The truth, the whole truth and … wait, how many truths are there?

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Calling something a “scientific truth” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it carries a kind of epistemic (how we know) credibility, a quality assurance that a truth has been arrived at in an understandable and verifiable way. 


On the other, it seems to suggest science provides one of many possible categories of truth, all of which must be equal or, at least, non-comparable. Simply put, if there’s a “scientific truth” there must be other truths out there. Right?

Let me answer this by reference to the fingernail-on-the-chalkboard phrase I’ve heard a little too often:

“But whose truth?”

If somebody uses this phrase in the context of scientific knowledge, it shows me they’ve conflated several incompatible uses of “truth” with little understanding of any of them.

As is almost always the case, clarity must come before anything else. So here is the way I see truth, shot from the hip.

While philosophers talk about the coherence or correspondence theories of truth, the rest of us have to deal with another, more immediate, division: subjective, deductive (logical) and inductive (in this case, scientific) truth.

This has to do with how we use the word and is a very practical consideration. Just about every problem a scientist or science communicator comes across in the public understanding of “truth” is a function of mixing up these three things.

Written By: Peter Ellerton
continue to source article at theconversation.edu.au

34 COMMENTS

  1. More endless pedantic semantics. This kind of talk overcomplicates things in my view. Either a thing is true or it isn’t, what’s the big fuss all about? Sometimes it feels like a load of philosophical mental masturbation. 

  2. The only things that are verifiably true are verifiable due to logic.  Everything else that lies outside of logic is destined to stay “unknown” forever.  Logic and reason are the only measuring stick we have.  It is how we know anything at all.

  3. The fuss is when two people use the same words to describe two different things. “God is real” and “to me, God is real” are two radically different things. But many people will use the first when meaning the second.
    Knowing about the different versions of truth will at least help you identify these things, thus making communication more effective.

  4.   This has to do with how we use the word and is a very practical consideration.
    Just about every problem a scientist or science communicator comes across in the public understanding of “truth” is a function of mixing up these three things.

    So:- Keeping it simple:-

    There is correspondence to objective observations, evidence and reasoned deduction about underlying reality.

    There is  coherence  in self-consistent hypothetical mathematical or modelling constructs.

    .. and there is crap thinking tangled up in assertive semantics!

  5. Great piece, everyone should read this, especially philosophers. Scientific induction is the best method we have for getting from subjective experience to something approaching objective Truth, conflating these categories causes errors.

  6. Yes, especially the failure to realize the difference between subjective truth and inductive truth seems to be common these days. But, from a scientific perspective I think this is a quite new phenomenon that is a direct result of the postmodern movement. 

    By the mid 20th century the idea of logical positivism was pretty much dead as a philosophical idea. Scientific disciplines like psychology and sociology became more important in order to understand the new post industrial societies that emerged from the ashes of world war II. The big ideologies of the 19th century like romanticism, marxism and nationalism seemed like failed relics of the past. I think many intellectuals turned to to individualism in order to fill the sudden ideological vacuum that characterized the latter half of the 20th century. The whole concept of truth was regarded as obsolete and naive by many.

    This resulted in a growing and destructive gap between the natural sciences and the humanities (with psychology, history, anthropology and the social sciences caught somewhere in the middle). Communication between these two camps became almost impossible. Scientists were criticized for being technocrats while the postmodernists were labelled mindless luddites. I would say both groups suffered from the inability to communicate and share ideas. The postmodernists pretty much rendered themselves useless since they effectively distanced themselves from the scientific method. The scientists on the other hand suffered from the lack of collaboration with the sciences and the philosophy of science, which resulted in an inordinate emphasis on technology and utility.

    It think the inability of many to see the difference between subjective truth and inductive truth is the result of this postmodern movement. The whole new-age movement seems to be in large based on postmodernism. “My truth is as valid as your truth. Who are you to criticize my truths?” These are not statements you usually hear fundamentalist Christians or Muslims say. These are statements by often educated and moderate believers. Although I think individualism is something to strive for I’m afraid something has gone terribly wrong when we teach our kids that you are entitled to your own facts about the world. 

  7. Well, that depends on what you mean by logic. Philosophers for thousands of years thought induction was not a path to knowledge. They thought all knowledge could be gained by deductive thinking alone. Clearly, they were wrong. But, that does not make them illogical. Logical thinking is only true if the premises are true. Ironically, only by induction is it possible to verify the premises. So there really are no logical truths in the real sense of the word. But, you can’t demonstrate that by using logic since the premises can’t be verified with logic. Hence, logic is not enough!

  8. Subjective truth is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

    Consider my friend “Random Taste”. If I ask him which of two types of bun tastes better he always much prefers one in his own weird version of subjective truth, but half the time I disagree with him and much prefer the other. My friend “Random taste” is thus no use to me in my choice of buns.

    I have another friend “Contrary taste”. If I ask him which is the better curry he always much prefers one. I am sure his subjective truth is as valid as my subjective truth, however, through bitter experience, I always chose the opposite to him, as I always prefer the curry he hates.

    I had another friend “Same taste”. If I ask him which is the sweetest apply he is most definite in his decision, and, of the times I have doubted him, I have found myself wrong. I now save myself a lot of time by following his advice when seeking sweet apples.

    I have another “friend” “Scientific instrument” who can tell me the strength of beer. I have learned that hangovers can be avoided by listening carefully to his advice.

    Of my four friends “Random Taste”, “Contrary Taste”, “Same Taste” and “Scientific Instrument” I have found that three are worth listening to. A philosopher may categorise two as assessing “subjective truth” and one as “objective truth”, but that doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t know what it is like to be a bat, I don’t know what it is like to be “Same”, I don’t know what its like to be “Contrary”, and I don’t know what its like to be “Scientific instrument”  either. I don’t actually care. I just use their experience of “subjective truth” as “objective truth”.

    “Random Taste” is as much use as a chocolate teapot. I don’t know why he is still my friend. He is an idiot! He does tell good jokes though. He usually gives me a good belly laugh … ahhhhh!

  9. The truth is the bottom line. It does not matter what people think about it, it is either truth or it is not.
    If you take the big questions, like, are we here by a chance occurrence, or were we created?
    There is a 50% chance of getting it right. You could know an absolute truth. Without knowing anything about it.So truth does not just depend on what we think as truth, it’s not whose truth, it’s about what actually is  the truth.
    For one thing, no one could change it. Isn’t that what a fact is?
    So the question is how do you know truth,and know it actually is truth?
    I look at all we see as a big puzzle. You know the kind with all the little pieces.
    You start trying to fits those pieces, at first it is pretty hard to get anything because you have no idea  what the big picture is about. But you see a sky piece so you put up there then you see a corner piece or side.
    If you what this picture to be something, you would like to see, you may  get some pieces to fit but mostly things don’t fit to well, you may try to force fit it.
    For truth when you get to the point that all the pieces are fitting, your on your way . Now you can then have an idea what the whole picture is like even though you do not have it completed. But that means, is that your friend has not done this and he gets a whole different idea.He is just putting pieces in his mind with no thought of what the big picture is. He may say to you that is your truth not mine.  Yet there is only one truth. An absolute.
    Back to that 50% chance, anyone can get this correct, like flipping a coin.  But this is just the start, you need to fill the whole picture or close to it, to understand why your 50% is correct or not. 
    As it turns out the understanding of science ( of how things work) is only a couple of pieces in the sky and ground.  You can’t make a judgment on theses couple of pieces alone, everything else has to fit also. ( most people do not know anything about the science of how things work, yet that does not hamper them of understanding the whole picture).They don’t need the few  science ones , because not everyone has to have the same pieces  to get the picture. Because no one know everything, or the same things.

  10. MrDunsapy

    The truth is the bottom line. It does not matter what people think about it, it is either truth or it is not.

    There are “truths” about the underlying realities of the universe.  Scientific methods and scientific evidence give us the best descriptions of these, and confirmations of them by repeat testing.

    If you take the big questions, like, are we here by a chance occurrence, or were we created?
    There is a 50% chance of getting it right.

    Not really!  There is noway of calculating this probability.  All we can calculate is which claims are false or unlikely on the basis of what is known.

    You could know an absolute truth.
    Without knowing anything about it. 

    The odds against guessing a correct answer without information are huge!

    So truth does not just depend on what
    we think as truth, it’s not whose truth, it’s about what actually is  the truth.
    For one thing, no one could change it. Isn’t that what a fact is?

    Apart from self consistent mathematical or abstract logical exercises, “truth” is accurately mapping concepts  on to the underlying physical reality of the universe. –
    http://richarddawkins.net/news

    So the question is how do you know truth, and know it actually is truth?

    The confirmed method of getting as near as possible to this, is scientific investigation, with repeat testing to up-date the knowledge in the light of new discoveries. 
    There are no other reliable methods, (apart from
    building on some earlier proven science).

    As it turns out the understanding of science ( of how things work) is only a couple of pieces in the sky and ground.  You can’t make a judgment on theses couple of pieces alone, everything else has to fit also.

    Science is a lot more than a couple of pieces, and there are no other ways of knowing what the rest of the picture of reality is.

    There are others ways of guessing and making up unchecked imaginary answers which have a high probability of being fanciful thinking or just plain wrong.

    ( most people do not know anything about the science of how things work, yet that does not hamper them of understanding the whole picture).
    They don’t need the few  science ones , because not everyone has to have the same pieces  to get the picture.

    It is true that some people without the scientific knowledge, just IMAGINE that they have pieces of the big picture, which is why Richard Dawkins wrote a book called “the God Delusion” explaining this.
    They MIGHT have blindly copied some sound ideas from scientists so these could be right by chance but these will be mixed up with all sorts of made-up unchecked misunderstandings they have copied from elsewhere.

    Because no one know everything, or the same things.

    This is just the old “science does not know everything so it knows nothing”, argument, to claim that views based on no evidence or reality testing have a parity claim with science.  They don’t!

    Belief without evidence has consistently proved to provide wrong answers except by chance, while the laws of science have been confirmed by multiple experiments.

  11. My life has not been unique. I spent years ardently and sincerely searching for the ultimate truth in religion, much like the fictional character Siddhartha Guatama, with god at the center of the universe – I found no ultimate truth in empirically unfalsifiable statements. I turned to philosophy with academic studies from Hesiod’s Theogony to Derrida’s post-modernism – I was again disappointed and found no ultimate truth. Finally, I turned to science with its history of internal and external conflicts and it’s great discoveries which made modernity possible. I am enamored with science and its promise, but I was again disappointed, because, in the end, there is no ultimate truth there either.

    I have finally learned why my search for ultimate truth was so futile – my error was in conflating truth with knowledge and my own epistemological expectations of what knowledge actually is. Once I learned knowledge was particular (time/space limited), contingent, and probable, I was able to abandon my previous ideas of knowledge being universal, necessary, and certain and only then was I able to rid myself the dualistic notion of ultimate truth. Science discovers knowledge and is the closest thing to “truth” we have and can provide an accurate roadmap to learn about our natural world and attain freedom from the tyranny of false ideas, myth, superstition, and fear. But, if you are searching for ultimate truth, you will be as disappointed as I once was. If you are searching for knowledge, science is the only option we have.

  12. @rdfrs-7b15662e736abe440fb51df4f0c6c5cd:disqus

    The main problem with your post is that you are not carrying out scientific or basic research investigations, but are just making it up as you go.
    As I pointed out previously, a lot of these claims disputing science are lacking evidence and are simply wrong!

    Predictability is based on organization and planning. Not mistakes, random events.

    This only applies to the unreliable human planning. 

    The laws of science produce very precise physically predictable events such as Solar eclipses, or light switches working.

    The physical reality of the universe, was talked about in the creation accounts. For example The scientists say energy was before the material universe, as energy can be converted to matter. They also say they do
    not know if there was anything before this energy.

    There are some speculations, but NOBODY HAS DEFINITIVE EVIDENCE.

      But something had to be always in existence. Something had no beginning.

    That is pure speculation.  Phenomena can arise for various reasons – at present unknown.

    The bible says God was always in existence, and that he is powerful( energy).  It also says he started creation.

    The Bible ( http://old.richarddawkins.net/… ) says many things which are at odds with objective observations, and even the history of the period – but then those bronze-age scribes really had very little idea
    about planetary formation or history.

    Again the scientists do not know why or how this energy changed so that we have the universe. 

    You are making it up again.  The transition from energy to atoms and on to stars and planets and galaxies  is well documented in scientific literature.

    The bible goes further than
    the scientists, and explains these things.

    Err no!  Making up stories is not the same as explaining the workings of  nature.

    The science and creation are in harmony with the idea of how the universe and life started. 

    This might be possible if you postulated some disconnected non-interfering deist god, but you have just specified a biblical god who is utterly inconsistent with science.

    Science is always the fact or proof.
    The problem is when the interpretations of the science happens.

    The peer-reviewed evidence is the interpretation of the facts and proof.  It is not a separate feature.

    The scientists have interpreted the science to say life started on it’s own, and that ‘evolution’ happened, for all the variety. Yet can not prove either of these.

    You are just repeating your earlier misinformation.  You have no evidence to support these claims.


    This has been CONFIRMED in Dr. Jack Szostak’s LAB.
    2009 Nobel Laurette in medicine for his work on telomerase.

    It’s been 55 years since the Miller-Urey Experiment, and science has made enormous progress on solving the origin of life. This video summarizes one of the best leading models. Yes there are others. Science may never know exactly how life DID start, but we will know many ways how life COULD start. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v
     

    We also know approximately WHEN life started on Earth. (As I linked previously)

    and that ‘evolution’
    happened, for all the variety. Yet can not prove either of these.

    As I said earlier,  Evolution has been proved  hundreds of thousands of times in the study of a multitude of living organisms on Earth.  It continues to be repeatedly proved in the modern work on genetics.

    Besides these interpretations do not fit with human nature or the life we see. 

    Evolution is NOT  just about humans and the dislike some of them have  to the concepts of our ancestry. 
    It is about ALL life on Earth.  The objective observations are very clear (even though everything is not fully explained).

    All you are doing is repeating what some scientific illiterates have told you.

    The bible is not a science text book, but what is says about science has always been ahead of scientists.

    You really have to be wearing blinker specs to believe that.

    Genesis gets the the whole sequence of planetary formation and evolution of life, events wrong!

    The example is the Liger. Tigers and Lion can mate, the Liger can just mate, but the offspring would not survive. That is where it stops.

    That depends on how far apart a hybrid species is on the evolutionary tree of life.  –
    Phylogenetic tree.
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi
    Many geographically separated species can breed and produce fertile offspring.  Other more distantly related ones produce infertile offspring – like mules.

    There is lots of information on this for those who wish to educate themselves, – thousands of examples!

    And they are all cats. Why this is important, is, to come to a truth, all things have to fit. So these limits support creation in that if all you had were cats that is all you would ever have. This is not what ‘evolution’ says. But it does fit with many creations of ‘kinds’ of animals. Truth happens when every thing starts to fit.

    This is just the “kinds” pseudo-science nonsense from the nutty-ark brigade at AIG!
    The biology of cross breeding, line species, and ring species, is well understood and well documented, by tested and confirmed science.

    They can not figure out how a cell for example, could just happen or how the DNA got it’s code.

    There are clear hypotheses on abiogenesis and RNA world which explain this much better than “god-did-it-by-magic”!
    Clearly you have not studied this!

    But they know amazing a mount about cells, and DNA. 
    Because to them the origins of life has to fit ‘evolution’ means they have no choice, to assume life just started on it’s own.

    Let me repeat:  the “origins of life” is the abiogenesis hypothesis.
    IT IS NOT PART OF DARWIN’S THEORY OF EVOLUTION which starts at LUCA. Science does indeed know much about DNA – those disputing evolution – clearly don’t!

    Scientists do not “assume” -  that is a theist trick of “faith” without evidence.  – Otherwise known as guesswork. Scientist use testable evidence.

    That is circular thinking and not scientific and not truth. They are trying to force fit and idea, that they have no evidence for. 

     Gazzoinnng! That is ironic nonsense!
    - And the evidence of creation is????? 
    Oh! there isn’t any! 
    Just the feelings of those who have not studied biology, that whimsical thinking should make them feel happier in denial!

    If the laws are predicable, that supports creation, of planning and organization. Chance means unpredictability.

    It’s funny how YE Creationists  keep mindlessly chanting chance! 
    Natural selection as a driving force in evolution is NOT  chance. 
    It is a sorting process from a variety of chance options. 

    Of course not all Christians are utter biology ignoramuses.
    Some accept the science even if they do tweak it here and there, to insert a bit of “god-did-it”.

    Theistic evolution is a theological concept associated with some versions of Old Earth Creationism which involves partly accepting the scientific theory of evolution while attempting to reconcile religious
    beliefs with that theory and with science in general. It is often endorsed by those who believe in both a creator deity and the veracity of science.

    The approach taken is different from church to church and a wide range of views and nuances are included in the concept. However, the generally accepted idea is that of a deity-assisted abiogenesis followed by an indeterminate amount of time during which evolution took place.

    Theistic evolution is the accepted official position of the Roman Catholic Church,[1]
    along with many non-fundamentalist Protestant churches and some liberal Muslim groups.  http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/T… 

    It seems a very large number of educated Christians can understand evolution and teach it in their schools.

  13. Virgin Mary
    I hate philosophy almost as much as religion.

     

    When Natural Philosophy evolved in to science, and the evidence based reasoning was hived off into physics etc., – the rump-end of mumbo-jumbo remained as theology!

    Natural philosophy or the philosophy of nature (from Latin philosophia naturalis) was the study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural sciences such as physics.

    Forms of science historically developed out of philosophy or, more specifically, natural philosophy. At older universities, long-established Chairs of Natural Philosophy are nowadays occupied mainly by physics professors. Modern notions of science and scientists date only to the 19th century.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N

    The Oxford English Dictionary dates the origin of the word to 1834. Before then, the word “science” simply meant knowledge and the label of scientist did not exist. Some examples of the term’s usage are Isaac Newton’s 1687 scientific treatise is known as The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and Lord Kelvin and Peter Guthrie Tait’s 1867 treatise called Treatise on Natural Philosophy which helped define much of modern physics.

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