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What is Truth?

December 14, 2010

Half book review, half rant…. I’d recommend the book!

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In What is Truth? Peter Vardy argues that in between the rigid, dogmatic claims to truth that characterise fundamentalist religious belief and the rejection of a single truth encouraged by modern relativist thought there is a ‘third option’. Truth is out there, is vitally important, and the person closest to Truth is the one who ‘showed passion and commitment to the search which they pursued with integrity and with every fibre of their being’ (Vardy: 145). I agree with this conclusion but think that Vardy dismissed one possible route to Truth that requires a much closer look.

Vardy lays out the argument put forward by Kuhn that ‘science does not produce knowledge that is probable or even certain’, and that it is ‘conditioned to support existing paradigms’. In this view scientific progress, and its search for truth, is characterised by ‘sudden paradigm shifts’. This opens the door to a relativism that allows Vardy to conclude that ‘the idea of a single truth seems to be undermined’ (Vardy: 101). From this position of relativism, science leaves ‘little or no room for meaning or value other than those meanings that we create for ourselves’ (Vardy: 118). Unfortunately Vardy misses an opportunity to argue in favour of what A.C. Grayling calls our ‘greatest epistemological tool’. I would argue that far from being overlooked, the scientific method should be considered as the perfect tool for use by the person who is ‘living in the Truth’ (Vardy: 187).

If there is indeed a Truth out there to be found, science has provided one way of looking for it? From primitive beginnings the scientific method has been developed and refined to its modern state. Nobel-prize winner Harry Kroto was recently quoted as saying:

For me science is first and foremost the philosophical construct that the human race has developed to determine, as reliably as possible, what might be true, can be true and more importantly cannot be true. It requires of course infinite doubt and evidence to have any reasonable degree of certainty. Science is about Truth with a capital T… (New Humanist, Nov/Dec 2010)

The scientific method is premised on the idea that a truth exists to be looked for. However, far from claiming sure and certain knowledge of this truth, individuals should, in the true spirit of rationalism, proportion their beliefs to the evidence, and be prepared to change these beliefs should the evidence change. ‘When a man tells you he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man’ (Russell: 42). The knowledge that one may be grasping for (but not taking hold of) truth is central to science, howsoever it is portrayed by the straw man version of science that is often found in the modern media.

In his essay The Relativity of Wrong Asimov takes this idea further. Rather than saying that theories are wrong if they are not exactly correct we should say instead that, ‘in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete’ (Asimov). Asimov uses the example of the shape of the Earth. It is not spherical, but when we say that the Earth is a sphere this is much closer to the truth than when we say the Earth is flat. Both models are of use in different circumstances, and one is much closer to reality than the other, but both are not strictly True.

Thus we arrive at Russell’s ‘successive approximations’ (Russell: 43). Science is getting closer to being able to describe the Truth, and rather than the paradigm shifts of Kuhn rendering the search meaningless we can see these shifts as changes from one approximation to another, with each shift getting us closer to the underlying reality.

What of the individual striving after truth using the scientific method? Do they display passion, commitment and integrity?

It is characteristic of those matters in which something is known with extreme accuracy that, in them, every observer admits that he is likely to be wrong, and knows about how much wrong he is likely to be. (Russell: 42)

This is, for me, the epitome of intellectual integrity. To admit uncertainty and the possibility of error is difficult, but is central to science – without it there could be no scientific progress.

Of course it can be argued that while the scientific method leads to some Truths, it leaves vast swathes of Truth untouched; it deals only with physical reality and not with areas such as morality and meaning. This is a complex issue, and it has long been assumed that indeed, is does not imply ought. However this is a view that is starting to be challenged, with authors such as Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) arguing that science leads us to information that should inform our decisions about moral issues.

This is a contentious issue that I cannot touch on here. Whatever the outcome of this argument, science does provide us with glimpses of at least some areas of Truth: ‘truth as a quest, a vision faintly appearing and again vanishing, a hoped-for sun to meet the Heraclitean fire in the soul’ (Russell: 69). This vision is eagerly sought after, and we always doubt what it is showing us.

Given this, what of Vardys conclusion that Western education in science is ‘flawed’, and indeed a ‘paradigm case’ (Vardy: 188) of flawed education? I would argue that in teaching the scientific method, we see people being taught to think about evidence for themselves, to question their beliefs, and to care about the grounds on which those beliefs are based. In other words, it is exactly the ‘third option’ that Vardy is arguing for.

Bibliography

Asimov, Isaac, The Relativity of Wrong, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 14 No. 1, Fall 1989

Interview with Harry Kroto, New Humanist, Nov/Dec 2010, p.27

Russell, Bertrand, 1931, The Scientific Outlook (London: Routledge 2009)

Vardy, Peter, 2003, What is Truth? (UK: John Hunt)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    December 14, 2010 9:09 PM

    Great post!

    I’ve softened up to science once again. Call me Mr. Fickle.

  2. December 15, 2010 8:43 AM

    Thank you!

    I knew it would only be a brief anti-science phase. Personally I’m not sure how I’d ever leave the pro-science camp; I think I’m becoming more of a realist (or at least more certain in my realist views) and have yet to encounter a better method for trying to reach the Truth.

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