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Monday, January 13, 2014

What is Truth?

In one of my classes, we're discussing the philosophy of science. It's interesting even if it makes my head hurt and my eyes bleed some days. It's an exploration of why scientists do what they do more than a discussion of what or how they do it. What motivator drives people to explore or to explain what they observe? Is there an absolute truth to things that we can discover?

Science by its nature is a search to disprove ideas. You can never prove a hypothesis absolutely correct and true, you can only prove its falseness.

So what is truth? Is it an idealized realization of a concept or idea? Is it an abstraction of observed phenomenon? Or is it something we can never truly measure or understand? According to science, we can't know truth, we can only know un-truths. But even then, do we truly know if it's untrue or do we just know that our experiments and observations don't match what should be if our hypothesis is a good explanation or approximation of whatever we're trying to explain? This is why philosophy makes my brain hurt.

Here's my take on the situation. Science is a way to try to explain what we observe. We come up with hypotheses, explanations for phenomena we can measure and test. We make predictions based on our models. If those predictions work, then we claim our model is valid. Until something happens that doesn't fit. Truth, in this sense, is unquantifiable and, therefore, unknowable. Only error or falsity is measurable and quantifiable. But a hypothesis can be partially false so the whole question of its validity is not a yes/no question but more of a scale.

For hard sciences, I can understand this and it makes sense. In my field, the science is soft and squishy at best. We're working with people, who don't follow and obey natural laws the way chemicals or forces do. Except chemicals and forces have unexpected outcomes sometimes that end up changing our whole idea of how the universe works.

The only time I can make a declarative statement is when it comes to religion. Faith is not the same as scientific knowledge. In science, we can claim that our hypothesis appears to be valid since the predictions match the measured outcomes and nothing else we measure contradicts it. But with faith, I can state unequivocally that I know and believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That knowledge is not based on a measured process but on an internal belief system. The two types of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. I can question the formation of the solar system but still believe that a Creator was behind the process.

The hard part of education is where the two intersect. People have beliefs and faith and emotions and all sorts of motivators that are difficult if not impossible to measure and quantify. People are also individuals. What affects one person may affect another in a completely different way. That leads into a discussion on agency vs. determinism. We only skirted that one in class.

Either way, no matter how unbiased we may claim to be, everyone has biases. No matter how carefully the science experiment may be structured, it will have biases. Being aware of these assumptions and biases will help us make better informed decisions. And isn't that the real point of religion AND science? To help us live better lives and be better people.

Truths come in different sizes. Small truths can be as simple as, "The grass is green," or "Granite is composed of silicate minerals," or even "I enjoy eating Parmesan cheese on my noodles." My small truths may not be the same as your small truths because of my experiences and beliefs.

Larger truths tell us more about who we are, as individuals and as humans. To use an example from class, the small truth may be that a picture on the wall is crooked. The larger truth may be that the wall is skewed or that the picture is hung wrong. An even bigger truth may be that we as humans prefer right angles which is why the crooked picture bothers us enough that we notice it.

The biggest truth of all is that we are children of a God who loved us enough to allow us to question Him, who loved us enough to send His Son to atone for us.

We can each determine our own truths, based on faith or science or whatever we choose. That's the real beauty of philosophy. Even if it makes my eyes bleed some days when I try to understand.