Nine times out of ten (probably closer to ninety-nine times out of one hundred) when someone starts talking about, much less demanding, “proof” – proof of anything – unless they are discussing whiskey, they almost certainly have no idea what they are talking about. This is especially true in the empirical sciences, where various anti- or pseudo-scientific quacks, climate change denialists, creationist ideologues, and others like them, will insist that the fatuous twaddle they are spewing is perfectly reasonable since, after all, they (the quacks) have not been “proven” wrong, while the actual scientific literature has failed to absolutely “prove” its case. These claims are so childish that one must almost wonder if the denialists and others like them might actually know that what they are saying is not just bullshit (that last being a technical, philosophical term), but an outright lie. I am myself, however, disinclined to assign a level of intelligence to people to pull off such a clever conspiracy when nothing else in their lives gives any evidence of such nuanced and incisive reasoning. As a very loose and general rule, people are far for likely to have no idea what they are talking about, as opposed to talking about it very cleverly.
The idea of proof in mathematics (the only venue where non-liquor related uses have any meaning) had become so vexed by the end of the 19th Century, that the field of mathematical logic was, in essence, invented with the purpose of sorting matters out. Matters kept resisting being sorted, and along the way the nose of the mathematical camel got into the philosophical tent, and ended up swallowing philosophical logic whole for some decades that followed. Even today, the issue of how to teach logic, and what logic to teach, has not been particularly well sorted out in philosophy. So what might be said about the nature of proof, such that we do not have to become facile with mathematics, yet can still avoid being gulled by credulously accepting demands for, or putative statements of, proof? Continue reading