Saturday, November 15, 2008

Prove It

To prove something means to put it to the test, not necessarily (in fact, seldom) to provide certainty on the matter. In that sense, the phrase “the exception proves the rule” makes sense, that is, a counter-proof gives us the opportunity to put a position’s logic on trial.

A good many things can’t be proved. They are, in fact, the very same things that cannot be disproved—life after death, the existence of a personal deity who creates and provides for all that exists, the assurance that your dog loves you, and so on.

To prove your position, provided it is a position and not a matter of verifiable fact, you must state your position precisely—that such-and-such exists, that it is good or beautiful or useful, that it means something, that it has causes and effects, or that we should conduct ourselves in particular ways because of it.

“The proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Experience and experimentation are the guidelines to solid proof.

It must be publicly testable. Your intuition and feelings and the way you were brought up may all be excellent ways for you individually to be certain about the world around you, but they don’t constitute proof. They are almost useless, by themselves, in reaching the sort of compromise and consensus that life in a democracy demands. (Note: The Athenians who gave us Western democracy also gave us logic and argumentation.)

Proof must be available to the senses—especially other people’s senses, not just your own—a tangible object, an observed event, a predictable and immediate cause or effect, a deduction from premises which are themselves available to sense and experience, a comparison to something already known, a settled definition, or something that can be measured or counted.

Ideally, proof does not depend on authority or expertise, but if authorities, experts, or eyewitnesses are allowed into an argument, they must be credible—that is, knowledgeable on the matter under discussion, honest, and disinterested.

And our conclusions must be valid—which means they must follow directly and inevitably from the proofs we use.

If something can be proved, it can be argued about—it can also be disproved. Some things—such as that the earth orbits the sun, that human life has value, or that every independent citizen in a democracy should vote—have been already proved to the extent that most people no longer argue about them—and the proofs against them have fallen into disrepute—but these matters have been argued in the past, and they could be argued again sometime in the future, should new, reputable counter-proofs ever appear.

Thus, some things that used to be unarguable—that torture is never justified, that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman, that what’s good for General Motors is good for America—have recently become arguable because circumstances and change have provided new evidence for putting these assumptions to the test.

A good measure of what a society is all about is what it chooses to put to the test—and how swiftly and how carefully controversies are put to rest.

It is not a good reflection on American culture, for instance, that the issues of abortion, civil rights, and the death penalty have been allowed to roil over decades with little or no effort to rise above prejudice, preconceptions, and self-interest to study these matters and test them according to fact and reason.

Likewise, it is not a good reflection on America or its leaders that they have been swifter in declaring a new war, in a matter of a week usually, with hardly a word of debate on the matter, than in fixing its infrastructure, which—from its education system to its levees to its prisons to its voting booths—has been sagging for decades now.

What we tend to focus on in this society—in the mass media and beside the office water coolers—is almost never what proves to be the matters of much importance.

Hurricane Katrina exposed the neglect we have paid to poverty and racism, and 9/11 revealed how slipshod our security is and how arrogant our view of the rest of the world is, and the current financial crisis draws our attention to the nation’s burgeoning debt and the greed and illogic betrayed by its sense of luxury and entitlement.

Yet up to all this, we fussed over (I choose not to say “argued”) whether O.J. was or was not guilty, or whether Lindsay is or is not a lesbian, or whether George W. Bush deserved his Yale degree or his honorable discharge from the Texas Air National Guard.

This summer, when McCain selected Palin as his running mate, how quickly our attention shifted from what qualified her to be vice president to how well McCain’s staff “vetted” her (i.e., followed standard operating procedures) and how funny she was and how much her clothes cost. Just for the record, her qualifications were matters that could, with some effort, be put to the test. Her sense of humor, to take the weakest link, is harder to prove or disprove. What her clothes cost was just a matter of verifiable fact.

Here’s my point:

We are a nation primed to act on impulse and feeling—not altogether bad things and certainly necessary to motivate action. But we lack the patience to put matters of great importance to the test, to ask for proof when it is needed and, instead, to ask for too many lurid and sensationalistic details when they are irrelevant.

What does that say about us, as a people? (The answer is not altogether bad—but it’s not flattering either, for a nation as rich and powerful as we—still—are.)

Do I know what I know because it “feels” true inside me, where it cannot be touched by reason or fellow feeling, or because I have confidence that, if I have to, I can put it to the test?

Both, I think (and feel).

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