Truth and consistency – a meditation on meaning

By | April 16, 2015

“What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” (Francis Bacon)

There’s been a LinkedIn discussion on the question of whether there are “multiple truths” to be acknowledged in the classroom. I participated in that discussion; what follows is adapted from my comments there. But I thought it an interesting enough question that it was worth summarizing here. (We’ll get back to competency-based education tomorrow).

The problem arises from ambiguous applications of the word “truth”- that is, a proposition that will admit no contrary view. Mathematics, logic, philosophy, and religion are all based on the idea of certain underlying true axioms, from which a variety of other propositions can be derived deductively. In mathematics and formal logic, these axioms are essentially rules for determining what is “true”. Certain manipulations of numbers and concepts produce true relations; others don’t. Something is either true or it is not – zero or one. Religious truths are generally presented as statements about the nature of the universe; their basis is essentially supernatural, and their support is maintained by faith rather than by empirical confirmation. Philosophical truths may be axiomatic, or may be logically deduced from other axioms.

Science, on the other hand, is not about “truth”, but about observable consistencies. Scientific relationships among things are established on the basis of observation, experimentation, and logical reasoning. All scientific propositions are considered to be tentative and subject to revision with new evidence. A scientific proposition must be falsifiable – that is, there must be some possible condition that could occur that would be contrary to the proposition. If this condition is observed, then the proposition needs to be replaced by a new proposition consistent with both the earlier evidence and the new evidence.

Some scientific propositions have been around so long and are supported by and consistent with so much empirical evidence that we consider them to be pretty secure. The word “truth” is sometimes applied in a loose sense to such generally accepted propositions, like “The sun will rise tomorrow”. But these are merely statements about a consensus; they are never “true” in the same sense that a mathematical relationship is true or that a faith-supported proposition is true for the person who holds that faith.

Education in matters of science is fundamentally different from education in matters of religion. Religious teachers enunciate statements they believe to be true, and the listener has the choice as to whether they accept that statement to be true or don’t. Evidence really doesn’t matter; what matters is belief. Scientific teachers, on the other hand, enunciate propositions, but support them with empirical evidence. Some propositions are fairly sweeping and largely unsupported by empirical evidence, but may be worth maintaining because there’s no evidence to the contrary and because they are potentially useful in other respects – string theory falls in this category. It would be absurd to say that string theory is either true or false; there isn’t a lot of evidence one way or the other. If we assume that it is largely in accord with evidence both existing and potential, we can use it to develop other propositions that may be more directly testable. But assumptions about accuracy are not to be confused with statements about truth.

Ideas like “multiple truths” arise when we confuse “truth” in the religious sense with “consistency” in the scientific sense. In the context of religion and the supernatural, multiple truths exist, in the sense that some people hold certain propositions to be true and other people hold contradictory propositions to be true. But since there is no way of determining which truth is true, then any discussion about it is largely irrelevant. There is no way to falsify a religious truth, any more than there is a way to assert a scientific proposition beyond the possibilities of falsification.

People ought to be free to assert the truth of any religious or philosophical proposition as they wish. But they are not free to substitute that proposition for a scientific proposition, nor to assess scientific propositions by the same tests of faith that they use to assess religious propositions. A teacher of any field that makes a claim to be scientific owes it to the students to differentiate between establishing a proposition as scientifically consistent and declaring it to be “true”.

Subscribing to a priori beliefs about the nature of the universe and causality and time is certainly possible, but in the context of science it is often a great deal less than helpful. The aim of any educational process is to increase students’ learning and understanding. If students come into the class with the firm conviction that they already know everything there is to know about the subject because it’s been divinely revealed to them, they are not likely to participate effectively in their or other students’ learning. It’s one thing to challenge the thinking of the instructor and the rest of the class on certain points, but it’s quite another to reject the fundamental axioms of the field in question. There has to be some common basis for debating issues.

For example, if you are enrolled in a course in geology, you’re perfectly at liberty to believe that the earth is 6000 years old, but you don’t have any right to require that everyone else give equal credence to that belief when the empirical evidence overwhelmingly indicates that it’s more like 4.5 billion years old. If you’re taking a course in any science, then there is a presumption that you subscribe to the idea of the scientific method – particularly hypothesis testing and the idea of falsification – in order to get any value out of the course. You may hold various beliefs about supernatural causality and the like, but they are unlikely to be given equal standing with the scientific method just because you sincerely believe them.

The problem for education is not multiple “truths” (or, more appropriately, ideologies) as such, but the degree to which those ideologies require their adherents to engage in conflict behaviors against competing ideologies. Classes need to have certain generally accepted rules and procedures to ensure the presence of a learning environment, one of which is usually a willingness to explore diverse ideas. If there are people in a class for whom certain ideas are so unacceptable that they can’t be explored, then you have a problem; confrontation is likely, and learning suffers. A degree of trust among all members of the class can reduce these confrontations, as well as acceptance of an ethic of exploration. But there are some ideological positions so uncompromising that creative exploration won’t be possible. Then students do have a right to be annoyed. And any teacher in a scientific field who allows the substitution of faith propositions for scientific propositions is essentially guilty of educational malpractice.

  • Dr. Jonathan Freeman

    Reading your latest post is a lovely way to start the day.. Thank you JD.

    I’d only add that I’d like to see an extension of the argument examining how those whose ideologies reject science ought then to live to avoid hypocrisy.

    In other words if one rejects the scientific approach then to be consistent one surely ought not to utilize the products of science and ought to live in a pre-scientific world: no innoculations, actually pretty much no medicine, no electricity, certainly no nuclear reactors, etc. etc.

    It might be interesting then to outline the parameters of such a civilization which presumably could include mathematics and mechanics. Would this then be something akin to Europe around 1600AD?