Numinations — August, 2000

Don’t You Believe It!

© 2000, by Gary D. Campbell

   Let’s continue to Numinate about the truth.  Our last Numination attempted to organize the concept.  This time we will focus on statements based on facts, claims, anecdotes, scenarios, and trust.  We need to open up two realms:  The first is the realm of truth based on facts (accepted, claimed, or supported by anecdote); the second realm involves extending the truth beyond reality by selecting only one of several interpretations of the facts, using the support of a model or scenario rather than reality itself, or by substituting trust, faith, or authority for a truth, instead of reasoning it out from our own experience.

   The foundations of science are models.  The foundations of proper conduct and behavior are notions about right and wrong.  Judgments are based on the notions of good and bad.  Punishment is based on the belief of innocence or guilt.  These aspects of the truth can impact us where we live, not just where we think.  It takes a tremendous amount of effort, usually at an early age, to organize our beliefs and opinions according to a set of principles.  A very large majority of people are simply too lazy to do this.  If you are one of the minority who feels the need to make this effort, then you need to begin with a set of axioms.  Your axioms may differ, but the following statements have evolved from many of the great minds of history.  You could do much worse than to begin from the following propositions.

   The universe is governed by natural law.  This law is capable of being understood and approximated by statements that can be verified in some fashion or to some degree (statements potentially falsifiable).  Science is a culture’s collection of such statements.  The laws, principles, and theorems (the models) of science operate on single levels according to the classical principles of reductionism.  But, a science of everything is layered like the skin of an onion.  When very large numbers of simple entities interact, complex properties can emerge.  These emergent properties, like the next layer of the onion, may form a whole new scientific discipline.  Reductionism is inadequate to bridge the gap between such layers, but each layer is comprehensible in its own right, each has its own truths to be discovered, and the scientific method is the appropriate way to make those discoveries.

   Scientific truth was covered in the previous Numination, and in bits and pieces by many Numinations past.  Here we will Numinate about extensions to the scientific truth.  Some people’s beliefs are almost nothing but extensions.  Any similarity to the scientific truth is almost accidental.  This is the case when people operate with a very different, or perhaps more poorly understood, set of axioms.  Many scientists attempt to extend the truth from current models.  This occurs when the map is mistaken for the territory.  For example, there is a very rigorous map for quantum mechanics, and it works almost perfectly over a certain range of space and time.  However, there is no reason to believe that this map should be accurate all the way down to a volume smaller, or to an interval briefer, than those defined by the wavelengths of the most energetic quanta that can be observed.

   Other areas of the truth properly belong beyond the boundaries of science.  Philosophy and religion attempt to give us a set of axioms and principles to guide our development and behavior.  Many of the attitudes and methods of science can still be made to apply, but it is far more tricky to do so.  Here we run into cultural relativism, and the continua of right and wrong, good and bad, and innocent or guilty.  Here we can go beyond the truth, if we aren’t careful, to judgment and prejudice.

   Recall from past Numinations the discussions about evolution and the emergence of life.  Erwin Schroedinger in What is Life? said that life is defined by the ability of an entity to take in bits of low entropy stuff in order to maintain or reduce an already low state of entropy.  In other words, the ability to successfully fight the Second Law of Thermodynamics (for a time).  In It’s Alive! I made the claim that life is the collection of all entities that use information.  This is nothing more than Schroedinger’s definition taken a few (intuitive) steps further.

   The point is, when life emerges, the concept of information (or negative entropy) is introduced.  By its very nature, the use of information is context dependent.  Science may correctly believe that the laws of physics should be fundamental and absolute.  Likewise, so should be the laws of chemistry which emerge from them.  And again, the laws of organic chemistry and molecular biology.  However, upon the laws of molecular biology and evolution (which are probably universal), rests the biosphere of the earth, which is unique.  It is a product of chance operating for a very long period of time according to the necessities of natural laws.  Our biosphere evolved a “sapiosphere.”  The collection of homo sapiens that makes up this sapiosphere has evolved thousands of languages and cultures, each with its own definitions of right and wrong, good and bad—and each of which judges, rewards, and punishes its individual “sapiens” differently.  Here, the truth is in the context.

   The study of a cell, an organism, the psychology of a human being, a culture, an economy, or even the human brain, is the study of an evolved system, a unique entity, the product of chance and necessity, an accident of history.  These are complex systems.  Certain truths, only recently formulated, are required to understand a complex system.  A rather barren discipline called General Systems Theory was popular for a time in the 1960s.  The science of Complexity Theory appears to be a somewhat more promising replacement for it.  A complex system is a system with its own emergent properties.  It generally has on the order of thousands to trillions of individual parts (although it might take as few as two complex systems to form a third with its own emergent properties).  Each part of a complex system interacts with one or more of the other parts.  Interaction may be in the form of direct action, the delivery of material, or the exchange of information (sometimes it’s hard to differentiate which).  There may be both positive and negative feedback loops in the system.  Many of the parts may be identical, or almost so.  Every complex system is always, to some degree, both structured and robust.  Most are also vulnerable to circumstances that can make them go chaotic.  The science of complexity also studies systems that are not based on life, but still have a relatively high degree of complexity.  Examples are the weather, the solar system, geological processes, and condensed-matter physics.

   A model is never the truth—it may represent part of the truth, but it may also lead into areas of fiction.  The power of a model is the extent to which it can make predictions.  Only models of very simple phenomena can predict very far into the future.  Chaos sets in, sooner or later.  When chaos or a complex adaptive system is involved, the horizon of prediction is likely to be fairly close by.  However, when the chaotic component is small, the horizon of prediction may be quite far away.  The less its predictive ability, the weaker the science—its remaining activity being to comprehend and explain.

   Whether or not a scientific approach is part of a person’s attempt to get at the truth, philosophy or religion almost always have a role.  Sometimes, in opposition to science, religion attempts to explain how things are, but these areas more properly exist to tell us what to do—how to behave.  Still, they proceed from axioms, and they make statements that profess to be the truth.

   The following should be taken as analogous to the fundamentalists present in any culture or historic setting:  Christian fundamentalists believe in the literal word of the Bible.  It must be axiomatic to them that every instance of interpreting the Bible occurred under the direct guidance of God.  This begins with all the original authors of the Bible.  And it includes, of course, those early scribes who translated the Bible from the languages in which it was originally written.  It must also include the later scribes who copied and updated the Bible over the intervening generations to the present.  Since many believers don’t actually read all of the Bible themselves, it must also include the church leaders who preach from it.  They interpret it for the rest of the flock.  If, at each turn, God were not in complete control, man’s judgment would have entered in, and today’s Bible would not be the literal word of God.  Conflicting versions of the Bible do exist.  Different parts of the Bible conflict with each other.  Truths have been discovered since the Bible was first written.  Only hubris or ignorance could lead anyone to believe that God has guided them to the source of Absolute Truth and actually misled the majority.

   Different sources of the truth can be in clear conflict.  How do you choose?  The farther down the list  (of definitions, axioms, the provable, the verifiable, or simple consistency with facts, claims, anecdotes, scenarios, or trust) a particular truth is supported, the less solid the ground it’s on.  Even the first items on the list need to be examined in an iterative process.  You always need to update your definitions and axioms.  And, you should be very cautious of truths that are the farthest down in the list.

   One final note will conclude this Numination on the truth.  Truth is often the hostage of power and authority.  Any conspiracy that attempts to dictate or control the truth is likely to be one that has evolved over a long period of time.  It is extremely difficult to design an effective conspiracy.  As the number of agents involved, or their incompetency, goes up, the probability of an actual conspiracy falls off rapidly.  A newly designed conspiracy involving more than two or three extremely competent agents is unlikely in the extreme.  Better explanations should be sought.  However, beware the conspiracies evolved by your ancestors!

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