The following is a longer article that I want to divide up into three parts. For part two, and subsequently three, come back in the next couple of days.
Once one has used the finger to indicate the moon,
one no longer has use for the finger.
The elusiveness of Truth.
What is true? What is Truth? Any attempt to describe the nature of reality, of the universe, of our experience of the universe, or any attempt to describe the universe independent of human experience, must necessarily involve some type of language. Systematic descriptions of various levels of rigidity, whose goal it is to explain how the constituent parts of the universe interact and combine to create the complexity we see in the world, vary from person to person and group to group. These descriptions differ as a result of being derived from various points of views—perspectives—and have different sets of assumptions and thus different conclusions. When one doesn’t know where they are going, any road signs or markers along the path can be mistaken for the destination. Similarly, if one does not know the truth, the metaphors we use to dig part of it up can be mistaken for the truth itself.
People from various places, times, and with various cultural environments have tried to make sense of the world—to describe it systematically. In doing so, observers of this quest have found that there are limitations to our abilities to describe the world precisely and accurately. In addition, the experiences, traditions, and other factors that shape our view of the world will effect how our descriptions will be formed themselves. After all, the conclusions that we come up with are formed in the environment of our minds, which are formed in the environment of our cultures and personal experiences.
This situation leads one to wonder whether there is any sense of even asking about something objective or ultimately “True.” This is especially the case since we are steeped in contingent factors which depend on subjective and inter-subjective analyses rather than some hypothetical objective perspective (a concept that seems oxymoronic, to say the least). Plato and his many dualistic philosophical descendents have commented that there is a distinction between the Truth and those things which are mere shadows of that truth, things that are dependent upon circumstance and subjective perceptions. And while I don’t buy this dualism, I recognize that there seems to be a difference between the nature of how the world functions and our low-resolution simulation of it that our minds concoct. This difference has led some to postulate that the concept of truth in-itself is a fiction that has no meaning, or at least is beyond our epistemological capabilities.
The history of science reflects this tension between theory and some hypothetical Grand Unified Theory, and gravity is a prime example of how this tension plays out. We can predict to a good degree of precision, given sufficient information, where a ball will land if thrown or shot in some gravitational field. Newton’s success in describing the inverse square law of gravity was able to give us a relatively accurate mathematical relationship to make such predictions. But in the early decades of the 20th century, an ingenious and somewhat annoying discovery was made by the well-known, if not well-misunderstood, Albert Einstein. Our description of gravity was not precise enough to be considered exact, and we would find that the theory of general relativity would surpass Newton’s observations in descriptive power. But even general relativity proves not to be spot on, either. We are still grasping for the subtleties of quantum gravity with M-theory and loop quantum gravity, and there is no way to know, now, whether these ideas will be any more fruitful in ascertaining the truth of the matter of gravity. Only time and effort will tell.
Whether or not the true description of gravity will one day be found is not the point of this mental exercise. The point is that our relationship with the world is one where our words and the descriptions they formulate have an inexact relationship with their intended referents; the “true” descriptions of how the world actually works. Through our prodding, measuring, and calculating of the world around us, we refine our resolution of the world until we have a theory that can map the terrain sufficiently for our purposes. In terms of technology, our theories do not need to be exact to make objects that suit our purposes—the computer I am typing on is sufficient to demonstrate that. But it is a different project to determine what is True, and human beings from time immemorial have been playing with the questions of what is ultimately True, and there is no sign of this trend going out of fashion any time soon.
But what are of interest include the various methodologies of tackling this question of what is true. Surely, there may be many angles or perspectives from which we can attend to the problem, each using different specifics but describing the same universe, that depend upon the experiences and information accessible to the questioner. This does not imply that any methodology is equally valid or that different methods may be equally effective or efficient at gaining understanding. In fact, it seems quite clear that some methodologies have a clear advantage over others, gleaning more descriptive power than others and therefore having better descriptions than others.
Tomorrow: Part two (“metaphor”)