Right away, I have to note that, beside the fact that the expression is almost trivially true, broadly, and for the boring fact that once you have the first half in your head, you practically can’t help but utter the last half. Even with that in mind, I am not particularly convinced he said it at all.
The absence of proof is not the proof of absence
It is an old concept, worked and reworked, passed along or re-invented over the ages. Even two and a half millennia ago, Socrates spoke of the problem of making arguments from ignorance; the idea was probably old, even then!
- Something about William Cowper
- Constructing a Phrase
- Cowper’s vocabulary, style, and temperament
Something about William Cowper
I’ve heard or read this pliable phrase being put into service as a defense mechanism or in response to the yawning chasm that is the lack of evidence for gods. It’s ubiquitously and very strangely, I think, attributed to William Cowper. Shortly, I hope I will succeed in explaining why I think it so strange. As a teaser, I’ll just say that it seems a strange way of thinking, that is, coming from this sort of 18th century Evangelical who probably would have bristled at the thought that anyone should, or would, require proof for the existence of his own god. Furthermore, I think Cowper would likely have preferred that everyone around him just leave the matter as stated: His god existed because he believed it to be true and believed it should be true.
This eighteenth century Londoner feared, neurotically in fact, for not adequately possessing the kind and amount of faith required by his god. You might then argue that he’d be the perfect candidate, to utter something just like this in the defensive mode. Yet, he didn’t otherwise seem overly concerned with any such process, as is implied by the assumptions underlying the expression itself, the process of uncovering what is true, as in, for example, that tried-and-true method for removing the false toward the end of finding some scrap of truth. Rather, from his hymn, “Walking with God”, we get a little view into how and what he thought of ‘evidence’ and ‘existence’:
Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heav’nly frame 1
Throughout all of Cowper’s writings and hymns, a man who was better characterized by his rather poetic pleadings, the wish or desire for a calming presence of his god, which he simultaneously took as granted.
Constructing a Phrase
I would invite you to look for citations originating from both sides of the Atlantic and across two centuries, of Cowper and quotes of his in the wide expanse of English literature. Survey the vocabulary of literature after the 1800s containing expressions like “absence of”, “absence of proof”, “absence of evidence”, and their variations and inverses, like “proof of…”, “no proof of”, and so forth. You may discover an impressive cluster and subsequent progression of expressions, of which, notably, none appearing either in Cowper’s lifetime or even within half a century of his death.
The saying seems instead to emerge from clusters of documents written well within the nineteenth century and often with reference to scientific and legal disciplines rather than in strictly theological, hermeneutic, poetic or strictly philosophical works, even where the writers are attempting support of (for example) a theological position.
1872 – citing Charles Darwin
The first and most significant instance of a phrase that most closely resembled that now attributed to Cowper was found in a paraphrase by Randolph Sinks Foster of something Charles Darwin was alleged to have said. Foster writes:
“…How, it will be asked, does Darwin reply to this damaging allegation? In the easiest manner possible, by manufacturing another assumption; namely, that the confessed absence of proof is not because there is no proof; not because the case is not as supposed; but because, in the first place, we have not lived long enough to note the changes which have taken place in infinite ages;…” 2 3
This is a significant and surprising objection for a couple distinct reasons.
The first surprise is that a quote, now attributed to Cowper, is one which was instead then attributed to Charles Darwin. No mention whatsoever of Cowper.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the way in which the reasoning is applied. A contemporary, theological invocation might strongly wish to convey the idea that lack of material proof for claims about this-or-that particular god should not therefore imply that the object of the claim is non-existent. In that context, “absence of proof” would be a tacit admission that the only thing one has is an argument — just words — without any material proof that what is said has any relationship with what exists. In fact, the mere act of asserting the existence of something considered as non-existent to others is, after all, still taken as a point of virtue or a sacrament in many cults. Words are simply intended to be adequate!
No such allowance is made for Darwin. Foster, the theologian and the president of Drew Theological Seminary, took exception with this way of thinking when it came to some other area of inquiry.
In the above quote, he references the then lack of material evidence that progeny of “neighboring species” could be anything but infertile. He said that this was “admitted by Darwin”, yet I suspect he deeply misunderstood Darwin’s Theory. Indeed, two neighboring species probably would produce infertile progeny, but — and this is why I said “then”, that is, “at the time” — no one knew of the unstoppable power of genetic drift in isolated species toward speciation, and the full extent of selection pressure, nor the manner and extent in which genes could be selected for.
Whether understanding or not, Foster nevertheless waves away the material examples Darwin actually offered from his investigations and he also discounts the rational inferences Darwin made based on that material evidence. Foster’s own invocation, if he were ever even to have thought it, of “absence of proof, not proof of absence”, left no room presumably, for anything outside a rigorously non-empirical, theological claim and he gave no credence to the physical work which preceded Darwin’s hypotheses and, ultimately, theoretical framework.
1894 – the mere absence of evidence is not itself evidence
While addressing a problem with the New Testament book of Mark and making a case against Buddhism, William Lilly abruptly shifts to a sort of two-for-one strategy that attempts, on the one hand, to get out of actually having to substantiate a claim; on the other, he tries to, I suppose, shame anyone who might take for granted the reality of the Buddha while also doubting the reality presented by Christian apologists, not
[asking] for evidence parellel [sic] to this before we receive the history of Buddha…
He strikes a suddenly rational pose in response to the charge that no such evidence exists for Roman gods:
…True, but I remark that the mere absence of evidence is not itself evidence; may it not rather be urged from the parallel of Roman history, that the absence of historical evidence is the sure forerunner and token of myths?…” 4
So, in the simultaneous absence of evidence, why not similarly defend the existence of Roman gods? No, this is justification — forerunner and token — for myth.
Lilly was writing to an audience already aware of the vulnerability and weakness of Christian doctrine, an audience who perhaps felt a need for a more positive and aggressive, intellectual sounding rejoinder to doubtful critiques than, say, “well, I don’t know.” He seemed not to feel the need to elaborate; he and his audience simply took as granted that Roman gods don’t exist. After all, the absence of evidence, despite the frequent invocation and testimony of many Romans, really does mean the absence of proof of the existence of Roman gods.
As to the turn of phrase itself, if I had to point to an origin of contemporary propagation (though not necessarily an explicit point of origin or source) of the alleged “Cowper” quote, I would have to think it was Lilly. We will see shortly that the final product, however it emerged, was transformed into a sort of highbrow “proverb” based on the then familiar legal construction, “absence of evidence”.
1908 – defending Shakespeare’s familial ties
In his 1908 edition of Elizabethan drama, 1558-1642: a history of the drama in England Felix Emmanuel Schelling writes:
“…But there is correspondingly no proof that Shakespeare was estranged from his family; and in law, if not in amateur criticism, absence of proof is not equivalent to condemnation. Shakespeare’s influence and repute at this period are attested by many anecdotes which have become the commonplaces of literary biography and which would remain unquestioned, told of anyone whom impertinent and skeptical ignorance had not claimed as its prey….” 5
I emphasize here another additional phrase, citing “impertinent and skeptical ignorance”, for the way in which it fits the parallelism of the expression we are examining. In other words, this utterance first makes use of a proverbial “absence of proof/not proof of absence”, then it loads on an additional reprimand to echo the prior elite sneer against amateurs. In essence Schelling tries to emphasize that expressions of doubt due to lack of evidence are but a sign of ignorance.
Schelling’s emphasis may have some weight, but this alters, if it doesn’t indeed transform completely the first reference we read earlier, attributed to Darwin by Foster, in which a claim was based upon evidence and inference from multiple examples! By comparison, this particular use, in the first decade of the twentieth century, enjoins the audience to believe something strictly based on the word of an expert — possibly a self-appointed expert! Indeed, expertise may be enough when evidence and a rational analysis are also given, but the use employed here by Schelling seems instead to mock the unbeliever for even attempting, impertinently, to criticize.
1910 – with respect to the precise age of one’s mother
In a late decade description of court proceedings, we found a similar construction [second phrase emphasized as above]:
“Appeal And Error (§ 209*)—ObjectionsEvidence
…Though, in a death action by the mother of a decedent, proof of her age should be made as a basis for computing damages, absence of proof is not ground for reversal, where the jury saw her, and no objection was made at the trial….” 6
It is almost as though all participants in this melancholy and common trial seeking to award damages to some party had taken Emmanuel Schelling’s 1908 rebuke to heart. Is there doubt even the most unlikely of writers do not thus effect public discourse, if not legislation? Perhaps not wanting to appear impertinent, the record shows that “no objection was made”. No objection. Uselessly, then, though proof “should be made” in order to compute damages, it was decreed in direct contradiction to that stated need that any such “absence of [necessary] proof” is apparently not “proof of absence” or, in the practical consequence of such a view, “not ground for reversal”!
1913 – First Mention
The phrase I introduced at the beginning shows up at last in literature precisely in the form we see now multiplied and repeated everywhere (and dumbly attributed to Cowper), but here proverbially and entirely without attribution in two medical works, two years apart.
The first of these two instances is found in Early Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Diagnosis, Prognosis and Treatment, by John Bromham Hawes:
“Either the patient through ignorance or carelessness has not consulted a physician in time, or else the physician has been unable or unwilling to make an early diagnosis on the signs and symptoms then present. The statement that ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence’ applies admirably to this subject. 7
…and two years later (1915), in Principles of Medical Treatment, by George Cheever Shattuck:
“….that in most instances a hemorrhage from the mouth means pulmonary tuberculosis and also that most pleurisies, especially wet pleurisies, are tuberculous. Depend more on the thermometer and common sense than on the stethoscope and remember that ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence…’ 8
In both cases, the invocation reads like little more than a knowing afterthought. Shattuck uses the phrase to show that a diagnosis may involve something other than, or in addition to, in descending order of importance, temperature, experience, sound, then, finally, an “absence of proof is not proof of absence” hunch. However it was significant to me that the phrase seems to have made its way to being considered common usage: neither of these authors felt the need to include a footnote.
Cowper’s vocabulary, style, and temperament
Such an expression could have been attributed mistakenly to Cowper due only to a superficial similarity in vocabulary with a single line in only one of his poems, “Retirement”:
Absence of occupation is not rest
In fact, that very poem points to the words of the Bible as constituting the greatest body of proof by virtue of emotional affectation! A broader reading of his poems would demonstrate that such compare-and-contrast, didactic and mirrored expression just doesn’t fit with his style. That is not to say it isn’t possible. I think we’ve demonstrated, however, that a fairly interesting thread in literature originates from an entirely different and later mode of thought: That of skeptical investigation and critique, not unskeptical credulity and devotion.
We can see from a few, relatively more recent examples, that it is quite possible such an expression could emerge “spontaneously”, so to speak, from other phrases and sayings.
One would be bedeviled in the task of attempting to prove decisively that any particular person did not say a particular something. It is true that the absence of a quote is not the same as never having said. But, one can show that Cowper’s style doesn’t lend itself to such an expression and that, anyway, he was more of a poet and a song writer, not an issuer of epithets. Lastly, the expression doesn’t show up until the late 19th to early 20th century. I think it is unlikely Cowper thought in these terms and the positive evidence seems to point to very different origins and propagation.
This phrase pops up in conversation or literature from time to time and I continue to be curious about what people think about its origins.
Fred Shapiro noted with admirable understatement in 2011 that “any attribution to William Cowper is anachronistic”. 9 With even the smallest inquiry of the Cowper’s poetry or life, I cannot see how anyone would continue thinking he would ever utter such an expression. Certainly, no direct quote or contemporary attribution exists.
Two years after writing this — and about two and a half years after starting to search for any sources identifying Cowper directly as primary utterer — I discover citations all over the place still “attributing” this phrase to Cowper and still used in about the same way: namely as a sort of agnostic slam-dunk argument in indirect non-proof of this or that god (or extraterrestrial visitation).
[Amateur – December 2015]
- The opening two lines of William Cowper’s hymn Walking with God. This can be found in a large variety of sources, mainly in every Protestant hymnal on the planet. See William Cowper’s own Olney Hymns (1779) which condenses dogmas and principles of the then emerging Evangelical cult in poetic form. See, too, the Complete poetical works of William Cowper edited by Humphrey S. Milford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913) ↩
- From A Course of Lectures on the Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion, 1872, Randolph S. Foster, D. D., LL. D., President of the Drew Theological Seminary, Madison, New Jersey. ↩
- See also Theism, cosmic theism, or, The theism of nature. (Randolph Sinks Foster. New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1890) in which he rehashes this. ↩
- The Claims of Christianity. William Samuel Lilly. 1984 ↩
- Elizabethan drama, 1558-1642: a history of the drama in England. Felix Emmanuel Schelling. 1908 ↩
- Atlantic Reporter, Volume 75.Feb 24-May 19 1910. St. Paul: West Publishing Co. 1910 ↩
- Early Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Diagnosis, Prognosis and Treatment. John Bromham Hawes. 1912 ↩
- Principles of Medical Treatment. George Cheever Shattuck. 1915. ↩
- The Absence of Proof Fred Shapiro. 2011-09-29. Freakonomics (retrieved from http://freakonomics.com/2011/09/29/the-absence-of-proof) ↩