Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Multiplicity of Proof

It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, "Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?" he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, "Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen." The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VI. I was reminded of this salutary passage, expressing a truth too often forgotten about how reasoning really works, by Enbrethiliel's recent post on John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction.


  1. Timotheos10:22 PM

    It's forgetting this sort of thing that makes me so frustrated with people who act like nothing can ever be proven except in mathematics.

    The reason why this viewpoint is so attractive to people (and unfortunately all too many contemporary philosophers) is precisely because so few nowadays have really engaged mathematical proofs; they just engage it partially for practical purposes, but never really get down to the substance.

    If people treated Mathematics like we treat Metaphysics, we'd be lucky if Doctorate's in Mathematics wouldn't be actively doubting that 2+2=4...

  2. branemrys10:10 AM

    I think in general we have a bad habit of taking arguments one at a time in little snippets; the result is that we think that this is what reasoning is, and thus (1) fail to follow through on the implications of our criticisms of this or that snippet of argument,as people often fail to consider whether their criticism of this or that metaphysical argument actually commits them to any other consequences and (2) treat every subject as though it were a LEGO building with well-defined little argument bricks, rather than an organic product of living reason.

  3. Enbrethiliel11:46 AM


    Thanks for the link! That passage has always been, for me, one of the most memorable in Chesterton's Orthodoxy.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.