“Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” [Chico Marx, as Groucho Marx’s character in Duck Soup.]
Truth is highly significant to our culture but sometimes it’s hard to pin down what exactly constitutes truth. Let’s start with the Oxford Dictionary’s definition:
1.1 That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.
That hardly covers all cases. To clarify a bit, let’s put truth into a context by looking at the scientific method:
- Observation – certain specific happenings of physical reality are sensed.
- Hypothesis – a general idea of the nature of all such events is created.
- Prediction – presuming the hypothesis to be true, some similar happening is forecasted.
- Experiment – a test is conducted to see if the predicted outcome actually occurs.
- The experimental result is then compared to the prediction.
The observation step deals directly with physical reality. Measurements of real occurrences are made by trained experimenters. If their results don’t agree with each other, the experiments must be repeated to resolve disagreements. The truth of observations is thus strongly supported by abundant data. This fits the Oxford definition of truth nicely.
The hypothesis step is a different story. A hypothesis is formed by generalizing observational results inductively to apply to all similar cases. The hypothesis applies generally, and is expressed in the form of a theory, possibly stated as a mathematical equation. So, does the hypothesis satisfy the Oxford definition of truth? Nope. The definition implies that truth must be universal. The hypothesis has been arrived at by inductive logic, so it might not be universally true. For example, Newton’s Law of Gravitation has lots of experimental support, but does it apply everywhere in the universe, at all times in the past, and will it apply at all future times? Not necessarily. The truth contained in a scientific hypothesis is tentative.
The prediction step is derived deductively from the hypothesis, so it contains as much truth as the hypothesis.
Just as in the observation step, the experiment step provides physical evidence, which matches the Oxford “truth” definition. The experimental result is compared to the prediction. If reality doesn’t match prediction, the hypothesis is faulty and must be adjusted or changed totally. If they do match, the hypothesis is supported but not confirmed absolutely since a general hypothesis requires all cases to be tested.
This demonstrates the different forms of scientific truth. But there is still a lot more to the story.
A further definition from Oxford states that truth is:
1.2 A fact or belief that is accepted as true.
This needs a closer look. Science has facts, but there were no beliefs. Back to the dictionary.
Oxford lists several definitions of belief, but here is a paraphrase of their meanings: something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion; a religious conviction; trust, faith, or confidence in something or someone. How do truths believed by individuals or groups compare with scientific truths? On the face of it, scientific observations and experiments are backed by physical evidence, repeated in many settings, by many independent observers around the world. Beliefs require no such evidence.
On the other hand, scientific hypotheses are tentative truths, and require experimental evidence for support. The provisional nature of hypotheses sometimes leads to the cry: “that’s only a theory.” True enough, but the quality and quantity of experimental support for the theory must be examined before judgment of its truth is rendered.
Pseudoscience may also fit into the belief portion of the Oxford “truth” definition, since ESP or astrology may be accepted as true. By contrast with science, however, pseudoscience often lacks general hypotheses and broad experimental support, so science’s truth seems preferable.
However, here’s yet another wrinkle. The Oxford definition also says that accepted facts are regarded to be true. Suppose two different observers see the same event but report different results. According to science, observations made by large numbers of trained people are preferred, but pseudosciences accept anecdotal reports made by untrained observers.
Another approach would be to accept different versions of the same fact as being both true. In early 2017, different estimates of crowd sizes at large events have been made by different viewers, leading to the concept of “alternative facts,” as if all observations are equally valid.
This confusing and potentially divisive state of affairs has led the Oxford Dictionary to award the Word of the Year for 2016 to “post-truth” – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
So, have we arrived at the philosophy of nihilism that says nothing in the world has any real existence? Or are we closer to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a Palestinian rabbi from the second century CE, who taught: “[There once was] the case of men on a ship, one of whom took a hand drill and began boring a hole beneath his own seat. His fellow travellers said to him: ‘What are you doing?’ Said he to them: ‘What does that matter to you, am I not boring under my own place?”
From the perspective that we all live on the same planet, perhaps we should take Chico Marx’s advice and examine the truth of everything, however challenging the critical thinking may become.
A trouser conflagration can indeed have devastating effects.
Featured image credit: Truth by GDJ. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.