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Is Susan Blackmore Guilty of Misusing the Word ‘Prove’?

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Soren Kierkegaard

Long ago I set about systematically changing the experience (of free will). I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away. . . As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether—this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it, I think it is true that I don’t.

Susan Blackmore

[Susan Blackmore is guilty of misusing the word ‘prove.’ The word ‘prove’ has two distinct meanings and neither meaning is appropriate in Blackmore’s sentence. The strict, technical meaning of the word ‘prove,’ as understood by logicians and mathematicians, is to proceed by one or more logical inferences to a conclusion that states explicitly something that was already implicit in the premises. As Fred wrote in one of his emails, ‘It’s well to remember that, in one sense, the conclusions reached from purely deductive reasoning do not introduce anything new, i.e., anything not contained in the premises, even though the results are sometimes surprising. The surprise is the result of our finite thinking abilities not being able to immediately intuit the results of the premises without the aid of the tool of formal syllogistic reasoning.’ ‘Proof,’ in the technical sense, may or may not have anything to do with truth. Truth will be involved only if the premises are true, but even if the premises are false or speculative, the proof is still valid since the conclusion is consistent with the premises. Blackmore is not using ‘prove’ in this sense, since she is not searching for premises that are consistent with her belief that she has no inner conscious self, premises which, so far, she has been unable to find. Of course, by reasoning backwards she can probably formulate such premises, but she is well aware that it doesn’t get her any closer to establishing the truth of her belief.

The second (and colloquial) meaning of ‘prove’ is to ascertain knowledge with a high degree of probability through evidence and reason. This is ‘proof’ in the ordinary wide sense in which it can embrace any and every variety of sufficient reason, ‘proof’ as understood in a court of law. This kind of proof is not mathematically demonstrable proof, but always involves a balance of probabilities. As Arnold Lunn explains:

The overwhelming majority of our decisions are based not on demonstrable certainties but on an estimate of probabilities. Judges, for instance, often remind juries that they should find the prisoner guilty if his guilt has been established “beyond all reasonable doubt” and they distinguish between “beyond all reasonable doubt” and “beyond all possible doubt.” If, for instance, Ned Kelly is stopped by a policeman within a hundred yards of a house, subsequently proved to have been burgled, and if Kelly’s bag contains jewellery subsequently identified as the jewellery missing from the burgled house, the prosecution would not be expected to demonstrate the physical and logical impossibility of Kelly’s defence that the bag had been dropped by the real burglar, who had taken fright and run, and that Kelly had picked it up with a view to taking it to the nearest police station. Kelly would be convicted in spite of the fact that no coercive disproof of his story was possible. He would be convicted because on the balance of probabilities the case for the prosecution was incomparably more plausible than the case for the defence.

Blackmore is using ‘prove’ in this colloquial sense. However, in this sense she is misusing it by virtue of reductio ad absurdum, according to which it is rational to cite as an argument against the truth of some postulate consequences which are inescapable but manifestly absurd. It is manifestly absurd to think that it may be possible to prove the non-existence of an inner conscious self when there is no self to do the proving. Her only defense, a kind of half defense, is that she is an extreme monist, and even though she feels the fact of her existence—“I just keep on seeming to exist”—she believes, at least in theory, that she is actually only a localized and transitory manifestation of The One, and therefore has no kind of separate conscious identity. As such, she can perhaps believe she has no inner conscious self, but she cannot prove it.]

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