Wednesday, October 06, 2004

About certainty

Rightwhingers often demand that there should be "proof" that Saddam did not have WMDs. When shown that they are not anywhere to be found in Iraq, they say, but they might be hidden underground. If you got a radar and covered every inch of Iraq, they'd say, but perhaps they are hidden in Syria. If you searched all of Syria, they'd say, well then, they must be on the dark side of the moon.

It reminds me of the flying reindeer experiment, outlined in this article about proving God doesn't exist.

Briefly, one cannot prove reindeers can't fly. You could line them up and push them off a high building but even if 999,999 plummetted to the ground, the millionth might take wing.

The problem with proofs of absence by induction is of course that there is no point at which there have been sufficient facts or observations to make a proof. (This does not deny the possibility of agreement that there is an absence but agreements do not constitute proofs: even if all six billion of us agree that reindeers cannot fly, this does not prove anything except that we all concur. And yet, the looser thinkers among us will insist that a majority view is a proof.)

Proofs of presence are of course the province of science. Hypotheses and theories are falsified by presences, most usually, and not by absences (theories are usually disproved by what they predict's not being observed but this is not because what they predict is absent but because something else is present). It is scientific to say "reindeers cannot fly and the disproof would be evidence of Rudolf or Donner". It is not scientific to say "reindeers can fly and the disproof would be evidence that they cannot", simply because you cannot specify what the evidence would or could be.

Okay, there were no WMDs in Iraq is not exactly a "scientific" hypothesis, but it can't be measured scientifically. It is disproved by finding a WMD.

There were WMDs is rather like there were aliens or there is a God. Believe it, don't believe it, whatever, but proof is never going to enter into it.


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