May 03, 2011 | By George Gantz
May 2, 2011. Synopsis – What is Truth?
On May 2, 2011, about 20 participants joined a lively discussion on the difficult question of how we determine that something is “true”. This included an exploration of gaps in the ability of science and math to prove beyond doubt that something is true, and reflections on whether science and religion are distinct areas of inquiry or whether there are ways these spheres of understanding can inform and support each other. Many topics for potential future consideration were identified.
The recording is available – just click here.
The discussion began with an evaluation of the sentence “The sky is blue”. We determined that its truth is a function of context, language, evidence, including direct and potentially indirect evidence, and agreement about the definition of terms. From this base we talked about a potential model for thinking about the problem of evaluating truth using three dimensions – Evidence (E), Logic (L) and a category referred to as “H”. Evidence is what we perceive. It can be direct evidence to the senses, or indirect in the form of testimony from others. The E words include: empirical, experimental and eyes (meaning direct perception). There are gaps in our ability to rely on evidence – notably the fact that we can make mistakes or be fooled (ref: The Meditations of Rene Descartes) or, as pointed out in the movie The Matrix, we could actually be inside a simulation.
The L category (logic, linguistics) may seem more reliable as it involves the realm of deduction and proof, including mathematics. The ideal, abstract world of mathematics appeals to the human mind as a realm of perfect truth. However, even mathemetics has gaps. One is that any system must begin with axioms – unproved definitions or assumptions that are required in order jump-start the system. A second gap has been demonstrated in the Godel proofs – within a given logical system we can have consistency OR completeness, but not both. As consistency (not proving a statement and its negation) is essential, we are left with a glaring gap – that there will be true but unprovable statements.
The H category is related to notion that before evidence and logic can do their work, we need to bring a conceptual framework to the problem. A century ago, there was a sense that we begin life as blank slates – which perception gradually fills in. Brain researchers now know that we are born with a framework for understanding the world already built in. We are heuristic creatures (learning by testing) and we approach the world as scientists or as children with hunches or hypotheses that we think may work. These are tested against our interactions and observations. We also often refer to whether something is true in our hearts – perhaps referring to unconscious or unknown influences. These re all things that we bring to the table in assessing whether something is true.
This final formulation is: E + L + H = R , where R stands for reasoning in the broadest sense – this is what we are seeking to do in determining whether something is true.
We the turned to a remarkable scientific statement: E = m x c*2 , to assess what makes it such a powerful scientific truth. Clearly the evidence is sound – the formula is verified by all the nuclear reactions that have been studied and measured. In that sense it is verifiable, measurable, testable, repeatable – all ideal qualities for evidence. At the same time, the equation is seen as symmetric, background independent, simple, elegant and parsimonious (satisfying Occam’s razor). These qualities are of the H variety. But is the formula provable beyond doubt?
Universality – how do we know that the formula applies to places or times we cannot observe?
Causality – do we know the cause of the formula and whether this might change – or why is it the way it is?
Conclusion – there are gaps in the ability to prove the statement – and any statement in science. All science involves the interaction of the human mind with the created universe – there are gaps – the deeper the inquiry the more profound the complexities. This may be an infinite process.
The presentation concluded with a discussion of a different kind of sentence for consideration: “There is one eternal, infinite God, creator of Heaven and Earth.” Clearly this kind of statement is much more difficult to approach – even the language and definitions of terms is problematic, and what evidence there may be is disputed, or subjective, or in the nature of testimony or revelation.
Marilynne Robinson – the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Stephen Hawking – the quest for the theory of everything may never be finished.
Emanuel Swedenborg – the workings of divine providence must remain invisible to us or we would feel compelled to believe and would lose our freedom to choose.
Francis Bacon – we need to approach the inquiry into the word of God and the works of God with humility. (another excellent H word)
The differences between scientific and religious inquiry are significant. There are fundamental gaps in the ability to prove scientific truths beyond doubt – science requires leaps of faith. Religious statements raise similar but different challenges in terms of the limitations of evidence. Is there a way to bridge between the two – or use each to inform the other?
4 Responses to “May 2, 2011. Synopsis – What is Truth?”
Join the Discussion