Sunday, August 09, 2009

An Old Story Retold: Inference and Theoretical Variety

Part of what I wrote more than two decades ago bears repeating here and now:
V. THEORETICAL VARIETY

The symposium papers [presented at the Boston University symposium on probability and inference in the law of evidence] offer a variegated theoretical menu; it is not easy to find a common thread. If one views the papers at a high level of abstraction and generality, it may be fair to say that the various papers deal with the same thing--matters such as probability, uncertainty, and inference--but nonetheless make very different claims about this 'thing.' From this perspective, one could argue that the variety found in the symposium papers is something of an embarrassment. In fact, however, the variety in the symposium papers is only an embarrassment of riches. There are many reasons for differentiated theoretical perspectives and explanations. It does not follow from this multiplicity of perspectives either that nothing has been learned or even that fundamental and irreconcilable theoretical conflicts exist. For example, in some instances the differences in the propositions being advanced may be attributable simply to the fact that different processes in the real world are being talked about under rubrics such as 'inference' or 'proof.' This is not to say, to be sure, that close analysis of the papers would show that no true disagreements exist; they do. Nonetheless, the profusion of formal theory, theoretical perspectives, normative theory, and social, political, and ethical theory that surfaces in the symposium papers hints that the way lies open for a synthesizing approach that would use this theoretical diversity to offer a more systematic and comprehensive description of the characteristics-- both logical and empirical--of processes of proof in law. Possibly, each of the papers reveals something true or significant about proof processes. If so, the job is not to grade or rank the various theoretical approaches, but to try to determine what sort of logical and theoretical matrix relates and orders the various contributions made by the various papers to our understanding of inference, proof, and related matters. Regardless of whether all the papers objectively reveal something significant about processes of proof and inference, there is good reason to think that one should entertain this supposition for purposes of further investigation. 'Proof,' in its various guises, is a very complex set of processes and activities. It would be surprising to find that a relatively comprehensive description of its characteristics could be given without resort to a wide variety of theoretical perspectives.

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