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
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
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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