Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy


September 8th, 2015

Hypotheses I cannot prove; taken on faith

I’m thinking about my axioms of faith. On what unprovable hypotheses do I confront the world. My axioms are my prejudices; the fewer the better. The first one is this:

1. That reality exists. That a world exists in whose catalogue of entities I am one. And what I encounter of its other entities are my access to reality.

But illusions exist. They may be mistaken for reality but are not ‘real’. One such is that the sun sets! The sun’s apparent motion in the sky is an illusion. The effect is entirely due to the rotation of the earth on which we are fixed; that is the reality. Other illusions are not on such a grand scale; most are of a personal nature. That a snail speaks to you.

How are we to know that we know reality? How are we to distinguish between what exists in reality and our interpretation of reality? To distinguish objective from subjective? These words, ‘objective’ and ‘subjective,’ are the ones which are commonly used to partition the two; to differentiate reality from strictly personal experience.

Many philosophers contend that nothing is objective. You can’t ever be sure that you know reality. The moving-sun illusion epitomizes that idea. Until a few hundred years ago the whole world’s consensus was that the sun is an object that physically moves across the sky from east to west. Like a bird or clouds move across the sky. Mankind surely classed this as an objective fact. But, that the sun moves is a communally subjective experience. It is not an objective fact but an illusion shared by many.   

Since our notions of what constitutes reality can change, how can we, in fact, trust that we know what reality is? The axiom of faith that reality exists is of no consequence without addressing how one can know reality. And there is no assurance that one can. So to proceed further I need another axiom of faith. It’s this:

2. That the findings of science are pictures of reality. So all we can know of this reality comes from studying the world via the methods of science. In exploring the world scientifically we are learning about reality; its parameters and properties, the laws governing it. That’s the axiom.

A problem arises in that science can change its mind. That ideas be revised in the light of new evidence is at the kernel of scientific inquiry. What is classified by science as objective reality may change. So how can we speak of an objective reality if what is considered to be objective turns out later not to be so? To cope with this we have to take ‘objective’ to mean the ‘provisionally objective’ idea of science.

The axiom, then, is that the current findings of science constitute what we know of reality. Science gives a valid picture of reality; pictures that contradict science are not valid. By this axiom what is classed as objective, changes with scientific understanding. So that the word, ‘objective,’ must be understood as ‘provisionally objective’. Objective is whatever current science says it is.

My axiom of faith is that ‘objective’ = the collective opinion of savants. By savants I mean the community of scholars who publish findings on the study of nature and check the findings of others. We make decisions based on confidence in certified expertise. Confidence in independent honorable experts whose research is open to confirmation. Built into the scientific method expected of these people is the recognition that new results may change the consensus.

The methods of science include these two features:

a. To be classified as objective, an event must be verifiable. Events not verifiable by independent observers may not be ranked as objective.

No one knows the experience of another only the outward signs. The outward signs can be verified. The color called blue is consistently indicated by all parties. That this color is blue is thus verified. But whether, in fact, Smith’s experience of blue is the same as Snell’s is not verifiable. The experience is, therefore, subjective, not objective.

b. Theoretical deductions from verifiable experience about how the world works must bear the signature of refutability. Out of the theory must come a prediction for the outcome of an experiment. Such a deciding experiment is one that includes possible outcomes, which if observed, would refute the theory. This notion is charmingly portrayed in an essay by Karl Popper – as valid today as when written. (‘Science: Conjectures and Refutations’ in “Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge” by Karl Popper (1963) Routledge, N.Y. Accessible online at http://worthylab.tamu.edu/Courses_files/Popper_ConjecturesandRefutations.pdf)

Using these axioms a remarkable finding emerges: that data collected via science can be represented by mathematical statements. We see that nature is governed by laws. These can be cast as mathematical equations. The universe is not capricious. There are underlying rules which govern its behavior. Order in the universe resides precisely in the laws that govern it. It is this that gives rise to the conviction that everything proceeds by natural process by which is meant, processes investigable by science.

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