Science in Christian Perspective


Penetrating the Word Maze


Richard H. Bube

Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From; PSCF 40 (JUNE 1988): 104-105.

Taking a look at words we often use-and misuse. Please le us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

Today's word is "PROVE."

The Dictionary Definition: "to establish the existence, truth, or validity of (as by evidence or logic)" [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, MerriamWebster, Springfield, MA (1987)].


How do we respond when someone asks the traditional agnostic question, "Can you prove the existence of God?" Do we stammer and begin to talk about ontological, cosmological and teleological "proofs" for the existence of God? Or do we simply say, "No, and we shouldn't be surprised, because the kinds of things that can be 'proved' are very small indeed."

Few words are more often misused in discussions relating science and religion than the word "prove."

This misuse reflects the equally common misuse of the word in everyday language.

Following the dictionary definition, "to prove" means to establish the truth or validity of something by presenting evidence or bv logic. Here the word "establish" is usually taken to imply absolute conviction, so that only a mentally incompetent or a wilfully obstinate person could deny it.

The means of "establishing" in "proving" are the presentation of evidence or the application of logic; i.e., utilization of the scientific method. But a person who assumes that all significant dimensions of life or all insights into the truth, are ascertainable by the scientific method, has already made a fundamental faith assumption. The validity of this assumption itself certainly cannot be "proven." We need to recognize, therefore, that major areas of life's most precious characteristics-the existence of God, the uniqueness of human nature, love, beauty, justice, courage, hope, or any other topic with profound philosophical or theological significance-are simply not areas to which one can meaningfully apply the categories needed for proof" to be considered.

But the appropriate understanding of "prove" is even more limited than this. Even within those areas in which it is appropriate to apply scientific methods, we are still severely limited in what we can adequately describe as "proof." The basic meaning of "to prove" -if interpreted rigorously-means (1) that it is not possible to prove anything without reference to some underlying assumptions that are chosen without prior 11 proof (i.e., "on faith"), and (2) that even within the constraints of point (1), it is still not possible strictly to prove anything except in the fields of mathematics and formal logic.

Here the dictionary definition may do us a disservice, for it implies that proof may occur equally well either bv the presentation of evidence or the application of logic. If we take the definition of "to prove" as "to establish" in an unquestionable sense, then it follows that the presentation of evidence can never prove" anything. The presentation of evidence may convince us that it is permissible and possibly even wise for us to believe something, but it cannot decisively establish "truth and validity."

Therefore, even within science itself, it is not strictly possible "to prove" most things. There are, of course, a category of questions to which one might still insist that the name of "proof " is appropriate; questions of a relatively simple and factual nature for which the evidence is so overwhelming that indeed no one would disagree except the mentally deficient or the wilfully obstinate. Can one not "prove" that a particular flower is red by showing it to the questioner and letting the evidence of his eves be sufficient (unless, of course, he is color blind)? Can one not legitimately claim that it has been "proved" that the earth is round rather than flat, or that the earth moves around the sun rather than the sun around the earth, or that the universe is nearer to 15 billion years old than 10,000 years old? These are indeed examples of situations where the accumulation of evidence is so great that no alternative can be envisioned. But I would suggest that this is a "soft" use of 11 prove;" if we do use the word in this way, we need to stay alert so that its implications do not stray into other areas where it is not possible to speak of authentic proof.

It might also be claimed that whereas it is not usually appropriate to speak about "proving" the truth of a particular argument in science, it is appropriate to speak of "disproving" the truth of that argument. It is frequently said that all the evidence in the world cannot "prove" a theory true, but only one experiment can "prove" a theory false. In fact, the ability to be faisifiable is one of the criteria that has been used to ascertain whether a theory is truly scientific or not. Although the case for this perspective may be overstated, and may not take sufficient account of the resilience of orthodoxy and politics in the scientific community, it does come close to a valid case for the use of "prove" in a negative sense.

It is possible to prove some things within mathematics and formal logic, prodded that we agree on the postulates which are assumed to permit the logical process to be carried out. In this procedure we do establish the truth of our mathematical and logical conclusions, prodded that the postulates are true. But the truth of the postulates cannot be subjected to logic, and cannot be proved from anything more fundamental.

There is only one good piece of advice: be very careful of the use of "prove" yourself, and don't thoughtlessly accept anyone else's use of "prove" in popular or even technical discussions.

Remember to write to the Editor or Author if you would like to prove this column wrong.