Finding Truth: Through Science vs Belief?
Have you ever wondered why book libraries have a ‘Fiction‘ section and a ‘Non-Fiction‘ section
(rather than say a Fiction and a ‘Factual‘ section)?
This is largely because it is almost always easier to define any information relative to it’s ‘intent‘
(rather than definitively verifying it as fact or not).
In fact (if there is indeed one above all others), it is almost impossible to prove 100% beyond a shadow of a doubt that any single thing is completely true. But then at the end of the day, that annoying little chestnut is something for the ages, and for philosophers to mull over.
For the rest of us, it all comes back to how we deal with ‘truth’ practically, in our daily lives.
Now, in doing so, I’m bound to encroach on some of the perceptions you hold closest to your heart and mind – you know, the things that you define yourself, the world, and everything in it, by. So don’t worry I’ll go gently on us both. But the truth is the truth right?
And if so, surely the closer grasp we can get of it, the less discomfort and wasted effort or resources we will incur, and therefore the more of our true full potential we will be able to fulfill.
What is Truth?
We all seek it, claim it and ultimately, proclaim it.
It guides our thoughts and actions as we go about our lives, as individuals and as a society,
and is driven by some of our inner-most drivers and desires for understanding, meaning, safety, certainty, predictability, order, control, power, influence, necessity, and many others…
So let’s first define it.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘the truth‘ as something that is,
and it defines ‘reality‘ as being,
Without getting bogged down in too many philosophical conundrums here, ‘reality’ by definition can therefore really only mean one reality… an objective and final, absolute reality out there, and around us, for us each to get our heads around.
(even if it turns out that we are all co-contributors to it …if you subscribe to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics that is)
However the dictionary definition also goes on to refer to ‘a truth‘ as,
and interestingly the origins of the word ‘truth’ stem from the old english word ‘trīewth‘ which means,
And so, THIS is where we might get into trouble.
If merely a widely held belief can also fulfill the definition of a truth, (at least in practical thought and language), and our original intentions in capturing the concept of truth, assumed that there were always reliable constants with which to base things on, or be ‘true to’, it is no wonder that so much of human history has been spent arguing over differing versions of the prevailing perceived ‘truth’ of the time.
However, the world (the more we have explored it in modern times), appears to be far more complex than each previous generation imagined, and therefore is seemingly infinitely contextual at the same time.
i.e. this means that whilst absolute truths can be said to exist, each and every one of them may only apply to the exact circumstances or moment that they relate to.
Yet our human desire for simple universal truths still often embroils us in confusion and dispute about what these universal truths are, as we each comment from our differing experiences, circumstances and vantage points.
Why is This Important?
The pursuit of health and happiness in life is very much reliant on sound perceptions of what is true, about ourselves, and our circumstances, as well as those around us. Because it is this perspective that will guide what we do in life (and hopefully why we do it) – i.e. how we think, act and feel.
This then becomes doubly important when considering the role of professionals and public figures advising others on the best courses of action to take toward achieving their goals, based on their own subjective judgement.
Perception, and its alignment with truth, subjective or objective, is clearly very important.
What is Belief?
Seeing as the definitions of truth described above have already employed the words ‘belief’ and ‘acceptance’, it is perhaps not surprising that the Oxford Dictionary simply defines belief as,
but interestingly asserts that this ‘acceptance‘ is often,
and goes on to describe our ‘belief in something‘ as something we have,
Why is This a Problem?
Why not just throw up our hands and say ‘to each their own truth’?
Well, as explained above, belief is just that, a highly individualised and subjective, often unproven, viewpoint, based on inevitably limited information, and yet, (sparing any philosophical paradoxes) our shared reality, by definition, can only constitute one actual resulting truth.
This is perhaps most succinctly illustrated by the definition of ‘reality’ offered by the fiction author Philip Dick:
Denial of this reality can therefore cause real injury and suffering.
As it has been said: “ignorance, regardless of conviction, does not forgive error“.
Or as the famous writer/philospher Aldous Huxley put it:
For these reasons (at least ever since The Enlightenment) we as humans have sought to define ‘the truth’ in a way that we can all collectively explore and observe together, without resorting to pre-ordained dogmas (which history has shown us can often provide us with some pretty flawed premises with which to base life, and the pursuit of everything we value).
The Danger of Falsehood
From the certainty that the floor will be there to hold us when we step out of bed each morning, to the choices we make regarding our everyday diet, lifestyle and environment, our perceptions and convictions about the world, shape what we do.
The greater the error in our perceptions or understanding of something, the greater the potential suffering and loss that can stem from it.
i.e. whether there is hidden harm being caused that we fail to discover and address, or wasted time, effort and resources invested in erroneous strategies to improve the health and wellbeing of ourselves and loved ones, or worse misguided efforts that cause unnecessary harm themselves, there is clearly a direct and tangible consequence for us being less aware of truth in many aspects of our daily lives.
All departures from truth can result in increased suffering, and a reduction in how much of our true potential we can access in our lives.
Private Knowing vs Public Knowing
In order to enhance our understanding of our own individual subjective experiences, we clearly need some objective observation points.
Searching for truths that are observable, reproducible, and therefore ultimately verifiable, is the path we have found throughout history most closely brings us to any ‘objective truth‘, which can therefore most assist us in imparting valid information between each other in a society.
However, given the vast amount of truth out there that is unobservable or unverifiable, the above does not erase our ability, nor our right, to form our own personal thoughts and perspectives for ourselves and hold them as ‘personal’ truths (beliefs), especially during the crucial process of exploration.
It simply illustrates the need for some external verifiable reference point, evidence, or rationale, before truths can be ethically shared between individuals publicly.
Otherwise, not only is there insufficient validation to expect one person’s ‘personal’ beliefs to be held above all the other equally convinced voices, opinions, agendas and subjective perceptions that often dominate any human discourse, but it is exactly that conviction of each individual that their’s should be the one truth held above all others, that this deafening din (and sometimes even conflict) occurs.
This allows for truth to be a source of peace and empowerment to all who encounter and share it, and therefore capable of bringing about the alleviation of suffering.
Perhaps the primary way that truth ever causes suffering and destruction, is at the hands of those who refuse to accept it or seek to control it.
This is why evidence and rationale are the crucial and primary ways of providing an ethical basis to all truth claims.
What is Science?
Science, from the Latin word ‘scientia‘, simply means ‘to know’ or ‘knowledge’
(to know that which is so).
Which as a concept seems fairly obvious and innocuous. But in modern terms, when we use the word ‘science’, we are nearly always referring to the ‘Scientific Method‘. Which is a WAY of finding out truth, and hence determining it to become knowledge.
This has been an immensely powerful development in our cultural history as a society, and has changed the world beyond imagination over the past few centuries.
What Exactly is The Scientific Method?
When those who have had the privilege of being educated in science are first taught the ‘Scientific Method‘, they are taught that ‘good’ scientists hold everything constant, while they test ONE factor at a time, according to the following sequence:
This leads to enrichment and refinement of knowledge through science via the following life cycle:
A Note on Theory
For this reason a ‘theory‘ initially starts out as a basic untested idea, explanation or premise (which is perhaps the context that popular speech most uses the word for) – but as subsequent testing continues to support, enrich and refine the theory, the term ‘theory’ can actually come to mean the highest known level of ‘truth’ (if it has been tested and tested, and is merely refined (not thrown out) due to being increasingly shown to be valid).
For this reason a ‘theory’ in science can actually mean something that we give the highest validity to (once thoroughly tested), rather than the least validity, depending on where you catch it in this cycle, and how many times this cycle has been applied to it.
A scientific theory therefore represents the accumulation of a body of evidence (or observations) of a particular natural phenomenon – (and often applies to phenomena that are too complex and multi-factorial to be neatly summarised simply as a ‘law’).
So we should always use caution in referring to something as ‘just’ a theory. As a theory may actually become as good as we can ever know something to be true, (like atoms, the existence of germs, and that living organisms are made of cells).
Hurdles to Truth Through Science
The Scientific Method was developed for the key purpose (amongst others) of attempting to overcome certain human tendencies of perception and belief about what is true, to hopefully attain a more accurate level of truth (more true to objective reality), without resorting to dogma, superstition or other merely cultural, suppositional or fear-based paths to belief/conviction.
For this reason, science may play very little role in shaping our own ‘personal’ truths at times (everything we subjectively perceive, and choose to believe for ourselves), but the natural philosophers that began to formalise this process in the 1700s were seeking to overcome personal truth, to see if they could determine more absolute and objective truth, and therefore progress our thinking and understanding of the world and how we could better go about navigating it.
There are however some challenges inherent to this quest. Challenges that science seeks to overcome, but that the scientific process itself is still subject to (after all, those of us contributing to science are still human).
Subjectivity of Perception
Science only gives us data – there is no definitive guidebook to correct interpretation.
(interpretation is still based on our subjective pre-conceived notions, and the results of all existing premises we already hold to be true)
It is often hard for us to get far enough away from ourselves to form an impartial perspective.
(because our minds are ‘comparison machines’ – we define and understand things based on how they are, relative to everything else)
For example; Have you ever noticed how you only seem to be fully able to perceive the unique smell of your own home after you have been away from it for a while?
However, there are many aspects of our reality that our human capabilites simply cannot perceive.
(for example, our vision can only see a small slither of the true electromagnetic spectrum of energy that surrounds us at all times, and yet we often trust our own senses and perceiving abilities above all else when we say things like “I will only believe it if I see it with my own eyes“, to determine truth)
For these reasons our personal ‘experience’ of something is often not necessarily an accurate reflection of its reality, and we must therefore have caution in relying on our assumptions and intuitions on the nature of these things alone.
Our conviction that we can only really trust our own view of reality needs to acknowledge that we can only ever see it from our own single vantage point.
A few ways to overcome these limitations are to:
a) make lots of observations
b) engage with as many others as possible – to enrich your view through discourse.
What About Our Powers of Logic & Deduction?
Our ‘common’ sense, is somewhat more robust to rely on then, right?
Well lets take the ‘Monty Hall Problem‘ as a fairly everyday example of how counter-intuitive the truth of things can be.
The Monty Hall problem relates to a theoretical conundrum where a game show prize exists behind one of three doors, and you get to select one door only. After you make your selection, one of the other two doors (one that does not contain the prize) will open. Your dilemma is whether you should opt to change your original selection (of the two remaining closed doors), before all is revealed.
Some might say that the odds at this point are an equal 50:50 chance between the two remaining doors, but strangely, counter to instinct and even common logic, mathematically your odds of winning are substantially greater if you change your selection at this point (after the first door has been opened). This has caused much debate, even among many academics, for decades. Yet if you try the experiment, the truth (often counter to your expectations) will be revealed.
These issues challenge medical science in particular, because not only are subjective markers of improvement often employed to determine patient status or outcomes, but the study design, execution and interpretation of studies are all done by human scientists that are also never completely free of such limitations in their own human perception. This can lead to a substantial amount of compounded error in some scientific studies.
Reductionism is the tendency to take an excessively myopic approach to enquiry, that can result in such a narrow scope of investigation that it loses perspective of the big picture, and therefore the relevance and sometimes even accuracy of any insights gained from that investigation.
The sheer complexity of the world, and the things in it (us included), means that there is often a challenge (when reducing the observations of any phenomena to more manageable components that are easier to understand and control), to avoid eliminating something essential to it’s correct overall understanding in the process.
Even the language we use to communicate ideas and truths must inherently incur a loss of fidelity.
As the Buddhist Monk Huineng quipped, way back in the 7th century:
…which has been summarised in the proverb: “When the sage points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger“.
This story highlights the risk in getting too bogged down and focused on measurable and observable indicators, that we end up missing the overall (often less tangible) meaning of it all.
It also shows us that sometimes those indicators are a distraction (where the overall truth could be more easily observed directly, by simply adopting the right perspective).
Bias is a cognitive phenomena that can take many forms, but almost all forms, by definition, tend to warp our perceptions of truth.
Of the many forms of human bias, ‘Confirmation Bias‘ is perhaps one of the most prevalent, insidious, and relevant to modern health science.
As humans, we have an uncanny ability for seeking out samples of information from our day-to-day experiences and environment that validate the current beliefs we already hold to be true.
We seem to enjoy simply reinforcing our convictions in them, rather than acknowledging anything that might challenge them.
Rather than go to the mental effort to re-evaluate a position or perception we currently hold on something (especially if it is a core belief, that if questioned would undermine many other connected beliefs), we often prefer to believe that we simply already have it all correct, rather than lose face, endure any confronting emotions, or unravel a complex web of partial truths and misconceptions that require intricate disassembly and re-assembly.
This is called ‘Confirmation Bias‘ (the bias to interpret any new information in way that confirms what we already believe), and it is perhaps the single most significant hurdle to claiming a sound personal understanding of ourselves and our world.
Yet a process of regularly challenging and rectifying our beliefs is required in order to find the increasing nuance within any concept or topic, and grasp the true detail that the real world invariably involves.
In fact, a significant purpose of the scientific method was designed to overcome and ‘weed out’ areas where Confirmation Bias was at play in what we held to be true as a society.
Although it should be noted that the scientific practice of forming a ‘Hypothesis‘ first, and then setting out to prove or disprove it – may sometimes lead us to be more prone to confirmation bias (when looking to see if our initial predictions were true), than if we explored without such focused attachment to what we might find.
The Placebo Effect
Placebo is essentially another form of bias. One that provides a profound illustration of the power of the human mind, its subjectivity, and the power of belief.
The fact that our mere presumption that something is the case, can actually bring it into being, is truly amazing.
Yet it has become such a familiar phenomenon that most modern scientific research no longer blinks at the need to at least attempt to control for it’s effects as much as possible within research studies.
This is so familiar to us that we often forget to see what immense implications it has.
(i.e. That every theoretical question, in the real world, is actually experienced and influenced very differently between times, places and individuals)
So whatever absolute truth we may feel we uncover, we need to remember that in practice there is no controlling for placebo in every day life, and the success or failure of many well-evidenced protocols are sometimes made or broken by the context with which they are delivered (if the placebo affect is at play, whether positively or negatively).
And it goes both ways. When the placebo effect (beliefs about what ‘should’ be the case) are negative, this can result in the ‘nocebo‘ effect.
This means that there are certain situations where even a successfully ‘proven’ medical treatment’s effects are diminished, negated or even reversed if the patient’s perceptions are at odds with it.
It also means that seemingly inert substances or baseless actions (that have no evidenced basis to have any effect) can sometimes exert powerful effects in those that believe they should.
If this does not humble all but perhaps the most hardened scientists or the very freshest of medical graduates who are yet to encounter this in the real world, then what can be said.
The truth clearly is that… belief matters.
The Subjectivity of ‘Why’
The Scientific process has provided immense power at describing the WHATs and HOWs behind many processes within the observable world. (e.g. our ability to identify, and then describe in immense detail the inner-most workings of the cell for example, or even the atom itself)
These after all, are very objectively measurable, repeatable and observable realities, which is partly how we have achieved such granularity to our modern understanding and knowledge in such areas.
But rarely does science do a satisfactorily objective job of determining WHY these things are the way they are.
For this reason the scientific process tends to err on the side of avoiding WHYs, or at least perhaps favours the greater tangibility of the WHATs and HOWs, and leaves the WHYs to philosophy, conjecture, or sometimes (as a last resort) dismissing them as unscientific or irrelevant.
This is not a failing of science per se, however it highlights the limitations that exist for determining certain absolute and verifiable truths between individuals.
We may need to acknowledge that the ‘WHYs‘ might be where subjective personal belief must be allowed to lay.
Especially since much of our human history of thought and understanding has actually been advanced through thought that was, at the time, considered to be implausible, and yet it contributed to our overall understanding of the next scientific breakthrough.
The quality of our personal interpretations and perspectives of our world are certainly likely to be improved by increasing the amount of causal relationships we can identify while observing the ‘HOWs‘ (e.g. looking at functional relationships, and maintaining holistic perspectives of multiple interconnected factors).
However these can start to boggle the human mind when we still attempt to isolate and control each of them for the purposes of reductionist forms of evidence-based elucidation.
Hence ‘evidence-based‘ approaches to science do sometimes have limitations.
Limitations that we need to acknowledge, and understand how best to address, for optimum collective understanding to progress into the future in a sound way.
How We Arrive At Truth Matters
It may be a rare approach to questioning that holds no investment in the answer, but merely the desire to know what actually is.
A certain amount of openness, integrity and restraint is therefore needed to hold a space for truth, without filling it.
Because multiple explanations can all overlap to create multiple valid theories of a reality, there is often no way of arriving at absolute truth through mere deduction alone.
We therefore need to gain some acceptance and comfort with the fact that nothing is 100% knowable.
All we ever have is a piece of truth that is plausible or satisfying to us.
The humility to approach our questions this way invariably requires a certain amount of emotional awareness and reserve.
An Intellectual Game of Jenga
How Emotions Make or Break Everything
The importance of how we emotionally approach intellectual pursuits is often not acknowledged.
a) rationality and emotionality appear to be two different things,
b) because those that have an inclination to one, may perhaps be less inclined to the other.
But it would surely be a mistake to claim that the pursuit of truth, and the scientific process, are emotionless pursuits.
This common perception may arise from the fact that scientific enquiry is so often, by design, aiming to eliminate as much subjective emotion as possible (to prevent emotions contaminating our perceptions).
But we should perhaps also acknowledge that the very impetus to seek truth in the first place, is itself often still driven by just that… emotions.
e.g. curiosity, desire (especially for control), fear, inspiration, etc. These are all common drivers of scientific enquiry, that inherently involve emotion.
So if we do not have a healthy self awareness and acknowledgement of the emotions that drive us, we may be less able to detect their influence on how we form views of the world.
It is not only emotion that fuels our search for knowledge, but also provides the framework in our minds with which to store that knowledge (everything holds meaning relative to all the other beliefs we hold, often with interconnected dependencies)
The trick with building knowledge, is that it is like building a Jenga tower or a house of cards.
If we construct higher levels of knowledge on shaky foundations, it can undermine the validity and accuracy of our entire tree of assumptions and premises that give meaning to all that we observe and believe.
Potentially compounding the misperceptions over time, (until the erroneous beliefs are removed and replaced).
(which can be a complex and precarious extraction process for us to undertake in our minds – which is probably why we don’t tend to like doing it)
Emotional Resilience as a Pre-Requesite for Truth
If we do not have the emotional resilience to allow our beliefs to be challenged by evidence, and instead prefer to alter our perceptions to fit our theories, we will have to resort to ever more effort to maintain our position, especially if exposed to more and more information.
In particular, if we do not have the emotional resilience to allow our beliefs to be challenged by others, we will need to either withdraw from the discourse to avoid being challenged (denying ourselves the above-mentioned crucial component of truth seeking that discourse with others provides), or we will need to resort to defiant or combative stances which may only exacerbate confusion in the public discourse, which only increases the likelihood that truth will be claimed by the most domineering rather than the most correct.
Knowing & Humility
An interesting phenomena occurs in many fields of study. Those who are new to the field, immediately acknowledge their lack of knowledge on the topic. However after acquiring even a preliminary amount of knowledge on the topic, there is often a strong tendency to overestimate how much they now know. Then, once a veteran of the topic starts reaching a level of mastery of the topic, they begin to return to a sense of believing that very little is known.
As the Zen master Qingyuan Weixin wrote:
…which is summarised in the proverb: “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is“.
If you observe almost anyone who has reached the pinnacle of their field, you may notice that this has become more apparent (that for them, no truth is complete, nor categorically reliable).
Why we must have Humility in our pursuit of truth:
This is particularly true within the science of health and medicine.
The Power of Principles & Paradigm
Sometimes it is more powerful (and attainable) to formulate a principle that captures a greater collection of truth.
Rather than wading through an endless ocean of facts and isolated incidents, it can be more powerful (and attainable) to observe and formulate universal principles that things operate by.
Then when any new information or data becomes available it can be compared against the principles, and either matches those set of principles (strengthening them) or demonstrates a need to refine the expand the principles to accommodate an exception or contradiction.
This approach allows us to accumulate large amounts of information and meaning in our lives, and use it to form wisdom and perspective through paradigm (not simply a cluttered database of facts, held to be true merely in theory, and easily forgotten).
This becomes directly useful and applicable in our daily life, and assists us with decision making as well as predicting outcomes from various possible actions to be taken.
i.e. The optimum paths to take can become clearer, the more awareness of various universal principles has been acquired.
It is clearly not just investigation and observation that is required for uncovering truth. It is the chosen interpretation and perspective that can make any given fact able to hold relevance, meaning and provide guidance.
No. 1 – All Perception Is Subjective
We all need to acknowledge and account for our own personal subjectivity.
Two individuals observing the exact same reality or data, can often come to very different conclusions.
No. 2 – There’s More To Reality Than We Can Ever Fully Perceive
Reality is infinitely detailed and contextual (making every discovery only truly relevant to the moment and circumstances that it is encountered). Our senses of perception are also limited in many ways.
No. 3 – Not Everything Is Knowable
We therefore need to acknowledge that we can never prove anything to be 100% true.
And everything we know to be true is only true to a degree.”
No. 4 – Science Is The Best We’ve Got
As a means of determining truth, Science, as a process, can be seen to be far superior to blind belief, in forming conclusions about the world.
Science therefore helps protect us from the harm that may stem from making decisions about our health and happiness as a result of mere whim, fantasy, speculation, dogma, etc…
No. 5 – Scientific Conclusions are Still a Form of Belief
Although, despite being based on more rigorous grounds (seeking congruence with a verifiable collective reality), the pursuit, and practice, of science are both still substantially subjective and emotional processes. And even if conducted perfectly, Science still cannot determine all aspects of truth.
Yet Science remains the best we’ve got for verifying and sharing truth outside of ourselves.
No. 6 – Paradigm & Perspective Matters
The framing, mindset, perspective and principles that are held throughout any truth seeking process, will often colour, if not dictate, what is discovered and understood from that exploration, and certainly how it will be used.
No. 7 – Freedom of Belief & Thought
At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to form their own personal beliefs, by whatever standard they find reasonable and/or meaningful.
No. 8 – Ethical Sharing Of Ideas
We are all co-contributors to the collective truth of our community and civilisation.
But in order to share our personal beliefs with others, some form of evidence or rationale must be provided in order to make that imposition on other’s personal beliefs justified.
No. 9 – Humility Is Key To Progress
Some amount of humility, self-checking, and willingness to re-evaluate must always be maintained in the ethical pursuit of truth, for the accuracy of what is known to grow over time, and benefit all into the future.
No. 10 – Master Your Zen
Emotional intelligence, self awareness and integrity are key to whether the truths we hold, and share, will have a positive impact on the lives of ourselves and others.
One of the keys to life is finding what is true. True about the world. True about yourself.
The thing about truth, is that everyone feels they have it.
And that’s partly because everyone does have some of it.
But no one has all of it. (there are no monopolies on truth)
Even if someone holds plenty of personal truths, this does not necessarily mean that these are transferable or applicable to others in different circumstances.
The field of healthcare and medical science is therefore perhaps one of the primary arenas in life where the responsibility for acknowledging these realities is of the highest importance,
(if the degree of adherence to them can influence the amount of wellbeing vs suffering that is experienced by many).
Harnessing an awareness of core truths to the best of your ability in your own life, and aligning with with them wherever possible, rather than obstructing or opposing them, may help you and those closest to you, to reach your highest potential.
And this is what I wish for you.
To Your Best,