Interpretation Trumps Data
Proof differs from evidence. Evidence doesn’t prove anything, people do.
Proof is the conclusion one comes to based upon one’s interpretation of the evidence. It is the interpretive work of one’s decision-making processes, as well as the making of a judgment about evidence and data. For example, the burden of proof may be on the prosecutor, but only a jury can determine a thing proved or not. In this sense, the idea of proof requires the existence of someone to sit in judgment and come to a conclusion regarding the issue at hand.
Because proof is contingent upon someone making a conclusion, it must be understood that all conclusions of proof are influenced by more than evidence and data. In fact, conclusions of proof may or may not be congruent with the evidence and data because of these other factors. Such factors may include personal bias, predetermined assumptions, stress, uninformed opinions, ignorance, temperament, hostility, paranoia, psychosis, upset stomachs, and headaches.
Uncertainty Is Expected
Involved in most, if not all, determinations of proof is an element of uncertainty. In court, the jury must find that the evidence, for or against, is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” not absolute. In science, probabilities rule the day, and there is the expectation that the next great experiment or discovery will render past ideas in science erroneous and obsolete. In history, the amount and credibility of written records and archaeological evidence is weighed against the truism that the victors get to write the history books. In mathematics and logic, lines of deduction are only as good as the premises upon which they are built. In philosophy, the wrangling over semantics never ends, nor is it ever certain that anybody understands anything that anybody else said.
Nor do we require absolute proof to conduct our daily affairs. We eat, drive, work, and make purchases accepting that there is uncertainty regarding all these, and yet we do them anyway. How do I know that there isn’t poison in the food served to me at lunch? How do I know for sure that the repairs the mechanic made on my brakes will actually stop my car before I get in an accident? We are actually comfortable with the idea that we don’t need, maybe even don’t want, absolute proof for much of anything.
Faith and Doubt
Thus, we come to the place of faith and doubt in the world of proof and evidence. Neither faith nor doubt are dependent upon the data or the evidence. It takes faith to accept as proof that which lacks or contradicts supporting evidence. Only by faith can someone see beyond circumstantial evidence to the apparently contradictory truth that sometimes lies within and behind the data. And doubts may be reasonable or unreasonable depending upon their source and motive, and whether they are plausible or speculative. The playground of believability may be the intellect, the emotions or the will, again reflecting the complexities of our human existence. As such, faith and doubt point back to the fact that a real person is making the final determination regarding the evidence of something. And because people are finite, fickle and flawed, faith and doubt are to be expected in any discussion of evidence and proof.
In the end, a thing is “proved” only to the degree that faith or doubt makes the final call. As we make conclusions about the evidence, and as we interpret the data points, we “prove” our case.