Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Proving a negative

You can’t prove a negative.

I am a strong atheist. Which means I affirmatively state “There is no God.” Is there a proof that, with mathematical precision, we can confidently declare god(s) do not exist? No. But the evidence is so over-whelming, and the possibility so minute, state it with confidence.

Further, for me, being a strong atheist means I do not shrink from assuming the burden of proof. While the theist and weak atheist battle over who has the burden of proof over what, I gladly reach in and snatch it from both of them. Let me have it! I will present my proofs, and if it is not persuasive, will gladly assume I have failed.

But how does one prove a negative? That an event did NOT occur? The point was driven home forcefully yesterday morning, which I think exemplifies “proving a negative.”

I received a call at 9:30 a.m.

Attorney: Uh-oh. This is not good.
Me: What’s up?
Attorney: We had a hearing this morning. The judge is waiting for you.
Me: What!?! How would I have known?
Attorney: I sent you a notice.
Me: No, you didn’t.

Now, I am stuck “proving a negative.” Proving that I did not get notice of that day’s hearing. Easy to prove I got notice, a copy is in my file. Harder to prove I didn’t. What factors do I have in my favor?

1. I am always early for court dates. Always. I don’t skip dates.
2. This is an important client that I have appeared on every date in every file with our office.
3. I have appeared on every date before on this file.
4. I have a copy of the actual notice with a different date.
5. I have an order from the judge, with a different date.
6. I have a letter from the attorney with a different date.
7. It was a motion I wanted to attend.
8. The case was at a stand-still until the motion is heard.
9. I won’t be paid until this motion is heard.
10. I was free, that morning, to attend.
11. I dropped my office work, and asked they wait for me to have the motion.
12. I went to the motion.
13. I asked the attorney for a copy of the new notice, and he had “forgotten” it back at the office.

Now, this is a simplistic example, but is it still possible that I received the notice and ignored it? Sure. But so remotely unlikely that I can confidently state, “I did not receive the notice.” Thus proving a negative. Upon learning new information, (like my secretary saying, “Oh I received that notice and threw it away.”) I could change my position. But not with what I have now.

For me, it is the same as proving there is no God. Is it possible? Sure, in some remote possibility, but the factors and evidence are so against it to confidently state there is none. Upon learning new information, I could change my position, but I have seen no compelling evidence yet.

Which makes me a strong atheist.

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