• Fred Guerin

Neither Absolute Proof nor Relativism

Recently, I read a magazine article that featured a debate between a person who believed in intelligent design and a ‘new atheist’ (essentially a more aggressive militant atheist who concludes that belief in God is not just irrational, but socially harmful).

It was a rather protracted debate, so I decided for brevity’s sake to reduce the back and forth arguments into two distinct claims, both of which seem to me to be problematic:

New atheist: God’s existence has not been proved to be true, therefore he does not exist

Theist: God’s existence has not been proved to be false, therefore there is no reason to doubt His existence.

I am, of course, being a bit facetious here, mostly because the arguments on both sides of the debate were rather unimaginative and pedestrian. Philosophically, you cannot 'prove' a negative--and it is exceedingly difficult, for that matter, to prove a positive beyond all doubt. Aside from closed systems of logic, mathematical or geometrical proofs, there are very few absolute proofs or refutations of anything—whether we are talking about scientific empirically-based theories, philosophical systems or concepts, or most especially general claims made in psychology and the social sciences. For all that, we do not really need absolute proof to be persuaded that something is the case, and even the best rhetoricians will not be able to convince everyone in every situation.

The exceedingly arrogant and plainly false notion that only science can provide us with a reliable method for acquiring knowledge or truth prevails. The reality is that we can be far more persuaded, enlightened, and moved by a great novel or poem as opposed to some esoteric scientific journal article. Art can be a window into the truth of things. Moreover, the scientist who is additionally trained in the humanities--in philosophy, and rhetoric--will tend to be much more adept at persuading the public of their conclusions regarding things like COVID, the need for vaccinations, or the devastating effect of continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels. The problem is that scientists tend to think facts constitute 'proof' and speak for themselves. They don't.

Truths and theories about human beings, the environment, or the social world are provisional. Theories are the way we structure ideas that we assume best explain and interpret facts on the ground. Ideally, they retain their validity only so long as there continue to be good grounds for retaining them—or until a better (i.e. more widely grounded, plausible or coherent) theory (or story!) comes along. I say, ‘ideally’ because the history of science is replete with scientists who are loathe to give up their theory even in the face of counter-evidence. No doubt, there are also many non-scientifically arrived at pearls of wisdom that have a certain staying-power—aphorisms, stories, maxims, allegories can reach beyond their own time and place, and speak directly to our human experience. But, these are very few and far between.

None of this should, by any means, prevent us from accepting the validity of scrupulously researched, documented, or well-reasoned proposals, ideas, theories, or worldviews. What it testifies to instead is human finitude—that as much as we may strive to know absolutely, the fact is that we will just never reach a final epistemological ideal beyond time and place. However, that we are finite creatures should not lead us to believe that we are thereby inherently incapable of distinguishing between truth and error, fact and fiction. There is a trivial sense in which it is reasonable to say that all human knowledge or ways of knowing are relative to a historical era, place, social, linguistic, or environmental context. Trivial because it is both obviously true while being altogether unenlightening.

That knowledge is relative does not mean that truth or validity are nowhere to be found. For example, to say that our current understanding of climate warming is relative to the present state of mathematical modeling, or to our present knowledge of ecology, weather systems, biology, physics, chemistry, plant science, zoology, oceanography, and atmospheric science, does not mean that this understanding is only relatively true, but rather that its truth or validity must be continuously and rigorously tested and affirmed if it is to stand the test of time.

What makes claims about climate warming so persuasive is the fact that these are well documented, empirically founded, and theoretically confirmed by many independent individual scientists, who have gathered many distinctly different strands of evidence from research arising out many different scientific disciplines.

That our present knowledge of climate change is in some sense relative to our present understanding does not at all mean that the conclusions environmental science reaches regarding climate warming are not in accordance with fact or reality. Any species of knowledge which took time and patience to gather, which was rigorously questioned and subjected to doubt, yet managed to continuously and accurately reflect the way things are, is rather worth holding on to, and, indeed, worth acting upon.

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