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Truth to Tell

The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

-Neil deGrasse Tyson


As a physics student, my undergraduate curriculum was dominated by physics and math classes. Even then, though, I had a penchant for philosophy that culminated with Paul Feyerabend’s course on the philosophy of science. I didn’t do terribly well in those classes, having a fundamental misconception regarding the purpose of the term papers. Rather than summarizing the text, I always set out to propound novel thought. The teaching assistants were not amused.

Feyerabend may have read some of what I had written, however, because he called on me in his final lecture and asked me to offer my thoughts on the scientific process. Never one to deny credit where it was due, I began “Well, my father says…” which caused the rest of the class to erupt in laughter. Paul waved his hand and told me “Write a book some day.”

deGrasse Tyson’s observation is representative of the philosophy of those inspired by the engineering marvels of the industrial age. The associated advances in the public welfare seemed to demolish all the works of the past. Philosophers did see the scientific mindset as a matter of concrete truth. But it is far more and less than that. “Less”, because the equations that we teach in introductory physics are wrong. A ball doesn’t fall in a parabola because it is subject to other forces than gravity – air drag is one. What the solution without drag offers is a sufficiently good approximation for most engineering applications. “More” because the engineers so empowered change the truth that we experience. They create microchips and vaccines, things that would never exist in the natural world.

What I had concluded, a few years after taking Feyerabend’s course, is that science is not important because it tells us what is true. It’s important because it guides our imaginings into what is possible. But if you talk to most scientists, that isn’t why science inspires them. Most of them study science because they want to do what others believe is impossible. That was certainly my case – when I went off to college, in the middle of “Whip Inflation Now” and the first OPEC oil crisis, it was with the stated aim of “figuring out how to break the law of conservation of energy.” I wager that many creative scientists feel the same – they actually don’t want to believe their science. They want to prove it wrong.

I know that was the conclusion of my own journey into understanding of the nature of spiritual experience (follow the menu to “New Physics”), and so see a certain myopia in Tyson’s statement. This came to the fore one Saturday afternoon during a workshop run by Tom Owen-Towles, the foremost modern theologian/philosopher in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. In responding to a point Tom made, I offered my observations of the nature of our engagement with the divine source. Before I could get to the main point, a loud, sneering snort came from the assembly behind me. I turned around to face the originator, a man older even than I, and then proceeded to make my point. For the next five minutes, I felt pressure building from my antagonist, and just let it flow into me, finally broadening the focus to embrace the community of atheists that he represented. When I had their full attention, I sent this thought: “And yet here I am.”

And so my response to deGrasse Tyson is this: “You receive love from an inexhaustible source. Whether or not you believe it, I am glad that it is true.”

5 thoughts on “Truth to Tell

  1. The quote “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”
    (Neil deGrasse Tyson) is nothing but a distortion of scientific reality. The truth is, there is no immutable truth in science. Any scientist who claims their data proves this, that or the other – x, y, or z- has misunderstood the philosophy on which science is built. Scientist should not be in the business of finding evidence to support their views. Instead, Scientists should be in the business of finding evidence to refute their claims. Wrong until evidence suggests it is right, is good heuristic to go by. And of course, truth largely depends on the questions asked. Ask one set of questions, and version A of the truth is revealed. Ask another set and version B is exposed. There is no truth in science. Not of the immutable, unvarying, absolute variety. There remains, only relational or relative truth….

    • Poor Neil. But I feel that his affirmation reflects an important reality: science does change the world around us, both in beneficial and harmful ways. In my mind, “wrong until evidence suggests it is right” is a little timid.

      That said, I find some inspiration in elaborating the thought with “right” in the sense of moral philosophy. Even though contradicted in my youth by “Mutually Assured Destruction,” the desire for “the good” underpinned my passion for physics.

    • Now there’s a topic. Moral philosophy. Suddenly, I recall Plantinga’s neat argument about moral good not being able to exist without moral evil…but that’s an entirely different discussion. My biggest issue with scientists (of which I am one) is that they, along with the media, incorrectly use the word “proof” and “truth”, “right” and “wrong”. I was so bold to use those words as an undergraduate. Thankfully the Royal Society Fellow under whose auspices I studied my PhD, beat them out of me with a stick! Just kidding. Red ink was the order of the day. I did come around to the idea that as a scientist I cannot “prove” anything and there is no “real” tangible “truth” out there in the “real world”. Indeed there is no guarantee that the “real world”, as we understand it, exists at all. If that’s true, then right- wrong, true-false, yes-no, black- white as logical premises fall apart. A visual percept, for example, is a mere representation of the outside world. A percept is a product of the visual system and prone to error and distortion. The real world, then, cannot be weighed and measured, objectively, ever. That’s strong. It’s philosophical, agreed. And it would make the natural scientists among us baulk and scoff, no doubt. But my logic is sound, mostly.

    • Popper’s response, if I recall correctly, was to assert that the only truth was the universe itself, and so science must be founded on the recording of its state. This is itself problematical.

      The challenge of epistemology is that logic cannot provide axioms. Unfortunately, our perceptions are filtered representations of reality, and so do not provide unimpeachable axioms.

      So what are we left with? No, in an absolute sense, we cannot know that the logical systems of deduction that scientists formulate are “true.” But we can know that they give us power to change reality in a controlled and predictable fashion. That power is obvious all around us, even when its relationship to scientific theory is completely obscured by their material expression.

      I’m not sure that I’m expressing the matter clearly, so I’ll restate it another way: The “truth” that is important is not (A) the correlation of our theories with reality, but rather (B) the correlation between our theories and the power that we wield over reality.

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