The other day, I had a debate with a conservative friend on Facebook, on the relativity of truth. In order to justify many of the Hindu right’s silly claims about cows (i.e. cow urine contains gold, cow dung can be used as protection against radiation, cows exhale pure oxygen…), he was forced to say that even science was manipulated. This was amusing, because it was usually me arguing for the relativity of religious ‘truth’ against right-wing absolutists!
A few days after this, Kellyanne Conway came up with the terminology ‘alternative fact’, and things became purely Orwellian. If one can dispute recorded facts based on one’s political conviction and force people to support it based on muscle power, then ‘facts’ become whatever you want to believe – or in an authoritarian society, what the government wants you to believe. We have come from a “post-truth” world to a “post-logic” world.
The Phenomenal World
This took me back a few years. In the most excellent discussion forum available on the Joseph Campbell Organisation website in those days (alas, no more existing), this was one topic which was hotly debated – and ironically, I was on the side which was arguing that an absolute reality did not exist!
Before you start carting me off to the loony bin, let me elucidate.
The classic example of this is colour. There is no way to prove that the ‘red’ I see and the ‘red’ you is the same, unless you can inhabit my brain or vice-versa; this is very evident in the case of a colour-blind person who sees everything in shades of grey. The same thing can be said for taste, smell etc. It is all subjective.
There are three movies which look at this philosophical conundrum in creative ways: The Matrix, Vanilla Sky and Inception. In The Matrix, the narrative is very straightforward; reality is an illusion created by an oppressive authority which has to be transcended to see the ‘actual’ reality. In Vanilla Sky, the protagonist is living in a fantasy world; he has to take a ‘leap of faith’ to ‘open his eyes’ to reality – but we never see what it is.
Inception is easily the most intriguing film of the three. Here, we have a team of people diving into recursive layers of reality within a person’s mind –dreams within dreams within dreams – and planting an idea inside. However, by the time these multiple levels are negotiated, the characters and the audience are both left with a bewildering sense of disorientation. And the film abruptly ends with a tantalisingly open-ended scene.
Truth vs Facts
In the discussion referenced above, somebody came up with an iron-clad argument for the existence of non-subjective truth – verifiable facts. For example, even if we want to believe that Stephen King wrote Slaughterhouse Five, we cannot – because it can be verified for a fact that Kurt Vonnegut did. In fact, the evidence of our senses here will compel us to accept something our brain does not want to.
But there are other things like the existence of God, the relative merit of communism vs capitalism, women’s rights etc. which are, indeed, matters of opinion. Our problem is that we club these also along with ‘facts’ – and the line between fiction and fact gets blurred.
It is at this point of our discussion that we came to our most prickly issue – scientific facts.
The Method of Science
The majority of people who claim to be spiritual look upon science with some distrust. They believe that science is too reductionist, too dismissive of individual experience, to provide a comprehensive picture of reality. They are quick to point out that science relies on sensory data of individuals to arrive at results and conclusions – sensory data which is necessarily tainted with the individual’s bias.
While this argument is valid, science bypasses it by its method of experiment and observation. Multiple experiments are carried out by different individuals, the results are recorded, and conclusions are arrived at based on the confirmation or refutation of a hypothesis based on observations. So scientific ‘truth’ is in fact based on verifiable facts.
All right, so far?
Well… not quite. What about the interpretation of facts? It is also done by fallible human beings. And facts are open to interpretation in different ways.
So I choose to call science ‘Constructive Falsehood’. Even with the knowledge that we are relying on imperfect interpreters, the sheer number of independent observations gets it as clear to objectivity as we can. So generally, we can accept the results of scientific experiments as ‘truth’ – with the understanding that this can be overturned the moment new knowledge comes to light.
Even to this, the naysayers have their argument. How does one conclude that something is chance? How do we accept that human mind cannot influence the outcome of an experiment? This argument is especially pervasive in cases of New Age fads like ESP and precognition.
Unfortunately, science cannot answer this, because science does not deal in absolute certainties but reasonable ones. The ideal scientist would say that “the argument has no reasonable scientific evidence.”
It works the other way, too. Evolution is currently the only scientific theory which explains the origin of species, without positing an a priori cause. However, it can point only to reasonable evidence in support of its claim – it can never ‘disprove’ that God was behind it! (Which is why theories like Intelligent Design still have followers, I guess.)
Once we dig deeper and deeper into the mechanics of the reality we see and feel, however, we see the safety net disappearing from underneath us. At the quantum level, what is matter? Not the solid thing what we have come to experience, for sure. What is an atom? What is an electron? Is light comprising particles or waves? What is time?
No absolute answers…
An Empirical Model
In engineering, we do a lot of mathematical modelling. Fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, chemical reactions… all are modelled mathematically based on experience, and the empirical equations derived out of the models are used to predict the physical and chemical behaviour of substances in the ‘real’ world.
And it works. I can use a fluid flow equation quite accurately to predict the flow of a fluid through a pipeline. When the pipeline is actually built and operated, the fluid behaves remarkably like the equations did in my computer.
So – this is what science does: it gives us an empirical, workable model for the universe which can be used to interpret and predict phenomena. In their different paradigms, each scientific model is valid insofar as its interpretative and predictive powers are accurate. So at a macro level, Newton’s classic physics works: at relativistic level, we have to use Einstein’s equations: at quantum levels, we have to take the help of Max Planck. None of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they are ‘useful’.
So, to sum it up – no, we don’t know what reality is in an absolute sense (we may never know). There is no absolute truth. But there are verifiable facts within a paradigm; and as reasonable individuals, we need to accept these facts even if they go against our belief systems.
This is how we have come so far. If we let go of it, we slip over – into ‘La La Land’.