“Theory”, “fact”, “truth” and “Truth”

In discussions on religion, the term “Truth” (with a capital ‘T’) is often used by the theist side as in “Let the Lord open your eyes to reveal the Truth to you.”. I must say, though, that I am a bit flummoxed by the theists use of the term, as I seen no relation to my understanding of the expression. Merriam-Webster lists the following for “truth”:

2 a (1) : the state of being the case : FACT
(2) : the body of real things, events, and facts : ACTUALITY
(3) often capitalized : a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality
b : a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true
c : the body of true statements and propositions3 a : the property (as of a statement) of being in
accord with fact or reality
b chiefly British : TRUE 2
c : fidelity to an original or to a standard


If you took the test “which one of these is not like the other”, 2a-3 should jump out at you. I am of a rather scientific or rational bent and sometimes use the word “truth” synonymously with “fact”. Saying that the water molecule is comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom I would consider to be true or factual. Now taking the argument to its (possibly very boring) philosophical end, I realize that we have not actually and literally seen those atoms per se, but we have staggering amounts of supporting and empirical knowledge on the subject of water that allows us to consider this true or factual in virtually any context that humans might ponder.

In fact our understanding of elements (those of periodic table fame) is really quite staggering considering that we cannot see them and some may have a vanishingly brief lifespan. We know these things because of science and testing. When, in 1913, Niels Bohr published his theoretical model of the atom, with its cluster of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons orbiting in discrete energy layers, it was, by necessity, completely abstract . . . impossible to verify visually and existing only in the minds of those that could grasp it. When the concept was introduced to this chemistry student around 25 years ago, I was initially hesitant to accept all of the model’s functional aspects. After all, how can we “know” so much of the architecture of something that we may never actually see? But Niels Bohr was a brilliant man and arguably one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and his theoretical model would demonstrate that.

The hallmark of a good theory is its ability to hold up to testing and (more importantly) that predictions based on the theory prove accurate. Indeed this chemistry student was very impressed to find that the Bohr model of the atom was so robust, that every elemental and chemical prediction (that I know of) based on that model was dead-on. From 1913 to today, this model has held up time after time after time.

Where this leads me is one interpretation of “truth”. We have a working model of an atom that has not failed in any significant way for over 90 years. Within the scientific community, we consider this description of the atom to be “true” or factual within the framework of what we know; though it is always a possibility that new knowledge may eventually replace that time-tested model (at which point scientists will giddily and happily embrace their newfound knowledge). What started as an abstract theory gains more and more credibility with testing. Each time the theory is affirmed through experimentation and the model performing as expected, the theory eventually gains more and more credibility and approaches the [arguably unreachable] status as undeniable fact. Yet, even after all this time and testing, the Bohr model of the atom is still a theory and will likely never be anything more.

Let us now take Mr. Bohr’s atoms and make something familiar. Most of us would not dispute the claim that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Again, we know this because back in 1800, water was split to produce hydrogen and oxygen gases. Experimentation since then has always confirmed this and we consider this a fact. It may surprise some to know that Darwin’s theory of evolution is every bit as robust as the theory of the model of the atom and the composition of water. What many vocal theists claim is that, by simple presence of the term “theory”, that there are vast chasms of doubt and uncertainty in Darwin’s revolutionary postulation. In the time since Darwin put forth his radical idea, it has held up empirically untold thousands of times. Even through simple observation of living and extinct species, the theory held up nicely. With our relatively recent understanding of DNA, we gained yet another completely independent tool to substantiate the theory and bring the evolutionary tree into much clearer focus. Evolution is in a small and respected set of scientific precepts that are effectively considered facts. There is no scientific body of repute that disputes evolution . . . none.

To the extent that we can say so; the Bohr model of the Atom is true. The H20 is true. Gravity is true. Evolution is true.

Let us now capitalize the ‘T’ and discuss “Truth” as it is used by vocal theists. I have no doubts that many that bandy “Truth” about in their theistic discussions genuinely believe that they are discussing “truth”. Unfortunately, attaining “truth” takes far more rigor than attaining “Truth”.

I feel I have to wade into some of the things that we know about the brain and neurobiology. All the tremendous advances in our understanding of human physiology are wonderful, but they underscore how little we really know (“potatoes are good for you . . . oh wait . . . now they are bad for you”) At or near the top of the heap of things we DON’T know about the human body is the brain and how it does the amazing things that it does. How do visually indistinguishable, clay-like globs of neurons allow you to comprehend what you are reading now and allow you contemplate what you might eat for your next meal? We, basically, have no idea. Of course we have recently developed tools that allow us to just start the journey to answering those questions. We now know, for instance, that a certain glob of neurons gets busy when we are reading. Similarly, we know that another glob of neurons gets busy when we are contemplating lunch. This knowledge is, of course, light-years away from a level of understanding that might approach our understanding of, let’s say, the functioning of the heart. (by the way, the term “light-years” is a measure of distance . . . not time. It is the distance traveled by light in one earth year.)

Still; we have gained some tremendous insights into the brain’s workings in the human animal. It is quite malleable (in an abstract sense) in its ability to rewire itself based on input. At the risk of using an example that some cannot relate to . . . think about driving a car with a manual transmission. The driver has to coordinate two feet, three pedals, engine speed and gear shift based on road grade, road condition, engine noise, speed, and traffic (along with many less obvious sensory inputs and thoughts). All of these inputs and resulting actions must be executed properly in real-time. Failure to do so can result in property damage or injury to yourself or others . . . or at the very least, personal embarrassment. Anyone who has mastered the skill of using a manual transmission has gone through the same process; combining the many disparate actions into one, single, fluid, motion. What started as a seemingly impossibly list of tasks soon becomes a single, simple unconscious act. During this learning process the driver has, quite literally, rewired their brain with new connections and effectively created a “manual transmission” region of the brain. At this point, your conscious self need not worry about that aspect of your drive; your brain simply offloads that task to your newly created brain region. OK. Neurobiologists would probably have a little constructive criticism of my analogy, but the point holds true; your brain becomes what it needs to be.

These learned behaviors can be incredibly persistent too. Once I learned to drive a “stick”, I had no problem getting into other manual transmission cars and driving safely. Years and years can pass without driving a “stick” and I could still drive one when the need arose . . . and this after just some short hours behind the wheel. It would seem that once your brain is wired, unless there is some information that supplants it, it can hold onto information for a lifetime.

Now let us return to “Truth”. Imagine instead of a few hours learning some aspect of driving a car, you spent years, your entire lifetime actually, being told that a couple millennia back, a fellow was born to a woman who had never had sex. This fellow was actually sent by an all powerful fellow in the sky. He was generally a good guy (he had his moods, though). He got some people mad at him, they nailed him to a cross . . .etc, etc, etc. You get the idea. Much of this religious narrative is unverifiable and implausible, but you spend your whole life being told these stories as fact by people you know, love and trust. You grow up in a country where the story is virtually institutionalized and almost inescapable. You are pretty sure that your neighbors felt the same way too. No one told you otherwise. After all; if something didn’t hold up in this story, wouldn’t someone say something? [Unfortunately, no!]

Now imagine your brain awash in these precepts; from the time before you even have memories, when your brain was still forming physically. Imagine the wiring in your head. Imagine how those stories became a part of you . . . literally became a part of you in the arrangements of neurons. As you have grown, you have successfully dismissed the doubts regarding things that didn’t add up. Your faith’s dogma has taught you that not questioning is a virtue. Your faith’s dogma has taught you that . . . well . . . “faith” is a virtue. Your faith’s dogma has taught you that, with devotion to God, you will know the “Truth”. Your brain becomes, in effect, a belief organ. Just as your liver is adapted to filter blood and your lungs are adapted to extract oxygen, all the higher functions of the brain are influenced by inculcated religious tales to rewire into an entity that is supremely well adapted to accept and interpret dogma.

I have no doubt that those that know “Truth” feel that they know “truth”, but dispassionate analysis (and hopefully this humble missive) demonstrates that, in reality, there is a vast ocean of difference between the two; and that may be a conservative assessment. Mock-pundit Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” which can be aptly applied to “Truth”. Wikipedia defines “truthiness” as:

“things that a person claims to know intuitively, instinctively, or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts.”

“Truth” (capital T) can be experienced through many avenues; reading scripture, spiritual music, eloquent sermons, and meditation to name a few. “Truth” (capital T) seems to ring true to the religious brain just as my analytical brain would be similarly stimulated by contemplating an apple falling to earth under the (theoretical) force of gravity. I have to imagine that the sensations are the same when the religious and non-religious brains see or hear things that fit or reinforce what that brain has wired itself to be. It should not be surprising that the religious-brained are flummoxed when information that does not fit their theistic worldview is presented. On matters where science and religion overlap, I imagine scientific, analytical reasoning feels, to the religious-brained, like the wacky fun houses where a house is built on a slope making it appear that water pours at an angle and people stand when they should be toppling over.

In my estimation, the owner of one brain would find the other brain’s interpretation of what is plausible to be oddly non-intuitive and, well, just wouldn’t feel right. I would think it natural that this brain would like to help the other brain to a more sensible, comfortable worldview . . . their worldview. The believer wants to show the non-believer the “Truth”. The non-believer wants to show the believer the “truth”. Neither is well prepared to make such a change.

I have come to revere “truth”, being based on genuine, verifiable, testable knowledge. I have come to regard “Truth” as merely the sensory interpretation of religious tales passed down through the ages. To their respective brains they feel fundamentally the same, but “Truth” is, at best, flawed and, at worst, delusional and dangerous.

Can we unwire the religious brain? For several reasons, it is very difficult. It would seem that we, as a species, have some fundamental need to understand and explain our world. We want to understand how to stay warm. We want to understand how to find food. We want to understand how the sun moves across the sky. We want to understand the change of seasons. Primitive man clearly could figure out much that was needed for survival better than any creature previously existing. That ability and curiosity does not turn off once an individual has achieved a certain level of security or comfort. Indeed, that innate intellect is put toward questions that were clearly beyond the ability of primitive man to answer; questions like “Where does the Sun go at night?”, “Why do the stars and moon move across the sky?”, “Why do they seem no closer even from the highest hill?”, “Where did we come from?”, and “Why am I good to my neighbor?”. When evidence, logic and reason cannot provide an answer, mythology fills the void as something of a place-holder until empirical knowledge (hopefully) replaces it. In the end, the human species seems to require an answer (or at least an avenue of thought) to attach to virtually all of life’s questions.

Religion cannot simply be debunked; it must be replaced with another set of answers. The scientific community certainly has debunked a great many gods throughout history. Science has similarly discredited great swaths of today’s popular religious teachings. What has not occurred, though, is that these scientific insights have not been stated loudly, clearly, and repeatedly for the masses. This is, in part, because religion has been beyond criticism. That has to change and there are indications that religion is becoming more and more the target of dispassionate analysis.

Growing up Catholic, it took me many years to fully realize my atheistic outlook. I did not do this by unlearning Catholicism, but by seeking “truth”. That empirical truth, amassed over YEARS, eventually created its own brain region which competed with religion. I asked the big questions and I researched what we really know about those questions. Many of those questions can be answered quite satisfactorily with empirical evidence. Some, though not answered, do at least seem to have plausible, non-supernatural explanations. There are, of course, unanswered questions such as the origin of the universe. To me, though, religion had failed so many times on much more pedestrian questions, it seemed intellectually irresponsible to credit a god simply because I didn’t (yet) know the answer.

So let all of us Freethinkers take up the torch and get the naturalistic explanations out where people can hear them repeatedly. When you hear someone give religion credit where none is due, be gracious, but don’t let it go unchallenged. After all, decisions are ALWAYS better if they are based on true knowledge . . . with a little “t”.

4 comments:

Riker said...

Bloody brilliant.

Sincerest congratulations on creating an elegant and lucid explanation of the dilemma we're facing today. You wrote the essay I'd been hoping to write myself.

Thanks for this wonderful contribution!

FVThinker said...

Thanks. I too (as you said in your blog) have fallen off the horse in terms of posting. Thanks for visiting.

BTW: How did you come across my blog?

Regards,
Mike

John Shore said...

Hey, Mike. Well, I thought those guys would come over! I guess not. One thing is, it's kind of a pain to comment on blogger, right? You gotta punch in their little no-spam word, and do a whole log-in thing, and so on. I have to say I hardly ever take the four or five extra steps it takes to comment on a blogger site.

Still. I thought they'd show up! Maybe they figured they'd already said it all?

FVThinker said...

Well, I posted it late. I might still see them.

So John, what is your take on the veracity of the flood story? Is it important that it is factually true or not?