Friday, July 21, 2006

Proof

Why do we feel the need to prove things? What does it even mean to “prove” something? “To prove” comes from the Latin “to be in favor of,” so there is an element of contention in proof, as in courtrooms, scientific theories, and political ideas. And from the contention comes the concept that “proven” statements are, by definition, true. The question then becomes, how could a mere human be expected to know if something is true? Thankfully we don’t have to prove things in daily life. If I say, “Hey, I saw Margaret at the store this morning,” you would probably not demand that I prove it. It’s a good thing, too, because how would I prove it? I could say, “Because I saw her with my own eyes,” but you could respond, “You may have hallucinated it, or you might have seen Margaret’s twin sister,” to which I would respond, “Well, there were several witnesses there who will swear that Margaret was at the store and that I appeared to have seen her,” to which you might respond, “Oh yeah, well I have five witnesses who will swear that Margaret never set foot in that store,” and I might then respond that I took Margaret’s picture with my cell phone, to which you could rejoin, “You might have doctored the picture with photo-shop.” At this point I would call Margaret, or better yet drive you to her house, and ask her directly if she had seen me at the store this morning. If she replied “Yes,” I would feel I had “proven” that Margaret and I met at the store, though of course you could then question Margaret’s veracity or sanity.

The fact is, as renowned epistemologists have “proven”- at least to my satisfaction- you can’t prove things. What we mean by “proof” is “support,” so that you support your contention by giving indications that it is correct, but you don’t “prove” it in the sense that you have shown it to be true in some absolute sense.

There does seem to be a special situation in mathematics, where such propositions as the Pythagorean theorem appear to be established with an unusually high degree of certainty. Perhaps they are "proven" in some sense, although it may be that all that's proven is that we lack the brains to disprove them. Apropos of this, the Sept. , 2006 issue of NewScientist, in an aritcle entitled "Burden of proof," states that "mathematicians [in the modern realm of extensive computer mediated proofs] are finding it increasingly difficult to decide whether or not something has been proved," and are "beginning to engage with the increasingly complex issue of what exactly constitutes a proof." That's progress for you.

It is one of the ironies of the sport of debate, which I coach, that the debater must carry on a charade in which he or she appears to believe that a point has been proven, and that the opposition’s point has been disporoven. The judge must decide which side gave the most compelling support, but as I tell my debaters, the judge is not deciding which side is “right,” i.e. which side has “proven” something. Recently in Dallas at a National Forensic League tournament, I judged 14 straight rounds of an event called Public Forum, each round with the same resolution: “Resolved, the United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol. “ Two teams of two debaters each first flipped a coin to decide who spoke first. The winner of the coin toss also picked the side it would argue, “aff” (affirmative) or “neg” (negative). Thus the system requires that each team have extensive cases to “prove” either side. At the end of the 14 rounds, I had heard enough aff and neg on the Kyoto Protocol to write a dozen articles, but I heard no “proof.” In fact, at the end of the crash course on Kyoto I was less able to decide my own view than before. There were simply too many pros and cons to mull over.

The question then arises, how is it that in spite of the seeming improbability of proving things, virtually everyone has definite opinions on controversial issues? For instance, if I were forced to make a snap decision on Kyoto, I would say that the U.S. should sign it. Why? Because the pressure to have an opinion and make a decision has forced me to pick the side that, according to my sense of balance and aesthetics, is more appealing. Or you could adhere, as my wife does, to the maxim that “opinions are like assholes; everybody has one.”

I would like to end this piece with the story of the morning doves who nested in a hanging plant on our front porch. The plant, “Superbells Cherry Red,” a Calibrachoa hybrid (a “proven winner,” ironically claims the nursery tag), requires watering every day, so it was a problem when I noticed early one day that a placid morning dove was sitting on a new nest within the slight shelter of the Superbells. How to water the plant without disturbing Mr. and Mrs. Dove? (they took shifts tending the nest). My friend Mark suggested that I stand several feet from the pot and create a light spray with the hose to simulate a refreshing rainfall. The first time I tried this Mrs. Dove watched me and asked what I was doing. “I’m trying to water this plant without disturbing you,” I replied. “All right,” she replied, “ I’ll put up with it this time, but I don’t think I’m going to be entirely comfortable with this every day.” Of course, this conversation was not effected via verbal English; it was transmitted entirely through eye contact, for the brief moments when such contact existed.

Some days Mrs. Dove (I never knew whether I was seeing the mother or father, but generally viewed the attendant bird as the mother) did not care at all for the shower, and flew away with the characteristic staccato chirp (supposed to be caused by the wing flaps). When the expected two white eggs appeared, I decided I didn’t want to shower them directly, so I approached the nest with the hose, and tentatively raised it and its gentle stream to the lip of the pot. My concern was that the sight of the hose would trigger some basic bird fear of snakes robbing nests, but Mrs. Dove told me that she knew it was not a snake because I was holding it. She also said that although we could never be friends, and that she would never consider affection or trust between us, she did understand that I was not a threat, that I wanted coexistence, that I even, in a sense, loved her. And indeed she sat patiently while I dipped the hose over the lip and poured water into soil adjacent to the nest.

When the fledglings appeared, I continued the water ritual, but the fledglings did not like it. As their awareness grew, when I came each day with the hose the dominant of the two would puff up and flap its wings in an instinctual threat gesture. Part of me wanted to say “Oh, I’m so scared!,” but I’m an educator and patience with the young is our calling.

One morning, two weeks after the eggs had hatched, one of the parents stood on the back yard fence, at eye level with me, as I opened the gate to get the morning paper. She told me, very quickly before chirping off, that this day was different, and that our collaboration was soon to be complete. The other bird, the father, I thought, looked up at me from the center of the driveway and confirmed the message, though more brusqely. The two fledgings eyed me steadily, telling me nothing. The next time I checked, a few hours later, the fledglings were gone, as were the parents.

What’s that you’re asking, “Can you prove you had those conversations with those birds!” Good question.