Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Truth Delusion

In my Santa post below, I said we were 'better off believing.' Timothy Garton Ash comes to the same conclusion. Both the article and the ensuing comment thread are worth reading. The most important point made by TGA, an atheist, is that Christianity has done more good than harm - 'In my judgment as a historian of modern Europe, the positive side is larger than the negative.' It is this that leads him to disagree with the 'Dawkins school of atheists.' The problem with all these arguments, Dawkins' included, is the word 'truth'. TGA himself uses it in a very slippery way when he writes of 'proselytising believers in the truths discovered by science'. Science is, by strict definition, the sum total of statements that are true. You cannot 'believe' in such statements because they are demonstrably true. Of course, the number of statements that fit this strict definition is quite small and science spends most of its time getting by on the basis of statements that are not true in this sense at all. Newtonian physics is the obvious example. Scientific truth is thus a very narrow field, indeed. The field of useable generalisations is much larger and more effective. But, still, it is safest to say with Richard Feynman that science is purely descriptive - it cannot, by definition, tell us how to live or what to do. Yet the new militant atheism entirely depends on the view that we would be better off without religious superstition. This is why TGA's article is important. He says that we are, on the whole, better off for religion. To argue against this on the basis that religion is not 'true' is a category error as atheist TGA is arguing instrumentally. Furthermore, as science has only speculation to offer in the human realm - there are no theories in the human sciences comparable to those in physics and certainly none worthy of practical application - it is absolutely accurate to say that, in our daily lives, science is no more 'true' than faith. Indeed, truth here is not even the issue. All that matters is our disposition towards the world. This is a compound of many things, one of which may be the memory of a consoling belief in Santa Claus.


  1. Oh,dear. Science is no more true than faith? Truth is not the issue? All that matters is our disposition towards the world? Surely, faith has no truth-value whatsoever, by definition, (not even the appearance of truth, if you ask me) and no way of ever being shown to have any truth-value. Conversely, science has uncovered truths and some very handy ones at that. It may be a small number of truths, but nevertheless its track record is inestimably better than religion's. Science may get by with workable, rational hypotheses for a time, but its goal is to replace these with rational certainties when and if it can. Religion? What is its goal? To make people feel comfortable, and well disposed towards the world, perhaps (in most parts of the world it doesn't even do that)? No thanks. Anyway, people who are comfortable rarely contribute much. It's those who are uncomfortable, irrascible even, who forge ahead and seek real answers to problems. Religion provides gross answers that stultify rational thought. That can't be good. Its claim to truth is entirely unjustified and without basis. Yet all religions claim a monopoly on the truth. Science cannot teach people how to live, I agree, but the use of our reason is not confined to scientific endeavour, it can be used to great effect in every realm of significance, including morality. Truth is the issue, Bryan. Come on, please. Instrumentality is all well and good, but truth has to be an overriding factor in the end. And religion just doesn't cut it.

  2. Neil,

    Bryan is right on this. There is no complete knowledge that science can aspire too; just as their is none for religon.

    Religon has the merit of suggesting ways in which people should behave in a society. The helps to organise society and allow for communal development within a framework. I can't see how science does this, even on reading Dawkins. Science only flourishes in stable soceties (China, Arab, European) which have often been based on monotheistic relgions.

    Wanting to wish religion away is also just as silly as creationists wanting to wish sceince away.

    Finally, look at modern christmas without relgion in our country. Is it better and improved upon from what went before? Has the removal of a religous message relsuted in a more efficient and rational festival?

  3. There is a huge corpus of scientific truth, but the notion is perhaps a little subtle. The point Bryan is making is really twofold: (i) the predictions made by scientific theories are only approximately true, even if those approximations may be accurate to many decimal places; and (ii), the theoretical entities and structures postulated in past and current scientific theories do not exist at all, and are superceded by the entities and structures postulated in new theories.

    Now, whilst the predictions made by past and current scientific theories are only approximate, those margins of error are known and understood. Hence, a theory predicts the value of a quantity within a specified margin of error. It is this prediction, with the error of margin added as a qualification, which is the true proposition.

    Secondly, whilst the entities and structures postulated in past and current theories may not exist, if one endorses a realist philosophy of science, then it is still perfectly consistent to believe that we are converging towards a final theory which organises, explains and predicts all phenomena, precisely because that theory represents the mathematical struture objectively possessed by the physical world.

  4. City, not being a scientist, I can't comment intelligently about ultimate theories, final points or complete knowledge. However, I think Gordon's thesis seems reasonable (and I use the term advisedly). My reason tells me that if we keep looking we will find out more, and over time build up a very substantial body of knowledge about the world around us. Religion, on the other hand, has all the answers now. They just need to work out how they got them - faith seeking understanding, someone once told me. I agree that science can't teach us how to live - how to raise our children to respect others, how to write a poem, how to vote, how to live together in society, how to love, even - but our common humanity, our wonderful faculty of reason, can do so very well indeed. And I am not wishing religion away. I have a hunch that won't work. Like praying doesn't work. I want my children to think clearly about what they experience and I make up their own minds. If they ask me a question and I don't know the answer, or there is no answer, then that is what I will tell them. There is no substitute for thinking for yourself. I may be very limited in what I understand and am capable of thinking about, but I respect those limits.

    On the Christmas thing, I am appalled by the whole, shabby affair. It makes me blush with shame. I'd love to opt out. But I am trapped for now. A pair of Issy Myake socks this year might take the edge off things though.

  5. Gordon,

    Re your (ii) above:

    The class of entities proposed by past scientific theories to exist that have turned out to actually exist is quite large: germs, atoms, comets etc. The suggestion that superseded theories, are, in virtue of that fact, wrong about what exists seems gratuitous.

    You propose a form of structural realism, but it's not the only option, and it faces severe (structural!) problems. For a start, I've never seen a defence of the necessary correspondence between our mathematical formalism and the structure of the world which did not tacitly presuppose full-blooded (ontological) realism. Absent some powerful arguments for structural realism, the full-blooded realism scientific realist is perfectly justified in continuing to hold that realism about science is, in fact, correct.

  6. Surely whether or not one is religious or an atheist (or any point inbetween), one must acknowledge that Jesus's philosophy is "good" as a set of values to live by.

    Incidentally, I am obviously very behind the times, but I was reading the paper (Times) yesterday and my 11-year-old daughter pointed out the headline stated "million years BC". She said BC has been changed to "CE". I had noticed a few "CEs" here and there (not in the Times!), so I asked her what it stood for. She said that they'd told the class in History about it and why, she'd forgotten but she thought it was something to do with not annoying the non-Christians.

    I am very puzzled by this, becuase surely the calendar system is in fact based on the supposed birth of JC as a marker. I mean, if someone doesn't want to use it, they don't have to of course. But if they do want to use the same system, what's the problem with the date of JC's birth being used as a marker (whether or not the date is historically accurate, you need a marker for the scale, and it is surely incorrect to try to say that the calendar is not actually organised around the birtdate?). I don't get it.
    (And I am not a believer, sadly for me, so my question is purely pragmatic.)

  7. Cirdan, you're right in the sense that the entities identified by past theories often physically exist, but the crucial point is that they generally do not exist as the things they were represented to be in those past theories. When I said that the theoretical entities and structures postulated in past theories do not (physically) exist, I was thinking mainly of mathematical physics, and I mean that what exists physically does not exist literally and exactly as it was characteristed to be in those previous theories.

    For example, in classical electrodynamics, the planetary model of the atom represented it to be an n-body solution of the classical equations of motion for a system of n bound electrons orbiting a nucleus under Coulomb's law; in quantum mechanics, an atom is represented to be a solution of the time-independent Schrodinger equation for a Coulomb potential defined on the 3n-dimensional configuration space.

    You're right in the sense that atoms physically exist, but the theoretical entities postulated to represent them are different in different theories. Atoms don't exist as instantiations of the theoretical structures used to represent them in previous theories such as classical electrodynamics.

    I am, of course, glossing over a large amount of discussion in the philosophy of science.

    And I am indeed proposing a form of structural realism!

  8. Where can I find the TGA article? The link in the blog isn't working in my browser.

  9. Link now works. If not for you, let me know.

  10. The defintion of faith is:

    (1) Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
    (2)Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

    I'm not a scientist and I'm not as smart as Richard Dawkins so I really can't prove every bit of scientific wisdom to myself. I take it on faith that scientists know what they are doing and their proofs make sense. I know that f=ma but I have no idea how to prove that it's true. And I wouldn't know how how to prove that f doesn't = ma*.001. I assume that people who know this stuff know what they are talking about and aren't trying to deceive so they get cushy jobs in big universities. I have faith in science.

  11. Firstly, Religion:

    As I understand it, religion is a system of faith and worship. As faith is what one believes but does not know, and worship is honouring or esteeming someone or something, religion does not necessarily impinge on morality in any way. Yes of course many religions do claim a moral prerogative, but very many others do not. Equally, there are moral systems that are independent of religion. Therefore to argue that they are two sides of the same coin is an error.

    The veracity of any given religion--not the existence of God, which is a separate question--is standing on exceptionally weak logical grounds. If there are, let us say, 100 religions in the world that all claim to be uniquely true, then it is an unavoidable fact that at least 99 of them are making false claims. With odds like that the overwhelmingly probability is that they are all false, but even if one is true, there is no objective way to determine which one that is. Therefore to accept the truth of any particular religion is to accept what is almost certainly false.

    Secondly, science:

    Science is not 'the sum total of statements that are true'. Rather, it is the total of knowledge that has been provisional demonstrated to be true. This is what Popper means when he talks about falsifiability.

    It is almost but not quite correct that science takes no direct moral position. The one exception is that it must always cleave to the truth. Other questions of morality are not strictly the stuff of science, yet are tightly bound up in almost anything that is an application of science; the most famous example was of course the dilemma faced by the atomic scientists working on the Manhattan Project, but there are similar moral issues on a smaller scale that face scientists and engineers every day.

    In summary:

    Science has as much connection with morality as religion, no more nor less, but in a different way.

    Science is at least provisional demonstrable to be true; religion is virtually certain to be false.

    You pays your money...