A friend of mine wrote a thoughtful blog post on his website “On Pop Theology” that posed a few important questions about the nature of truth.
I’m not an expert on the subject by any stretch, but here I’m just going to outline a framework that’s helped me understand a little better what a nebulous word like truth means.
Below is an excerpt from the blog post, “On Economics and Truth,” in which Ben finds problems with an economist’s statements in the book Griftopia and asks if he can trust the overarching conclusions from a fallacious argument.
“How do we define truth in the midst of skepticism? Should I believe Taibbi’s conclusions are correct even if a few of his facts aren’t? … How can we tell what’s true and what’s true…ish?”
We’ll return to this point later, but the first thing to be said is that there is a difference between Truth and facts. Truth, in my mind, is the answer to the big questions, like “what is man’s purpose?” “is there a God?” and “should I eat tacos tonight?” Facts, well… facts can change, because they are our best guesses about the natural world.
Secondly, logic 101 dictates that no, you can’t trust a conclusion with a fallacious proposition. I’m sure this is obvious but bear with me.
Take this example:
All penguins are flightless birds.
No flightless birds dance the tango.
Therefore, no penguins dance the tango.
So what if everyone accepts these statements and assumes the conclusion that no penguins dance the tango? Then one day, some unsuspecting birdwatcher observes a penguin flying. Or observes two emus pulling off a perfect boleo. Question any assumption, and we need to fact-check our propositions once again and rebuild our framework. Our argument contains holes.
But what if the birdwatcher happens upon two penguins dancing the tango? It could, very possibly, be a problem with our assumptions. Or maybe… it’s our entire way of thinking that’s at issue. Talk about disillusioning.
Something similar happened to Galileo Galilei’s worldview when he observed craters on the moon in the early 17th century.
According to Church doctrine and the Ptolemaic Model, the universe was unchanging and perfect – only the Earth had been corrupted by original sin. According to the Model, the Earth was at the center, and there were “epicycles” in planets’ orbiting paths where they would go forward then back in little circles in their orbits. There was a layer of “fixed” stars, and a force on the outside that powered it all, the Prime Mover.
Galileo’s observation of the craters (as well as Tycho Brahe’s observation of an exploding star, and many, many more findings of Johannes Kepler), showed that there were significant problems with the Ptolemaic model of the universe. Something wasn’t right, because there wouldn’t be imperfections in space if it was.
At the time, the Church forced Galileo to recant his discoveries. Of course, later they had to swallow their pride and adjust their understanding of the universe when the overwhelming evidence showed that they were wrong.
The fascinating thing to me, though, is not only the historical triumph of science and observation and refining of facts, but the interplay of science and theology. It’s my belief that the Galileo episode not only questioned several propositions in the Ptolemaic model (the universe is perfect with the Earth is at its center), but also showed an even deeper problem — the inherent danger in religion and faith dictating facts.
If facts can change, and the church stakes everything on these facts, then the entire framework of religion comes crashing down the moment some other conclusion turns out to be the reality. *Evolution — cough, cough* There is a difference between tweaking our assumptions and overhauling our entire way of seeing things.
I’m not saying that faith and science are incompatible. The funny thing is that these scientists’ observations actually helped the Church understand the world, and therefore God, better. In a similar way, faith-based knowledge can inform science, too … the scientists in Jurassic Park, for example, should have known better than to resurrect extinct, dangerous creatures. More seriously, there are ethical repercussions to some of science’s advancements – it’s not so great that we can emit as much carbon dioxide from power plants and cars as we feel like.
So in conclusion, I guess this post isn’t much of a resolution to Ben’s questions. But whatever we decide about the nature of truth, all of these examples point to the same reality — that at the end of the day we have to be humble, and admit we just don’t have all the answers.
Credit where credit is due .. a lot of these thoughts, particularly the scientific examples and the differences between truth and fact, originate from my dad, John Mays, a really smart science educator and author. If you’re interested in this stuff you should read his book “Teaching science so that students Learn Science.”