The Invisible Things

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Archive for February 2006

The Truth about Truth, Part 1 (What Truth Isn’t)

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The nature of truth can be discussed on the basis of negative and positive affirmation. In order to specify the nature of truth, it is perhaps most expedient to remove incoherent and inadequate ideas about what truth is first, then proceed to defining it (this is the easy part!). Thus, this article is subtitled, 'What Truth Isn't.'

Some may limit truth to the pragmatic, suggesting that truth is that which ‘works.’ This concept would be tested by the proof of future experience, as something would be confirmed to be true if it correlated with the right results. This view is incoherent because in trying to appeal to the pragmatic, it is actually appealing to truth as it corresponds to reality. To even hold the concept of ‘right results,’ one must have a presuppositional concept of truth as correlating to reality. Thus, a ‘higher’ concept of truth is necessary to support this subservient one. The pragmatic view is also inadequate because it confines truth to those things that are practical, and it excludes theoretical truths (such as mathematical proofs, sets, etc.) and factual truths (such as ‘today is Monday’). Neither of these categories is truthful on the basis of pragmatism; they are true because they correspond to reality. Even a truth that ‘works’ could be in fact incorrect. For instance, apologist Ravi Zacharias often relays a story in which a young boy challenges his father’s faith in the idols in his home, saying ‘Dad, why do you worship these wooden figures? They aren’t real- they were made by people!’ His father replies angrily and almost fearfully, ‘Don’t you ever say that! They are real and they are powerful.’ To prove his point, the child takes a stick and smashes a smaller idol to bits while his father is away. Then he places the stick in the hands of a larger idol standing nearby. When his father returns, he exclaims, ‘What happened? Who did this?’ The child replies, ‘I don’t know, Dad. It wasn’t me, but it looks like the larger god there did it!’ The father quickly answers him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you must have done it!’ The child again denies it and his father finally explodes, ‘Stop lying! You must have done this; these statues aren’t alive!’ The point here is that based upon the father’s idea of truth, the child’s ‘alibi’ should have worked, yet the correspondence with reality (even one of which the father lived in denial) was not there.

Another incoherent and inadequate concept of truth is the one which suggests that truth is ‘that which coheres.’ A coherent truth is one which is internally consistent. However, like the pragmatic truth, even the affirmation of what truth is relies upon a correspondence view of truth. The statement in and of itself cannot be verified on the basis of internal consistency. The only means of verifying a statement such as this is by correspondence to reality. Additionally, many statements can be internally consistent but do little to actually be informative in regards to reality. For example, the statement ‘There are no married bachelors’ is internally consistent, and is true regardless of whether any bachelors actually exist, much in the way that the statement ‘1+1=2’ is true regardless if it is referring to the addition of actual objects. While coherence is a legitimate test for falsehood, it is not necessarily an adequate test for truth.

Another concept of truth that is not sustainable is the concept that truth is based upon intentions. Like many of these concepts, this one too is indebted to the correspondence view, as it makes a statement about reality that is, itself, supposedly true. In addition, this view tends to limit truth to what is relayed by statements, however, we must accept that certain things can be true regardless of whether they are ever recognized or spoken of. Another problem with this view is clearly shown by history. Many scientists have sincerely believed in certain things and have written about them being true only to later discover that they were wrong! If truth is expressed in intentions, then truth is certainly an unstable concept.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important idea about truth to be debunked, is the Kierkegaardian concept of truth as that which is ‘existentially relevant.’ Kierkegaard suggested that truth is subjective to experience and is not propositional. The first problem to point out is the inconsistency of the statement itself: If truth is not propositional, then one cannot make propositions about truth. Therefore the propositional statement, ‘Truth is that which is existentially relevant,’ must be rejected. However, to answer the proposition itself, truth cannot be limited to the subjective for a variety of reasons. The first reason is that if truth is that which is existentially relevant, then other physical, mathematical, historical and theoretical truths are meaningless. Yet, it is precisely through these types of truths that we make sense of our experiences! Secondly, those things that are relevant to one particular experience are not always true, and true ideas are not always relevant to every experience. For example, the proposition ‘WordPress is a useful blogging tool’ may be extremely relevant to me (or perhaps another WordPress user) but not to the many who might not even know what ‘blog’ means. However the truthfulness of the proposition has little to do with its comprehensive relevance. Though my statement may be meaningless to someone who does not maintain a blog, it is true nonetheless.

I examine these distinctions in order to show that a view of truth must be comprehensive or 'large' enough to adequately deal with all kinds of truths, yet specific in its exclusivity. In other words, each of the 'truth is that which…' statements above do not adequately deal with truth as we experience it. This means that these theories have not yet reached a full realization of what truth is.

In the next part of this article, I hope to address what truth is, which I concede is a more difficult task than what I have undertaken here.

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Written by Christopher Butler

February 28, 2006 at 7:51 am

Science and Faith, Part 3 (What Are the Limits?)

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In my last post, I mentioned some specific scientific advances in an effort to illustrate the limits of the conclusions that can be made through scientific inquiry. The idea of the limits of science is one that merits a bit more discussion.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that macroevolution is somehow verified empirically. One could then safely conclude that man is the result of genetic change over the span of millions of years. However, many of the descriptive terms often used to describe the process of evolution would still not necessarily apply. The key issue is that of purpose. One often hears the mechanism of evolution described as ‘blind chance,’ or ‘random processes,’ yet we have no basis upon which to assume that it is, in fact, a purposeless phenomenon. It is in this case that the non-teleological assumption is imported, rather than legitimately inferred by the evidence. In other words, even the unlikely confirmation of evolution would not legitimately lead to the conclusion of atheism.

A simple example might help to illustrate this point: Suppose that you walked into your kitchen to find a kettle of water coming to a boil on the stove. You could rightly conclude that the water was boiling because it had been placed in a vessel which had been heated to the point that the water molecules are activated. However, without speaking to the person responsible, you would have no means of determining why the kettle had been placed on the stove in the first place. Yet it would be ridiculous to conclude that the kettle had been filled and heated by random and purposeless chance. (While I am not trying to make a strict analogy between the kettle scenario and evolution, as the properties of the kettle scenario are within the context of human decision making, I am suggesting that the conclusion regarding purpose is equally unmerited in both.)

Neither can the notion of the value of human life (not to mention the value of all life) be discussed in scientific terms. Value is a moral assessment that has little to do with empirical facts. Take, for example, the process of adoption. For any family considering or going through this process, the issue of cost will inevitably factor into the decision. Often, the process can cost well over $20,000. Yet, many would agree that suggesting that this new member of the family’s value could be accurately assessed in terms of a dollar amount is not only in poor taste, but quite incorrect. This is because value is not an empirical measurement, but a moral one. I would even dare to suggest that the entire concept of adoption is an adequate proof of the general agreement on the part of humanity that life is of high moral value. Otherwise, why would anyone desire to extend the family non-biologically, either for his or her own benefit or for the benefit of the parentless child?

Evolutionary scientists might argue that value should be a factor of cognitive function. Perhaps this is what causes scientists like Richard Dawkins, among others, to advocate for the extension of human rights upon primates. However, this seems wholly capricious for several reasons. First, on what basis is cognition evaluated? Though primate behavior appears quite similar (though primitively) to human behavior in many ways, many behaviors also indicative to high cognitive ability are found in other animals as well. For example, some species of birds exhibit sophisticated vocal ability (though I do concede that there may be more mimicry in this case than linguistic ability). Other animals, such as dolphins and pigs, are often extolled for their intelligence. But in all cases, the level of intelligence is often explained in terms of instinct and stimulus response, which provides the key to discerning between human and animal behavior.

For example, ant communities are quite complex and use communicative behavior far different from our own. A ‘scout’ will venture out for food, and will send a ‘radio’ signal out when it is found. The others will follow that signal (and the exact path of the ‘scout’) to retrieve the food. We humans require roads with rules, large colored signs, and even maps and directions to navigate. Yet, human behavior far surpasses the stimulus response of ants. Education is a prime example, as the educated become educators. One might spend years endeavoring to teach sophisticated behavior to a primate, yet I strongly suspect that expecting that primate to, in turn, teach others would be futile.

These issues do not lead to the scientific conclusion that humans have inherently more value than animals. However, they do confirm that pioneering for primate rights is scientifically arbitrary. Value is a non-scientific factor that can inform scientific investigation but cannot be determined by it.

Finally, if value and purpose cannot be scientifically determined, neither can behavior. To clarify, behavior can be observed scientifically, but to suggest how one aught to behave is another matter. Like it or not, mankind expects a certain kind of behavior of itself. I need only to point to the local courthouse or penitentiary to prove this point. Consider this: If a bird sets up shop and builds a nest in your garage, it would be absurd to haul the creature into court and charge it with trespassing. Clearly, the bird has no idea about such concepts and is merely following its instinct toward survival. However, if a human did the same thing (minus, perhaps, the nest), it would be another matter! This is because we believe in the rights and responsibilities of mankind. We may have the ‘golden rule,’ however I would challenge any scientist to produce convincing empirical data explaining the origin of it.

I actually believe that by delineating the limits of science, science is now free to proceed undeterred by extraneous considerations and will be more effective. Philosophy is suited to governing science such that it is calibrated to gather information successfully and without harm to society. Yet, clearly science has no ability to govern philosophy in the same way.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 27, 2006 at 10:04 am

Science and Faith, Part 2 (Are they Incompatible?)

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I have often encountered opinions of skeptics along the lines of 'one cannot be a Christian and maintain intellectual integrity.' Such an attitude seems to revel in intellectual 'class distinctions' and support the animosity that some skeptics have for believers. Fortunately, this idea is obviously false. One need only acknowledge the many scientists who confess belief in God to show that faith and science are not mutually exclusive.

But there is clearly more to the issue than this. I would argue that skeptics who hold the opinion that science makes faith irrational are not necessarily speaking on behalf of what is, but what should be. They are likely to argue that a proper understanding of science should lead to skepticism towards faith, though it does not for many, or that one should not believe anything that is not empirically proven (note that in my last post I discussed how science is founded upon ideas that themselves cannot be empirically proven). I suppose a logical deduction from this might be the implication that the faithful must not really understand science. Try telling that to the many distinguished PhD's in church on Sunday! In fact, surveys generally show that a person holding the degree of PhD is just as likely to believe in a personal God as the general population.

Perhaps the skeptic has allowed the conclusions of science to extend beyond their true capabilities. There is certainly no scientific conclusion that has proven in the affirmative that God does not nor cannot exist. To the contrary, our current scientific theories are quite limited in their metaphysical reach. For instance, the Big Bang theory lays out a possible sequence and timeline for the beginning of the universe, yet it does not provide an empirically verifiable conclusion regarding the catalyst of the ‘bang’ itself. Prior to this theory, many postulated that the universe has eternally existed. Though many philosophical objections were provided to refute the idea, the discovery of red shift by Edwin Hubble provided the empirical basis for understanding the universe as having begun at a point in the past. But the question remains, what do we make of the point prior to the Big Bang? Does it even make sense to call it a point in time (this is another article in and of itself!)? Clearly, the unknown elements here are vast enough to allow for many philosophical possibilities- God, not the least of which, included!

The theory of evolution is often cited as an empirically proven scientific basis for rejecting belief in God. However, I would argue that this theory has not even begun to approach warrant for such a conclusion. Rather than examining the much refuted holes in the theory, I simply want to point out that the naturalistic conclusion that some evolutionists make is not warranted by the facts themselves. To date, and assuming the theory is accurate (and I am not convinced that it is), we still have yet to discern the mechanism by which the process of evolution occurs. We have made a conclusion based upon observations around us, but we cannot adequately test those observations as they are contingent upon an almost inconceivably large timescale. Without the affirmation of testing, there is no reason to begin applying evolutionary conclusions. Let me make one point clear however: I am not advocating that a gap in knowledge should lead us to give up our search or capriciously insert God to account for the unknown. Where the real problem lies, I believe, is in that many have allowed the philosophical presupposition of naturalism to guide their interpretation of observations and prematurely close the case. Thus the conclusion is that evolution is a non-teleological (without purpose) process. This way, discovering the mechanism of evolution is no longer so crucial, because the purpose is already prescribed. But we have no basis upon which to build such an idea! It is a conclusion which has been imported philosophically, not factually.

For the many scientists who believe that faith should not even approach scientific thinking, I would make a simple challenge: If such a pronouncement is going to be made, it cannot be a street on which the skeptic has right of way. In other words, if scientists should not make conclusions which correlate with their theistic worldview, neither should scientists make conclusions based upon observations that correlate with their non-theistic worldview. This would certainly be a difficult rule to impose upon science in general, since the practice is meant to be used to answer questions that are not necessarily scientific.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 23, 2006 at 11:10 am

Science and Faith, Part 1 (Is Science the Only Way to Truth?)

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If you have been at all aware of the recent surge of controversy surrounding the concept of intelligent design in science, you've probably encountered the argument that such a concept should not be considered science at all, on the basis that it is itself unprovable by science. What that really means is that using the operative standard of the scientific method, the claim that the universe is far too complex to have formed from chance and random processes cannot be verified emprically.

The scientific method outlines what Isaac Newton believed to be the proper way to go about scientific research and investigation, and can be simplified in this way:

  1. Observation
  2. Hypothesis, or developing a possible explanation of observations
  3. Prediction, or reasoning the effect of the hypothesis
  4. Experimentation, or testing the observation, hypothesis, and predictions.

While many would affirm that this is the only valid method of scientific inquiry, the truth is that some of the core scientific ideas that serve as the foundation of much current science cannot be verified by the scientific method! For example, the Big Bang theory attempts to answer questions of the origin of the universe and suggests that the universe itself expanded from an initial singularity and infinitely dense state, before which was nothing. Yet, such a theory cannot be demonstrated by recreating the process in a laboratory; it is inferred on the basis of compelling observed evidence. I am not trying to imply here that the scientific method is not valid. Clearly it is a fair and logical process by which to operate, and should be used. What I would suggest is that it is not a primary means of establishing truth. In other words, truth is a concept too large and diverse to be limited by the scientific method. In fact, there are many truths that are not scientific in nature but are accepted and even serve as the basis of scientific investigation, yet cannot be proven empirically. Such truths range from the laws of logic to metaphysics.

Ethics are a particulary good example of this idea. Scientific empiricism is quite useful in determining the how things are, but is irrelevant to determining how things aught to be. Yet, at the core of scientific inquiry is the understanding that it aught to be carried out honestly. Recently, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang of Korea has been publicly lambasted for fabricating research in the area of stem cell research and cloning. He publicly admitted to this, stating in his apology that his actions were a 'blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country,' and a 'criminal act in academia.' Clearly, honesty is a crucial element to scientific research, and without it the entire field would descend into meaninglessness. However, science cannot provide any data to lend credence to what is ethically appropriate in experimentation. This is a question of what is morally proper conduct for those involved in scientific inquiry and practice. If one were to deny that ethical truth even exists, then there cannot really be any problem with what Dr. Hwang has done.

The area of aesthetics provides another source of non-scientific truth. Our civilization has been overwhelmingly occupied with expressions of aesthetic value, with painting, sculpting, music, poetry, film, architecture, etc. Yet, without the notion of aesthetic truth, the entire field of art criticism would collapse. A skeptic might respond by saying, 'There is no aesthetic truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!' But disagreement does not invalidate the idea that there is aesthetic truth. In fact, that critics might disagree on the value of a particular painting requires that they have a standard of aesthetic value in mind. Even scientists invoke aesthetics when the describe equations as 'elegant' or 'beautiful,' some even suggesting that beauty is implicit in a good equation (see It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, by Graham Farmelo)!

Even our understanding of reality itself cannot be empirically proven. For example, how can I be certain that my entire perspective on what is real is true? How do I know that I am not just a brain being stimulated to make me think that I am writing this blog entry? I can't prove this empirically, yet I am not advocating that anyone take up this philosophy. What I am trying to point out is that there are truths that are properly basic, beliefs that cannot be proven on the basis of another belief but are rationally accepted.

Science itself cannot be verified or justified by the scientific method. Science operates on many assumptions, including the Copernican principle, which states that our place in the universe is not special or unique, or the uniformity of nature, which presumes that present conditions echo past conditions. These ideas cannot be empirically verified, but are assumed to be true and are the root of astronomical and geological study.

I am certainly not trying to reject any of these scientific ideas. Rather, I am trying to show that empiricism as the only method of deducing truth is unnecessarily restrictive, and philosophically incorrect. I often laugh when I hear of efforts to produce a 'theory of everthing,' yet even if we do someday have a comprehensive scientific understanding of things, that would be only one portion of how we understand reality. We would still need our moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical knowledge (among others) to complete the picture.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 21, 2006 at 5:26 am