Different types of truth part 4: politics, economics, social

My last three blogs have been about scientific and religious truth – subjects where I have personal experience and, in the case of science, professional experience. In other fields I am ignorant and therefore I don’t feel qualified to provide a meaningful analysis. However, I can’t leave this initial overview of “truth” without discussing political, economic and social truths. What I provide instead is some observations from the outside. 

We are a social species and we live in communities. In the modern world we live in extremely complex communities at all sorts of scales: from the family, to the neighbourhood, to the town or borough, to the city or region, to the nation, to the continent or trading block to the world. We have other communities too: our work colleagues and collaborators, people who share our imterests or hobbies, our faith communities, and so on. As a society we develop systems and ways to organise outselves, to share, to support each other at times of need or ill health, to deal with offenders who break the rules our society has chosen and so on. 

In a modern western world this is achieved through a political democracy (differently implemented in different countries), social welfare systems (very differently implemented in different countries), economic processes, legal frameworks, civil servants, markets, schools, courts and prisons, hospitals, churches, synagogues and mosques, employment laws and company procedures. 

All these structures, organisations and processes are run and organised by experts, people who have studied and understood their methods. They have rules that govern them and those rules can be studied like science. 

Economical models, which model how the stock market works are even based on the same mathematical formulation as physics and many of my fellow physics students went on to apply quantum mechanics equations to stock market fluctuations. Like using the quantum mechanics equations for physics, these models are not the stock market, but models that point towards what the stock market does. Unlike quantum mechanics, however, they are not modelling something that has a reality independently of humans. Their work affects the stock market. It also is based on the stock market continuing to exist in a framework our society operates. We can all imagine human societies where there is no stock market (indeed there are many that exist!); but, there is no meaningful concept of a universe where the rules quantum mechanics point towards don’t exist (note I’m distinguishing our model from the scientific truth it points towards, see previous blogs).

The second way in which these types of disciplines borrow and benefit from scientific methods is in “Evidence-based policy making”, a buzz word in the UK that is used for scientific investigations on, for example, which educational intervention technique leads to higher scores on the end-of-year standardised exam, or which advert encourages more people to do exercise, or which prison programme leads to the lowest reoffending rates. 

Here the methods are robustly scientific. In the best examples the methods of blind tests, placebos and null hypotheses are taken from the medical sciences. But the questions they answer are very specific and care must be taken not to over interpret them. If a evidence-based policy study concludes that a particular method of teaching produces better results on school exams, it does not necessarily mean it produces “better educated children”, because we can recognise that “higher score on the standardised exam” is a quantitative concept, but “better educated” is qualitative. Different viewpoints lead to different interpretations on what “better educated” means. Such debates are absolutely essential for a working society, but cannot be answered by scientific methods searching scientific truth. 

This is where we must distinguish the questions where science is the right way to answer and those where it isn’t. “How is the climate warming as a result of human CO2 emission?” Is a question for scientific investigation and analysis and should be argued using scientific methods of argument. “How do we reduce our worldwide CO2 emissions?” Is a question that needs other disciplines, other methods to answer and which is argued in the way those disciplines debate. 

Finally I want to talk briefly about politics. Political debate is our society’s method for dealing with the fact that different communities benefit differently from different policies. Any policy that makes one group richer, healthier or better educated (however we’ve defined that!) tends to make another group poorer, less healthy or more poorly educated. Traditionally, the political parties have represented the different vested interests, with different parties championing the cause of their own group. Occasionally in the past, and perhaps more commonly in recent years, there have also been parties of people championing the cause of others (for example upper middle classes supporting Labour?, which has perhaps introduced tensions in some of those parties…). 

Almost by definition such a system will divide people into “them and us”, “insiders and outsiders” and create groupthink within the party. That is ok, if politics as a whole is an open, balanced conversation between these groups where they listen to each other, thrash it out and compromise. I think it starts to go wrong when the balance goes and too much power is in one group. A group that doesn’t feel heard will become resentful and angry. A group that doesn’t listen will polarise into its own groupthink. 

All these types of discussion involve experts developing models that point to their truth. But these truths are not like religious Truth (pointing towards something beyond us which is by definition paradoxical and “edgy”) nor like scientific truth (pointing towards something that has an impersonal reality and can be tested independently). These political and economical and social truths depend on how the question is phrased, depend on the viewpoints, depend on the structures society has chosen. 

Different types of truth, part 3: scientific and religious truth

In my last two blogs I have discussed scientific truth and religious truth (sorry, haven’t worked out how to link back yet). I’ve used the analogy of a scientific model to explain how I was able to accept my growing faith intellectually as well as spiritually. The idea of a model is so central to my worldview as a scientist that it created a natural analogy for faith. The analogy works because their are similarities between these different ways of approaching things. But I do not want to give the impression that they are the same. In this blog I discuss the difference. 

Many of the arguments between science and religion seem, to me, to come from a lack of recognition of the difference between scientific truth and religious Truth (I add the capital not to imply a superiority of religious Truth, but to make a distinction and following the tradition of capitalising God). They are compounded by us not recognising that our scientific theories are models of scientific truth and our religious beliefs and practices are models of religious Truth. When we test religious models as though they were scientific truth or treat scientific models as though they were religious Truth we will never understand why we disagree with each other. 

First, and most obviously, they are searches for a very different set of questions. Science (particularly physics, my discipline) asks questions about the nature of the physical universe. It uses a scientific method of experimentation and observation, of developing theoretical models and using them to make predictions which can be tested. Science, at its best and ideal, is impersonal, independent of observer and is working towards agreement. 

Of course it is practised by human beings who can get emotional, personally involved and make mistakes. But the end aim is to get past that. That is achieved by scientific consensus – by bringing in more tests, more reviews, more theories. Now non-scientists often don’t get scientific consensus. It is assumed that that would imply nothing ever changes and because we know worldviews do shift (nobody believed plate techtonics or quantum physics when they were first proposed and now they are standard textbook stuff), the assumption is that scientific consensus has no more value than a religious truth.

When that assumption is made, it is fair to provide all points of view, to listen to the small number who disagree equally to the large number who agree. Anything else seems like invalidating the minority view or risking missing the genius.

Most scientists don’t understand that and get upset and frustrated by non-scientists going on about it. We know that scientific views do evolve over time. We know that there are step changes when someone sees things differently and gives others evidence they come to understand. Sometimes we will as imperfect people resist those changes, but I know many examples from my own career when I’ve argued with someone for months or years and then at some point we both “get it” and one of us admits we were wrong or we find a third way of looking at it. After that there is no more argument. Not because our beliefs have changed, but because we fundamentally recognise that one model is closer to scientific truth than the other. That’s because “is this model closer to scientific truth than that one?” is a question with a single answer for all people. We expect to reach consensus, even if we fight like mad on the way. 

Religious Truth does not have a single answer in the same way. That is because it’s not asking about how the universe works, but about how our relationships are with God and with each other. It is therefore as unique as each individual. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t patterns, or even a fundamental Truth that we are searching for, but all great religious thinkers from all traditions I’m aware of, seem to come back to words of Mystery, of accepting paradox and living at the edge, of Surrender (the Arabic word for Surrender is Islam, by the way), of emptying ourselves, of relationship, of Love. These are not ideas to explore using scientific methods. 

There have been attempts at making intellectually and philosophically robust theologies (which could be considered akin to treating models of religious Truth as models of scientific truth), but these, in my experience rarely in and of themselves bring people to that greater Love, to, from a Christian perspective, becoming more like Jesus in how he lived. When we treat religious Truth as scientific Truth we get arguments between Bible-literalists and atheists about the contradictions in the Bible or whether the Earth is billions or thousands of years old. Those arguments go round in circles, with no one persuading anyone and views becoming more polarised, more narrowly defined. 

We can investigate “falling in love” scientifically – it tells us why it helps the species, it tells us about people’s brain changes, hormonal changes and the behaviour changes (increased risk taking) these create. But it doesn’t really tell us what it feels like or what it means to those in love. For that we read a Shakespeare sonnet, or hear a great song.  (My love is not like a red rose. Human beings are animals and roses are plants and these diverged genetically billions of years ago!)

I am a physicist and I hate it when people think that whether climate change is real or not is a matter for discussion in the same way as what we should do about it is. But I also recognise that the people who do think it is have not seen the difference between scientific truth and other truths. 

I am a Quaker Christian. And I hate it when people reduce my faith to the limited questions that can be answered by the scientific method. But I also recognise that people who do think it is have not seen the difference between religious Truth and other truths. 

I’m not sure I’ve explained the difference well here, but it’s a start!

Different types of truth part 2: religious truth

I know God exists. I also believe, to paraphrase that science t-shirt (see previous blog), that the nice thing about God is that He exists whether or not you believe in Him. (I use Her and Him to refer to God and get different value from both, by the way).

Now, scientists reading this will be horrified by what I’ve just written. They intuitively understand that these are very different types of truth. Even other scientists who have a faith similar to mine will probably have a wry smile, recognising the point I’m making and recognising why it will horrify other scientists. 

I guess that many non-scientists, particularly those with religious faith, won’t understand what the problem is. And this, I think, is where seeming conflicts between science and religion start. 

Sometimes I see religious posters on public transport. These often give the message that “the Bible is right because it says it is”. Sometimes they are that explicit, sometimes they imply this by quoting Bible phrases at you. I don’t know who these adverts are aimed at, but my guess is that they are not very successful with converting an atheist. The people who create such posters are genuine and find this message helpful and convincing to them, they are likely not to understand what is wrong with the first paragraph. 

But I also think that scientists can become very blinkered in their own way. By prioritising scientific truth over all other kinds of truth, they risk both missing something valuable and alienating nonscientists. I want to build bridges and keep the dialogue open. 

When I realised I was becoming a Christian, I struggled intellectually as well as spiritually. What I want to describe is how I reconciled my faith and my intellect. I don’t do so to convince others, but simply to show one way of bridging that divide. I know that this makes no sense to either the atheist or those who believe there is only one true way to God. In later blogs I might explore their arguments (these initial posts are about setting the basis of my own thoughts, providing my axioms, if you like).

My faith starts with my experience. In worship I feel myself come spiritually into resonance with something beyond and within me, which I call God. In everyday life I can also sense myself in, or out, of that resonance. It is hard to describe in words what it feels like, but it is a combination of physical feeling and a sense of rightness. It has a lot in common with feeling “in love” – an experience most of us have and which science can explain in terms of evolutionary need and chemical changes in our hormones, but somehow we all know has some reality in and of itself beyond those explanations. Indeed, feeling in spiritual resonance with God feels like being in Love and always leads to Love, in its broadest, most open sense. 

When I stay in that resonance I am changed, transformed. I widen my understanding, encompass a fuller truth, learn to forgive and be forgiven. When I read the Bible I hear stories of people who have had similar experiences. I recognise in those stories my own struggles, failures and steps into becoming more than I was. When I read about Jesus I recognise a man who was in such perfect resonance with God that the Love of God flowed out of him and was seen by those who met him and either entranced them or made them fight it. (I have also developed a theology around the specific details, but this isn’t the time to share that).

Now, one of the key things for me in spiritual understanding is to think in duality, not dualism. In other words to hold mutually contradictory things in tension and live at that dissonance. It was physics that first taught me to do that. I found a way to handle wave particle duality that was absurdly simple: a photon is not a wave and not a particle. It’s a photon and it behaves as photons behave. We, with our limited intellect, need models to explain the photon. So when it is travelling through space we find the model of a wave helpful and we think of it as a wave. When it interacts with matter (say a detector!) we find a particle model more helpful. We must never forget that these are our models to deal with our intellectual limitations, because the photon goes on being a photon. 

Now, when it comes to God we are not just intellectually limited, we are spiritually limited, too. So here, too, we create models. Some are intellectual models (theology), some are spiritual models (practices, mysticism) and many are parables, stories that give us glimpses of some aspect. Different people, developing this in different communities, came up with different descriptive models and therefore you have different religions. When we treat the religion as Truth, rather than as a model pointing to Truth, we can get hung up on the differences, consider ourselves right and them wrong (religious people) or delight in pointing out the inconsistencies between different models in use in the same religion as proof that they are wrong (atheists).

I choose to follow a single set of models (a Quaker Christianity) exclusively. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognise truth in the other models, but so far I have not reached a spiritual limit of the models I have (consider Einsteinian gravity expanding Newtonian). And by sticking to one set, rather than mixing up those of different faiths, I find it harder to avoid the uncomfortable bits which lead to me being transformed! I know enough of myself to know that I could make this an intellectual exploration of different faiths, picking nice bits from each. Sticking to one forces me to follow its path through the uncomfortable. 

Different types of truth part 1: Scientific truth

What is truth? This is a question for philosophy, science and religion, or rather these words provide different questions to philosophy, science and religion. I feel that one thing that is missing from many arguments is a clear understanding of what is, and what isn’t possible to argue about. 

There is a difference between arguing about whether greenhouse gases cause a warning planet, about whether solar cycle effects are increasing or decreasing that warming, about what we should do about it. There’s a difference between arguing about whether God exists, or whether a homosexual can be a Christian, or whether gun restrictions should be introduced. And these differences are because they are asking for a different kind of truth. 

 I know people who enjoy philosophy and will ask questions about whether mathematics is discovered or invented, about whether “2+2=4” is fundamentally true or axiomatic, about whether there is anything true except “I think therefore I am”. I am not writing this blog for those people. Their definition of “truth” is very narrow and will not encompass scientific truth. That the Earth goes round the sun is, for them a “theory”. If we argue at this level it will take us too long to understand the difference between the questions “what causes climate change?” and “what shall we do about it?”. I am a scientist, not a philosopher and while I acknowledge the questions exist, I do not propose to discuss them further here. And there is a reason for this. If you hear those arguments without having heard their context you will get confused. I think this is part of what leads to arguments about the “theory of evolution” or the “greenhouse effect theory”. 

Consider gravitational theory (Newton’s and Einstein’s). This is not true in the sense that 2+2=4, or in the sense that “this blog’s name is scientificquaker”. But it is effectively true. We can use it to make predictions, it is tested to the limits of our experimental and observational capability, we have underpinning theoretical explanations of “how it works” which can, themselves, make predictions we can test. 

I have heard it said that “Einstein proved Newton wrong” and this used as an argument for why scientists may also be wrong on climate change. But Einstein didn’t prove Newton wrong – and we still use Newtonian mechanics to launch a rocket. But we use Einsteinian mechanics to consider the workings of the clocks in the GPS satellites. What we must understand is that both Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics are our models which explain, as far as they can, the physical workings of the universe. They aren’t the workings of the universe but they are models which help us understand what we otherwise can’t understand. We also know – because we’ve tested it – how far those models can go and where we don’t know. Einstein’s theory includes Newton’s theory. It didn’t correct it, but extended it to where it didn’t apply. Most of the time Newton’s theory works well and when it doesn’t we can use Einstein’s extension. We also know how deeply we’ve tested Einstein’s theory (and we continue to probe beyond those borders (http://m.phys.org/news/2016-04-einstein-theory-relativity-satellite.html).

Scientific truth therefore is something where we have a working model that has an underlying theoretical basis (we can explain why), is backed by observation/experiment and which makes meaningful predictions we can test by observation/experiment. We generally expect scientific truth to expand with time, that the new theory encompasses the old and expands its remit or the level of detail. It is rare for a new theory to contradict an old one. 

It is not that individual scientists aren’t biased, don’t make mistakes, but when there is scientific consensus, the ideas have been thoroughly tested. (I am talking about the physical sciences here – what I know about – I think some aspects of biological science and many aspects of social science need a more nuanced argument). 

When there isn’t scientific consensus we realise there are aspects we don’t understand. Those different viewpoints are helping us explore different aspects. Scientists may debate for years, even decades, but there is a recognition that we are all chasing a single, as yet unknown truth. Most scientists know when we haven’t and when we have reached it, though being human can be upset when their way of understanding is superseded. Some discussions are debated for thirty years – until the last generation has retired off…

Maybe it’s because such debates look, from the outside, so similar to debates about whether God exists or whether socialism or capitalism is better for society (blogs to come!) that nonscientists don’t understand the difference. 

There’s a t-shirt slogan that says “the nice thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”. Scientists love it – and it tries to express what I’ve discussed here, which scientists find baffling to understand why everyone else doesn’t get this intuitively. They often go on to assume it’s because everyone else is stupid. And that’s why I don’t like the slogan.