Prove it again

As Mary Catherine Bateson points out, human learning tends to follow a spiral path: ‘Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications’ (Bateson 1994, 30). Thus it is that a scripture continues to gather meaning with each re-reading, as Gandhi said in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita:

If we do not feel a new interest in this every time we read it, the fault must lie with us, it cannot be that of the author of the Gita.

— Gandhi (1926/2000, 233)

But human learning has often been hampered by the ‘transmission’ model – the assumption that the teacher knows and sends, and the learner merely receives passively, and that learning can take place without trial and without incorporation of feedback from trials. The great teachers know better, as their methods show: Socrates led the learner through trial by dialog, and the Buddha encouraged his followers to apply his own trial-and-error method rather than claiming to have received an authoritative revelation. The sutras even record some of his failed experiments (see e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh 1998, 14).

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

Thessalonians 5:21 [KJV]

The King James translation of this verse employs the primary sense of ‘prove’ in English, which according to the OED is ‘to make trial of, try, test’ – the meaning of the root Latin verb probare. To prove a statement or proposition in this sense is to investigate whether it really works as an act of meaning – whether it fits a niche in meaning space. Since context, occasion and meaning space are always transforming themselves with each act of meaning, the fit is always more or less temporary.

In recent centuries, the word prove in English most commonly invokes the secondary meaning, ‘to establish something as true’ – and ‘truth’ is taken to be a permanent and context-free quality of any ‘proven’ statement. ‘Proof’ in this sense is usually “demonstrated” by deduction from already-established principles or assumptions.

Scientific method is a matter of investigation, not of ‘proof’ in this secondary sense. ‘Science probes; it does not prove’ (Bateson 1979, 32). Its ‘conclusions’ are always tentative and probable, never established and certain. This is the only sensible approach to truth, which includes ‘proving’ verses in scriptures or metaphysical assertions. If they mean anything to us, we can only try them out in practice and learn from the results. As Peirce put it: ‘Demonstrative proof is not to be thought of. The demonstrations of the metaphysicians are all moonshine’ (CP 1.7). The realistic and pragmatic path is to live by those principles we have tried, and ‘hold fast’ to them because we are still trying them, not because we think our beliefs are permanently and absolutely true.

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