The Problem of Proof/Truth

The other day I happened to catch a few minutes of the movie Inherit the Wind  [the 1960 Spencer Tracy version], a film which is essentially a fictionalized version of the Scopes trial of 1925, where a Tennessee public school teacher was convicted of  teaching of evolution in the public schools, in violation of then state law. In the film and in the actual trial, the presiding judge forbid the defendant’s attorney from calling witnesses from the scientific community on the grounds that the science was not relevant to the charge, because the question was not about whether the law was accurate, but whether the defendant had violated that law.  Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 [equivalent to roughly $1,250 today], but the verdict was later overturned on appeal by a technicality, and Scopes was never re-tried.  In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibition of teaching evolution was unconstitutional because it represented the favoring of one religious view over others [a fact seemingly overlooked or forgotten in the forty years following].

What struck me, however, about both the trial and the film was the underlying problem faced by the scientific community whenever a scientific theory, factual finding, or discovery conflicts with popular or religious beliefs.  All too often, the popular reaction is a variation on “shoot the messenger” who bears bad or unpleasant news.  The plain fact, which tends to be overlooked, is that a significant proportion, if not an overwhelming majority, of deeply religious individuals who identify themselves as Christians do not trust scientists, or indeed, anyone who does not share their beliefs.

This viewpoint is certainly not limited to Christians, and there are more than a few scientists who do not trust the ability of deeply believing Christians to guide public policy, especially in regard to science and education.  The radical factions of Islam are unlikely to trust western secularists on much of anything, and all stripes of militants are going to be skeptical of those who do not share their views of how the world should be.

In essence, one person’s “truth” can all too often be another’s heresy, even when there is overwhelming factual evidence of that truth.  That overwhelming factual evidence can be denied is most easily seen in dealing with hard science [regardless of belief, there is far too much evidence of the development of the universe to allow any credibility to the idea that the earth and the cosmos were created in 4004 B.C.], but the problem exists in all areas of human endeavor. 

Simply put… how do we know whether what someone says is accurate or truthful?  Generally speaking, we weigh what is said against what we know and believe, but how do we know whether what we know and believe is accurate?

The “traditional” answer to that question was the basis for so-called liberal education, where an individual studied a wide range of subjects, questioning and experimenting with facts and ideas and obtaining a broader range of knowledge and perspective.  Unfortunately, the increasing complexity and technological basis of modern civilization has resulted in a growing class of individuals who are highly educated in narrower and narrower fields of knowledge, and who believe that they are “knowledgeable” in areas well beyond their education and experience.  Some indeed are.  Most aren’t.

Nonetheless, the problems remain.  How can society educate its citizens so that they can distinguish more accurately between what actually is and was and what they wish to believe that cannot be supported by facts, observation, and verifiable technology and science?  And how should society deal with those who wish society’s rules to be based upon beliefs that  can be factually shown to be false or inaccurate?

30 thoughts on “The Problem of Proof/Truth”

  1. Grant Edmunds says:

    You have a point about people believing something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, however you made a logical error. Science can never absolutely prove anything. This is because science is the practice of taking observations and using them to make assumptions. But just because a particular theory complies with all the evidence we can find, does that mean it is true? No. Is it probably true? Depending on the amount of evidence collected, then yes it probably is. But we can’t say it is for sure.

    Further I disagree with your illustration, while my research has not yet been extensive I have never found anything, scientifically speaking, that could even come close to being construed as “overwhelming factual evidence” for either the theory of evolution or creation, though I have heard some good evidence for both sides.

    And finally, there is in fact a way to find pure and accurate truth on any subject, see James 1:5 – 6. I testify that the promise given therein is true, and though you can say what you will you cannot prove me wrong.

    1. Nate says:

      The problem with the James quotation is that it presupposes the correctness of the Christian religion.If the question that you are asking is about the basic nature of the world or god, the only thing that James provides you with is a self-referential answer.

      The basic assumption of science is that the physical world exists and is both uniform and measurable. Within that set of assumptions, there is indeed a preponderance of evidence in support of both evolution and the big bang theory.

    2. I think you’ve just made my point. Because of what you believe, no amount of factual evidence will ever convince you otherwise on the subject of evolution.

      As for “accurate” truth in science or religion… scientific theories remain “true” only until disproved or modified, while the “truth” of a religion can most likely never be proved or disproved, because the terms of belief are that the deity in question exists beyond the material universe. The most science will ever be able to come close to “proving” is that such a deity does not act against the “laws” or construction of the universe.

      1. Grant Edmunds says:

        You missed my point, science can’t provide “factual evidence” to call evidence gained through science “factual” is to mislabel it. As far as whether I can be convinced my beliefs are wrong, it is true that no amount of evidence will persuade me. That is because I know of their truth from a source that is completely reliable. However I won’t dismiss good scientific evidence out of hand. I simply know that ultimately all scientific evidence will comply with what has been revealed. If any of it appears to disagree right now, than either I am interpreting something wrong you are interpreting something wrong, or there was some sort of error in the experiment.

        And for Nate, the only way for you to disprove me would be to try it, and unfortunately the only person you can disprove it for is yourself, for anyone else it’s simply you saying one thing and me saying another.

        1. Like I said… you’re proving the point, as well as the old adage that there are none so blind as will not see. No matter what you claim, “faith” and “belief” are not knowledge. And I’m sorry… but you’re wrong — carbon-dated and radioactive-dated materials, among other things, do represent facts. Microscopic evidence of bacteria is a fact, and it’s scientifically determined.

          1. Grant Edmunds says:

            Well, we disagree on scientific “facts”, no theory can ever be proven only supported, but it looks like a debate on would be pointless.

            I realized I made a misstatement. Some of my beliefs will not ever be swayed by any amount of evidence. Not by any means all of them. Faith and belief are not the same as knowledge, once you have knowledge of a thing you no longer need faith, because you know. Ultimately a debate about spiritual things is even more pointless than the above pointless debate about scientific facts, to have a debate you have agree on something or there is nothing around which to frame the debate. Just know that knowledge can be obtained through the spirit of God and it is irrevocably true. No amount of evidence could ever persuade me that revelation which came from God is untrue because evidence can be misinterpreted or construed to mean what you want it to mean, but if God says I created the heavens and the earth, then he created them no question about it, the manner in which created them I can only guess so that is where scientific evidence comes in, but it can’t refute truth, ultimately it will always end up agreeing with the Lord.

            And I’m done, sorry, if I had stated everything clearly I wouldn’t have needed to keep replying, as it is, I still probably did a poor job on a few things, but it will have to do, I’m done repeating myself now.

  2. Derek says:

    Err…

    That concludes my rebuttal.

    But seriously, prayer is all well and good, but I encourage looking at text books and talking to a few geologists, maybe an anthropologist or two to gain wisdom on the subject of evolution. Prayer just reinforces one’s own opinion, more often than not, and if prayer provided quantifiable answers or the same answers at the very least, to all who got on their knees… Well, we’d have a lot less in the way of religions in this world.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      Well, I think the reason there are so many religions in the world is because people find one piece of truth, and construct a religion around it, since they don’t have the whole truth someone else finds a different part, looks at the first person and says no you can’t be right because you don’t include this, so then they go off and start their own religion based on the truth they have found. Through this process you get a vast array of different religions, none with the whole picture.

  3. AMos says:

    interesting that you should mention the scopes trial and the problem with truth on the same day that this story comes out at the huffington post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/13/tennessee-tea-party-demands_n_808508.html

    this is yet another example of narrow-minded people trying not only to deny truth, but prevent others from learning it. similar people have already succeeded with similar plans in texas. as a tennesseean it’s doubly embarrassing, for we have to claim both these history re-writers and the scopes trial

  4. Jon Moss says:

    It saddened me to read this blog post. My heart ached for your loneliness warmed only by the coldness of hard fact and proven science. Does science provide compassion and comfort when loved ones are dying and vaunted medicine or science are no help and prefer not to waste resources on a lost cause, unless, your cause proves interesting beyond the fact that your dying (as everyone dies eventually)?

    If we take away the senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, etc.), how do we prove anything? How do you prove the existence of light to someone born blind? How do you describe the sound of a bird singing to someone born deaf? The difference between something sweet and something bitter to some with no sense of taste or smell?

    I have my beliefs, yet I admire the discoveries of science. But science can never replace my religion. If anything, it can only enhance it.

    1. Derek says:

      Science has done a fairly good job of increasing the longevity of the human race, don’t you agree? It’s also pretty good at keeping me warm at night, science has yet to make me lonely. It also does quite a good job of preventing loved ones from dying from once deadly ailments.

      I also am not sure where you saw loneliness in the author’s original post…

      1. Jon Moss says:

        Not blindness literally, but rather a complete retraction of our senses. Everything science is about observation – in other words what we see and touch and can measure. Take that away, your ability to sense anything (total sensory depravation) and what do you have left?

        1. Derek says:

          You used loneliness, not blindness, but now that you’ve said THAT I’m trying to figure out where you picked that up from the author’s original post.

          Things will continue to exist, regardless of our perceiving them or not. We are not so grand a being that the universe collapses without us, nor will the universe collapse under such trivial reason as not being perceived by anything. You cannot void science because it is based on senses. Should we give up all reason and sense to find your brand of enlightenment? No, thank you, I’ll stick with my senses.

          Let’s void the vague words with misty intentions for a moment, and let’s be specific.

          When you say lonely, do you mean the author doesn’t have Christ as his constant companion?

          And when you say blind, do you mean the author doesn’t see things your way?

  5. Jamey says:

    I wonder at those who look out at the universe, and find it cold and foreboding, and who talk about how lonely it is, and how their God gives them warmth and comfort…

    I find my warmth and comfort and companionship in other humans, and find the wonder of the Universe itself awe-inspiring and fulfilling.

    It’s often said that Faith can move mountains – but why can’t it be Faith in Ourselves, and not Faith in some nebulous entity described in dozens of different ways, all proclaimed loudly to be “The Truth”. I have to admit, I giggle every time I hear a gospel singer or group singing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”.

    In fact, it makes me wonder about people who proclaim we need the Government to take care of people. Apparently, there are “good people” who want to take care of others, and “bad people” who have to be forced to take care of others. And the “bad people” so outnumber the “good people” that the “good people” have to have a government “of the people” democratically force the “bad people” to help others… So if the good people are outnumbered, how can they get the majority to vote to help others, and if they’re not outnumbered, why don’t they just help everyone, and let the bad people rot?

    Though my readings of the Author’s books tend to stick to his SciFi stories, I’ve wondered at the fairly libertarian bent they take.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      Hmm..
      I disagree about the government’s job being to “take care of people”. A government’s job is to protect the rights of Life, Liberty and Property. Our (federal) government’s job is to function according to the outline set down in the constitution, which will protect the rights of Life, Liberty, and Property for the states, and the state government has the job of protecting the rights of Life, Liberty and Property. Unfortunately things seem to have stopped working that way some time ago, so it becomes our job to reestablish that order.

      1. Jamey says:

        I agree with you completely. The government’s job is *NOT* to take care of people. That’s why I wonder at the libertarian bent – I spend time considering, for example, whether the actions of the Ecolotin Institute are fully in line with the Zero Aggression Principle. I need to find my copies and re-read them, I fear.

        1. They’re not. Remember, I am an author, and my books often show the impact of differing principles in different cultures. The Ecolitan books explore the use of preemptive action against perceived evil, as opposed to the “trust first, then act” views expressed in Adiamante.

  6. Bob Howard says:

    Religion “evolved” as primitive humans became aware of natural forces around them that they could not understand. The universe seemed a scary place and creation of various supernatural explanations removed some of the fear by postulating a variety of all-powerful beings who made and controlled the processes of the world. The exact nature of these mythical beings changed as societies changed over the years, but they all remain based on the same fear of he unknown.

    Science also seeks to understand how things work in the universe, but it does so through observation and experimentation, not a series of arguments over whose imaginary friend is more powerful than someone else’s. I firmly support every human’s right to belief in these mystical beings, but I very much resent when they seek to deny scientific fact based on their faith. They are entitled to their opinion, as someone said, but not to their own “facts.”

    Right up there with denial of evolution (and sorry folks, but there are NO observed facts that contradict the fundamental science of evolution) is what is to me an unfathomable fervor among conservatives to deny the science behind global climate change. Except for a truly miniscule minority of scientists, support for the basic scientific evidence is overwhelming, yet we have people like the Attorney General in Virginia spending millions of taxpayer dollars to prove that the whole concept is an international conspiracy with rampant fraud and scientific misconduct.

    It’s really easy to get despondent over the future of our society when real science is held in such low esteem by our politicians. This goes back to Mr. Modesitt’s comment on our education system. I agree we were better in many ways when we focused on a liberal education where the focus was more on a broad multi-discipline grounding in many areas and in teaching students how to think creatively. College degrees now are more “practically” oriented and with the increasing complexity in many fields it certainly is understandable–there is only so much time available and too much technical knowledge to impart to leave much time for what unfortunately are now cosidered non-essentials. The traditional four-year degree path seems inadequate in this regard and that may be the solution, a longer path that includes the traditional components of a liberal education and opportunities for more lengthy contemplation and consideration of concepts outside the narrow focus of a single career choice.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      Your implication that evolution is true because, as you say, “there are NO observed facts that contradict the fundamental science of evolution” is fallacious. I don’t know that your claim is true, but it doesn’t really matter because you have to do more than prove that nothing contradicts a theory, you have to provide actual evidence that it IS true.

      You’re right that we have an education problem, but I’m not sure a longer degree path is the right answer. The problem has it’s root (In my opinion) in the strong emphasis being placed on learning facts, rather than learning How and Why. If you first teach a person to think logically and then to ask questions, it becomes a simple matter of showing them the right questions and they will find the answers themselves. I might be wrong, but I think a switch in emphasis towards this type of education would help to solve the problem.

  7. Frank says:

    Wow. I must say that I am impressed by the discussion, from all the various points of view. If it “proves” nothing else, it would seem that SF readers are thinking rather deeply about the concepts they read.

    I think Mr. Modesitt’s point is not that any particular point is the truth, but more that our natural prejudices seem to make it difficult to be objective. While I would agree, from my personal set of prejudices, with Jamey’s comments about being awed by the universe in general…I don’t think that carries the weight of “truth.” It seems more likely to me, but to say that the Bible’s explanation has no possibility of being the “truth” is to deny that possibility. I think that is as much of a mistake as the reverse. If we have learned anything about science, it is the transient nature of the “facts” as we currently know them.

    Maybe I missed the point, but I think that Mr. Modesitt’s point was to the process we use (or don’t) and to the tolerance we seem to be missing for other points of view.

    1. Jamey says:

      I tend to agree with you about his point. I disagree with you about the “transient nature of facts” as we currently know them. The theory of evolution is not a “fact” – it is a framework describing a connection between a large connection of facts. In fact, one of the processes generally described as “mutation” can be seen in the records of the “Scottish Fold” cat. Facts are generally something observed – “A cat found in Scotland in 1961 is the first known to show the Scottish Fold characteristic” “All domesticated cats currently showing the Scottish Fold can trace their ancestry to that original cat”. Theory is “The Scottish Fold trait is a simple dominant gene trait”. Geneticists determine this by tracing the numbers of offspring showing the trait. This makes it statistically determined – there is in fact *some* chance that it is a wrong conclusion, but with the number of litters examined, the statisticians can say with a fair confidence how likely it is that the conclusion is wrong.

      We can show that radiation causes mutations of vharious types. We can show (very tragically, in the case of a number of drugs) that drugs can cause mutations. In neither case does the existence or non-existence of God have any real relevance – one can easily just say “God made that happen”. The problem with that as a scientific stance is that you cannot show that God *didn’t* make it happen. The argument always comes down to “God wanted it that way.”

      It comes down to a flaw in Pascal’s Wager – if you act as though Christianity is true – Pascal said that you lose nothing, and potentially gain something great. However, that is wrong. You lose the opportunity to have acted in accordance with some other religion, such as Buddhism, which may be true instead.

      1. Grant Edmunds says:

        Why not give them all an equal chance? Compile a list of ten likely religions and then spend a year following each one. As you go, document how it affects your life to follow this one or that one. At the end of ten years look back and determine which one was best or seemed to you to have the most truth. I think ultimately you will find there is some truth in almost any religion, but I bet one or another would stand out particularly to you. As a christian of course it is my belief Christianity in general would stand out, and, were it part of the test, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in particular, but that’s what I believe. In any case Pascal had a point, especially if you’re not living Buddhism or some other religion already.

  8. Frank says:

    “The transient nature of facts” is in the philosophical context of religion and, as a result of that, absolutes.

    I think that it is rather clear, or at least easy to defend, that facts that are “absolute” are very rare, if existent at all, in this context. I offer Descartes’ failed attempt in his “Cogito” in that context.

    While I believe that may be a sufficient defense, I also offer that history is full of examples of what are clearly considered “facts,” replete with empirical proofs and even successful projections, that are later reinterpreted as “different” than the original facts. The problem with causality is that it assumes logic, which, as the earlier reference to Descartes indicates…can be a problem.

    Anyhow, I think the air in the discussion may be a little too rarefied for me…I will attempt to listen more and talk less.

  9. AMos says:

    @Grant:

    You said, “you have to do more than prove that nothing contradicts a theory, you have to provide actual evidence that it IS true.” If you spent just a fraction of the time you recommend we spend researching religions (above you mentioned choose 10 and follow them for a year), and looked into the data, you’d find that there is an overwhelming body of evidence that support evolution as truth. And by overwhelming I mean millions–literally millions–of pages of reports by countless thousands of researchers over the last 170 or so years.

    For a much more concise book that sums up the most recent findings up to 2009, see Richard Dawkins’ book _The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution_. I know he’s the bogeyman to religious people for his books on God, but by training he is one of the preeminent evolutionary biologists on the planet, and knows the field intimately. In the book he provides a clear and concise history of the field, a wealth of examples and hard data, a great bibliography for further research, and some excellent coverage of recent findings. He also goes over a lot of the counter-evidence frequently cited by evolution deniers, and explains how that evidence has been mis-interpreted or misused in the past. If you want to become more knowledgeable in the field, this is a great up-to-date introduction.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      Thank you I will look into it.

  10. Joe says:

    I’m astounded by the arrogance of the comments. It’s impressive how sure you all are of your beliefs given how little any of us actually knows.

    Science makes statements which can be disproven. The more times these statements are tested in different scenarios and not disproven, the more likely they are correct. The predictions of Newtonian mechanics has been tested and not found wanting for over 400 years. Therefore the probability of newtonian mechanics being wrong is infinitesimally small. Newtonian mechanics also specifies where it applies (objects larger than atoms, objects moving slowly) and where it does not (it cannot even usefully solve any problem involving a universe consisting of 3 bodies interacting by gravity due to the unrealistic precision with which one needs to specify the initial conditions).

    Fake sciences such as economics disguise themselves in mathematics but do not make predictions that can be tested. Even if economic theories predict outcomes that do not occur, they are not discarded. Therefore the probability that theories in economics are correct is quite small.

    The theory of evolution fits somewhere in between. It can be tested (eg: genetic algorithms on computers do evolve better solutions) and has been observed in vivo (eg the fish of the Hudson river which have been selected for a gene that gives them immunity to PCBs). However it is not as hard a science as Newtonian mechanics because it has been tested less often than Newtonian mechanics.

    The creation myth is not testable which makes its probability of being correct lower than evolution. Not to say evolution is a fact. But to believe that some big Ego in the sky exists and decided to create us, requires a much greater degree of suspension of disbelief than to believe that mechanisms that have been shown to work (such as natural selection) ended up producing us. (because the latter are testable and the former aren’t.).

    Suspension of disbelief (aka faith) is not knowledge.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      I am astounded at the arrogance of your comment!

      To assume the only sources of knowledge that exist in the universe are those that you know of and understand, when you have many reliable testimonies of another source, which you have not tested, are available, is just as arrogant as anything above. When you find a large group of people, many of whom are reliable and well educated, who all believe the same thing, there is a reason they believe the way they do. You would be well served to give some credit to what they believe unless you have _knowledge_ that contradicts them. And even if you have _knowledge_ that contradicts you would do well to examine their beliefs and the reasons they have for those beliefs, because there is almost undoubtedly some truth to what they say, some piece of truth which slightly misinterpreted or misused, has caused them to err in their beliefs.

      Also, it is true that faith is not knowledge, but faith in God can bear the fruit of knowledge.

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