Proof and Belief

In my last two posts, we’ve thought about the words “absolute” and “relative”, as well as “objective” and “subjective”. Another word that gets thrown around lightly is “proof”.

“Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.” Is 41:21 RSV

The Random House Dictionary calls a proof “evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth.” Proof is evidence sufficient to produce belief. Through the prophet Isaiah, God challenges idols and idol worshipers to bring forth proof of their gods’ powers. If they will tell the future or work miracles, there will be sufficient reason to believe in them, but they cannot.

What isn’t said in that definition? It doesn’t define proof as “evidence from the physical world, something that can be measured or weighed”. Yes, a proof may come from empirical evidence–from something I observe or experience. It may also come from logical evidence, from a deductive argument for example. If I review the evidence for Socrates’ mortality–“All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.”–I don’t have to go out and test mortality or find Socrates to know that’s true. It may come, also, from covert or internal knowledge, such as knowing my own feelings or what I’m thinking. There is no way to test that, but I still know with certainty what it is.

The word also isn’t defined as “evidence generated by the scientific method”. There must be evidence in a proof but not evidence of a particular type. Again, it can come by other means: by experience, by deduction, or by introspection.

And proof isn’t defined as “evidence forcing belief” or “evidence producing absolute certainty”. A proof need not be certain but only probable enough to produce belief. We can come to know things by abduction (inference to the best explanation). We can know things by induction–applying a specific example (or set of examples) to a general principle. If I try a few Big Macs and don’t like them, I can conclude that I don’t like Bic Macs in general. I do not have to go around and taste every single one, or even one from every store. Those few experiences are sufficient evidence for my belief.

We can know, also, by way of anecdote. I know that Columbus sailed in 1492. I don’t have to observe him in 1492 to know this is true. The documentary evidence and the expertise of scholars is sufficient evidence for my belief, even if I’ve never seen the event with my own eyes.

What does this have to do with our faith?

Is there proof for Christianity? Yes!

Is there physical, scientifically-testable evidence? Sure, there’s some. It would be a tough job–though perhaps not impossible–to argue for the existence of God from nothing but the Shroud of Turin and other physical artifacts. But it’s not something we have to consider, as there is more to proof than physical, scientifically-testable evidence. Evidence can come, as well, from our own minds and experiences. It can come from the past, from history and the experiences of the past.

Further, it need not be a certainty. We believe many things without absolute certainty. We can’t see the events of the past in person, nor can we see the thoughts of other people, yet we believe things about them. I believe that Columbus sailed in 1492. I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. I believe that my wife loves me. There is not absolute, undeniable evidence of those things, but there is sufficient evidence. Likewise, there is sufficient evidence in the world, in history, and in my own experience for my Christian faith.

Copyright 2018, Joe Wetterling

Image courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo,_profeti,_Isaiah_01.jpg

Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling is a professional educator, homeschooling dad, and writer. He's appeared at national conferences, both secular and religious, speaking on education, technology, and philosophy. Joe writes online for New Evangelizers, as well as his own blogs. He's taught in the Holy Apostles MOOC program and currently teaches Natural Theology at the new Dominican Institute. He's a member of the Militia Immaculata and current President of the Catholic Writers Guild. Learn more about him at JoeWetterling.com.

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