What is Truth? (A Preliminary Discussion)
Ask the question which heads this article these days and the answer you’ll probably get is a… well, honestly you probably won’t get much more than a quizzical look and a guarantee you’ll never be invited to parties again; but with a little prodding, you’ll almost certainly get an answer that is cashed out in scientific terms. After all, science, as the objective study of the external world, certainly seems eminently qualified for the task. What else could lead us to the truth?
The scientific revolution had a significant role to play in lifting us out of the ignorant and superstitious religious age which immediately preceded it, and you’ll certainly get no arguments from me on that account. In fact, in previous articles, particularly those concerned with religion, I have heaped praise upon science and the scientific endeavour. I have absolutely no intention of retracting any of that. However, despite the undisputed and well-deserved successes of science, this mega-discipline is now being made to shoulder burdens it was never designed to carry.
So what is truth according to science? The only answer that would typically even be acknowledged as meaningful is what is known as a correspondence theory of truth which asserts that true beliefs and statements are those that correspond to the actual state of affairs in reality. The statement, “It is raining now” is true if and only if it is in fact raining right now. Simple. The problem with this is the assumption that there is in fact an objective reality (an ‘actual state of affairs’) which makes sense independently of humans.
What is external reality? I am typing this while sitting at a brown desk. The desk is real. It exists independently of me; independently of every human on the planet, in fact. If every sentient creature were suddenly to disappear, this solid, brown desk would still be here. That’s part of what makes it real. It would exist even if I didn’t. Wouldn’t it?
Think about the colour. What makes it brown? The frequency of the light waves reflected off its surface are of just such a wavelength that my eyes pick these up and they get translated somewhere in the back of my brain into what I know as brown. However, a different creature with different eyes might experience it as a completely different colour. What is brown to us is only contingently so because of the way light reflects off certain objects and the way our brains interpret this light.
This is fairly uncontroversial and in one sense, trivial. What is brown to us might look like what we see as red to some other differently constituted creature. There’s nothing really surprising in that, however I’m suggesting that this contingency doesn’t end at secondary qualities (colour, sound, touch, etc.) but also extends to primary qualities (extension, figure, etc.). What if our bodies were so completely differently constituted that the things (which physicists tell us are ‘actually’ conglomerations of sub-atomic particles) we now experience, we don’t. This would be true if our bodies were composed of anti-matter, or we evolved in such a way that we were only able to physically interact with an exotic substance like dark matter, for example.
Of course, I am not a scientist and I am not making any scientific claims here. I’m simply pointing out that what we experience as a fixed and objective ‘reality’ is actually nothing more than an interpretation of a complex interplay of tiny particles and forces that is entirely contingent on our physical composition and therefore isn’t actually like anything, independent of that physical composition, at all.
This isn’t actually such a strange thing to say. We have already witnessed precisely this interpretive nature of reality in the wave/particle dual nature of light. When we measure a beam of light expecting to find particles, that is just what we do find, but when we measure that same beam looking for a wave, that is what it behaves like. So what is the ultimate, scientific, objective truth of light? Is it a wave or a particle? Any scientist will tell you it’s both.
The same holds for electrons. We know that they don’t ‘actually’ orbit a nucleus like little planets orbiting a sun, rather they exist in what’s called an ‘electron cloud’ where every electron is ‘actually’ everywhere… until we measure it, which is when the wave function collapses and it appears somewhere specific.
Again, I am not suggesting I have the answer to these thorny physics problems; all I’m saying is that since we already have clear, experimental proof that reality is interpretative, not fixed and objectively determined, why do we persist in looking for an ultimate truth, that is transcendent in nature?
Another way to see the same thing is to take the scientist seriously when she says reality is reducible to fundamental physics and see where we end up. If our physicist is right, we can’t terminate our description at a macro event such as water droplets falling from the sky. We have to break this down into molecules (H2O molecules falling through molecules of a mixture of N2, O2 and some others) then atoms (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc.) then subatomic particles (electrons, protons, neutrons) and so on until we realise that everything is just a bunch of identical strings
Think about the way Neo sees people and things in The Matrix, at the end of the first movie in the trilogy after he was shot by Agent Smith. He doesn’t see noses, eyes, skin, black clothes, etc. All he sees are those now iconic green lines of code describing each ‘pixel’ of the ‘reality’ that is the matrix. Likewise, if you want to talk in terms of objective truth, we are just bunches of strings vibrating at certain frequencies held together by certain forces. Imagine some of these strings migrating from one place to another before migrating in the opposite direction a few seconds later. Does this describe anything meaningful? Actually, it’s a fundamental, objective description of breathing. When you breathe, oxygen-rich air goes into your lungs through your mouth and is then exhaled back out with a little more carbon dioxide, isn’t it? Well actually, according to our physicist, there is no mouth, no lungs, and nothing is actually going ‘into’ or coming ‘out of’ anything. Little vibrating strings are just moving around amongst other little vibrating strings.
As a description of what is ‘really’ happening, we find that that fundamental interplay of particles and forces stripped of anything remotely resembling our ‘human’ reality has also been stripped of any and all meaning. The conclusion? A reality completely independent of the sentient creatures talking about it is nonsense.
So, instead of an ultimate truth, is this then an endorsement of some kind of ultimate relativism? Are we free to interpret reality in any outlandish way we choose? Of course not. The point of this article is only to point out the limitations of science, in particular the currently fashionable idea that objective reality as described by a reductionist science is the only meaningful truth all of our knowledge must conform to. Not only can we say that for humans, there simply is no (transcendent) truth independent of the human perspective, we must also agree with Nietzsche and make the more insightful general statement that there can be no perspective-less description of reality. All descriptions necessarily come from (and only make sense according to) a particular perspective and are therefore contingent. What frees us is realising that this isn’t a problem we need to solve; it’s a brute fact we need to embrace.
Pre-modernity we constructed myths based on nothing but outlandish interpretations which placed humans at the centre of the universe created by a transcendent and benevolent deity. Modernity recognised this mistake and in attempting to correct for it swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, completely taking the human perspective out of the equation with the refrain, “Lest we deceive ourselves.” Neither of these positions is tenable.
We can (and should) still make true and false statements about the world; all I’ve tried to do here is open up a little space beyond the narrow, rigid, scientific description that asserts the only truth is the transcendent, reductive, and perspective-less one scientists find in their equations.