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It has been argued that one can prove a negative----if the argument proceeds much like this, as given by Steven D. Hales some years ago in Skeptic December 2007.
You Can Prove a Negative
by Steven D. Hales
A PRINCIPLE OF FOLK LOGIC is that you can’t prove a negative. Skeptics and scientists routinely concede the point in debates about the possible existence of everything from Big Foot and Loch Ness to aliens and even God. In a recent television interview on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, for example, Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer admitted as much when Stephen Colbert pressed him on the point when discussing Weapons of Mass Destruction, the comedian adding that once it is admitted that scientists cannot prove the nonexistence of a thing, then belief in anything is possible. Even Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that “you cannot prove God’s non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything.”
There is one big problem with this. Among professional logicians, guess how many think that you can’t prove a negative? That’s right, zero. Yes, Virginia, you can prove a negative, and it’s easy, too. For one thing, a real, actual law of logic is a negative, namely the law of non-contradiction. This law states that a proposition cannot be both true and not true. Nothing is both true and false. Furthermore, you can prove this law. It can be formally derived from the empty set using provably valid rules of inference. (I’ll spare you the boring details). One of the laws of logic is a provable negative. Wait … this means we’ve just proven that it is not the case that one of the laws of logic is that you can’t prove a negative. So we’ve proven yet another negative! In fact, “you can’t prove a negative” is a negative — so if you could prove it true, it wouldn’t be true! Uh-oh.
Not only that, but any claim can be expressed as a negative, thanks to the rule of double negation. This rule states that any proposition P is logically equivalent to not-not-P. So pick anything you think you can prove. Think you can prove your own existence? At least to your own satisfaction? Then, using the exact same reasoning, plus the little step of double negation, you can prove that you are not nonexistent. Congratulations, you’ve just proven a negative. The beautiful part is that you can do this trick with absolutely any proposition whatsoever. Prove P is true and you can prove that P is not false.
You can easily construct a valid deductive argument with all true premises that yields the conclusion that there are no unicorns. Here’s one, using the valid inference procedure of modus tollens (Latin for “mode that affirms by denying”):
Someone might object that that was a bit too fast — after all, I didn’t prove that the two premises were true. I just asserted that they were true. Well, that’s right. However, it would be a grievous mistake to insist that someone prove all the premises of any argument they might give. Here’s why. The only way to prove, say, that there is no evidence of unicorns in the fossil record, is by giving an argument to that conclusion. Of course one would then have to prove the premises of that argument by giving further arguments, and then prove the premises of those further arguments, ad infinitum. Which premises we should take on credit and which need payment up front is a matter of long and involved debate among epistemologists. But one thing is certain: if proving things requires that an infinite number of premises get proved first, we’re not going to prove much of anything at all, positive or negative.
Maybe people mean that no inductive argument will conclusively, indubitably prove a negative proposition beyond all shadow of a doubt. For example, suppose someone argues that we’ve scoured the world for Bigfoot, found no credible evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, and therefore there is no Bigfoot. This is a classic inductive argument. A Sasquatch defender can always rejoin that Bigfoot is reclusive, and might just be hiding in that next stand of trees. You can’t prove he’s not! (until the search of that tree stand comes up empty too). The problem here isn’t that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about negative claims (like the nonexistence of Bigfoot), but that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about anything at all, positive or negative. All observed swans are white, therefore all swans are white looked like a pretty good inductive argument until black swans were discovered in Australia.
The very nature of an inductive argument is to make a conclusion probable, but not certain, given the truth of the premises. That is just what an inductive argument is. We’d better not dismiss induction because we’re not getting certainty out of it, though. Why do you think that the sun will rise tomorrow? Not because of observation (you can’t observe the future!), but because that’s what it has always done in the past. Why do you think that if you turn on the kitchen tap that water will come out instead of chocolate? Why do you think you’ll find your house where you last left it? Again, because that’s the way things have always been in the past. In other words, we use inferences — induction — from past experiences in every aspect of our lives. As Bertrand Russell once pointed out, the chicken who expects to be fed when he sees the farmer approaching, since that is what had always happened in the past, is in for a big surprise when instead of receiving dinner, he becomes dinner. But if the chicken had rejected inductive reasoning altogether, then every appearance of the farmer would be a surprise.
So why is it that people insist that you can’t prove a negative? I think it is the result of two things: (1) Disappointment that induction is not bulletproof, airtight, and infallible, and (2) A desperate desire to keep believing whatever one believes, even if all the evidence is against it. That’s why people keep believing in alien abductions, even when flying saucers always turn out to be weather balloons, stealth jets, comets, or too much alcohol. You can’t prove a negative! You can’t prove that there are no alien abductions! Meaning: your argument against aliens is inductive, therefore not incontrovertible. Since I want to believe in aliens, I’m going to dismiss the argument no matter how overwhelming the evidence against aliens, and no matter how vanishingly small the chance of extraterrestrial abduction.
If we’re going to dismiss inductive arguments because they produce conclusions that are probable but not definite, then we are in deep manure. Despite its fallibility, induction is vital in every aspect of our lives, from the mundane to the most sophisticated science. Without induction we know basically nothing about the world apart from our own immediate perceptions. So we’d better keep induction, warts and all, and use it to form negative beliefs as well as positive ones.
You can prove a negative — at least as much as you can prove anything at all.
I contend that Hales' proof is not scientific evidence but a play on the way a person reasons. I say he has not convinced me that you can prove a negative using scientific methods.
I did say in my comment before: "But if you ask yourself whether you believe there is a God or not, you can reach 100% because believing requires no evidence."
Googling turns up quite a number of [often indecisive] discussions about this.
Among others, try this recent one:
You Can Prove a Negative | Psychology Today
I read the first sentence and discovered where the confusion is between us. "beyond reasonable doubt" is what the article you suggested contends. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is in the courts, not the science lab.
And as a rebuttle, I say again: "But if you ask yourself whether you believe there is a God or not, you can reach 100% because believing requires no evidence."
For instance, what does a Fundie believe?
Cane, the confusion is about categories of proof. Inductive reasoning can never be perfectly conclusive (though it is almost always practically so). We can never precisely know the weight of a proton. Statistical arguments can never be 100%. The null hypothesis can never be completely disproved.
On the other hand, it is disturbing that people claim to be certain that we can never be certain about anything at all (itself a negative claim, thus self-contradictory, as Hale points out; this is the fundamental downfall of postmodernism). We know for sure that an atom consists of electrons orbiting protons and neutrons in the nucleus. We know that uranium is not lead. We know these things by simple definitional arguments involving counting. These arguments are perfectly conclusive because of the way counting works. 1 is not 2 (another provable negative).
I and others on this thread contend that god is not a scientific hypothesis, subject to statistical and/or inductive reasoning (though those approaches strongly confirm our conclusions), but rather thru simple definitional reasoning. The gods typically described cannot exist because of their inherent logical contradictions and obvious origins as figments of the imagination. That you can't distinguish the concept of god from a schizophrenic delusion is not grounds for granting a tiny probability that gods exist, but rather grounds (positive evidence) for dismissing the concept conclusively. We know people fabricate, hallucinate, and/or are frequently mistaken about things they think exist. We are not 99.99999% certain of this, we know it to be true. Gods are clearly in this category.
If one insists on giving this imaginary creature the benefit of the doubt without any compelling reason to do so, one immediately runs into severe logical problems. The traditional gods are so ill-defined and self-contradictory that they are logically impossible. The only concept of god that is even remotely tenable is the deist version, and that immediately falls victim to the problems of infinite regress and Occam's Razor. Why posit a creator god that begs the question of what created it? If you have to stop the infinite regress somewhere, why stop at god? Why not stop at the universe itself? If you posit that the universe itself is god, why give a redundant name to the universe?
These are not faith positions, but logical positions, based on what we know about the universe. Claiming that it is impossible to prove a negative is a self-negating argument.
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