Monday, March 19, 2007

At Best, All Our Truths Are Useful Models

"In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations."

Einstein and Infeld, The Evolution Of Physics


When I first heard such ideas as an undergraduate, I could not make sense of them. A long time and a lot of work passed before I had a more or less clear understanding of what folks like Einstein and Infeld were talking about.

The basic idea is still a strange one: Reality is inaccessible to us. In the language of Einstein and Infeld, we cannot open the closed watch to peer inside. The best we can do is make models of what we think is inside the watch. All of these models will be wrong, but some of them might be more useful than the others. What we call "truth" is no more --- and no less --- than the most useful model we have of any particular reality. Yet, we cannot be certain that the reality even exists, let alone that we have correctly described it in our model.

It is here that many artists and scientists are in fundamental agreement. Neither the astute artist, not the astute scientist thinks even for a second that he or she has created the only possible interpretation of reality. Both recognize they have created only one of what might be many possible interpretations of the reality. Neither thinks of truth as an absolute. Both think of truth as conditional.

That irks a lot of people.

The astute artist and scientist are playing the game of "What Is Reality" on the pro-level, but a lot of people play that same game more or less on the level of a bright high school freshman. Until an artist, scientist, or someone else comes along to inform them that reality is inaccessible, they are not even dimly aware of the fact. Can you blame them for being uncomfortable with such a strange idea? I certainly don't. I remember too well the hard work it took me to grasp somewhat clearly that strange idea.

8 comments:

Mystic Wing said...

Great post. Anytime you hear a scientist proclaim that his discipline has "the answer," you can be sure you're listening to a mere technician, not a genuine scientist.

Like Nietsche, all real scientists understand that there are no truths, only useful fictions.

At its outer limits, science always circles back to join the mystics in celebrating the unknowable.

Brendan said...

Excellent post, Paul. What scientist or artist first helped you to snap to this awareness?

Brendan said...

To give an example of how this works, BTW, consider the propositions "the Sun and stars revolve around the Earth" and "the Earth revolves around the Sun" are both true from the perspective of the various individuals who hold to one or the other of those propositions. But the latter has won out for most people because it is a more useful model for predicting the movement of celestial bodies and other phenomena observed by scientists. That's not to say that the latter proposition is "objectively true." It is just the most useful from our current perspective.

Paul said...

Thank you, Mystic Wing!

"...science always circles back to join the mystics..."

I think that's a vital insight. I would agree with it largely because both scientists and mystics (at least the mystics I have in mind when I use the word) base their "truths" on observation and are pretty careful to distinquish between what they can and do observe and what they are merely speculating about.

Consider, for instance, the extent to which the Buddha goes to avoid metaphysical speculation.

Great comments, Mystic Wing!


Hi Brendan!

"What scientist or artist first helped you to snap to this awareness?"

Unfortunately for brevity, Brendan, it would take a full chapter in a book to list all the people who have influenced me. Everyone and their dogs seem to have helped me understand the puzzle. Thank you for asking!

"...the latter has won out for most people because it is the most useful model for predicting [observations]"

Precisely! Yet, that can be disturbing news to some people. Many people want to believe that it is absolutely true the earth revolves around the sun. That presupposes we have certain knowledge of the relevant metaphysics. Unfortunately, we do not have such knowledge. So, we are forced to leave it at "all models are unprovable, but some are more useful than others."

I happen to be quite comfortable with that. I don't look for absolute truths, but rather usefulness to guide me. In fact, I strongly suspect absolute truth, even if it exists, is of no practical consequence. What, after all, could you do with it?

Greta Christina said...

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

This is such a fascinating paradox. Science is an extremely powerful tool for understanding the world, possibly the most powerful tool we have. It's created astonishing, revolutionary insights into the world, and has enabled us to make predictions about it that would have been, not just impossible, but unthinkable.

And yet, any good scientist knows that even their best theories are a good approximation at best, and that the chances are excellent that, in 500 years, they'll have been replaced by something more accurate.

Of course, what bugs me is that creationists, etc., use this to support the idea that science is bunk. Which is so not the point at all.

Paul said...

Hi Greta!

It is indeed a fascinating paradox. The very fact scientific truth is conditional -- dependent on observation -- is what makes it predictive, and hence, useful. But that is also what makes it uncertain, and hence, provisional. Do you think that's a fair assesment of the paradox you referred to, or have I misunderstood you?

About Creationists, etc. I think most are simply nice people who happen to be both hopeful their religion is true, and blissfully ignorant of the science that says, at least to some extent, their religion is false. That's most Creationists.

Others are ... well, brats. They've studied the issues somewhat but in bad faith and with a guiding agenda: They are either willfully ignorant of the science, or common liars, or both. Fortunately, when the aliens land, those folks will be the first to get eaten.

Thank you for a great post, Greta! I'm glad you dropped by tonight and I sure hope it's not a one night stand. I read a comment of yours the other day on PZ Meyer's blog in which you described yourself in a fascinating way. So, I said, "I want to know more about her!" and intrepidly added your blog to my roll. Great blog!

eolake said...

[You oughter indicated quotes.]

Einstein was fascinating. I'm reading a bio of him now.

Paul said...

Hi Eolake!

Which bio of Einstein are you reading?

"[You oughter indicated quotes.]"

I think you're right. Time to amend the Cafe Philos style book.