Nothing To Prove and Nothing To Explain

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

There comes a time when the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge
but can never prove how it got there.
—Albert Einstein


An important subfield or area of interest in philosophy is epistemology, the art, study and science of knowing or how we know what we know. With musing on the subject, different realms have organically emerged in my experience:

To know what you do know is the foundation of competency.

To not know that you don’t know is ignorance and an opening to harm.
To know what you didn’t think you knew is surprising intuitive wisdom.
To not know what you can know is a call to awaken and inhabit presence.

The last two realms are most intriguing because they may well offer the greatest growth opportunities for our personal and species evolvement. As Socrates knew, true knowledge is born out of our ignorance and unawareness, not out of knowing or analytical understanding. Being a complete beginner, we can stay watchful for these signs of conditioning. We can identify what is false by gathering relevant evidence drawing upon different ways of knowing to inform us of what is not supported or substantiated. Thus, you can discern what is false, and then you do know what is not true.

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Alternatively, what is true and real can only be pointed at and demonstrated, not proven, in embodied living. For illustration, science is science by its ability to generate and test falsifiable propositions. Nothing is ever fully shown, unquestionably demonstrated or absolutely proven to be real or true in science. It simply doesn’t work that way. At best, science generates hypotheses, empirically tests and retests them, and derives probabilities within agreed upon parameters for relationships, whether associations (i.e., correlations) or causal relationships. Whatever approaches are employed to gather relevant data to answer specific research questions, you find or don’t find some level of support for specific testable hypotheses, that is, ones that are falsifiable. That’s all. Even the most empirically validated relationships that are termed “laws” in the hard sciences like physics have limitations, qualifications and anomalies that may lead someday to their being carefully revised, entirely reformulated or even completely jettisoned.

Is working out “proofs” in geometry based on a set of assumptions any different than proving anything in science? Within the mathematical landscape of plane geometry, there are what are called geometric proofs based on an axiom system, that is, “undefined objects” such as a “point”, “plane, and “area” that are used in “given statements” about them and accepted to be true, called Postulates or Axioms. Geometric proofs usually consist of drawing a figure to illustrate what is to be proved, a list of statements beginning with “given statements” and the deductive reasons we know each statement is true (and so marking the figure clearly), and finally the conclusion that you set out to logically prove building upon previous proven theorems related to what you are aiming to prove. Within this highly structured format, you draw upon “given statements,” the postulates of deductive reasoning and clear demarcations to offer “proofs” in geometry. Of course, what has been “proven” in the practical reality and realness of living here-and-now? In the context of daily living such proofs look rigorously ridiculous.

Is “proving beyond a shadow of a doubt” that someone is guilty or innocent in a criminal court of law or obtaining a judgment in a civil tort case based on legislative, administrative and case law precedents any different? Within an agreed upon set of procedures and rules developed over time into law, attorneys or legal representatives present their case for or against some legal redress in a formal or informal court hearing officiated by a judge and/or jury. Unless the procedure is ruled negligent, inappropriate, biased or with an undecided or hung judge or jury, usually the court is forthcoming with a ruling that decides the legal matter in question. While each attorney or legal representative makes their case within a given jurisdiction to “prove” their argument for or against a criminal indictment in breaking the law or some civil redress in a private tort case, what exactly does this legal proof mean?

What exactly is being so proven? Given the recent development of DNA tests with case evidence acquitting numerous “criminals” as innocent of the crimes they were “proven” to have committed, how seriously can we take such criminal proofs? Given how private actions or torts often result in seemingly arbitrarily verdicts given the temper of the times, perceptions, biases and moods of judges and juries, the quality, intelligence, experience and resourcefulness of the attorney or legal representative as well as other intangible subjective factors like the weather, memory of testifiers, availability of pertinent evidence or exhibits and so on, how absolutely accurate can such proofs be? As we all know, human infallibility is depthless. Even Albert Einstein noted, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

The ageless sport of debate is another forum for one party trumping another in seemingly proving their position to be right and thrashing another’s position as wrong. Debate is supposed to function through the intelligent use of reason in skillful explaining, although it more typically succeeds through emotionally savvy, fear and hope-based argument augmented by heart-grabbing examples. Again, what is actually being proven, if not the combatant’s sophistic debating skills and how open to influence the judging audience is? As some have rhetorically asked, “Is this any way to run a war?” so we might equally ask “Is this any way to prove and explain anything?” So what if any given debater “wins” the debate, if the very nature of debating doesn’t actually prove or explain anything. It all seems so hollow.

To take the need to prove to its inevitable limit, does the earth have to prove its powerfulness through earthquakes? Does the air want to prove how gentle or rough it can be? Does fire need to prove it’s hot any more than water want to prove its wet? This may all sound rather silly to you. Actually, it is. All that is real is beyond the nonsense of proving anything, as if anything can prove anything to any “one” anyway. Perhaps exploring competition can illuminate what is going on with the need to prove.

With structural competition the participants’ fates are negatively linked, when one wins the other must lose. This format has been studied in the field of psychology as a “zero-sum game”-two or more people aim to achieve a goal that cannot be attained by all of them. This format of structural competition is one of mutually exclusive goal attainment-one only can gain the goal and win if the other loses. These are situations of scarcity since what I want must be scarce if I must defeat another in order to obtain it. As in beauty contests, college admissions and job hiring, one’s success tends to rules out or decreases another’s success. A stronger version of structural competition is when one participant must force the other to fail in order to succeed, as in tennis, war, chess and in a variety of sports and games.

Intentional competition is an individual competitiveness with the aim to best others. This often takes the form of someone acting in a fashion to prove how worthy, attractive, intelligent, generous, skillful, powerful or other socially desirable attribute they are. In observation of this behavior you could decipher that the person feels insecure, thinks he or she is inferior and lacks self-esteem. Educator and author Alfie Kohn proposes “that we compete to overcome fundamental doubts about our capabilities and, finally, to compensate for low self-esteem.” [Italics in original] Either/or thinking pervades not only right-wrong thinking, but also a myriad of unworkable thinking and behavior. It’s can be called dichotomous, all-or-nothing, black or white, us versus them, ‘my way or the highway’ thinking. Kohn distinguishes many forms of this thinking in a context of competition, specifically structural competition (the win/loss framework) and intentional competition (the internal motive to be number one). 1

The pattern of having to be right and avoiding being wrong, a hallmark of how our ego-minds typically operate given its prime directive of physical and psychological survival that it equates with being right and not being wrong, certainly fits this description of a win-loss competition. Who else but this imaginary self or fictive ego-mind would care to prove anything in the first place? Would such proofs help assuage its insecurity, doubts and fears as well as convince other egos of the same?

In this context of proving anything, offering a “proof” for the existence of God is a case in point. What seems to be at stake is what you know. The choices governing a quality life can be the result of well-directed intelligence balanced with fine judgment. This honors the higher power in the universe, while haphazard misguided choices often result from ignorance and lack of a passionate curiosity. This funny, anonymous story illustrates both sides of the coin:

A teacher addressed her class of middle-school children and stated, “I am an atheist. How many of you children are atheists too?”

Not really knowing what an atheist was, but wanting to be like their teacher, a wave of hands shot up like so many exploding fleshy fireworks.Yet one student, a beautiful girl named Sara, refused to raise her hand. With annoyance the teacher asked Sara, “Why don’t you raise your hand as well?”

The girl forthrightly spoke up, “I’m not an atheist. I know God. My mother knows God and my father knows God, so I know God.”

The teacher now become noticeably irritated and asked, “Well, what if your mother was a moron and your father was a moron, then what would you be?”

Sara thought a moment, and snapped, “Then I’d be an atheist!”

Who was the authentic teacher and who was the student?

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary.
To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
—Thomas Aquinas

“You don’t have to explain to your friends
and your enemies won’t believe you anyway.”
—Author unknown

The very same nonsense that applies to proving equally applies to explaining anything to anyone. Surely those who understand have no need for explaining, and for those who do not understand, no amount of explaining will help them understand. You don’t have to explain a thing to your friends; they already accept you as you are, and no amount of explaining to people predisposed to not accept, be present and listen will help get the message across. So exactly what are we explaining anything to anyone for? Where does explaining actually get anyone? The one nugget inside the behavior of explanation is that by letting people know what tasks are for doing and for what outcomes, you are likely to receive greater acceptance and compliance in actions. In other words, when people have some idea of the apparent purpose in doing a task or what sense it makes, it may well increase the probability for greater acknowledging and following through in actions. Whether this aiding others to make sense of tasks actually qualifies as an explanation or not is open to question. In any event, with this sole possible exception, explaining almost anything is not an effective use of our time, resources and energies.

The absurdity of explaining anything to anyone was brought home to me in a very brief, extremely powerful, and quite memorable interaction in a casual meeting with a trainer at a growth training several decades ago. During a break in the common area with people milling around and chatting, I approached him and asked if he had a minute. He did and straightforwardly said, “Shoot.” So I did by sharing my discomfort with some unremembered issue and how I was troubled with some reason that simply didn’t make any sense to me. He intently listened without interruption, and then asked, “Okay, then what would count for you as a good reason for this?” I remember this caught me off guard. After briefly pausing to think, I replied that if the reason was some unremembered explanation, then that would make sense to me. He smiled slightly and told me, “That was it!” I was stupefied.

It couldn’t be that easy or simple, could it? I really didn’t understand what just happened and I’m sure I must have appeared confused. Noticing this, he said, “You just told me what would count as a “good reason” for you and I simply validated that it would do splendidly. So what’s the problem?” I could not say a word since he was absolutely correct. Still seeing my confusion, he went on, “See, if that reason ever gives up on you, like a worn out tire that no longer works, simply change it by making up another one. All the reasons and explanations are made up anyway! In fact, what I enjoy doing is dreaming up the most absurd and far-fetched ones since they’re the most fun and entertaining. Anything else?” I got it, all in about three minutes flat. I smiled, warmly shook his hand and thanked him, and he departed. I never forgot a single word of that exchange or the point of it all. My world had changed forever in an instant. Reasons and explaining anything had been thoroughly deconstructed. The search for “good reasons” and the need to explain anything to anyone was now complete, done and over with. Hurrah! He offered me an invaluable gift through a simple inquiry and a brief respectful conversation. Boy, did I get more than I had ever bargained for!

The masters throughout the ages, whether Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. for example, never explained anything. Each asked key questions about the quality of our daily lives and how this expresses our real nature, told parables understandable for their time and place, pointed out that this was this and that was that, shared a riveting vision of humanity as real and available for everyone in this present moment, and lived their lives. All that is real is beyond what the mind can fathom by so-called logical “proving” and rational “explaining.” What is real and true you can only be.

. To be authentic is to be awake, aware, and living in the here-and-now. To be authentic points to living what is real, honest and genuine in being yourself as reflected in your emotional expression, personal relationships and true identity. You don’t have to act nice if you already are nice. Truth has nothing to prove or explain, sell or convince, cajole or justify, inflated or deflated, since it is readily understandable by all who see and inhabit it. Our true nature need claim nothing, prove nothing and explain nothing, for the Truth of who we are is self-evident. What is there to prove or explain in truth?

Since who we think we are, the imaginary sense of self or ego-mind, does not exist, then who is there to prove or explain anything to? There is nothing to prove and everything to be. Songwriter Bob Dylan declares, “I don’t pretend and I don’t compromise.” Authenticity has nothing to do with pretending to be who you are not or “compromising” understood as in “selling out” our core values and principles. For example, relationships are protected to the degree that when interactions are the worst, both parties refuse to do damage. Similarly, in honesty, authenticity and integrity there is no draw, interest or energy to prove or explain anything, as if this is in the realm of reality and possibility.

It’s simply not possible in reality to prove anything anyway. What in the world is there to prove and to whom? All proofs are perfunctory, arbitrary, paper tigers and permeated with value assumptions. Do you prove anything in scientific research, a geometry problem, a court of law, or a debate? Does the physical world of nature prove or explain anything? What has never been seen evokes no credibility, and understandably so.

The strangest aspect about having to prove or explain anything to someone else is that you usually communicate the very opposite. Go ahead and prove or explain how confidant you are and we all pull back, feel uncomfortable and receive the message that you have no confidence whatsoever. Aim to prove or explain how superior you are and we all see how incredibly inferior you feel about yourself. Aim to prove or explain a point and we all see how dogmatic and insecure you seem. In the field of psychology all of these behaviors point to the defense alternatively called compensation or over-compensation, that is, doing the opposite behavior or attitude in contrast to what you actually feel. Once again, the executive function of the ego “thinks” it is defensively protecting and caring for us. My response to this false self is, “Care and protect me less; it’s unnecessary and I’ve already got it covered!”

So you’re welcome to support all you can in the forward march of knowledge, yet without aiming to prove or explain a thing, which generally would only undercut your credibility and raise red flags alluding to character flaws and dysfunction. Releasing, letting go and fully surrendering the imaginary sense of self with all its made-up conceptualizations, opinions and evaluations, along with all its equally dreamed-up intentions, desires and behaviors to prove or explain anything, and all that remains is the spacious peace and awareness of what is real in this moment. Surely this is enough for who you truly are. Is this not enough for you in living in the now?


1. Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986), pages 6-10, quote: page 99.

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