What is the Relationship Between Proof, Facts, and Evidence?

Justification is a matter of providing evidence or proof for one’s claim to truth. There is often a challenge presented to Christians to provide evidence for their claims of truth. They ask for “proof” that God exists, or “proof” that what Christians claim to be true is actually true. Everyone wants the ability to prove that what they believe is true, and all of this comes down to evidence. Many suggest that facts are what are necessary to justify one’s belief. They go so far as to claim that nothing can be proved without tangible, material, and observable evidence. “Let the facts speak for themselves!” is the declaration made by many in defending their beliefs. So what does all of this mean? What are facts? What is evidence? What is proof?

Let’s Start With Facts.

As always it is helpful to consult a dictionary to help us reign in all of the possible answers to what is often a presuppositional consideration. To define fact, I have referred to the Merriam-Webster dictionary website, and here is what I have pulled from it:

  1. A thing done.
  2. The quality of being actual, or that has actual existence, or has actually occurred.
  3. A piece of information presented as having objective reality.

The third definition is one that has some relevance to the overall context within which I am addressing this subject. In a previous article on Objectivity, I discussed what it is for something to be “objective.”. Bringing in to this discussion the points made in that article, we can see that facts are not based on a person’s perception or thoughts about the reality that a Fact is referring to. This third definition then, in the context of that article, helps us to better understand what a fact is. This is where I want to introduce a different perspective while this train of thought is being carried forward. Let us analyze for a moment what a “Fact” really is.

As defined above, a fact is “A piece of information presented…” A Fact is information. Information, being what it is, is communicated. Facts are not the reality itself. They are statements about the reality that are communicated between beings that are capable of communicating things about reality to one another. The words used to convey the fact are stated in as simplified and concise a manner as possible to clearly transmit the aspects of the reality being communicated. So, a Fact is itself a statement, either written or spoken, that conveys some aspect of a reality. This reality can be an object or an event, either way, it is about something that actually is. Being communicated suggests that it is a human being that is communicating the reality, so we must separate fact from opinion. It is one thing to say that the sky appears blue, it a whole other thing to say that the sky is pretty because it is blue. The former is a simple and concise statement regarding a reality about the sky. The latter is the subjective opinion of the communicator about the reality of the sky. As such, the former is the fact, while the latter is an opinion about the fact.

The next point to bring about is the matter of the relationship between a fact and truth. A fact, by its nature, can be called a “type” of truth. Whereas a truth can be either qualitative or quantitative in its nature, a fact is generally quantitative (in a manner of speaking). Though it is still a truth, and indeed we are often caught synonymously using the two terms, it is a more specific kind of truth. A fact is regarding the purely material (to come at this philosophically speaking) aspects of the reality. Facts, generally speaking, relate to the more “scientific” range of statements that can be made about the reality. Where truth goes beyond just those facts into the immaterial realities which govern the material realities. Indeed, it is the underlying immaterial realities which permit the material realities to exist as they do. Please do not let this get you confused. There is no serious concern regarding identifying any significant difference between truth and fact. They are of the same cloth. But for our discussion here, it is important to know that there is a distinction between the two in the minds of many. Immaterial realities are just as factual.

From here, let us look at the idea of “Facts speaking for themselves.” Can facts really speak for themselves? Well, no, not so much in the manner that this phrase is often used to “prove” someone’s point. The facts themselves simply explain attributes, characteristics, and the observable, measurable qualities of the reality. The statement, “The box is 4 feet tall by 5 feet wide,” does not really tell us anything except that the box is 4 feet tall, and 5 feet wide. That’s about it. However, that fact can not tell us that the box belongs to Carl next door, which is also a fact. That requires some context. I introduce this point only to say that facts, by themselves and outside of the immaterial context, can tell us only as much as what they are actually saying. So, in a way, we can say that they speak for themselves. But only for and about themselves. Not much more than that.

The ideas of measurement, descriptions of features, and the identifying of parts are all immaterial things. They have a material (or, we could also say physical) reality to which they are attached, but the idea of measurement and its essence remains in the human mind. This is important in understanding facts, because many people have the false belief that facts can only be material or physical things. It is a false belief because that which is not measurable by the tools of science also exists in reality. It is a fact that I enjoy chocolate. There is no scientific way to measure this fact in the sense of numbers and dimensions. It remains real none the less, and when spoken or communicated to another, is a fact. When a person says that they have a hatred for another person, or that they love another person, these are both facts (if they are true of course) even though they are not material things. Another example would be why a tea pot is whistling. One can describe the scientific principles underlying the heat transfer from the flame to the pot and the state changes from liquid to gas and the changes in pressure, etc. These are all facts about the tea pot whistling on the stove. It is also a fact that the tea pot is whistling on the stove because I wanted to have some tea, so I put some water in the pot and set it on the stove and turned it on. This is where we begin to see the preference for the term ‘truth’ over ‘fact’ because it seems more fitting (grammatically speaking) to call my want for tea a truth as opposed to calling it fact.

Given this rather extensive review of what a fact is should open our minds to accepting a few realities about the nature of facts. Facts are first and foremost statements. They are either written or oral, and are communicated between beings who can understand them. They are intended to convey a reality from one person to the next. Facts tend to be presented more generally as clear and concise descriptions of attributes and characteristics of a reality. They are by their nature immaterial, as they are information or communication, but they can also be about immaterial realities. They are words that are directly tied to a reality. They can only speak about themselves and nothing else. A final point is that facts are discovered by humanity, not created by them. They originate in the reality, not in the human mind (like opinions do). While we can invent something new, the fact related to that new thing originate from that new thing once made a reality.

On to Evidence.

When attempting to justify one’s theory about some reality not yet discovered, evidence is used to demonstrate the potential validity of the theory. A theory can be of the scientific sort, derived through experimentation and careful consideration of observations. It can also be a forensic type of theory, developed to propose what likely happened in the past about some singularity. It can also be a rather simple theory about the reasons why certain things happen, such as theorizing about why your children did not clean up their rooms. While we do not often use ‘theory’ in the course of our everyday vocabulary, it is important to understand that we come up with them all the time. When we do, someone might question, “Why do you think that is the case?” In response, we would list off the evidence which points us to our theory, or put more simply, our conclusion. This particular example is important in understanding evidence. The conclusion has already been reached, then we are asked to communicate to another the reasons why we theorize, or believe, that conclusion to be true. In essence, evidence follows from theory. It is not often that it is the other way around.

In searching for good definitions, I found the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions to not be quite sufficient. A google search provided a much better collection of definitions:

  1. The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.

In addition to this definition, dictionary.com offers a good collection of definitions, including its British section:

  1. That which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.
  2. Something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign.
  3. Ground for belief or disbelief; data on which to base proof or to establish truth or falsehood.

From these definitions, we can see where facts come into play. Evidence builds a “ground for belief or disbelief” in something. This includes theories, scientific or otherwise. The first definition leaves out an important point but is perhaps the best definition. It is the selection of a body of facts or information that is used to prove a belief or proposition (theory essentially) to be true or valid. The collection of facts themselves does not prove anything. It is only in the light of a conclusion, something the facts point to, that they can be viewed as evidence. So, evidence necessarily require a context, one provided by a theory or conclusion which is presented as a propositional statement. Again, it is a communicated, written or oral, statement that something is true, and all the selected body of facts that would validate the claim (or invalidate the claim) to truth.

Now, it is possible to derive a conclusion by observing a collection of facts. Perhaps we return home from work and observe serious damage to our home’s front door lock, and that the door is open. Upon observing this, we are immediately led to conclude that someone has forced their way into our home while we are gone. The evidence appears conclusive, but the conclusion we’ve reached is based on our upbringing. Perhaps we’ve watched TV shows where doors are damaged by the actors portraying a villain breaking into a home. Maybe we have had a close friend whose home was broken into in a similar fashion. All of these facts point us to the conclusion that someone has broken into our home. After collecting more facts as we enter our home, we learn that our neighbor saw water pouring out of the back porch and he was kind enough to break in so he could shut off what is found to be a broken washing machine water hose.

What we can glean from that example is that facts are not evidence of anything until some conclusion has been reached. Many theories are derived from a person’s imagination. This results in an innovation. They believed that they could invent something new, saw it in their mind, and began collecting facts. After collecting the facts, they were more convinced than ever that their invention could become a reality. They even present their body of facts and their conclusion (the invention) to a group of investors who are all convinced by the evidence presented that they can make the invention. Sure enough, the facts pointed them in the right direction, they create the invention, and a new business is started leading to great success for all involved. All of this shows that the body of facts becomes evidence only in light of a preset conclusion. Though we may reach the conclusion by observing the facts, those facts do not become evidence until the conclusion has been presented to others, and they ask for evidence that the conclusion is true.

This does not always mean that the conclusion is something we can experience in order to discover that it is true. Such is the case for many scientific theories. The theory becomes the preconceived conclusion, and certain hypothesis are developed out of the theory. These hypotheses are generally predictions that a person makes based upon the theory’s potential validity. If those hypotheses are then demonstrated through experience (experiment), then it is quite likely that the theory is true. Note how I said likely. Many hypotheses can be developed out of a theory, resulting in only a few being true. The point is to conduct experiments that allow us to observe different facts that were not known previously. This creates the body of facts that either demonstrates the validity or invalidity of the theory. The theory, however, comes first.

In pursuing the evidence for a theory, the individual doing the experimentation generally believes the theory to be true. As they experiment and gain more facts, they are able to either further justify their belief in the theory, or the facts might prove them wrong. This can also be said for the general theorizing we all do in our day to day lives. This also includes our more personal beliefs, including religious ones. This is often where the discussion about evidence becomes quite heated, as people begin to outline in their own personal philosophy what makes for actual evidence and what does not. This is where we start to bring in the idea of proof, and what will be perhaps a more enlightening understand of what proof actually is.

Here Comes The Proof

What makes for “actual evidence?” Well, that depends on what you are willing to accept. How interesting is that? This most certainly brings to light a new understanding of evidence, does it not? I mention this because we live in a world currently existing in a state of conflict between multiple differing worldviews. In the United States, there is no longer a prevailing worldview that unites the culture and nation. With the failure of the “Post-Modern” worldview in seeking the objective of balanced and healthy social living, we now find ourselves in a world that through social media, is now exposed to a wide array of worldviews. These are not “new” worldviews, of course, but for many they seem that way due to their ignorance. This has resulted most significantly with a collectively driven (and sadly, politically driven) narrative about truth being relative. We are now coming across the reason why.

Facts are not relative, neither is truth. Both are directly connected to reality, they are objective. However, many have come to believe that they are relative, and it has resulted in a great deal of hostility and derision, even to the point of self-induced segregation in the form of college “safe spaces.” This is all because people fail to understand that it is not fact, or truth, that is relative. Instead, it is evidence and proof that is relative. What is evidence that points to one conclusion for one person is evidence that points to another conclusion for another person. The fact does not change, it is the conclusion that does. The conclusion may or may not be a reality, as these more serious conclusions tend to be beliefs (or theories) in what might or might not be. One body of facts may be used by many different people to provide evidence for each of their own conclusions. Sometimes, one body of facts may be sectioned out to various conclusions, some mixing the facts of others with those of yet another. The point is, the fact is still just a fact. It is the conclusion that tends to change, and what is considered evidence for one may be evidence for another, but the proof is in the eye of the beholder. Dicitonary.com provides some excellent definitions of proof that can aid in bringing this point to light:

  1. Evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth.
  2. Anything serving as such evidence.
  3. The establishment of the truth of anything; demonstration.
  4. The effect of evidence in convincing the mind.

The fourth definition gives the clearer point to what I am attempting to convey. Proof becomes that collection of facts which provides sufficient evidence for convincing a person of the truth of some conclusion. What suffices as proof for one person may not suffice as proof for another. None of this changes the nature of the facts as being what they are. It is how they are brought together and presented in some form of context and communication that changes. This goes even to the point of an individual (based on the preconceived notions about what is and is not evidence) developing their own criteria for what facts will be accepted as evidence for any conclusion! Many who follow the religious belief of “Scientism” believe that the only evidence that is acceptable is the kind that can be observed and measured. They believe this without realizing that that belief itself can not be measured or observed! It exists as a propositional statement. Even the way we measure things is purely an abstract idea that aids us in understanding reality.

Conclusion

After this exhaustive analysis of the concepts of fact, evidence, and proof, we can come to a better understanding about many things in this world. The most important being this: that proof is in the eye of the beholder. While facts remain facts regardless of what we think about them, conclusion drawn from those facts about that which has not yet been observed can vary greatly. What suffices as proof of that conclusion about the unknown being true will vary depending on the person. In relation to the subject of “being objective,” we must understand something very important from this analysis. To “be objective” is to not set some preconceived standard for what counts as evidence, as that itself would require evidence to prove it to be true. Instead, to be truly objective, we must be willing to accept the full body of facts in light of the conclusion being considered, and determine if the body of facts suffices as evidence in support of the conclusion enough to accept it as true. Once we do this, it is a matter of faith whether we will live according to our belief in that conclusion, or if it will be something we simply accept as a valid conclusion that is surely possible, but perhaps not livable.