Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Evidence versus proof

Published: Monday, April 11 2011 11:30 a.m. MDT

Some readers may wonder why I’ve digressed into a discussion of evidence while the current trajectory of this series has been discussing the Book of Mormon and the ancient New World. In order to more fully appreciate what I’ll be discussing in the next few weeks it’s important to understand some things about the nature of evidence.

To recap the primary points from the past few weeks:

1. Despite the claim made by numerous critics, Latter-day Saints do not (or at least should not) vacate their minds when determining spiritual truths — reason and rational thought are also part of the process;

2. All people engage emotions when making and maintaining important decisions. Critics are not automatically objective or driven solely by rationale in their rejection of the gospel;

3. A true spiritual witness is more than mere “feelings”;

4. In matters of spiritual nature which may balance on the thin blade of secular evidences — with evidence seemingly for and against the spiritual proposition — a spiritual testimony is not only invaluable but is the premier arbitrator in each person’s individual quest for spiritual truth.

Having said this, there seems to be some confusion among believers and critics as to the nature and meaning of “evidence.” I’ve often written, for example, that I don’t believe that spiritual things will be proven by secular means. Critics, however, read this and claim that I don’t believe there is evidence to support the Book of Mormon. This is blatantly false.

In addition to a spiritual witness (which is certainly an “evidence” that supports belief), I believe there are many secular evidences that support of the Book of Mormon. I’ve offered a number of these throughout this series and will continue to share more (for several weeks I discussed the numerous evidences supporting a Lehite migration through Southern Arabia).

I don’t believe, however, that there is secular “proof” for the Book of Mormon, and I believe that such “proof” would contradict the laws of agency and wouldn’t convince the hard-hearted anyway.

Evidence is basically any data that support a proposition. Not all evidence is equal in strength, and we evaluate the strength of evidence based on numerous other factors — including additional evidence. As explained by Daniel Peterson, “There is evidence for all sorts of things, and we routinely speak of ‘conflicting evidence’ regarding as yet unresolved questions. Some of it is strong to the point of proof or near-proof. Some of it is weak to the point, almost, of non-existence. Much of it is somewhere in between.

“Until a question has been settled beyond any reasonable disagreement, there will typically be relevant evidence pointing in at least two directions, and possibly in many more. It is only when a question is effectively declared dead, when a single answer triumphs, that the seemingly contrary evidence ceases to function as evidence.

“For example, when a physician discovers a seemingly cancerous lump, that appears to be evidence for possible cancer. But it won’t be definitive proof until it undergoes certain tests. And those tests may, in fact, show it to be something else altogether — at which point it ceases to be evidence for cancer,” (quoted in Shaken Faith Syndrome, 37-38).

Evidence is not proof. Proof is generally a conclusion we infer from what we see as strong or overwhelming evidences. Scholars generally tend to avoid terms such as “proof” when dealing with inconclusive and open-ended topics such as religion, certain aspects of history, or archaeology. One writer for Psychology Today, for example, states:

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