dude. Do you really believe that the believers (and a great number of skeptics) are going to take a time out for a sideline call from the epistemological referees? Sheesh.
Take a page from Carl Sagan — or, hell, we'll do it ourselves:
"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage."
Suppose...I seriously make such an assertion to you....
"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle — but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.
"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention she's an invisible dragon."
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."
Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
"Good idea, except she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.
We're usually quoting this kind of thing at creduloids, ending with Sagan's comment:
Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?
But that part is irrelevant with you, Steve. You get that. What you don't seem to get is the horrifically true existence of the entire conversation that precedes it. That is the kind of shit we're dealing with, here outside of the ivory tower.
Logically, philosophically, epistemologically, abstractly — you are correct. Absent any real life application (or implications), you've got it one hundred percent right that we can "prove" a negative. Sure thing, man.
But in reality, we are working with specific sets (a subject you should be familiar with), specific circumstances (which you clearly aren't familiar with), and specific audiences (which you've apparently completely forgotten even exist).
Our sets are literally infinite, but in a physical (or at least conceptually physical), not purely mathematical, way. The reason why we state, to the credulous believers who throw their figurative unicorns at us incessantly, that we "can't prove a negative," is because we can't empirically prove that Santa Claus, or unicorns, or gods, or ass gnomes, do not exist anywhere and everywhere — "somewhere" in the universe (or more) that we inhabit. We have no resources, time, or abilities that will enable such a "search."
Why do we state that they don't exist anywhere? Because, as you've very correctly explained, Steve, we make good use of inductive reasoning, and by that reasoning, which is supported by and supports our deductive reasoning, there's no reason to believe that these fucking imaginary figments are anywhere at all. They don't exist.
But can we "prove" it? Not in the purely mathematical, formal logic way you're getting at. Not in the least.
We suppose our real beef with Steve's essay is two-fold.
One — in our experience, as we've explained — he entirely misattributes who is saying "you can't prove a negative." That isn't the rallying cry of the creduloids, Steve, it's our response to their constantly moving goalposts which — literally and epistemologically — give them an "infinite set" within which to hide their bullshit. In doing this, they explain (poorly) why they don't need to "prove" it. And by establishing that they don't need to prove it, they assert (incorrectly) that it should therefore just be accepted as an a priori premise regardless of a lack of proof. As we've said, we understand that you can, semantically, prove a negative; but in the real world, against outright fucking liars (or the deluded and gullible), well...to quote Tommy Lee Jones, in a quiet but biting tone: "Try it."
Two — leaving aside his utter confusion as to who is saying what — Steve does what all philosophers do: he wanks a bit. Again, we don't know you, Steve, you could be an incredibly cool guy, but philosophy without practicability is fucking masturbation, and no matter how nice masturbation might be, it's ultimately fairly meaningless, and after a while it chafes. You can explain this crap 'til you're blue in the face, but until you apply a decent understanding of the real world — and people outside of your own head — it just won't amount to anything.
Take, for instance, the good old philosophical "conundrum" they call the Yorick experiment. With the necessary technological capabilities, physically separate a brain from its body, while maintaining direct remote contact (i.e., by radio signals) from each brain connection to its corresponding nervous system pathway in the body. The brain controls the body, the body relays sensory input to the brain, as if everything is normal — except they might be miles away from each other. The philosophy professor's question, meant (by far too many, though not all, philosophy professors) to "stump" the students, is this: where does the person, the identity or entity, reside — in the body or the brain? Within seconds of hearing the question, we Two Percenters had no difficulty whatsoever definitively answering: "The brain," and declaring the "puzzle" fucking stupid. Here's the easy test, you daffy philosophers: given the technology required to perform the experiment in the first place, if either the brain or the body was destroyed, which one — when hooked up to another body or brain — would still be that person? Since we know, scientifically, that all actual thought (and emotion, and memories, and therefore agency) takes place in the brain, the answer is blatantly obvious. Hooking your body up to someone else's brain would give that person's brain control of your body; hooking your brain up to someone else's body would give you control of that body. The question is fucking pointless and easily answered — not at all the "stumper" that our philosophy professors expected it to be.
Which is why philosophy is masturbation — they want to ask these seemingly big, clever, intricate questions, but aren't willing to dive into what the question is about in order to answer it. If you want to know what the sensation of penis-inside-vagina (or whatever combination floats your boat) feels like, then you're going to have to fuck...not just wack off and wonder.
We choose sex over masturbation. We choose reality over fantasy. We choose discussion over philosophy. And we choose efficacy over rhetoric. With apologies to lonely people, creduloids, philosophers, and politicians: if the latter in any of these pairs is all you've got, well, rock on with your bad self...but holy hell, what a silly way to go through life.
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