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Science and truth.

February 6, 2011

Let me begin by making a controversial statement: there is such a thing as truth. This is clear when we consider the opposite statement: there is no truth. This is clearly paradoxical. To say such a thing is to make a truth claim which the statement itself claims is impossible. If it is true, then there is at least one truth (that there is no truth) and if it is false there must, by definition be truth. The same approach applies to the statement: we cannot know truth. The idea that there is no truth has been dubbed ‘stupid relativism’ and it’s a good idea to rid ourselves of that at the start. It follows that, by definition, truth is better than falsehood and therefore that truth is worth pursuing. This is the simple bit.

The difficult bit is how we recognise and judge truth and evaluate different truth claims and I fear I have little to add to two and a half millennia of philosophical enquiry on the subject. I want here to talk specifically about the truth claims of science and some of the challenges to them. Is science a good means of discovering truth?

One challenge to scientific truth comes from the history of science itself. Science creates explanatory models of the world which are tested by experiment. From time to time these models are overturned and replaced by new models (a process described by Thomas Kuhn as a paradigm shift). Famous examples include Copernicus’ replacement of the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system by his heliocentric one and Einstein’s overturning of Newton. Before the general theory of relativity Newton’s theory of gravity was considered true and many scientists would agree that Einstein may in turn be superseded by a more refined theory. This surely leads us to question the truth of any current scientific theory and scientists themselves are expected to remain sceptical of accepted theories. Nobel prizes are awarded for falsifying current theories. Added to this problem is the possibility that there may be no final answer. Physics may find that the dream of a final theory is just that. As we reach each horizon new vistas may open up before us. I would suggest then that we might see science’s relation to truth not as an equation which will one day be solved but more like a mathematical operation which approaches truth. To explain: if you start with one and divide by two you have a half. Divide by two again to get a quarter. As you continue to divide by two the number gets closer and closer to zero but will never reach it. (There is no number which when divided by two gives zero.) So although science may never reach the ultimate truth this is not to say that it does not get closer.

What guarantee do we have that science is converging on truth rather than building an elaborate belief system based on human prejudices? One way to think about this is to imagine contact with intelligent alien life. Would alien physicists and chemists understand each other or would their rival models be completely incompatible? This is a question of objectivity. Science must transcend the limitations of the human viewpoint to make valid truth claims. (This is not to say that we could transcend so far as to be able to see the whole truth.) It is easy to find examples of bias in social sciences such as anthropology or psychology but even in chemistry prejudice can lead to discoveries being ignored. In the 1950s Boris Belousov discovered an oscillatory chemical reaction which ran counter to the bias of contemporary chemists and their interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics. His research remained unpublished and he eventually gave up science. Scientists are fallible and have the same faults as everyone else. They are certainly not free of the prejudices of class, gender, cultural background or personal belief which affect everybody. Can we trust a scientist to be objective? No more than we can a writer or a shopkeeper. Happily, however, we do not have to trust the individual scientist but the scientific community. The fact that science is practised by a large group of interacting scientists is what gives it its strength. Just as the interactions of neurons in the brain create consciousness (no individual neuron is conscious but a large enough group are), so the interactions of scientists (i.e. through peer review, the repetition of experiments, the criticism of papers, etc) can create truth.  This is what makes the scientific method so powerful. As more scientists from different backgrounds are brought into the community greater objectivity is obtainable. We might even metaphorically see objectivity as an emergent phenomenon. To explain, an emergent phenomenon is one which appears as a result of interactions between parts of a whole and which is not necessarily predictable. For instance, neither hydrogen nor oxygen expand on freezing yet combined together as water this occurs. Objective truth may then emerge from a system made up entirely of scientists for whom objectivity is individually impossible.

One occasionally encounters the silly argument that science is biased by being based in reason and so ignores everything that may be learnt from, presumably, unreason. This is often the last refuge of the superstitious or ‘spiritual’ (usually just after ‘science doesn’t know everything’). This seems to me rather like suggesting that we should try using darkness to see by. Reason is, by definition, the best method for making decisions. Unreason is not an equal and valid alternative but simply the absence of reason as darkness is only the absence of light. Of course the champions of unreason do not live by its unprinciples as it would make crossing the road tricky. (If they get as far as a road, after all why do the reasonable thing of leaving your house by the door when you could try just walking through the wall.) The more sophisticated argument invokes emotion as the opposite of reason but I would contend that this is a false dichotomy. We are surely able to see that ‘head and heart’ are constantly interacting and attempting to divide them is foolish.

The same thinking that tells us that Santa Claus does not exist leads us to understand that astrology is no more than a lucrative superstition and that homeopathy has no medical value. This thinking works. It helped us avoid poisonous berries and told us to run from lions. It enabled us to control fire and build cities and more recently has enabled us to sequence the human genome and build the Large Hadron Collider. It may not be perfect but it’s by far the best we’ve got.


From → Philosophy, Science

  1. A friend once told me that there is no such thing as absolute. I asked him, “is that an absolute statement?” He couldn’t answer. Two plus two was, is, and will always be 4. Therefore, absolutism exists. There is no last number. A line goes on and on. Two parallel lines will never meet. It is infinite. Therefore, infinity also exists. We can think about anything, go anywhere, and feel anything in our minds. Therefore, omnipresence also exists. Just because our physical bodies cannot “experience” certain things, our minds always can, even though we cannot understand them completely, such as perfection. Interesting. Thank you.

  2. I’m with you up to halfway. The reality of mathematical constructs is an interesting question. In what sense are numbers real? It seems rather a leap to go from the infinity of our number line to the existence of infinity. Maths can cope with thousands of dimensions but that isn’t to say they necessarily exist.
    I think we can only imagine the things that we can imagine and therefore think that we can imagine everything because we can’t imagine anything unimaginable. Does that make sense?

    • What is to exist? If we cannot imagine it, does it still exist? Numbers are present only in our minds. The symbols and items we use to identify numbers are just physical things that we think exist because we can see and touch them. But number are still in our minds. Do they exist even if we can’t see them or touch them? I believe there are things unimaginable that still exist.

  3. I would agree in, for instance, the case of alien life which almost certainly exists in forms we cannot now imagine. I’m not sure though that we can imagine perfection as you suggested in your first comment. It seems rather like imagining infinity. We can describe and think about something but this does not seem to me the same as being able to imagine it.

  4. Alecto permalink

    While rhetorically persuasive, the paradox argument against radical relativism you start with is, I think, sophistry. When the existence, or meaning, or connotation, of a word is the very issue at stake, you cannot use the common meaning of the word to argue against it. The analogue with “All humans are liars” is not exact, because that paradox rests within a framework which establishes truth from non-truth. Do the same thing with truth itself, and you cannot invoke a truth framework within which to judge it, because to do so is to a priori assert the validity of the truth concept you are attempting to arrive at. It is a circular argument. It could well be the case that there is nothing existing that corresponds to what we commonly mean when we use the word “truth”, and the fact that within our linguistic and conceptual framework we are unable to capture this lack of truth in a neat sentence is not necessarily relevant. The answer to “and is that statement true?”, or “is that an absolute statement?”, is, of course, no! Or, equally, yes! Or, equally, “four square of rabbits wildly quarkify!”. Judging the position from the outside, we can rationally argue that within a framework of non-truth, it is utterly irrelevant whether a statement seems to be self-contradictory (this is an argument that relies on truth claims, and so is from the “outside” of the position). Judging it from the inside, there is no need to even bother with the argument, as such arguments, based on truth, are meaningless. From both the outside and the inside, then, the paradox argument collapses entirely.

    The pragmatic argument, or the explanatory argument, is far better. David Deutsch has a good take on this when he considers that, assuming explanation of the ‘world’ is a desirable activity, the radical sceptic has, in fact, more work to do than the naive realist.

    • Having had time to think about this it seems that what you are saying is that the paradox argument would not convince a committed relativist. It does though mean that the relativist need not convince the realist. The relativist has no grounds on which to convince us to share her view because it is by definition only valid for her.

  5. Alecto permalink

    That is perhaps also the case, but my main point is that it is simply not a valid argument. Although of course, believing that there is no truth does not necessitate radical sceptism about reality or solipsism. It might be possible to make an argument that truth as we conceive of it currently as a sort of binary quality is primitive, but that there is some value to various truthlike concepts.

    Another often used quasi-paradox, with regard to solipsism in particular, is the oddity that it is impossible to persuade someone of it: if you are convinced by the arguments of a solipsist enough to become a solipsist then you are in fact profoundly disagreeing with the primary solipsist. And hence the little story:

    A professor delivers a glowing and fiery defence of solipsism. At the end most of the audience leaves muttering darkly, but one person rushes up and says, “Professor, that was inspiring, I agreed with absolutely everything you said!”.
    “Ah, how gratifying!”, she replies, “It is so rare one gets to meet a fellow solipsist.”

    • I believe that there is also the story of Bertrand Russell receiving a letter from a former student saying, “I have to decided to become a solipsist and it’s wonderful. I don’t know why more people don’t do it.”

      If the paradox argument must assume truth in order to work, surely your counter-argument must assume non-truth so they both go round in circles, exactly like a couple of solipsists. I was thinking of bringing up solipsism before.

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