I was twelve years old. Our Deacon’s Quorum adviser told us there was enough pizza for each of us to have four slices, including the boy who would be arriving late.
Being overweight and not wanting to be accused of eating more than my share, I took only three pieces. My strategy was to very slowly pick at the pieces of pizza as we watched the video. And that’s what I did.
When the late boy arrived, there was no pizza left. He was not too happy about that. Then one of the boys, with great indignation, said that he had seen me take 9 pieces of pizza – a whopping 9 pieces! He had been watching me, he said, and counting how much pizza I took.
I knew I had only taken three pieces, but the evidence was stacked against me: I was known for eating a lot of food, the pizza was in fact gone, or missing, and to top it off there was an eyewitness who claimed to have seen me take it.
I denied the charge, but to no avail. I wanted to get to the bottom of it, but before I could, the Quorum adviser chimed in and told us that we were not to say another word about it. Perhaps he thought he was doing me a favor. Perhaps he thought I had taken the pizza and he was sparing me embarrassment. But quite the opposite was true – I wanted justice, and I wasn’t getting it. The prosecution had its day and I was not allowed to cross-examine. I wasn’t allowed to clear my name.
And thus the evidence of what really happened was hidden away.
Now let’s say that in a hundred years from now someone decides to write a biography of my life. Somehow they dig up an old journal from one of the boys who had been at the pizza night with me, and the journal states as a fact that I took 9 pieces of pizza when I was only entitled to 4 pieces, that I had even been seen doing it and yet I turned around and lied about it.
Now suppose the historical biographer factors that into a narrative of what I was like as a child. The biographer would perhaps be praised for conducting such exhaustive research into my early years, and he would probably be considered thorough and objective.
But the historian would be wrong, and his narrative would be tainted.
Rather than being the type of boy who would steal pizza and lie about it, I was a boy who took one slice less than he was entitled to and ate my pizza slowly over the course of two hours.
The boy who accused me was not known to lie, and I’m not accusing him of lying, I’m accusing him of being wrong.
But, you might ask, how could he be wrong about something so straight-forward as watching me take pizza out of a box and put it on my plate? Isn’t it just his word against mine?
Well, let’s suppose I go to a magic show and afterwards I tell you that I saw a tiger turn into a house-cat. Are your only options to either believe me or to think I’m lying? Of course not. Most likely, what I actually saw is not what I thought I saw. I probably drew a false inference from what I saw, and I then claimed to have seen the thing which I had actually only inferred and not seen. For instance, I may have seen a tiger on stage and then seen the tiger momentarily covered up, then the cover was removed and I saw a housecat. I then inferred that the tiger turned into the housecat. Due to the imperfection of language, my statement that “I saw a tiger turn into a housecat” does not convey the factual substance of what I actually saw, but only conveys the conclusion I reached.
Likewise, due to the imperfection of language, my accuser’s claim to have seen me take 9 pieces of pizza does not tell us what he actually saw. It tells us his conclusion rather than giving us factual evidence with which to reach our own conclusions.
His inference hides evidence.
This puts us in a position where if we are to believe his account we must not merely trust that he is honest but must also trust his judgment in place of our own.
This hidden evidence prevents us from finding the truth.
For instance, he may have seen me pull 3 pieces of pizza from the box and put them on my plate – something which I freely admit that I did. But then the lights went down and the video came on. He may have seen me stand up at some point and walk over to the table where the food and drinks were made available. I may have refilled my cup with soda then sat back down with the same 3 pieces of pizza on my plate, creating the illusion that I had taken a second helping of pizza. A while later, he may have glanced over at me and still seen 3 pieces - from which he inferred that I had gone back for thirds and a total of nine pieces.
That’s a plausible explanation. I don’t know for certain that it transpired that way, but the burden of proof is on the accuser. That’s because he’s the one making a claim.
Yes, I am also making a claim by saying that I had only 3 pieces, but neither side is disputing that I took those 3 pieces – the question is whether I took an additional six. The accuser says I did, and is therefore creating a burden of proof for himself.
Yes, another thing I did was lay out for you a scenario whereby my accuser may have been tricked by an illusion and made a false assumption. But that scenario doesn’t need to be proven. The purpose of the scenario is to demonstrate that we don’t have enough data to decide whether or not his inference was valid. To serve its purpose, the scenario need only be plausible, which it is. But I don’t need to even present a scenario such as that in order for my point to be valid. The scenario only illustrates that evidence is hidden from our view, and this is denying us the ability to judge for ourselves.
The larger issue here is that we need to differentiate between objective evidence and inferences drawn by others. We don’t have the luxury of cross-examining the witnesses of history or allowing the accused to speak in their own defense.
Like a magician’s stage, the past has many secrets which are out of view. The best available data is not always enough to draw a conclusion, and can in fact be highly misleading. Our desire to know a detail of history is not sufficient cause for pretending that we do in fact know it. Sometimes the evidence is there, other times it is not.