How To Find Truth…Not Through Science

I have, I confess, a little bone to pick with the remarkable force of science. Oh, science, I hear you exclaim, the wonderful answer to all the world’s tricky problems about our existence. I trust it with my life – indeed, I have only just visited my doctor’s consulting room today. Visit NASA’s website to find out about space and take this clinically trialled medicine to help with that bothersome ailment. Science is an extremely powerful field of knowledge, and it is no surprise that it is as trusted as it is today. As Newton famously described, science takes ‘hypothesis to experiment to thesis’, and thus constitutes the scientific method, one that is reliable and very difficult to upset. However, I have always felt that this has created a 21st century which has a huge amount of trust in science, and such a vast amount that people not acquainted with the technicalities of science place a heavy reliance on the mere word ‘science’. This is dangerous and gives rise to pseudoscience thinly veiled as ‘science’. Furthermore, when examining the actual fabric of the universe, and especially the age-old concept of truth, I believe science rather unravels itself in the process.

Truth is a concept that has been widely discussed and debated in the course of history. The Cambridge Dictionary definition of it is “the quality of being right and not wrong”. Of course, there are many facets and difficulties to defining, not simply the term itself, but if something is a truth or not. There are such things as analytic truths: statements that must be true by virtue of language and its definition, such as tautologies – all bachelors are unmarried men. These are accompanied by a priori experiences. The opposite would be a synthetic truth: statements that arise from observation as simple fact and are accompanied by a posteriori experiences. It is also fluid, as evidenced by Thomas Kuhn and his theory of paradigm shifts; truth changes at different points of time, as, for example, slavery used to be seen as an acceptable phenomenon, a truth of the world, while now we understand that it is not, and is conversely widely condemned. This could also link to moral truths that differ between groups of individuals in our current world, not simply across time periods.

Science may have a far more certain definition than truth. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, science is “the careful study of the structure and behaviour of the physical world, especially by watching, measuring, and doing experiments, and the development of theories to describe the results of these activities”. It is often considered the building block of humanity’s understanding of the world we exist in. However, one must explore the limits of science as an observatory discipline; we see such tricks being performed every day, in optical/auditory illusions – a stick seemingly bending as it enters water. One significant aspect of our world that science has failed to explain is the state of our universe before “the Big Bang”. Similarly, it can provide no factual explanation for some modern discoveries, such as quantum physics.

Philosophers have ruminated on the problem of truth and the potential means to it since the earliest civilisations.

Plato was a rationalist; he believed that pure reason, and the mind, were far superior to discovering the truth than what any sense experience could yield an individual. Aristotle, in contrast, stated that senses were, in fact, reliable, and one must rely on the senses to garner knowledge, in favour of an empirical argument.

Aquinas brought this into his theories of God’s existence, which he summarised in the positive, creating the cosmological/design argument. This argument relies on induction: I observe something, this something requires a designer, this was designed by such a designer. However, premises can always be incorrect and empirical faculties unreliable, even with acute and long-term research, which mirrors science. Anselm of Canterbury put forth his own earlier argument about the existence of God, but this time the argument is deductive: the ontological argument.

Hume posited his theory of the Fork; one prong representing ‘relations of ideas’, and the other ‘matters of fact or existence’. The former describes a priori experiences, analytic truths, certainties, necessities, and the latter a posteriori experiences, synthetic truths, uncertainties, and contingencies. Newton formalised the idea of science being a field taking ‘hypothesis to experiment to thesis’, i.e. you create repeatable experiments that create a ‘truth’…however, since there are always exceptions, this truth is never completely certain. Descartes, most famed for his statement “I think, therefore I am”, believed that reason was the only viable method of proving truth. His famous statement and the preceding dilemma of what certainty we can have of our existence and anything we believe on Earth is heavily linked to global scepticism, which says that we have no certainty of our surroundings and questions the intake of knowledge.

Karl Popper was a significant presence in the philosophy of science of the 1900s. He famously believed that science exists for us to prove theories of it wrong, as, in that case, we would be performing something more akin to deduction, rather than induction, which is more reliable. The Vienna Circle, or verificationists, were empiricists, but thought of the senses as the verifier, rather than prover.

Take the sum of all this, and I get…what? I believe that science is far better for confirmation: confirming, with your sense experience, a hypothesis, as argued in verificationism. I believe phrases such as ‘synthetic truth’ are misnomers, as however much you use empirical faculties, the object of your observation can only become more and more probable (almost like the mathematical concept of an asymptote), and a counterexample to a theory you once believed as ‘truth’ could be very easily found. A simple and popular example is that of swans; it was once believed as a fact that ‘all swans are white’, yet that so-called fact was swiftly proven wrong when black swans were discovered in Australia, and, even now, we have no guarantee that red swans do not exist and are simply unrecorded by scientists. There are certainly complications to an argument that science is not valid for determining truth; even analytic truths, such as 1 + 1 = 2, can be re-interpreted in different ways, such that it can equal 11, in this case. However, overall, science is still not the most appropriate or effective method of eliciting truth and gaining knowledge, as its basis, observation, is far more open to subjective interpretation than reason and deduction.

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