the_terrible_truth_about_truth
They call me Truth enclosed is an excerpt taken from The Terrible Truth About Truth by Dr. Terry Halwes:

Scientific research is very good at improving our understanding of the natural world, including ourselves. Many of the things that people do, like learning and using language, like feeding themselves, like having and raising children, have been carefully studied by scientists with very interesting and useful results. However, science itself, which is after all another type of human activity, hasn't been studied much, scientifically. As a result, many of our beliefs about science don't really make much sense.

This article is about one of those beliefs, the notion that science is a method for discovering truth. We are discussing this now not just from an interest in the history of science, but because confidence in the certainty of scientific knowledge still distorts our understanding of what scientists do.

From the time of the discovery of the basic physical principles which we know as Newton's Laws, in the middle of the Seventeenth Century, until the revolutionary developments in physics and mathematics at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, scientifically educated people believed that science produces completely correct knowledge.

In an amazing feat of sustained intelligence, Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho, Kepler and Newton had developed a body of research that combined observation, experimentation and theory in a new way. The resulting Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation seemed to explain beautifully every movement on the Earth and in the heavens with a small set of simple principles. Deductive certainty, familiar from the logical precision of geometry, guaranteed the truth of the natural laws revealed by science.

Consider this passage, from Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher, on the unique certainty of scientific knowledge:

"[Kant] believed, as did almost everyone of his day who understood it, that the new science of the Seventeenth Century had set mankind on the highroad towards understanding the universe. He supposed, as again did others, that scientific knowledge was uniquely certain, and that what gave it its unique certainty was that it consisted of a combination of two processes neither of which admitted of error. The first was direct observation, not just on one occasion by one person, but observations repeated systematically by that person and then checked systematically by others. The second was logical deduction from observation-statements which had been arrived at in this way. So he took the whole of science to consist of things that were known infallibly to be true either because they had been directly observed -- and if appropriate measured -- under controlled conditions on many different occasions by trained and competent observers, or because they followed by logical necessity from what had been thus observed. Science, in other words, consisted entirely of immediate observation plus logic, and these were two processes which, if carefully and properly executed, yielded the highest level of certainty that there could be."
Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, pp.141-142

Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century this view was still dominant, even stronger (if that is possible) after two hundred years of dramatically successful applications and extensions of Newton's principles. Indeed, after Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism were added to the list of well established physical principles, one could hear in scientifically sophisticated company the quite serious claim that physics was finished nothing of real importance remained to be explained, nothing which could not be understood by application of the principles which were already known.

This confident promotion of scientific knowledge as infallible and nearly complete went silent, when Einstein's two amazing theories, the Special and General Theories of Relativity, along with the bizarre but powerful methods of quantum mechanics, emerged as the new physics.

The formula for certainty, given in the quote from Magee, can be summarized like this: Careful Observation + Careful Deductive Reasoning = Completely Correct Knowledge. By the first decades of the Twentieth Century, all three of the components of this formula for infallible scientific truth had become highly suspect.

On the left side of the formula, observations (facts) were being revealed as conceptual in nature, just as theoretical in their own way as the more general theories they supported. Further, deductive logic clearly depended on human judgment, in several different ways. These two developments demolished the seeming infallibility of both of the ingredients in the recipe.

Furthermore, it became clear that new theories sometimes replace (rather than merely adding to) older theories which would certainly remove any need to explain how scientific theories could be infallible, since they obviously are not. Scientific theories, even extremely well developed and useful scientific theories, can be incorrect not just incomplete, but wrong.

That is the main focus of this particular essay. To simplify the discussion, let's call it the Certainty Paradox:

How can certain knowledge be incorrect?

You may wonder why we're making such a big deal about this, because there's obviously an easy answer to the certainty paradox: Whoever believed that the knowledge was certainly correct was just wrong. The knowledge wasn't correct, and what's more, the belief that the knowledge was certainly correct was also wrong.

When the new physics challenged the general confidence in science as certain knowledge, people could have simply accepted the obvious implication, that scientific knowledge isn't certain at all. However, that is not what happened. That challenge elicited a number of different responses, responses that are very important because they form the basis of the currently common views about the nature of scientific knowledge.

Scientific Knowledge as True but Incomplete

One way to deal with this contradiction in our beliefs about scientific knowledge would be to ignore it. Some scholars actually did make remarkable efforts to deny and discredit these problems: They continued to believe, even after fundamental revisions of physical theory and other scientific theories, that science inevitably produces a steadily increasing store of completely correct knowledge. The story they tried to tell claimed that the older theories were not incorrect, but merely incomplete. Many people still believe this.

Thinking about the revolution in physics can help to put this claim in perspective: Einstein and his colleagues replaced the comfortable Newtonian view of the world as a well ordered machine. The new physics was a quantum and relativistic Wonderland, in which the ability to "believe six impossible things before breakfast" was an important part of the physicist's job description.

"Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory hasn't understood it."
Niels Bohr

Now, it may be true that Newton's Laws can reasonably be considered as special cases of relativity, under conditions of low speeds, low masses, and low energies. However, that somewhat misses the point: Newton's Laws were supposed to explain all movements of all objects, on the Earth and in the heavens. They were supposed to apply to all of physical reality. They don't.

Let's look at another example. Two hundred years ago, we knew nothing about dinosaurs. Then we began to learn about them, and one of the things we learned was that the last dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. Everyone who knew anything about dinosaurs knew that they were extinct. Although there were many mysteries and big gaps in our knowledge about dinosaurs, the fact that they were extinct was one of the things we could be sure about. However, the theory is now being revised: It seems that birds are descended from dinosaurs, so they aren't all extinct. The theory that dinosaurs were all extinct was partly wrong.

Please note that that is not all all the same as saying that the theory was correct, but incomplete, with some dinos surviving on some island that no one knew about, for example. The same scientists who studied the evolution of dinosaurs were studying the evolution of birds. The theory clearly made incorrect statements about a part of it's domain.

So the idea that there is no real problem, because older scientific theories were not incorrect, but merely incomplete, is just wrong.

Scientific Knowledge as Statistical Approximations of Truth

Far more plausible than these efforts to deny that there is a problem are the results of trying to deal with the certainty paradox more directly. One strategy for facing the difficulties and working out their implications led to a view that is still quite popular -- the notion that scientific knowledge is never perfectly true, but science gets closer and closer to the truth. However, this notion, that scientific findings are approximations to the truth, doesn't work either -- although many people, including many scientists, believe it.

If we take this sort of claim seriously, we should be clear about what it means. However, although there are several obvious ways of trying to do that, none of them works, except in a limited range of cases -- cases which are not at all like the problem that led to the paradox in the first place.

One way of being clear about the notion of getting closer to the truth is the idea that scientific knowledge gets more and more accurate the way a measurement gets more and more accurate, as scientists devote their time and intelligence to determining it more precisely. Another way is the idea that scientific knowledge becomes more and more likely to be true (or that scientists are more and more justified in being confident that it is true).

Let's consider these two versions of the relationship between scientific knowledge and truth. Regarding the first, if measurement were were all there is to science, then of course it would make sense to say that, although we don't have the exact values of all (or any) of our important measurements, they are getting more and more accurate and thus science is getting closer and closer to the truth.

The second version has two variants. One is based on what is called inductive logic. The classical example is to imagine observing swans: One after another, we see that they are white, and eventually we have seen so many white ones, without seeing any of another color, we begin to suspect that they are all white. Even though we can't be sure that all swans are white, the more white ones we see, without any exceptions, the more likely it is that they are all white. (This example works better if you stay away from Australia, where the native swans are black.)

The other way of being clear about the idea that scientific knowledge becomes more and more likely to be true is an analogy to statistical hypothesis testing. Collecting more and more evidence decreases the probability that a pattern could have resulted from random variation, rather than resulting from the phenomenon we are trying to study.

These several versions of the statistical approximations or probable truth metaphors have clear meanings when we are talking about certain types of scientific evidence. However, if we try to extend any of those analogies to the conclusions, to the principles and theories that we base on our evidence, none of them works.

The analogy to measurement fails because neither of the main methods we use for improving measurements can be applied to theories or principles. With a measurement we can make a good estimate of the uncertainty of the current values by repeating the measurement a number of times, as carefully as we can, and looking at how large the differences are among the various values. We can reduce that uncertainty by figuring out how to make the measurement more precisely. We can see a definite reduction in the variability, which means that typical measurements tend to be closer to the true value. Or, if we don't know how to reduce the variability of the measurements, we can still improve the quality of our measurements just by measuring more instances of the phenomenon, and averaging the results. However, neither of these standard techniques for improving measurements makes any sense at all if we are talking about improvements in theories.

The analogy to inductive logic fails for many reasons. Obviously, as in the case of the swans, our sampling plan may be biased toward observations that are easy for the observer -- convenient, inexpensive, legal, or whatever. We've been sampling from a bag of colored balls, and found that it contains only balls of a certain color -- but there may be other bags we haven't sampled at all.

Even if our sampling pattern is relatively comprehensive and unbiased, in fact, even if you could examine all the instances of a phenomenon, induction still couldn't give you certain knowledge. Why? One reason is that the population that we are sampling from can suddenly change in ways that overturn our findings.

Consider the example of the dinosaurs again, from another perspective: We are studying dinosaurs, and we suspect that they are extinct. Every one that anyone has ever found, anywhere in the world, is fossilized, embedded in rock strata that are at least 65 million years old. Lots of dinosaurs are found, many different sorts, that lived for over a hundred million years before that, but none are found in rocks younger than that. We can imagine the inductive logician tallying each new find in the 'Extinct' column, and looking smugly at the empty 'Living' column. Our logician knows that inductive evidence can never lead to certainty, but the case is so strong now that no one outside the comic books and science fiction novels suggests that any dinos are still living.

But then the theory changes: The characteristics of dinosaurs are compared carefully to the characteristics of birds, and birds are reclassified as dinosaurs. Now the dinos suddenly are not extinct at all -- not because someone found living sauropods in a hidden geothermally heated valley in Antarctica, but because all the millions and millions of birds that we knew about all along suddenly were dinosaurs. Even the black Australian swans are dinosaurs.

The analogy to statistical hypothesis testing fails for a similar reason: In the realm of improvements in theories we are no longer talking about the probability that the result could have occurred by chance -- we are talking about the probability that the phenomenon is caused by anything other than the cause specified in the current theory: chance or any other cause or combination of causes. Obviously, we have no way at all to measure the probability that a particular theory will someday be revised. We can estimate it, though: It's quite likely.

Most, if not all, of our current theories will eventually be revised in various ways. Improvements in our knowledge don't make further improvements less likely. Actually, the real situation is exactly the opposite: The more we learn about a particular topic, the easier it becomes to learn even more.

If we were actually approaching perfectly correct knowledge, the situation would be very different. We can see a good analogy by looking at what happens when programmers debug their computer software: At first, problems are easy to find and the rate of bug fixes is very high. As the process continues, the bugs get harder to find, and the rate of revisions drops off. That is what would be happening in science if we were actually approaching truth -- the rate of new discoveries and other improvements would be decreasing, not increasing.

When we consider improvements in theories, the analogies to precision of measurement, to inductive reasoning, and to statistical hypothesis testing all break down. We are no longer talking about moving closer to a certain point on a line, or becoming more and more confident that a simple hypothesis is correct. In the realm of improvements in mathematically expressed theory the statistical approximation metaphor is useless, and even the more general metaphor of getting closer to the truth is strained. When we consider qualitative theories and evidence, the metaphor of getting closer to the truth falls apart entirely, except as some sort of vague abstraction that will certainly wind up being more trouble than it is worth.

In the complex realm of possible theories, models, different families of equations or symmetry groups, classification schemes and all the rest, thinking of scientific progress as moving closer to some perfectly correct ideal makes the metaphor so abstract that one begins to realize that it is no more than a metaphor.

Metaphors and analogies are useful, sometimes even powerful cognitive tools, if we know them for what they are. In this case, though, we're talking about the leftover intellectual baggage of a failed romance between science and wishful thinking. The notion that science yields certain knowledge was incorrect, and trying to save the
concept of truth, by reducing it's role to that of a goal we approach but can never reach, merely clouds the issue without solving the problem. The concept of truth, even in that much attenuated form, still fails to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of science and how it works.
070731
...
Christ without the cross We all dream of something bigger than ourselves. God is just one of the names we give to it. Another is Truth. Both of these are still mysteries to us. 070802
...
(Poison me not with thine cynicism) Are they such mysteries? If I look inside myself, I am pretty sure I see what is true of The_Greaternes... for me, anyway - I have no idea what is true for you, and I am almost certain it is different. The only terrible truth about truth is that everyone's craving for its universality will probably end in the disappointing revelation of relativism and individualism. 070802
...
BTW (Cw/otC I am not accusing you of being the poisonous cynic, by the way.) 070802
...
Christ without the cross lol. Whoever you are:

No offense taken. I understand what you are saying and i agree 100 percent. I believe that truth is personal. I was talking in regards to absolutes.
070802
...
tessa "Thus in one sense the post-modernist is a super-rationalist: if we take rationalism seriously it cannot measure up to its own standards. As Nietzsche says, it is truthfulness which destroys our belief in truth truth kills, kills itself."

Tomlinson
070803
...
hellbent Your attention. That's all the fony spammer wants! 070804
...
zeke truth is a human construct. 070806
...
dosquatch Truth is fact, or the appearance thereof, filtered through one's life experience. Truth is personal. 070806
...
It evades most. 070806
...
Christ without the cross truth exists in the hearts of men, and is used to many times to feed separateness and lack of understanding. 070807
...
. the truth is in the gas chamber! 070808
...
It may be relative, after all. 070808
...
They call me Truth In the end only one person can tell you the truth...






Yourself
080211
...
hsg it'soul_good

what_you_see_is_what_you_gave

wysiwyg
080212
...
stork daddy the computer software analogy in the above is misleading. scientific theories are supposed to describe and predict. a thought experiment shows that we wouldn't need to see a decrease in the amount of scientific discoveries as we approached truth. that conclusion depends on there being a finite amount of discoverable facts and our current scientific to be close to it. as a supposition let's say that there are 5,000,000 facts in any given world. and, being generous, let's say some truth seeking culture discover facts 10 times more each year. 1st year there's 1 discover, 2nd year 10, 3rd year 100, 4th year 1000, 5th year 10,000, 6th year 100,000, 7th year 1,000,000 and by the 8th year they'd discover it all. Now our own discoveries and theories don't occur at any sort of steady rate, and whatever their bearing on the "truth", are often inaccurate in making useful predictions about the world capable of confirmation and so are revised. If the above civilization's years were the equivalent of 5,000 of ours, we would be discovering more and more for many years to come before getting close to running out of revisions and discoveries. If for each of our theories there are multiple black swans out there that we haven't discovered, we could be learning more for years to come. So that particular analogy doesn't work. 080214
...
They call me Truth good point...

but the analogy, i think, is referring to the assumption of being very close to the truth, the final truth, the highest level of truth. if that assumption was to be taking into account, that we are very close to the limit (if we suppose we are in the last millenium of acquiring the finite number of 5,000,000 truths) wouldn't the number of revisions be decreasing and not increasing.

I also believe that the black swans would be decreasing as well, as you approach the limit. No black swans, no revisions. No revisions means closer to the finite number of truths.

All of this is hypothetical, making the assumption that we are getting closer to that finite number...
080215
...
stork daddy right...and i think that's an assumption made about the position of those who believe that our representations of the world can correspond to "truth" that goes unfairly unspoken in the above criticism. i think the astounding rate of discovery shows we're just starting on whatever we mean when we say truth. i don't think we have any reason to assume we're getting closer to an ultimate truth, and the continued discovery of the fallibility of even our most useful theories is evidence of this. there is a difference between saying we don't know the truth and there is no truth because we don't know it and haven't known it. i'm fairly pragmatic on the issue, as one must be to remain scientific about truth. 080215
...
They call me Truth I agree, but many people make the arrogant assumption that we are approaching truth and that we have enough of it to make general absolute assumptions about how things work and function.
If we are making more and more discoveries and these discoveries are increasing rather than decreasing, it is both unnecessary and false to say that it is truth or fact, which many people do in regards to current scientific knowledge.

If things were said to be current information based on current observation and not served as undisputed truth to many by many then there would be no problem.

You seem to have the understanding that we are quite far from the truth, but I am not sure that this is the general belief. But of course, i can be inaccurate in my understanding.
080217
...
z trying to resist the urge but failing truth is a human construct. it depends entirely on what point of observation it is based from. some basic questions that i find helpfull in determining what i consider true are:

before i think about the veracity of this phenomena, what am i assuming is true?

what does true mean, both in this situation and in the larger sense?

is truth really a useful concept, both in this situation and in the larger sense?

is truth, as a goal, atainable without total objectivity?

is truth useful?
080220
...
stork daddy i absolutely agree that truth, as defined by the objectivists and empiricists of the past, is largely unobtainable. there is always a viewpoint and observer entailed when we speak of truth. this was what nietzsche's quote above points to. that what is ultimately rational is questioning the limits of rationality. as a pragmatist, however, i think we can speak of consistency, predictability, and usefulness. that is to say, we can speak of truth for us. and so even if the world resides ultimately within us, there are limits to what it can be. it isn't a large step to infer from this that these limits exist across the many, with their origin in something we, perhaps inaccurately, call the external world. perhaps what we mean to say is that there are limits to the reality we share, though each of our subjective realities can seem at times limitless. 080220
...
Lemon_Soda consensual_reality 080220
...
z consistency, predictability, and usefulness are the closest things we have to objectivity. i think you nailed it. 080220
...
stork daddy i don't know if it's simply consent. i could probably get a few friends who would all like it if the rules of gravity didn't apply to our circle, but i don't know if this would work. if all it takes is unanimous consent, who are the holdouts on flying? i've got words with them. 080220
...
antiavia sorry sd, but i'm the "flying" holdout. i simply won't permit it because i refuse to consent to such realities. i know, you all want to fly, but personally, i think it is sick and immoral to do so. flying is for angels and wombats. and buttresses. 080220
...
antiavia btw i'm not saying angels are sick and immoral. i'm saying that it would be sick and immoral for humans to imitate them, just like it would be sick and immoral for humans to imitate buttresses. 080220
...
z from consensual_reality, i wrote:

inside your world is my world as a subset that is abstracted to a degree that allows you to manage the differences. you cherry pick the portions of my reality (read as world view) that synch with aspects of the universe you have constructed. you reject the rest as meaningless and therefore relegated to the area that you reserve for untruth or the product of irrational and faulty perception and reasoning.

i am concurrently doing the same, with just as much conviction that the universe is as i perceive it. the overlapping subset in our shared experience that we call truth is our consensual reality. it is the logical product of imperfect perceptual and cognitive systems that can not ever deliver completely matching results.

and:

consensual reality is not a guiding principle or a functional daily philosophy. pop "philosophers", science fiction authors and self described "illuminati" (like carlos castanada) have co opted the idea and added the magical realism wish fulfillment elements to it's connotation. their vehicle tends to be fiction or quasi-religious tracts and teachings. the notion that we can control reality by perception is not part of the original intent of this idea. that each person's reality is different because of imperfect or faulty perception is not the same as each person controls their own reality. that notion is not supportable in formal logic. some of the above ideas belong in the area of self help or wish fulfillment, not consensual reality.
080221
...
z truth is a human construct 080221
...
stork daddy that's inocuous enough. i suppose what muddies the water is use of the word consensual, which implies consent, a concept that denotes some intentionality, and therefore, some control. we may have little control over those aspect of our subjective realities that are in sync. which is why reality, where we admit it, rather than agree to it, seems so real. it is absolutely, though, a human construct. what part we have in constructing it, however, seems something we are saddled with or receive, rather than something we can will.

one thing to note though, is that the very notion of imperfect perception, carries with it the logical implication that there is something to perceive.

that two perceive differently, each with their little spin, and call reality that which overlaps in their perceptive system, is a completely agreeable statement.
080221
...
z hence the shadows on the wall of the cave. 080221
...
stork daddy that plato. 080221
...
. thanks to him, original thoughts are fewer 080221
...
They call me Truth Truth is a human construct, as is all abstract terms. Love could be said to be a human construct.

Many of the constructs that we create become the guides to our lives, it is what pushes us to uncover other things.

You can say truth is a construct, and it is very easy to say so, but our relationship with this construct is a complex one, just like our relationship with love is, as well.

When the government lies to its people, its a person's desire to uncover truth that pushes them to uncover these lies and share it with his fellow citizens. When people omit important information, leaving people in ignorance, our relationship with this construct of truth becomes very real.

We have been fighting to uncover truth for as long as there has been recorded history and possibly before. It is unattainable but this very fact benefits us and cripples us. The discoveries that we have made are in part because we desired to discover the truth.

in truth, truth is very personal, and it may be a construct but it is one of those constructs that are at the core of many things. These things may be constructs as well, or they may not.

Absolute truth is very different....that kind of truth, in my opinion, does not exist in this world.

but for me to be right in this, i would have to be wrong.
080331
...
z (at great risk to myself) love is a verb, not a noun. 080506
...
They call me Truth Love (noun) 1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.

Love can be both a noun and a verb and you can find this in most dictionaries.

And there is no risk to yourself, only perceived risk. This is blather after all.
080507
...
z once again, i am aware that there is a noun form of love in english (probably in most or all languages) but what i am pointing out is that, unlike an igneous rock, or a particle, love has no substance. it is enacted. 080508
...
They call me Truth well z, that doesn't make it less of a noun.

I did figure you was implying something like that, but by me disagreeing with you, it did prompt you to say it more accurately.

Love does have substance, it just doesn't have the same type of substance that you would view as substantial. That, however, is a simple matter of opinion.

No. Love is not a rock.

But love is seen as a force that drives, somewhat like hunger, but not exactly. That is why I said it is a construct. Its substance depends on how much substance you give it, like truth. It is totally in the realm of our own perception.

You pointing out that love lacks substance shows your own value judgment, but doesn't change what I was saying. Love is a construct, but humanity's relationship with it is rather complex.
080508
...
minnesota_chris lots of great nouns have no substance. Like hope. Or lust. Or sacrifice. 080508
...
epitome of incomprehensibility Yes, there's a lot of great "abstract" nouns out there... and in poetry, they are best balanced by concrete images, to give a poem personality and tangibility... You see, I'm spouting out stuff I've learned in class.

My point is, to go back to the science argument, that each discipline has its own aims and instruments... so scientific truth, for example, would be different than poetic truth.
080509
...
z love is an event. 081020
...
They call me Truth explain this further z... 081021
...
z it is an activity, something that is enacted, enjoined or participated in. it is done, not given. it can be demonstrated, not exposed. it is an event. 081021
...
In_Bloom Is that it really can hurt you so you've got to learn and gather strength, no matter what

Truth isn't always happy or good but it still deserves respect
081021
...
rite honesty_is_brutal 081021
what's it to you?
who go
blather
from