struggle, spirituality, absurdity

Empiricism, Truth, and My Response to Jonathan.

An intrepid reader, Jonathan, had a great comment on my last post about that guy offering $10,000 to ‘prove’ a particular way of reading the creation narratives in Genesis. It’s important to point out that by ‘intrepid reader,’ I mean ‘one of my oldest friends from high school and college, who was also in my wedding.’ Calling Jonathan a ‘reader’ is like saying my mom is a huge fan of my music: it might be true, but it also masks reality.

That said, here is his comment (reposted without his permission):

I’ve thought a lot recently about this, and how hard it is to disabuse ourselves of post-enlightenment thinking. Science is so very good at what it does, that we seem incapable of seeing truth as anything other than empiricism. And really, that’s a shame. Because trying to reconcile empiricism is a losing battle (and frankly, a waste of time much better spent).

I thought this deserved a direct response because I think he is absolutely correct. The scientific method excels at what it does: studying repeatable events. I am living proof of the effectiveness of science, as without it, I would have died of leukemia in early to mid 2006 (dx’ed Oct 2005). But when we equate ‘truth’ and ‘science,’ we have a problem. Indiana Jones, in “The Last Crusade,” put this clearly: Science is the search for fact. If you want truth, go to the philosophy department.

Cover of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crus...

The reason why this confusion between fact and truth is problematic is that 99.9% of my existence and experience consists of non-repeatable events. If we limit truth to empiricism, as Jonathan warned, we unwittingly dismiss most of the human experience, and the things that make us human – the arts, aesthetics, relationships – get implicitly marginalized and dismissed as fluffy bits that really aren’t important.

Ironically, assuming that science is the fount of all truth ends up dehumanizing us.

I don’t know…what do you think?

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  1. I think the issue you’re concerned with here is the fact/value distinction. Science is always interested in something that it values, that is truth. But science as often never admitted that it has an “interest” or that it is in search of something that is “valuable.” That would be to undermine something “sacred.” That is, the objective, unbiased, cold, hard, calculating, and as you point out — very good a what it does — process of arriving at “facts” which are supposed to tell us the TRUTH about the world. And it is supposedly only science that is able to do this. But we’re jaded now at the end of the 20th century and well into the 21st. We are well aware of the benefits of science while not having to remain obligated to the commitments of the fact/value distinction. It’s a false distinction. Science values truth–indeed to be a scientist is to be in the search for truth and to use every tool at one’s disposal to arrive at it. And when one finds it one willingly admit its benefit and puts it to work. And that world is thankful for it (well, hopefully, in moments when something like chemo-therapy saves your life; alternatively, there are atomic bombs).

  2. Till I’m able to think change seems constant. I looked up the word “truth” in wikipedia where 1st sentence states: “Truth is most often used to mean in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal.” This suggest there’s not even a common agreement on what “truth” is / means. If we just go by “truth means in accord with fact or reality” – as reality is constantly changing – something that is true now might not be in the next moment/day/year/century. (By the way it’s always interesting to read about the etymology of words and to see how meaning evolved.) Looking up “fact” in wikipedia starts with “A fact […] is something that has really occurred or is actually the case.
    Deriving from these to me the main difference between fact and truth is:
    Fact – past
    Truth – we construct a model of reality, based on that model we predict something in future moment, we wait for that moment to past, and check if our prediction became fact or not. All this might or might not be repeatable. If this is repeatable any time we call that truth science. If not repeatable it was still the truth but it won’t be science.
    To Chad: Science is not “interested in something it values”. Science creates model(s) of reality that predict future in a verifiable and repeatable manner. Regardless of any “value” rather it is interested in facts – unless of course you say that the value is that it can predict the future in which case you are right. Science is only interested in repeatable, verifiable predictions that will become facts in the future.

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