What Ought We Make of the Word “Proof?”

Words often confused us because we fail to press for a definition of the term. Or we can say, words often fail us because we are confused as to their range of meanings. Consider the word proof.

It has muscle, this strong word. It is insistent. “I need proof!” we demand. “There is no proof!” we insist. Or, “You may not believe it, but there is no proof.”

Perhaps this strong word needs to be tamed and not allowed to run so free and reckless across the intellectual landscape. We need to rope in this beast. But what is the range of its meanings?

Proof may mean that we evidence sufficient to warrant absolute certainty. If A=B and B=C, then, A=C. The proof is simply in the understanding of the terms. It could not be otherwise. Even an executive order could not change the conclusion, given the premises.

But few items of our knowledge know of such cognitive assurance. To be sure, we are lost without these kinds of proofs. But there is more to knowing than this. I know full well that my wife is not an alien, but I do not know this in the manner of an absolute proof about which I cannot possibly be mistaken. It is logically possible that she is an alien. However, I have no positive evidence that she is–or that my dog, Sunny, originates from outside the galaxy. The upshot is that most of what we know is defeasible. It could be shown to be wrong. However, we do not need proof in the strongest sense to have knowledge, which is justified true belief.

Proof can also mean “evidence sufficient to convince.” This is a looser sense of the word and is not as commonly used. We might say that we have overwhelming reason to believe P. Thus, it is proven. For example, we have ample evidence that the holocaust occurred. This means that the overwhelming burden of proof is on anyone who would deny it, such as the recent Presidents of Iran.

Now we come to religion. Some trouble the air without wisdom by insisting, “You cannot prove God exists.” By this, they usually mean that you cannot establish the existence of the Christian God in the manner of: if A=B and B=C, then A=C. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, one may reasonably believe in the existence of a personal, infinite, and transcendent being without relying on arguments that confer absolute certainty. The matter—and no small matter it is—concerns whether this being exists and what manner of evidence and reasoning is required to have the knowledge that this is so.

To finish up this epistemic primer, one may be justified in belief P (about God’s existence or about anything else) without having incontrovertible evidence or total certainty. We rightly believe in the existence of all manner of things without proof in the strongest sense–in teeth, tulips, turnips, and toasters; in planets, insects, parsnips, and posters; in virtues, vices, values, and lobsters; in gravity, levity, tragedy, and comedy. We believe in the past we cannot see, in the future not yet here, and in the “what if” that has never been and will never be. Yes, we do; and all without proof.

Now that this is cleared out of the way, perhaps we can get on with considering arguments for and against the existence of God, not being weighed down by the unnecessarily tonnage of  proof.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

4 thoughts

  1. Dr. Groothuis, nice article. I inform those who ask for scientific proof for God’s existence if they ask scientists in certain fields for the same level of proof. Besides, proofs also depend on specific disciplines and the nature of required proof for the discipline. Proof in mathematical formulas call for a different type of proof than whether it will rain tomorrow in a specific area. In fact, forecasting the rain depends a lot on theory as does specific areas of quantum mechanics. Hence, the difference between scientific theory and scientism.

  2. Good stuff here, and a matter of instruction that needs to be made more. Just last week I used an example to help my class understand how presuppositions work to interpret evidence regarding its use a s “proof”. I drew a large indistinct footprint on the board and asked if they had ever seen this before. They immediately recognized it as a bigfoot footprint. So I said there were four kinds of people who would evaluate this:

    1) Those convinced that bigfoot exists who would uncritically assume that this was evidence.
    2) Those convinced that bigfoot exists who would critically evaluate the evidence.
    3) Those open to the idea of the existence of bigfoot who would critically evaluate the evidence.
    4) Those convinced that there is no bigfoot who would uncritically write the evidence off as a hoax or some false identification.

    It’s an illustration that most people are amused by more than they are passionate about, so it helps them to see the range of presuppositional attitude toward evidence that is possible without derailing the flow of the class.

    The course was on apologetics, and that class in particular started from the reasonable usefulness and limitations of evidence in apologetics and applied it to the appeal of the gospel in apologetics. It seemed to be effective and I saw the proverbial lights go on in their eyes. However, I think it may also be useful to help teach otherwise untrained people how to evaluate reports of scientific discoveries as well as political propaganda and I may use it again in the future.

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