What Ought We Make of the Word “Proof?”
by Douglas Groothuis
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…
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