Scientific Knowledge is not Truth

Science perpetually revises its understanding of the world, destroying the old ground and creating new ground. It is one of the great beauties of the discipline – it does not rest on its many laurels. But this only comes from a position of uncertainty. The valid position that we do not know anything. Science in the end is not about developing knowledge of the world around us; it is about developing maps from which to relate with that world. No theory is an actuality. The notion is an absurdity. Theories are models, nothing more. It is a critical distinction. In that sense, no theory can be said to be truth. Truth is a bankrupt notion for science. It may be a bankrupt notion altogether. This obvious process of science, the continual change of fundamental beliefs about the universe’s operations, puts the strong scientific supporting skeptic in a quandary. He knows that science exists by the progress it makes, by its continual need to delve into nooks and crannies. Science is the endless reinvention of itself. Therefore, today’s ‘truth’ may be tomorrow’s laughable doctrine. String theory may vanish into the aether. It has happened again and again in the history of science. When the skeptic asserts that science has proven such and such, he makes a category error. Science has never proven anything, by its own rules. As Einstein said, ‘No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.’

(My book, Buddha is an Atheist, has a very different, and more comprehensive analysis of this subject in the Wisdom of knowledge and Buddhist Science sections).

Science has never even attempted to prove anything. It actually seeks to skillfully represent phenomena through conceptual tools called theories and hypotheses. It is possible that two seemingly contradictory theories competing to describe the same phenomena could both yield accurate descriptions. This is called Underdetermination.

Scientific realism claims that we have a solid reason for maintaining a belief in phenomena that cannot be observed, such as quarks and muons. Undertermination holds the opposite. It states that there is no good way to select between two rival theories if the evidence supports either one. An example is when we die, we continue or we cease. Underdetermination says that we lack adequate information to prioritize one theory. Another example is the people in the matrix. They lack the data to determine whether they are living in 20th Century Earth or a computer generated illusion.

The general relativity/Newtonian mechanics contrast provides an excellent case study. In terms of midsized slow-moving phenomena (our world) both model an accurate picture of reality. Yet they are fundamentally differing theories. Newtonian mechanics is far easier to get a handle on. Relativity takes over at the edges – speed of light/black holes and so forth. This brings us to a corollary – an older theory (Newtonian mechanics) is neither right nor wrong. It is not right because it fails under quite a few conditions, but it claims to describe the universe in totality. It is not wrong because under so many conditions (Newton’s limits of observations) it works flawlessly. Obviously, we can’t speak of Newton’s theory as true or false. It is much more accurate to describe it as a map to certain parts of the universe. If we navigate our way around Africa using a map of Russia, we will be quite lost. The map isn’t wrong; we’re using the wrong map.

Relativity suffers the same constraint. Though it seems more widely applicable, if we attempt to navigate the quantum world with general relativity, we will not get far. Those who claim scientific theories as undeniable testaments cannot quite get around this – no map covers everything. Of course, they point to the hypothesized Grand Unified Theory and say they are working toward it. Well, when that arrives, we’ll see if it really unifies everything. Perhaps a TOE (Theory of Everything) is possible.

To revisit an earlier distinction, between knowledge and understanding, we can add a new twist: if science is neither true nor false, its applicability to the actual world, sometimes useful, sometimes hazardous, then how can we be said to know it? The obvious answer is that we know the theory, we know the map. We know it works reasonably well to conduct our business in a certain realm. It begs the question whether our ability to navigate the world around us, making predictive experiments and theories about its behavior is synonymous with knowing reality. Well-respected scientists have put forth the hypothesis that there is no reality to know.

“If what we regard as real depends on our theory, how can we make reality the basis of our philosophy? …But we cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory…it makes no sense to ask if it corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory.”  – Stephen Hawking

The above quote is a parallax view of the idea. The Copenhagen interpretation, that there is no underlying reality, is a case in point. The Buddha might agree. If there is no underlying reality to know, then the whole question of truth becomes problematic. The best we can attain is relative knowledge of the maps of science. Considering that even the most expansive maps, Relativity, for example, are only partial, it is tautologically incorrect to say that a map has disproved something about an area of reality to which it does not apply. The scientific quest for truth is a red herring. It is not the actual process of investigation. In actuality, scientists are cartographers. As they should be. They create better and better maps, more detailed, covering more terrain. While it certainly would not be a bad idea for science to examine ‘truth’ and what the concept means in regards to its own discipline, the vast movement of science should probably continue with the general project of making better maps of the fundamental chaos which is our world.

The problem is that this belief in science’s fundamental quest for truth makes us view it wrongly. We think of scientists incorrectly and they often have the same incorrect view. The idea that the narrow methodical loop of hypothesis-experiment-results-analysis-hypothesis creates truth was fairly well disproven by 20th Century physics. The previous physics, the laws of motion and so forth, had been developed through rigorous observation, powerful logic, and solid experimentation. There seemed no doubt to their validity. They were ‘true.’ Some version of the scientific method had been properly executed for centuries. Despite its excellent track record, it was overturned.

There is no proof that will not happen again with current theories. To penetrate deeper, it is obvious that any rigorous observation, scientifically recorded, is a concept. It is not the same as the underlying reality. It is a representation, thus, of necessity, incomplete and non-synonymous with the reality. Secondly, even the most impeccably constructed chain of deduction relies on human assumptions. The greatest minds in our history have a human bias at some level. No matter how subtle, it is there. If nothing else, it is the restriction to the normative human senses – sight, sound, etc. If there is something beyond those senses, we will have no concept of it, having no experience of it. That already creates a subjective interface from which objectivity can never be assumed. It may be impossible. That logic could suggest that objectivity is a myth.

The idea that science approaches truth closer and closer does not hold up to scrutiny. If that were the case, there would be fewer and fewer problems and areas of study occurring. The opposite is happening – disciplines and areas of research are exploding. Each discovery asks ten new questions. The terrain looks endless. If we were getting closer to truth, we would be narrowing out more of the false. There would be less to learn. Instead there is more and more to learn. We should be skeptical that science approximates or approaches truth.

The static universe idea is a case in point. Even after evidence that it was not static, many scientists clung to the idea. Then it was feared the universe would contract in on itself, based on the gravitional evidence. Then it was discovered that the universe was expanding. This continued expansion will, paradoxically, cause the universe to one day shrink. Because of the acceleration, in trillions of years, everything will have moved so far apart and moving so fast that the time-light cone will narrow – no information can come in from outside, limiting the relativistic size of the universe. It’s a mind-bending concept that stretches our idea of what constitutes actuality.

“The notion that we can find absolute and final truths is naïve,” Donald Simanek wrote. “If there are any underlying “truths” of nature, our models are just close approximations to them—useful descriptions which “work” by correctly predicting nature’s behavior. We are not in a position to answer the philosophical question “Are there any absolute truths?” We can’t even determine whether there is an underlying “reality” to be discovered.” [i]

The interesting paradox is that a theory such as Newton’s can be applicable in so many situations to such a high degree of precision. Clearly the utility of theories is not contingent upon their truth-value. Those who make scientific arguments as statements of truth are hedging science against itself. In the end, this is not a critique of science at all. It is a critique of our concept of it. It demonstrates how flawed our understanding is, how little the cultural idea matches the actuality. Truth be told, most scientists subscribe to the same or similar cultural ideas. This is because there is no science of science – the discipline has not properly studied itself. We need empericology or empericismology as it were. If we can remove this detritus, then the cultural understanding of science will improve, including that of scientists themselves. It could progress in a much more dynamic fashion, without the current constraints and the pompous bickering of skeptics who misunderstand it.

It’s silly to use scientific theories as a weapon to prove oneself right and others wrong. The idea that science approaches or approximates truth is a self-contradiction. It presupposes there is a truth to be known. It is a scientific axiom that you cannot know anything without applying some combination of rigorous investigation, experiment, hypothesis and intuitive leap. But there is no test of underlying truth, only replicable results and matching theory. But these can always be overturned. It is unscientific to presume anything called truth. If we cannot know what this alleged, possibly imaginary truth is, how can we make claims that we are closing in on it?

“…A caterpillar is not a defective butterfly. Similarly, Newton’s laws were not a defective theory of relativity. Giving up the imaginary goal of a perfect knowledge along with all its lame offspring like statistical approximation to the truth frees us to celebrate the process of discovering and learning without having to do lip service to the antiquated notion that knowledge must be certain to be worth anything.”[ii]

The hallucination that science is moving toward truth or approximating it or other such variations interferes with the skilled researcher, tying the approach up in a flawed philosophical understanding. Science is not flawless, despite noodle-headed notions. Science never had certainty. Certainty is unnecessary, problematic, and ultimately impossible.


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