Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 5 December 2014

Theory, knowledge and truth

Bear with me while I give a little backstory. Julia Zemiro, the effervescent host of RocKwiz (a brilliant show for those who are missing out) has made a TV series called ‘Home Delivery’ where she takes a celebrity (all comedians, either UK or Oz) back to their home town. In a recent episode she took Ruth Jones, an award-winning UK comedienne back to her home town in Wales. As part of the tour, she visited her church where a number of events in her life took place, apparently.

Given the context, Julia asked her if she was a ‘believer’. I thought Jones’ answer so candid and honest, it’s worth repeating. She said she believes there is something ‘greater than us’ but we really ‘have no idea’. Maybe not her exact words but certainly her sentiment. It was the admission of ignorance and humility that struck me – so different to any theological statement one cares to hear. And I realised, by the sheer contrast implicit in her statement, why I have such an issue with the Church; well, any church, basically. Because they all claim to know what they can’t possibly know and preach it with the absolute certainty that dogma requires.

And despite what they all claim, there is no text anywhere in the world that can tell us what, if any, greater purpose there is. Now, I’m not opposed to the idea that there could be a greater purpose and I have no problem with people believing that (like Ruth Jones). I only have a problem when they claim to know what that purpose is and what one must do (in this life) to achieve it.

When I was a philosophy student, a lecturer made the salient point that there are things one believes and things one knows and it’s important to keep in mind that what one believes should be contingent upon what one knows and not the converse. This is perfectly logical, even common sense, yet it’s extraordinary the mental gymnastics some people will perform to maintain a contrary position. To give an example, I read an account where William Lane Craig, in a conversation with the author of a Christian text, defended his belief that Mary conceived Jesus without having sex.

And this brings me to the fundamental epistemological divide that exists between science and religion, as we see it discussed and abused in the so-called Western world. Because science is essentially about knowledge, about what we know as opposed to what we might speculate and philosophise about, even though the boundaries sometimes get a bit blurred.

The success of science, over a period of 2500 years, if one wants to go back to Thales and Pythagoras, has arisen from a combination of theory, mathematics and empirical evidence. Now, whilst there is not a lot of mathematics in the biological sciences, it’s the discovery of DNA, with its inherent ‘software-like’ code that underpins all of biology and evolutionary theory in particular. And like the other disciplines of science, mathematics (in the form of knot theory) is informing us as to how DNA actually manages to function.

But out of that triumvirate, it is empirical evidence that ultimately holds sway. We can find truth in mathematics independently of any physical parameters, but when we apply our mathematics to physical theories, only physical evidence tells us if the theory is true. An example is string theory, which is a mathematical model of the universe predicting up to 11 dimensions, yet, whilst no evidence can be found to confirm it, it really does remain just a theory. Whereas Einstein’s theories of relativity (the special and general theory) are proven facts, as is quantum mechanics. Evolution, I would argue, is also a fact, simply because the evidence that proves it’s true could just as readily prove it’s wrong (the evidence is not neutral). So theories can be facts and not ‘just a theory’.

But all scientific knowledge is contingent on future knowledge which is how it has evolved. For example, Newton’s theories were overtaken by Einstein’s theories, yet the equations governing relativity theory reduce to Newton’s equations when relativistic effects are negligible. As someone once pointed out (John Worrall, London School of Economics, 1989) it’s the mathematics that survives from one physical theory to the next that informs us what aspect of the original theory was true. Again, referring to Newton and Einstein, gravity obeys an inverse square law in both their theories.

As I’ve described on another post when I reviewed Noson S. Yanofsky’s excellent book, The Outer Limits of Reason, there are limits to knowledge at all levels. So science acknowledges that it’s impossible to know everything, yet there is every reason to believe that our knowledge will increase for as long as humanity can survive. At the end of my last post, I pointed out that an implication of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that mathematics is infinite, which means that there is no end to what we can discover.

So where does philosophy sit and where does religion sit amongst all this scientific knowledge? Well, I would suggest that there is an interface between science and philosophy that will always exist because philosophy quests for answers that are currently beyond our reach, some of which, like multiverses and Artificial Intelligence, may be resolved or may not.

A few years back, I said that religion is the mind’s quest to find meaning for its own existence, and I think that this is a perfectly logical and healthy thing for a mind to do. But religion, as it has evolved culturally, is full of mythology dressed up as truth. That is not to say that the figures who feature prominently in these religions are necessarily fictional, but the stories that have arisen in their wake are mythological in content. People like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, even Confucius, never wrote anything down so we are left with their ‘sayings’ (Mohammed was illiterate, which is why the Quran is probably in verse). But myth is very hard to shake once it takes hold in the collective consciousness of a population, and once it becomes ‘religion’ it becomes heretical to even question it.

Unfortunately, much of the debate between science and religion stems from what people think constitutes truth. Truth can exist in fiction, but in the form of life-lessons rather than narrative facts. When people believe that a narrative containing mythical elements is true, they will often argue that the mythical elements really happened by giving them supernatural attributes (like the example provided by Craig above). This is anathema to a scientifically trained mind and as far from any truth they would care to entertain.

So when people use the Bible as a criterion for scientific truth, it is certain to create conflict. Four hundred years ago, Galileo was threatened with torture by the Vatican for proposing that the Earth went round the Sun instead of the converse, as was then believed. The Vatican’s contention was that this contradicted a passage in the Bible that claims that God stopped the Sun moving in the sky. Now, we all know (thanks to pure science) that God could not have stopped the sun moving in the sky because the sun doesn’t move at all relative to the Earth’s orbit.

Yet still, in the 21st Century, we have people (like Ken Ham) claiming that the book of Genesis, which is full of mythological events like a snake that talks and a woman made from a man’s rib and a man made from dirt and a piece of fruit that turns people evil, nevertheless overrules all of modern science. I apologise on behalf of all Australia for unleashing Ken Ham onto the modern world, where he clearly doesn’t belong.

I once posted a question on his website asking for the nomination of one scientific discovery in the past 2500 years that has been made from studying the Scriptures. Not surprisingly, I never received a reply.

A few hundred years before Christ was born, Euclid, who was Librarian at the famous Library of Alexandria, wrote his seminal text, The Elements. This is arguably one of the most important texts ever written, certainly more important than any religious text as it contains real transcendental truths in the form of mathematical proofs. Mathematics is the only knowledge we have that transcends the Universe. As John Barrow quipped in one of his many books (citing Dave Rusin): Mathematics is the only part of science you could continue to do if the Universe ceased to exist.

It is hard to go past mathematics if you want truths, especially truths that are independent of humanity and the Universe itself. Of course, not everyone agrees with this Platonic sentiment, but it’s hard to avoid when one considers that there are an infinite number of primes that we can’t possibly know or an infinite string of digits in pi that we know must exist yet can’t possibly cognise. Mathematics is transcendent simply because it embraces infinity on so many levels.

To quote Barrow again, in a slightly more serious tone:

Mathematics is part of the world, and yet transcends it. It must exist before and after the Universe. Most scientists and mathematicians… work as though there were an unknown realm of truth to be discovered.


Arthur Witherall said...

I like what you are saying here. My head was nodding in agreement to just about every sentence. But just to give you a devil's advocate kind of thought, when you said "I only have a problem when they claim to know what that purpose is and what one must do (in this life) to achieve it." I wondered about that. Surely if you agree that we have a purpose in life, then we must also have a broad, vague and general idea of what the purpose is. Love, for example. That seems like a big one.
But if you concede this, then you might go a bit further and say that God is love, or something like that. This doesn't get you to anything like virgin births or resurrection, let alone heaven and hell, but it seems like a step beyond the empirical. If we have a purpose, if we are going somewhere, we ought to be aware of the direction.

Arthur Witherall said...

I enjoyed this post, and I agree with all of it. Just had one comment on this particular sentence: "I only have a problem when they claim to know what that purpose is and what one must do (in this life) to achieve it." It is odd to feel that there is a purpose in life but to have no idea what it is. Surely we can say something vague about the purpose of our lives, even if it just "love and understanding".

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Arthur,

It’s a pleasant change to get someone who doesn’t mind commenting under their name.

I think it’s fair to say that most people find a purpose in their life with or without any metaphysical connections. You don’t need to believe in a God to find a purpose. Besides, God is such a subjective entity, that His purported purpose is totally dependent on what the believer believes.

In fact, I would contend that if humans didn’t exist, God would have no purpose at all. According to all the world’s religions (that include a God or Gods) humans are the only connection between God and the universe – therefore, without humans, the universe would have no purpose and neither would God.

According to what science tells us the universe is not teleological and yet religion maintains it is. This is the biggest divide, conflict (call it what you like) between religion and science – not the Book of Genesis. The universe’s evolution, including biological evolution is chaotic, which means it’s unpredictable, which means that if you were to rerun the universe you’d get a different result.

Personally, I believe in the Anthropic Principle, which effectively says we can only live in a universe that can create complex life – so, no surprise, that’s what we’ve got. That’s the Weak Anthropic Principle; the Strong Anthropic Principle says that the universe ‘must’ allow for ‘observers’ at ‘some stage’. Note that the ‘observers’ don’t have to be us.

Any metaphysical purpose the universe may have is purely speculation, but, as individuals, we are free to follow any purpose we believe worthy. I think the best philosophy is to realise that this is the only life you know about and therefore treat it as the one opportunity you have to make the world a better place in which ever way you can.

Regards, Paul.