Tuesday, 30 August 2011

What is truth? (updated 2 Oct 2012)

Previous postings have expressed concern about the danger of claiming there is no objective truth. If this belief took hold civilisation would come to an end, to be replaced by paganism, where our world is at the beck and call of numerous arbitrary gods, or a kind of atheism, where all is pointless, with either view leading to a dangerous fatalism in which we have no free will and there is no incentive to understand the extraordinary reality from which nature and humanity have emerged.

But what is truth? It is not so easy to pin down. Dictionary.com has several definitions of truth. The one I’m using is as follows: the ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience. Ultimately, there can only be one truth. The definition refers to ‘the...reality’, not ‘a...reality’. Perceived experience includes not only that realised through the senses but that presented to us by scientific instruments and logical interpretation.

{Paragraph added 21 Sept 2012}. That  truth somehow exists is beyond doubt. Consider this statement: there is no  truth.  The statement itself is logically self contradictory because it is claiming to be  true. Relativism is, in the last analysis, ruled out completely.
Yet from generation to generation and from place to place at any one time in history different proclamations of the truth are made, because each assertion of truth is only an approximation. No-one has the authority to proclaim that he or she knows the absolute truth. However, he or she can claim to know the best approximation to it at a given stage in human history, although the adjective ‘approximate’ is usually omitted. We get closer to both scientific and spiritual truth as time goes on: our understanding of the universe, of God and our relationship to God evolves, as each generation ‘stands on the shoulders’ of previous generations.

Newton’s laws of motion  were superseded by Einstein’s because the latter have improved explanatory power – they describe a greater slice of reality in a coherent and simple way. They are closer to the truth and until more powerful laws are discovered we call them ‘true’. But only one set of laws is the truest at any moment in history.

Plato's Academy
What if someone comes up with a theoretical model that allows us to calculate all the phenomena that Einstein’s theory calculates? Would that be just as true? This is where Occam’s Razor comes in – the principle that if two theories are equal in explanatory power the simpler, more coherent one is regarded as the truest.

 So if Einstein’s theory was rivalled by one that explained and predicted phenomena equally well it would only be regarded as closer to the truth if it was also simpler and still coherent.

For the last few decades quantum physics, elementary particle theory and cosmology have been in a state of flux. There are no models which fit all the observations and hopefully someone will have the inspiration to look at reality in a different way and work out a mathematical model (a kind of metaphor) which shows how all the observations can be described, understood, interrelated and predicted.  

Some phenomena are modelled in ways which may appear to contradict the idea of one truth. 

For example, a beam of light behaves both as an advancing electromagnetic wave in some situations and as a beam of particles (photons) in others. Neither model is claimed to be the truest. It is just that the light is best modelled as waves or particles depending on its energy and what it is passing over or through or around (slits in screens, wires, glass, gas, vacuum etc.).  There is only one model (description) which is best adopted for a particular kind of situation and that model is the truest we have. 

So, if you are designing a telescope it is best to model light as a wave which is reflected, refracted and diffracted by the lenses. If you are trying to explain how a laser works it is best to model the light as photons interacting with atoms inside the laser.

In the future I believe that light may be represented in a new way - a single way which simply explains the observed optical phenomena in all situations and allows us to calculate results more easily than with the present models. In which case the model will be truer than existing models, i.e. one step in the direction of an absolute truth which will never be attained, at least in our present mode of existence. As a believer in a monotheistic Creator I have faith that one day there will be a theoretical model which encompasses both wave and particle aspects of light.

 So science is evolving. But spirituality is also evolving. In this arena one has to go with what seems reasonable or intutitively right or what is revealed by the godhead - it is outside of science. An example would be to make the reasonable assumption that the world was not created a week ago. There is no way this can be proved by logic. All the apparent evidence, such as old bank transactions,  till receipts, historical documents and astronomical observations could have been manufactured by some supercontrolling extraterrestrial agency to give us the illusion that the universe is 13.7 billion years old or indeed exists at all. No sane person would really believe this. It is a matter of resonable faith.
Many theologians today, having thought deeply about the accounts of Christ, His apostles and the Resurrection ; and re-examining scripture in  a historical context, have a very different theological model from some of the past ones, tainted as they were by seekers of earthly power, one which is loving and generous to all humanity - with the Holy Spirit active in all nations, races and religions, and ‘judgement’ being that which humans inflict on themselves individually or collectively by departing from God’s divine laws, and eternal life being a relationship to Christ which transcends physical death but starts here on Earth.

We still have much to learn; but considering the destructive power available today, in nuclear bombs and biological weapons, it is remarkable that we have not exterminated ourselves or been reduced to the barbaric remnants of today’s civilisation, one that has virtually eradicated smallpox, abolished slavery in the west, legislated against racial discrimination, emancipated women, introduced national health services and hospices, enacted incredibly effective aid programs, spawned innumerable charities and set standards of human rights worldwide. The doctrine of love is propagated worldwide despite pockets of sectarian hatred and death or the greed of power-hungry minorities. Today’s world, with all its imperfections, is surely nearer the reality envisaged and foretold by Christ than that of any previous time. 

To me that means spiritual evolution.

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Author, 2077 AD