Modeling An Honest Investigation
by Daniel Reynoso
In the grand divide between philosophical positions of theism and atheism, we all make a variety of claims about our world and the nature of reality. These claims can be true, false, or ultimately unknowable, but we make them nonetheless; furthermore, we usually string claims together to form arguments about the best way to interpret the evidence at our disposal.
Whether we’re looking to persuade, debate, or just make sense of our worldview for no one else but ourselves, we’re always busy reasoning about our lives and our world by means of arguments. Arguments are nothing more than a set of reasons—known as “premises”—that leads us to form a judgment—known as a “conclusion”—about a given subject. But arguments can be tricky
Some arguments are valid but false; that is, they follow the rules of logic but still contain a false conclusion. Some arguments are invalid but true; that is, they break the rules of logic but somehow deliver a true conclusion anyway. Arguments in themselves are never true or false; they’re cases we build for the claims that we make—claims that are themselves either true or false.
And if you think about it, how could it be otherwise? Careful reasoning in the form of logical argument about the evidence at our disposal is the only way we can come to grips with reality. It’s the only way we can tell the bad from the good, the true from the false, and the sheep from the wolves. It’s the only effective way for investigating our world and knowing where we stand.
But how do we know we’re coming to correct conclusions about our world? How can we know that we’re building a solid case for the claims that we make? And how can we be sure that we’re not deluding ourselves into believing what we’d already like to believe? In short, how can we ensure that we’re conducting an honest investigation into topics like the question of God’s existence?
Framing a Case: Just the Facts
In the fantastic feature film, My Cousin Vinny, two college students from New York, Billy Gambini and Stan Rothstein, are driving through the backwater of Alabama when they make a pit stop at a local convenience store called the Sac-O-Suds. After purchasing a few items for the road – and unintentionally stealing a can of tuna – they leave the scene in their metallic mint green 1964 Buick Skylark convertible, only to be stopped down the road by the state police.
Initially, Billy thinks that he’s drawn the attention of the police by inadvertently forgetting to pay for the can of tuna. It turns out, however, that the clerk managing the store where they stopped was just murdered by two men matching their physical description and fleeing the scene in a car that witnesses claimed to be a green convertible, just like the one they’re driving. Believing this to be a simple misunderstanding about shoplifting, the boys peacefully submit to the arrest.
Once back at the station under police interrogation, Billy quickly confesses to the crime, which he still believes to be shoplifting the can of tuna. It’s only after the sheriff grills him as to when he shot the clerk that Billy realizes that he and Stan have been arrested for the first-degree murder of the store clerk. Of course, we know that they’re innocent – a case of mistaken identity – but that’s a bit of dramatic irony vis-à-vis the rest of the residents of the small Alabama town.
But Billy has a cousin named Vinny who also happens to be a personal injury lawyer from New York, and Vinny’s never won a court case. He agrees to come to Alabama to help his cousin Billy and friend Stan deal with the charges pro bono, and while Vinny trusts his cousin that they’re both innocent, the case looks very damning given the circumstantial evidence. On the surface, in fact, the case is a sure win for the prosecution; the only thing missing is the murder weapon.
Given the circumstantial evidence and the apparent confession, Vinny certainly has his work cut out for him. But since Vinny knows Billy and Stan are innocent, he begins reviewing the facts of the case in order to find anything that doesn’t add up to the claims of the prosecution. Unfortunately, however, all the facts of the case seem to implicate them in the crime, and we’re left wondering how Vinny’s going to help Billy and Stan beat the rap.
Building a Case: Interpreting the Evidence
Now, when Vinny meets with Billy and Stan, he assures them that he’ll find something wrong with the prosecution’s case. He’s confident that he can pull it off because if the boys are, in fact, innocent, then the facts themselves cannot add up to the charges made by the district attorney. In a highly instructive scene, Vinny gives his cousin Billy an analogy for what to expect when they face the prosecution at trial, and it goes like this:
The D.A.’s got to build a case. Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, solid-looking bricks. . . .He’s going to show you the bricks. He’ll show you they got straight sides. He’ll show you how they got the right shape. He’ll show them to you in a very special way, so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there’s one thing he’s not gonna show you… [Vinny then uses a playing card to illustrate his point] When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they’re as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick. It has to be an illusion, ’cause you’re innocent.
During the rest of the comedy, Vinny goes on to poke holes in the arguments of the prosecution and the eye-witness testimony in an attempt to show that the case is not as sound as one might suspect, but he just doesn’t have the smoking gun to exonerate his clients in the face of the otherwise overwhelming circumstantial evidence – that is, until an expert is called to testify about the tire residue left by the speeding getaway car in the parking lot of the crime scene.
At his wits’ end, Vinny’s reviewing the photographs of the tire marks left at the scene when he suddenly realizes that he’s figured out how to show that Billy and Stan are innocent. To do this, he needs to call to the stand his partner and fiancé, Ms. Mona Lisa Vito, an expert in automobiles in her own right. She’s the one who snapped the photographs of the tire marks in the first place, and she also provides the expert testimony that ultimately exonerates the suspects.
After a grilling voir dire by the prosecution, Ms. Mona Lisa Vito is accepted by the prosecution as a suitable witness for the defense. Prior to her explosive testimony, Vinny restates the defense’s case, “that two sets of guys met up at the Sac-O-Suds, at the same time, driving identical metallic mint green 1964 Buick Skylark convertibles.” He then asks, “Now, can you tell us by what you see in this picture [of the skid marks], if the defense’s case holds water?”
Revising a Case: Introducing New Information
On the stand, Ms. Vito shocks everyone when she responds to the question with, “No! The defense is wrong!” But she soon shows the prosecution wrong, too. She proceeds to provide expert testimony to the court, arguing that due to technological limitations on the 1964 Buick Skylark, the car the defendants were driving was not capable of producing the skid marks left at the crime scene, despite the tire residue being identical to the tires on the defendants’ car.
Now, not only does Ms. Vito demonstrate the inability of the defendants’ car to have made the skid marks at the crime scene, she also informs the court about the type of car that did possess the technology to make the skid marks, which she identifies as “a 1963 Pontiac Tempest.” Naturally, the prosecution rushes to object as to whether Ms. Vito is stating an opinion or a fact, to which she retorts, “Oh, it’s a fact!” Naturally, everyone is simply flabbergasted.
She then goes on to argue her point by revising the case in light of the new information. She uses all the known evidence, eye-witness and otherwise, to single out a make and model that had “the same body length, height, width, weight, wheel base, and wheel track as the ’64 Skylark, and,” she testifies, “that was the 1963 Pontiac Tempest.” And “because both cars were made by GM, were both cars available in metallic mint green paint,” explaining the eye-witness misidentification.
In the face of the expert testimony offered by Ms. Vito, coupled with the concurrence by the prosecution’s own expert witness, the district attorney recognizes that the state’s case against Billy and Stan is not accurate, and so they dismiss all charges against the two boys. It’s a monumental victory for the defense at the zero hour of the trial, but it’s also an instructive case study in an honest approach to argument and investigation.
Falsifying a Case: Drawing New Conclusions
In the face of expert testimony, the prosecution for the state of Alabama was forced to draw a new conclusion: Billy and Stan were not guilty of the murder of the convenience store clerk. In fact, the evidence of the photo that demonstrated that the tires on the defendants’ car couldn’t have made the tracks was already in both the defense’s and the prosecution’s portfolio; it’s just that nobody could see how it pertained to the case until an expert made the connection.
Now Vinny, a car enthusiast himself, had already figured out that the car in question was a 1963 Pontiac Tempest, and he’d had the sheriff of the small town investigate that make and model in connection with other crimes in the area, which turned up two similar looking guys in a neighboring county who’d been arrested for holding up a convenience store; a gun matching the caliber of bullet used to murder the Sac-O-Sud’s store clerk was also found in their possession.
Well, this is pretty strong evidence of guilt – even more so than for Billy and Stan. All of the original evidence fits them also, as does the new evidence predicted by the scientific approach of Ms. Vito’s expert testimony. Of course, this other duo is technically innocent until proven guilty, but a new case must now be built by the prosecution against the new defendants, a case that will reuse and reinterpret the original evidence in light of the new information.
Notice that while the case built around the original evidence allowed for either set of men to be implicated in the crime, only the revision of the case according to new information—the expert testimony of Ms. Mona Lisa Vito—was able to exclude one of those sets. The new information was enough to make all of the other circumstantial evidence against Billy and Stan moot and inapplicable. It disqualified all models of the past that implicated them in the crime.
So, it took an expert making the argument to demonstrate to the court that the model of the past that they’d been arguing was not quite accurate, even if it did approximate the truth of the matter. And it most certainly did! Think about it: (1) two boys; (2) similar-looking cars; (3) identical tires; (4) same place; (5) roughly the same time; (6) the commission of a crime (shoplifting which leads to a mistaken confession); (7) eye-witness testimony; and so on.
But while the prosecution’s case was generally accurate regarding the facts of the case, what’s clear is that the evidence itself falsified previous interpretations that once appeared to be true. And let’s not forget, “the defense [was] wrong,” too. The defense argued that two similar-looking boys driving an *identical* car came after the defendants and committed the murder. The prosecution was more wrong than the defense, of course, but both were not entirely accurate.
Three Guidelines for Constructing Cases
My Cousin Vinny, a wonderful comedy in its own right, is also an instructive case study for how we can more effectively conduct honest investigations in our own lives. We all make arguments that we use to build cases for how best to understand reality. The arguments themselves are based – at least ideally – on some given set of claims and evidence that we use to inform a model of the past, present, or future that we suppose to correspond to reality.
True, we all engage in case-building for our own positions, but the plot development of My Cousin Vinny offers us a glimpse at some of the most prevalent pitfalls we want to avoid when constructing our arguments and forming our models of reality. While the denouement of the film wraps up quite nicely, with Billy and Stan beating the rap and everyone coming to understand that the truth of the matter lay elsewhere, real life is not so neat and tidy.
So, first, when constructing our different models of reality, always remember that we’re never dealing with just the facts. Instead, we collect data and interpret that information according to specific lines of reasoning in order to create evidence for or against a given position. The more careful we are in our reasoning processes – that is, the more we employ logic to build our cases – the more strength our models will possess in the face of testing and verification.
Second, when characterizing our different models of reality, always remember that we’re never dealing with certainty. No matter how closely a model may approximate reality, we need to recognize that we could always be wrong in our interpretation of the facts. New and surprising information can – and often does – disconfirm the accuracy of even our best models, and we need to be open to the possibility that how we think about reality may not be correct.
And finally, when assessing our different models of reality, always remember that we need to be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. No matter how prized a model of reality may be, we need to be willing to admit the failure of a model that simply no longer conforms to the evidence at hand. It’s not always easy to displace our cherished models of reality, but an honest investigation always seeks to understand the way the world is, not how we wish it could be.
Belief and Faith versus Knowledge and Inquiry
So, then, how does this all relate to the wide divide between theists and atheists? Many of us charge that after an honest investigation into the God hypothesis, there’s simply no convincing evidence to support the claim. Instead, the model of reality that enjoys the most evidentiary support from science and scholarship – the case that continues to stand after all expert assessment of the claims – is a naturalistic picture of reality that finds no place for God.
Does this mean that we can know that God does not exist? Well perhaps, but we can’t know for sure. Remember, we can always be wrong about our models of reality. However, not only is the burden of proof with the theist who claims that God really does exist, it’s abundantly clear that this burden has not been met. Furthermore, in the doldrums of the total absence of evidence for the real existence of God, the problem of evil pushes the claim to atheism beyond a reasonable doubt.
Now, does this mean that you can’t believe in God? Well of course not! But what it does mean is that belief in God must, at the very least, remain a matter of faith, a word denoting a conviction held in the absence of evidence. However, if we’ve been logically consistent in building our case for the nonexistence of God, then a continued belief in God is more likely an expression of blind faith, or a belief maintained in the face of all evidence and rationality.
Think back to the exonerating evidence for the defense in My Cousin Vinny. Had the prosecution simply continued to maintain its charge of the defendants’ guilt in the face of de facto evidence against the possibility of their having committed the crime, that would have been an example of blind faith—not to mention a huge injustice to the truth! Given the evidence, they could know that such a blind-faith position would be simply untenable.
Of course, this type of faith may offer a subtle comfort for those who entertain it, but faith can never help us build a case for accurate models of reality. If our assessment of the case has been logically consistent, then the atheistic claim of the nonexistence of God is rationally justified. Furthermore, if it’s true, then the model qualifies as a knowledge claim corresponding to reality. But, ultimately, investigation into the evidence, not faith in a model, is the only way to know.
As Friedrich Nietzsche famously quipped, “Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.”