Search For Truth


Table of Contents

As an exercise in unity and integrity I would like to move beyond the exclusive compartmentalisation of science, art and religion. There have been and still are Quaker scientists, some of them Nobel Prize winners. Scientists as part of being scientist are creative, intuitive, artistic, spiritual and religious. My purpose here is to explore what if anything can science bring to Quaker belief and practice?

Science consists of three related domains: The scientific method of testing predictions, a body of structured and organised knowledge (theories) and an attitude (or habit) of questioning curiosity. Technology, a corollary of science, makes the application of scientific knowledge to real world problems. The whole of science is a quest (and its results) for the truth about ourselves and the world (universe) in which we live.

The ancient Greeks (and probably others before them) had the idea of collecting and organising knowledge and of asking questions about our immediate environment (Socratic method of dialogue). It was not until the eighteenth century, when the founders of the Royal Society invented what we now know as the controlled experiment, that Science as we know it was born.

The key insight, repeated in the early twentieth century in the founding of psychology, was the recognition that subjective impressions, perceptions and opinions are unreliable. Every lawyer, policeman and reader of Who-Dunnits knows that the statements of different witnesses to an event are different and that they change with time. Sensations and feelings are important in life. They give it substance, meaning and motivation. They are the basis of art and characterise a culture. But as a basis for understanding and a guide to making decisions they are unreliable, misleading and sometimes treacherous.

The first thing the proto-scientists did was to take the unreliable, subjective element out of the situation. They established the objective nature of science. Observations must be made in such a way that anyone, regardless of their opinions or social condition observes the same thing. Similarly reasoning and abstract logic (such as used in mathematics) enable anyone who follows the rules objectively to reach the same (or comparable) conclusions. The next fundamental insight was to recognise that the world is a complex, dynamic and interacting place. It is very difficult to observe a single pure phenomenon. So the scientific experiment to test a prediction must control all the factors that might affect, obscure or distort the phenomenon. Excluding the known factors calls for imagination and creativity. Taking account of the unknown factors that might be extremely subtle and powerful is more difficult. Taking account of the effects of randomness is much more difficult and involves the application of probability theory and statistics. Wherever possible, scientists try to measure and count things so that their observations are more precise and so that they can use mathematical systems, like statistics, to reason about their results.

In science, a theory summarises reliable (because objective) observations, provides relations between them (mathematics) and hopefully provides a causal mechanism from which predictions can be made, tested and then used. Anyone can (and most of us do) come up with a ‘theory’ of anything. Two things distinguish a scientific theory: evidence and predictability. Scientific theories are based on facts, which are observations repeatable by anyone and documented objectively. They do not depend on any authority or arbitrary belief system. Similarly arguments, conclusions and deductions can be scrutinised and verified (or not!) because defined systems of reasoning and logic are used. The importance of predictability is shown by the case of paranormal phenomena. The weight of data, observations and statistics for the existence of paranormal phenomenal is far greater than that for other phenomena that we unhesitatingly accept. The reason that science does not recognise paranormal phenomena is that no one has shown how to identify the people and conditions for it to occur. There is no way to manipulate, control it. There is no recognisable mechanism or explanation for it.

Science has limits. It is inherently limited to phenomena that can be observed and to theories that can be objectively tested. It can’t answer the why questions about descriptions and mechanisms. It can’t say why the patterns exist, why the descriptions are as they are or why the explanations work as they do. It describes patterns. And provides explanations in terms of ‘simpler’ phenomena. It does not exclude God but it does change our understanding of the nature of God from that taught by the medieval Christian Church and depicted by generations of graphic artists.

Another limitation of traditional science is its focus on objective truth. Except for recently emerging areas in psychology and the social sciences, science does not deal with subjective experience.

Note scientists’ exercise of simplicity and note the scientific search for truth: Truth about the world, how it was created, how we fit into it and our place within it. And most importantly how we can use it for our benefit – technology and engineering.

The LHC, the large hadron collider, was in the news recently1 when it was turned on for the first time. The news broadcast was one of the biggest non-events of all time. The reporters clearly had no understanding of the project, of science or of what they were reporting. The mundane but critical exercise of turning on an experimental apparatus and beginning to test and adjust it did not fit their need to hype even a trivial event to sell air-time.

The reporters focused on the search for the God-particle, which sounds exciting. The God particle is the Higgs boson. In the world that we inhabit we experience ourselves and other objects as real substantial things with mass and weight. In the nineteenth century, as science emerged from medieval alchemy scientists realised that all these things are made from collections and arrangements of a very large number of chemical molecules. Biological cells of which we are made are very sophisticated chemical entities. The molecules are built from the 117 atomic elements summarised and described in the periodic table. In the twentieth century, scientists found that we can describe the atoms and their behaviour in terms of sixteen sub-atomic particles and four fields of forces: strong nuclear forces, electromagnetic forces, weak forces and gravity. According to quantum mechanics fields and particles are associated and sort of interchangeable. According to relativity theory mass and energy are interchangeable. There are two problems with this simple theory: all the sub-atomic particles have no mass (substance) and when one tries to take gravity into account the mathematics 'falls apart'. Higgs suggested a new field and its associated particle, the boson, which would have imparted mass to certain species of sub-atomic particles as they were created in the first microseconds of the Big Bang, might resolve these problems. Hence the sobriquet of the God-particle. In the earlier microseconds particles did not exist but matter and energy did. There was some sort of primordial very hot very energetic stuff.

Explaining our physical world in terms of increasing smaller numbers of ideas and building blocks is one scientific expression of the Quaker testimony to simplicity, which scientists and philosophers call Occam's razor.

Continuing this quest for simplicity the sub-atomic particles and their behaviour might be described in terms of even fewer smaller things. One theory suggests these are strings. Strings are bits of stuff that exist in space-time. We are familiar with three dimensions of our usual living space but these bits of stuff are extended in more dimensions perhaps as many as eleven dimensions - hence their name string. String theory is so fundamental and so all encompassing (it combines, gravity with electromagnetism and sub-atomic particles and so can describe everything in the universe) it is earning the nickname of a theory of everything. String theory apparently gives a good description of physical phenomena but so far no one has been able to make a prediction that can be observed to test string theory - a serious shortcoming in a scientific theory. The LHC is unlikely to shed any light on the truth of this “theory of everything”.

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