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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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