May 03, 2011 | By

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.

Closing thoughts:

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?”

  1. George Gantz says:

    This response was posted on, in response to an article by Matthew on the May 2 ISAS forum discussion.

    Matthew – your remarks hit on a foundational problem in “epistemology” – that our perceptions and experience are internal and subjective and therefore we do not have direct knowledge of the external, natural world. Such knowledge is, indeed, just from appearances. Spiritual knowledge, as we discussed on May 2nd (Integrating Science and Spirituality session 1 – What is Truth?), is more difficult – and takes the notion of “appearances” to a higher level. Even our own interior perceptions of spiritual matters is veiled – and spiritual understanding relies on testimony from others (from the ancient past) and revelation, both of which can be very hard to verify. In fact, as you pointed out in your sermon some time ago on divine providence, we may be denied access to such verification in order to protect our freedom of choice. Perhaps we can get close – but “proof” beyond doubt will not be available – we can only peel the layers of the veils (or the layers of the onion) back one by one.

  2. Tom says:

    In part, I am just glad to see that truth is considered something worth disussing at all. There’s been an ongoing effort for decades now to discredit the very notion of truth – to argue that there’s really no such thing, or that it exists but is so unknowable that any pursuit of it is futile, or that any person’s “truth” is true for them but need not be regarded by anyone else, or (perhaps most damaging) that truth is merely a fetish – that if someone places value on it, that’s just evidence of their primitive foolishness.

    I believe that truth is fundamental to just about everything important. In a basic sense it’s one of the foundations of the world – the simplest truths just describe “what the world is”. In a higher sense, any concrete or abstract thought needs to be founded on truth. Without truth, or at least an approach to seeking truth, there’s not much worth to any of the higher aspects of humanity.

    In the disagreements between science and spirituality, deep as they sometimes are, at least both sides respect some form of truth. And it’s when one side openly disparages the other’s view of truth that the disagreements are at their most, well, disagreeable. When mutual respect exists, conversations betwen the two points of view can be illuminating.

    With that in mind, it seems important that we recognize the value of truth. Even if we try not to get too abstract or transcendental about it, it still has tremendous value. It has value as a basis for thought, as a measure of the quality of an argument or proposition, and as a measure of the usefulness or efficacy of an action.

    Here are links to three articles that have appeared in magazines over the past few years, discussing various practical aspects of truth. These are not meant to be all-encompasing or definitive. I agree with most of them most of the time, though not 100%. They just struck me as containing valuable perspectives on truth. Unfortunately these don’t seem to paste as links so anyone who wants to follow them might have to copy and paste the text into a browser.

    The first is by a Harvard law professor who is also a Christian, arguing that there are more similarities between Ivy League university faculties and Christian communities than either side recognizes – primarily, that both look for and respect truth.

    The second is by a British doctor who spent much of his career as a prison doctor, dealing with prisoners and their friends and families, and others in the community around them. To me this is a striking look at what happens when a community systematically denies that truth should be a guide to their behavior.

    And finally a short, somewhat chilling but very telling look at the consequences of not using truth to judge standards of thought and teaching:

    I hope others also find these thought-provoking.

  3. Matthew says:

    Thanks for a great talk George! In a resent class I gave we came accross this very interesting passage in Swedenborg’s “Arcana Caelestia”: “The Divine cannot be comprehended by any created being, therefore insofar as they appear before created beings, the doctrinal things that are from the Lord are not truths purely Divine, but are appearances of truth; nevertheless within such appearances there are truths Divine; and because they have these truths within them, the appearances also are called truths.” (Swedenborg AC 3364) This really got me thinking about both spiritual truth and natural truth. With spiritual truths we must acknowledge with humility the fact that we will never see “pure Divine truth”. We can always get closer to it, but as finite human beings, everything is somewhat of an “appearance of truth”. I find this idea facinating and wonder how it applies to natural truth and science as well. You talked about humility in the sciences last night. I think you can apply this passage. Even in natural science there must be a humble acknowledgement that we will never come to “the truth”. We will keep discovering and keep advancing but never find ourselves looking pure truth (natural or spiritual) right in the eye….more just through a thinner and thinner vail. Thanks again.

  4. Eliza says:

    Very interesting discussion. Wish I could have been there in person and look forward to being able to hear the talk online. The gaps are so difficult. Sometimes what seems logically provable to one person, doesn’t always follow with another. The first thing necessary to prove something is a common ground or basis. Sometimes that can start on one level (for religion-perhaps a belief in a higher power) but in other cases you have to start with something more universal (is there such a thing as something more universal than God? depends who you ask I suppose). I feel a bit out of my depth with some of your posts, but am very thankful that you are covering some of this for those people who do have a greater understanding of the whole discussion.

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