Science and truth

Discussions on the philosophical foundations, assumptions, and implications of science, including the natural sciences.

Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 5:17 am 

A question I'd like to pose mainly to the physicists, but would be interested to hear what those involved in other branches of science feel:

Q: Does science discover truth?

A little background first. I've had this discussion in other forums; in one case, where the audience was largely lay, the response was one of outrage ("Of course science tells us the way things really are, idiot!!"). In another place, where a few bona-fide physicists were present, the reaction was quite the opposite ("science has nothing to do with truth!!").

These two bipolar extremes represent, in the former case, that of scientific realism (scientific theories are true or approximately true, and all entities posited therein should be taken at face value -- quarks really do exist!), and in the latter case, that of scientific antirealism in its various manifestations (science tells us what happens at the observational level, but theories should not be regarded as descriptions of reality -- quarks are what we might call façons de parler, or useful fictions. After all no one, presumably, supposes that perfect gases or point masses actually exist).

Einstein, himself, influenced initially, I believe, by logical positivism, switched from an antirealistic stance in his earlier years to a staunch realist position in later life due to dissatisfaction with quantum theory.

Delighted to hear any thoughts. Thanks!
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby Eclogite on November 16th, 2016, 6:18 am 

The answer to this revolves around the definition of truth and that takes is into the realm of philosophy. My own view is that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and lays duck eggs it is reasonable to assume it is either a duck or a highly skilled animal impressionist.

In short, from a practical point of view, we might as well assume that science reveals the truth. However, that truth is a moving target, subject to change in the light of new evidence, or new perspectives. Thus, discussion of what constitutes truth is important in philosophy, but need not concern us over much in science.

For the record I am not a physicist. I trained as a geologist, but have worked more as an ersatz engineer and educator.
Eclogite
Forum Moderator
 
Posts: 1388
Joined: 07 Feb 2007
Location: Around and about


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 7:04 am 

Thank you, Eclogite. This is the response I would expect from a geologist. The suggestion that tectonic plates, say, are merely useful fictions probably strikes you as absurd.

I suspect the physicists may take a different view of their own subject matter. The overwhelmingly dominant position in quantum physics these days (Copenhagen and all that), I believe, is antirealist. "What's really going on down there at the subatomic level?" Don't ask. Or, as many say, just shut up and do the calculations.

After all, quantum phenomena seem to defy any realistic understanding -- precisely what inspired Einstein's chagrin.
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 7:41 am 

Eclogite » November 16th, 2016, 7:18 pm wrote:
In short, from a practical point of view, we might as well assume that science reveals the truth. However, that truth is a moving target, subject to change in the light of new evidence, or new perspectives. Thus, discussion of what constitutes truth is important in philosophy, but need not concern us over much in science.





Truth is a moving target? This doesn't sound right, Eclogite, at least from the common-sensical notion of truth (that of correspondence). I think most people would maintain that truth is a fixed target. Whether we hit the target or not is another matter.

Do you really mean what you said, or perhaps just carelessly worded?

Trivia time, folks: What was the highest mountain in the world before Mt Everest was determined as such? :)
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby PerfectZero on November 16th, 2016, 9:17 am 

If were talking theory, Truth is susceptible to where you are trying to uncover it with science. various constants and environments make the difference on what is plausible, but the word truth as said earlier, feels like a word more belonging in philosophy
PerfectZero
Forum Neophyte
 
Posts: 8
Joined: 03 Nov 2016


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 9:20 am 

PerfectZero » November 16th, 2016, 10:17 pm wrote:If were talking theory, Truth is susceptible to where you are trying to uncover it with science. various constants and environments make the difference on what is PLAUSIBLE, but the word truth as said earlier, feels a word more belonging in philosophy



Truth is a concept in universal usage; philosophers may try to analyze or clarify it, but they certainly didn't invent it.

What do you do if your child asks you, "Is it true that smoking causes cancer?"

Shrug and say it's philosophical mumbo-jumbo?
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 9:23 am 

At the far end of the realism spectrum, you'll find people like Steven Weinberg who regularly advert to science discovering truth. Don't make me go quote-hunting now. :)
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Truth be told...

Postby Faradave on November 16th, 2016, 9:35 am 

Science develops shared models, consistent with discovery. Such models are valued based upon their explanatory and predictive power, with elegance (simplicity) a tie breaker.
User avatar
Faradave
Active Member
 
Posts: 1733
Joined: 10 Oct 2012
Location: Times Square (T2)


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 9:40 am 

Faradave, nice to see you again :)

Sounds to me talk of "models" is an antirealist position. I don't think our geologist friends would consider their theory of tectonic plates to be merely a model. They would say, I suspect, these things are real!
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby Eclogite on November 16th, 2016, 9:41 am 

NoShips » Wed Nov 16, 2016 11:41 am wrote:
Eclogite » November 16th, 2016, 7:18 pm wrote:In short, from a practical point of view, we might as well assume that science reveals the truth. However, that truth is a moving target, subject to change in the light of new evidence, or new perspectives. Thus, discussion of what constitutes truth is important in philosophy, but need not concern us over much in science.


Truth is a moving target? This doesn't sound right, Eclogite, at least from the common-sensical notion of truth (that of correspondence). I think most people would maintain that truth is a fixed target. Whether we hit the target or not is another matter.
As I noted earlier, this very much depends upon your definition of truth. I have not yet heard yours and I don't think I have ever bothered to choose one of my own.

However, working with a vague notion of what Truth might be I would say that, as perceived, it has to be a moving target since our perceptions alter. Most people are wrong on most things, so I am not troubled that I may not be joining the consensus.

Do you really mean what you said, or perhaps just carelessly worded?
I generally take great pains to word things carefully (then screw up typographically). I meant what I said and said what I meant, but you probably have to take all the comments together rather than discrete utterances. Also, my sub-text gets incredibly dense at times. An industrial grade brush cutter might be useful.
Eclogite
Forum Moderator
 
Posts: 1388
Joined: 07 Feb 2007
Location: Around and about


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 9:44 am 

Faradave, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this: are quarks real? Or just part of some model?
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 9:51 am 

Eclogite » November 16th, 2016, 7:18 pm wrote:As I noted earlier, this very much depends upon your definition of truth. I have not yet heard yours and I don't think I have ever bothered to choose one of my own.

I would subscribe (today at least) to a commonsensical correspondence interpretation of truth, viz., the statement "the cat is on the mat" is true if and only if said moggy is on the mat -- a rather prosaic correspondence between indicative sentences and states of affairs in reality.

Do you really mean what you said, or perhaps just carelessly worded?

I generally take great pains to word things carefully (then screw up typographically). I meant what I said and said what I meant, but you probably have to take all the comments together rather than discrete utterances. Also, my sub-text gets incredibly dense at times. An industrial grade brush cutter might be useful.



Ha ha!! I hope I didn't come across as impolite. I certainly didn't mean to be. But surely your position (truth is a moving target) implies truth changes?
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby Eclogite on November 16th, 2016, 10:00 am 

NoShips » Wed Nov 16, 2016 1:51 pm wrote:Ha ha!! I hope I didn't come across as impolite. I certainly didn't mean to be.
Absolutely not. You asked a perfectly pertinent and relevant question.

NoShips » Wed Nov 16, 2016 1:51 pm wrote: But surely your position (truth is a moving target) implies truth changes?
It definitely changes because our perceptions change. In biblical times - to revert to your other current thread - a whale was a fish. That was true then. Today a whale is not a fish. That is true now. The truth has changed because our perceptions, as expressed in our classification systems have changed.

Is there some underlying, intrinsic truth, independent of our perceptions? I have no idea, so I don't know if that changes or not. While I agree finding out could be immensely important I consider it well above my pay grade, so I generally ignore it.
Eclogite
Forum Moderator
 
Posts: 1388
Joined: 07 Feb 2007
Location: Around and about


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 10:10 am 

What you're espousing above, I believe, is a verificationist understanding of truth: truth is assimilated to what we can verify.

This has very counterintuitive implications. What did William Wallace eat for brekkie on the morning of the battle of York? Intuitively, I suggest, we all feel there is a true answer to this question (my guess is porridge), but your own position implies, I think, that insofar verification defies us, there is no fact of the matter.
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: True Confessions

Postby Faradave on November 16th, 2016, 10:30 am 

You are providing an operational definition of truth as, a set of answers to questions. You'll find a lot more such truth if the answers, "We don’t know." "That can't be known.", "Within such and such precision…" and "The question is invalid because…" are allowed.

Quarks in the Standard Model are locations, central to particular fields. There are momentum-dependent limits on the precision to which such locations can be specified.
User avatar
Faradave
Active Member
 
Posts: 1733
Joined: 10 Oct 2012
Location: Times Square (T2)


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 10:35 am 

Faradave,

With all due respect, I can make no sense of your notion of an "operational definition of truth". An operational definition of physical concepts (length, temperature, etc -- ala Percy Bridgman) I can understand.

Can you clarify, please?

Don't understand the rest of your post. Should've known better :) Are they real or not (if the theory is true)?
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 10:45 am 

In other words, how would you answer the following?

"Daddy, are quarks real?"

Ans 1: We have good reason to believe so

Ans 2: No, honey, it's just a model.
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Smooth Operator

Postby Faradave on November 16th, 2016, 11:02 am 

Operational definition of truth: Your questions, (e.g. Are quarks real?) suggest truth lies in the answers.

Are quarks real? Yes, if you can consider a point location to be an object. Even so, there is a limit to how well such a location can be specified under the uncertainty principle.

Ans. 1 is true enough.
User avatar
Faradave
Active Member
 
Posts: 1733
Joined: 10 Oct 2012
Location: Times Square (T2)


Re: Smooth Operator

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 11:06 am 

Faradave » November 17th, 2016, 12:02 am wrote:Operational definition of truth: Your questions, (e.g. Are quarks real?) suggest truth lies in the answers.


Still a bit confused, Dave, but sounds to me your "operational definition of truth" is precisely what Eclogite is espousing, i.e., truth is simply what we take it to be (to which I express outrage :) ) -- truth moves!!

Thank you for sharing. Do you feel your position is representative of the majority of physicists?
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby Braininvat on November 16th, 2016, 12:43 pm 

These chats (and we've had many of them in the philosophy fora) seem to be driven by semantics. Truth is an umbrella word that covers several kinds of statements about reality and our observations. They all get referred to as truth, which is what leads to the confusion. There's definitional truth, like F=ma or "cats are furry bipeds that purr and sleep 20 hours a day." Saying Mt. Everest is the world's highest mountain is, essentially, definitional. All you are saying is that "highest" means "the top is most distant from sea level," which means that the definitional truth is established once all the mountains have been carefully measured. If we all agree on the definition of "highest" then we're pretty much done with that, and the truth is established. If someone says, "Wait, highest should mean the distance from base to tip, so it should be Mauna Kea which starts way below the ocean's surface [I don't know if that's the case, it's just an example for purpose of discussion]..." then it's simply a matter of working out which definition you want.

Subatomic particles relate more to "as if" truth, i.e. models from the macro-scale world that are devised to imperfectly provide an explanatory scheme for invisible somethings that cause little blips or lines on a measuring device. "Quarks behave as if they were point particles, usually bound together within the nucleus of an atom by a force that is like tiny powerful rubber bands....etc." We have no epistemic window on quarks, our knowledge is second-hand, and all we can do is make mathematical predictions as to how they will interact with instruments. They lie in the realm that Kant would have called noumenal, essentially unknowable in themselves - we have no real ontology of quarks, so we have no ontic truths about them. The only truths are predictive ones - fire up the LHC, smack some protons into each other, you get some blips with a certain amount of energy, that's it.

Insofar as predictive truths can be refined, can extrapolate farther and for more situations, then I suppose you could call whatever is being studied a moving target. But, no, ontic truth isn't a moving target. Whatever quarks are, they are that which they are and will remain so, unless all matter vanishes in some unthinkably distant future.
User avatar
Braininvat
Forum Administrator
 
Posts: 6693
Joined: 21 Jan 2014
Location: Black Hills


Re: The Hole Truth

Postby Faradave on November 16th, 2016, 12:53 pm 

NoShips wrote:Still a bit confused [on my "operational definition of truth"]

It would seem irrational to ask questions, unless true answers are presumed.

But some questions defy answer. Is a hole real? You can fall into a hole in the ground. But if you take away the ground (i.e. planet), the question becomes absurd. A "hole" is an object which is not there. In some respects a "particle" is that kind of object. I would personally argue that this is literally true, but I expect most physicists to be appropriately skeptical.

NoShips wrote:truth is simply what we take it to be (to which I express outrage :) ) -- truth moves!!

I'm not sure I see the inconsistency.* What we take truth to be changes (i.e. "moves").

*presuming "truth moves" is your assertion.

NoShips wrote:...the majority of physicists?

The majority of physicists recognize the Standard Model of Particle Physics (SMoPP) as a common ground, consistent with observation, upon which they can build. However SMoPP is subject to revision if observation deviates from its predictions.
User avatar
Faradave
Active Member
 
Posts: 1733
Joined: 10 Oct 2012
Location: Times Square (T2)


Re: Science and truth

Postby Braininvat on November 16th, 2016, 1:03 pm 

Hence, there are always messes to smopp up.




sorry
User avatar
Braininvat
Forum Administrator
 
Posts: 6693
Joined: 21 Jan 2014
Location: Black Hills
BioWizard liked this post


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 16th, 2016, 9:53 pm 

Thanks to all who responded. I'm hoping to write a little more later to discuss the issues raised, but first this comment from Faradave:

"I'm not sure I see the inconsistency.* What we take truth to be changes (i.e. "moves")."

Certainly, what we take to be truth changes; I don't believe anyone denies this. But that's not the position Eclogite has been endorsing above -- he's telling us that truth itself changes. ("truth is a moving target")

The distinction is critical. It's one between metaphysics, on the one hand (the way things really are), and epistemology on the other (our beliefs about the way things really are).

Eclogite's position, assuming he stands by it, would be considered pretty radical by most people. After all, intuitively I think most of us would be very reluctant to endorse the claim that before Mt Everest was recognized as the highest mountain in the world, it was not the highest mountain in the world.

Most of us, I suspect, would feel more comfortable with the claim that Mt Everest in the year 1500, say, was nonetheless higher than any other mountain on Earth; this fact was simply not known to us. In other words, most of us, I think, would prefer to say that this (Everest's being #1) has always been true -- the truth has not changed. What's changed is not the facts, but our understanding of the facts.

(ignoring complications about underwater mountains and geological upheavals)
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby BadgerJelly on November 17th, 2016, 4:07 am 

Mt. Eurasia? Haha

Intersting thread :)
User avatar
BadgerJelly
Resident Member
 
Posts: 5343
Joined: 14 Mar 2012


Re: Science and truth

Postby BadgerJelly on November 17th, 2016, 4:20 am 

Mt. Eurasia? Haha

Intersting thread :)

Everest is getting losing height day by day. Everything we know is related to time, therefore everything changes. Abstracts are abstracts and present a model of an unchnaginf world from which to establish "truths".

It is to me that Brie is delicious. It is not true for everyone else. It would be a little bizarre if I set out trying to prove that I find Brie delicious and people could ask for specifically what I mean by Brie and delicious. I would relate this back to a school trip to France and buying Brie from a market. It was delicious. I have eaten brie that has not been so appealing so it can be said that my original statement is not technically true because not all brie is delicious.

I am not a scientist. I would say science has little concern for the idea of "truth". For science the data is data and the results are results. The interpretation applied to these data sets is what frames "truth" or "non-truth". Given that data sets are limited some data may adhere to X being true and some to X being false. Interpretation is everything in regards to "truth" and the application of the language used to express such things.
User avatar
BadgerJelly
Resident Member
 
Posts: 5343
Joined: 14 Mar 2012


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 17th, 2016, 5:38 am 

Paradave, to add a little more, you said above:

"But some questions defy answer. Is a hole real? You can fall into a hole in the ground. But if you take away the ground (i.e. planet), the question becomes absurd. A "hole" is an object which is not there. In some respects a "particle" is that kind of object. I would personally argue that this is literally true, but I expect most physicists to be appropriately skeptical."

Well, I agree that the concept of a "hole" taxes our intuitions a bit, but with a little reflection I think the answer must be: "Yes! - holes are real".

What about that hole in your face that you eat through? Would you want to deny the reality of mouths? What about the Grand Canyon? Isn't that just a very big hole? Yet I don't imagine anyone doubts its reality.

As for "But if you take away the ground (i.e. planet), the question becomes absurd. A "hole" is an object which is not there.", I say no -- take away the planet and the Grand Canyon goes with it. Take away the person, and his mouth (and presumably all other holes) goes along with him.

I think the confusion, Paradave, -- if indeed there is any -- is that you seem to be imagining a hole to be nothing but space. It seems to me, though, space alone does not constitute a hole; it has to be space surrounded on most sides by something substantive. Something like a geographical feature -- a valley, say. Any valley skeptics out there?



Secondly, you said, "I'm not sure I see the inconsistency.* What we take truth to be changes (i.e. "moves"). *presuming "truth moves" is your assertion."

Sorry, I didn't phrase myself very clearly. What I meant was that "truth moves" is Eclogite's assertion, not mine. (See my previous post for more)



And finally, you said, "The majority of physicists recognize the Standard Model of Particle Physics (SMoPP) as a common ground, consistent with observation, upon which they can build."

This isn't really what I meant to ask. What I'm asking is: do you feel the majority of physicists would assent to the claim "Quarks are real?"

Thanks!
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby Eclogite on November 17th, 2016, 5:43 am 

NoShips » Thu Nov 17, 2016 1:53 am wrote:Eclogite's position, assuming he stands by it, would be considered pretty radical by most people. After all, intuitively I think most of us would be very reluctant to endorse the claim that before Mt Everest was recognized as the highest mountain in the world, it was not the highest mountain in the world.
I said, I think, at the outset that it all very much hinged on ones definition of truth. I also noted I did not have and was unlikely to offer a definition since, like truth itself, the definition was a moving target.

So, Mount Everest is not now the highest mountain in the world, nor was it so in 1500 AD. The highest mountain in the world is Chimborazo in Ecuador. As it is only just south of the equator is sits astride the equatorial bulge and it is thus further from the centre of the Earth than any other point on its surface.

A year ago I convinced a class of engineers that the sky was not blue and that anyone who thought it was was a fool. (I am confident the effect has worn off by now.) Truth is malleable. Depending on how one sets up the parameters.

As to whether I shall continue to stand by my position, only time will tell, and that's the Truth.
Eclogite
Forum Moderator
 
Posts: 1388
Joined: 07 Feb 2007
Location: Around and about


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 17th, 2016, 5:57 am 

BadgerJelly » November 17th, 2016, 5:20 pm wrote:Mt. Eurasia? Haha

Intersting thread :)

Everest is getting losing height day by day. Everything we know is related to time, therefore everything changes. Abstracts are abstracts and present a model of an unchnaginf world from which to establish "truths".

It is to me that Brie is delicious. It is not true for everyone else. It would be a little bizarre if I set out trying to prove that I find Brie delicious and people could ask for specifically what I mean by Brie and delicious. I would relate this back to a school trip to France and buying Brie from a market. It was delicious. I have eaten brie that has not been so appealing so it can be said that my original statement is not technically true because not all brie is delicious.

I am not a scientist. I would say science has little concern for the idea of "truth". For science the data is data and the results are results. The interpretation applied to these data sets is what frames "truth" or "non-truth". Given that data sets are limited some data may adhere to X being true and some to X being false. Interpretation is everything in regards to "truth" and the application of the language used to express such things.



Yes, Everest is changing height, the USA has a new president, and the Sun might explode tomorrow. No one denies that reality changes, but that's not the issue -- the question is whether truth does. Certain statements need to be indexed to a particular time and place, for example

It's raining, or, Ronald Reagan is president

We can't assign a truth value to these statements until we clarify the where and when.

If it's raining in Glasgow today (a state of affairs in reality) then the statement "It's raining in Glasgow today" has only one truth value (T), for this particular time and place, and that truth value will not be altered if -- wonder of wonders -- the sun comes out tomorrow.

How does that sound?
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Re: Science and truth

Postby BurtJordaan on November 17th, 2016, 6:24 am 

I don't like philosophical debates, but from my engineering/scientific background, there are only two types of truth: mathematical truths and factual truths. Properly executed observations are factual truths, but the interpretations of observations are not.

Also, mathematical models used in science are not truths, so in that sense, the existence of quarks is not a truth, because it is basically an interpretation of a model.
User avatar
BurtJordaan
Forum Moderator
 
Posts: 2595
Joined: 17 Oct 2009
Location: South Africa
Blog: View Blog (9)


Re: Science and truth

Postby NoShips on November 17th, 2016, 6:53 am 

Eclogite » November 17th, 2016, 6:43 pm wrote:I said, I think, at the outset that it all very much hinged on ones definition of truth. I also noted I did not have and was unlikely to offer a definition since, like truth itself, the definition was a moving target.



Yes, I agree; whichever concept of "truth" we adopt is critical to the discussion. I've been assuming the dominant correspondence theory of truth which, I believe, most closely reflects our intuitions. Truth, thus construed, is a relationship of correspondence between linguistic entities (statements, sentences, hypotheses, etc.), on the one hand, and states of affairs in reality, on the other hand. The statement "Paris is the capital of France" is true if and only if, in fact, Paris is the capital of France. Likewise for more scientific sounding statements such as "Copper conducts electricity" and "The top quark has a spin of..erm, whatever it is".

With this correspondence concept of truth, I don't believe truth can change. As you rightly point out, though, truth as correspondence is not the only game in town. Competitors include coherence and pragmatic theories of truth -- but as we've seen, all rivals to correspondence have some very counterintuitive consequences.
Last edited by NoShips on November 17th, 2016, 7:07 am, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
NoShips
Banned User
 
Posts: 1852
Joined: 07 Oct 2016
Location: Taiwan


Next

Return to Philosophy of Science

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 7 guests