Monday, November 29, 2010

Science and the Loss of Certainty

By Beat Schwendimann

The world we live in is a complex environment. Humans are seeking to find order in chaos and longing for certainty.  Humans are driven to understand how the world works and what keeps the world together. This knowledge allows humans to predict and control the world. 
Early cultures aimed to explain natural phenomena by conceptualizing them as the doing of gods. The ancient Greeks distinguished between the gods (rational control) and the Titans (elementary forces), with the gods dominating over the titans. The concept of gods served as a higher order principle that allowed explaining a wide range of phenomena. Understanding the characteristics of gods, combined with devotion and sacrifices, gave people the comforting illusion of having some control over the chaos. (See blog entries on Representations of knowledge in mythology and Trees of Knowledge)
Humans created other mental concepts to see order in the world, for example structuring the world into a system of opposing elements. Seeing the world through the lens of basic elements made the world appear orderly, manageable, and controllable, for example the ancient Greeks distinguished four elements and the Chinese used five elements.

Aristotle distinguished two different forces that influence the world:
  • Episteme: The purpose of the universe ‘pulls’ objects towards the grand goal. The transcendental structure of the universe gives everything purpose and direction. This structure and purpose of the universe is meta-physical (non-physical). Aristotle understood this grand idea of the universe as ‘God’. However, this philosopher’s view of God as being a single impersonal ordering principle of the universe differed from the colorful pantheon of the common people. God was understood as being the order and the purpose of the universe. This allowed reasoning about why things happen (reasoning about the intentionality of phenomena).
  • Techne: This refers to the forces between material objects. The world of objects works through causal relationships. Causal connections ‘push’ objects without the need for intentionality on the side of the object.

According to Aristotle, reasoning about the world can happen on the level of Episteme (ideas, intentionality) or Techne (objects). However, Episteme was regarded as of higher order as Techne (God higher than natural elements). Over the centuries, organized religion promoted God as the controlling force. Belief in God was a comforting certainty for many people. The Christian Church actively silenced any critical voices who dared to question God’s existence or the Church’s authority (which was based on the belief of God’s existence). Christian philosophers attempted to prove God’s existence through a series of logic proofs. However, skeptics showed that none of the proposed ‘proofs’ of God’s existence finally held true. Descartes showed that everything could be doubted - except one’s own realization of existence. Even one’s own existence could still be an illusion, but at the least there must be some form of consciousness that creates that illusion. Rationalism brought an end to Episteme reasoning (belief in God) as no logic proof for the existence of God could be found. Nietzsche provocatively declared the death of God. He reasoned that God only exists as long as there are followers who believe in him. Since the Enlightenment period, the Christian Church lost significant influence and people started looking for alternative ways to find certain true knowledge.

People turned from Episteme to Techne as the way to find Truth. Since the Enlightenment, empiricist science became increasingly popular. At first, science was mostly considered a hobby of aristocrats displayed in for entertainment in social clubs. However, science found its way into the school curriculum and became a major enterprise. Science focuses exclusively on the natural world, which is composed of objects that behave according the certain causal natural laws. Empirical natural science began to replace religion as the source of trustworthy knowledge [1] . Scientific laws appear to be certain and reliable, based on repeatedly cross-checked evidence.

Scientists shattered many previously held false beliefs. Humankind, especially in the Western world, was certain that earth is the center of the universe. This geocentric view was challenged by Copernicus and Gallilei. Considering their observations of star movements, they concluded that only a heliocentric model of the solar system could explain their observations. Humankind lost its place in the center of the universe. Modern astronomy moved earth even further away from being central in the universe: Earth is not the only planet but only one of many. Our sun is only one of many and not even in the center of the galaxy but far out in one of the branches. Our galaxy is not the only one but only one of many.
Humankind may have lost its place in the center of the universe, but people could still be certain about the space around them and the flow of time. Einstein took this certainty away. He discovered that time and space are connected to each other, making both of them relative to each other. Space and time are not absolute but change with the influence of mass, for example the curvature of space around a black hole, or speed, for example the difference in the speed of time as seen from objects that move at different speeds.

Humankind lost the certainty of being in the center of the universe, space and time. However, people could still hold on to the belief that humankind holds a unique place in nature. Darwin took the belief that the existence of humankind and every individual human has a higher purpose away. He presented evidence that there is no divine plan in nature, but that life changes according to the undirected mechanism of natural selection. Since Darwin, his ideas of evolution got extended and confirmed by many different branches of science. Humans are no longer God’s special creation, but cousins of apes. 
The scientific view does not offer the comfort of a benevolent divine plan and an afterlife. However, science offered humankind the comforting belief in the certainty of causal natural laws. Hume shattered this certainty. His skepticism destroyed the very foundations of science. Hume pointed out that natural “laws” are not necessarily true, but only contingent. Natural “laws” and principles are based on repeated observation, for example the rising of the sun. However, repeated observation of a phenomenon is no sufficient and necessary guarantee that it will happen again. Hume changed our understanding of science as resulting in necessary Truth to statistical ‘truth’. Science does not and cannot result in Truth [2]. There are several reasons for this: First, as Hume pointed out, causal relationships are only contingent not necessary. Statistical methods were developed to estimate how far we are from the Truth, without ever reaching it. Second, measurements with scientific instruments always include certain measurement errors. We can never measure the world with finite precision. Third, scientific measurements need interpretation. They do not tell us truth in their raw data form. For example, a probe delivers a string of numbers. The scientist needs to decide how to group those numbers to find patterns, defines certain values as desirable, and decides which outliers to exclude.

Hume’s critique ended Aristotle’s Techne reasoning the way Descartes critique ended Aristotle’s Episteme reasoning. This left the world in an epistemological void. Scientific findings are by definition always tentative and do not give us the comfort of certainty. 

Since Hume, many philosophers responded to his critique of science in an attempt to open up another path towards Truth. Kant argued that while we cannot find causal connections in nature itself, our brain is hardwired (a priori) to construct causal understanding. Kant proposed that all humans are born with the same hardwired capacity to construct such causal views of the world. In Kant’s view, there was one Truth out there (‘the thing in itself’) but we cannot ever perceive the true world directly. We can only perceive phenomena and construct causal mental models of them. As all humans are born with the same senses and basic mental processing capabilities, we all perceive the world in a similar but not identical way. As all humans have the same rational capacities, we can detect and eliminate false ideas.
Hegel responded to Kant by criticizing his view that all humans have the same hardwired (a priori) rational capacities. The existence of rationality cannot be justified without already presuming rationality. If Truth is not to be found out there in the world but only in our heads, then our minds will be fundamentally influenced by the society we live in. Hegel reasoned that the human mind is not hardwired (a priori) but formed through experience (a posteriori). Depending on which society we grow up and live in, we will acquire different mental concepts (some of them false and some of the true). Hegel believed that societies need to go through a dialectic process in which each next generation eliminates the false ideas of the previous one until one generation reaches the ultimate Truth.
Marx critiqued Hegel’s dialectic process by pointing out that as long as the power relations remain the same from generation to generation false ideas cannot be eliminated. Marx suggested that society should not be ruled by the wealthy, but by a group of intellectuals who would know best how to create an egalitarian society. Neo-Marxists, for example the Frankfurt School, criticized Marx’s view by pointing out that a ruling class of intellectuals would not eliminate power structures but only shift them. To ultimately eliminate false ideas, humankind would need to become truly egalitarian by overcoming all hierarchies of power and becoming a multicultural and class-free society. Hegel, Marx, and the Neo-Marxists were all positive that their utopian society could indeed be created and Truth be found (liberation from all false consciousness).

Post-modernism criticized this positive view that power structures can ever be truly overcome. Power is pervasive. There can never be a society without hegemony and therefore interest-free Truth can never be reached (if it exists at all). Dewey responded in a pragmatic way: If we cannot ever overcome power structures, then we should abandon the illusion to ever find that one Truth altogether and focus instead on finding pragmatic “truths” that allow us solving practical problems. Dewey viewed scientific inquiry not as a way to find Truth, but as a way to find practical solutions to solve problems. Through systematic inquiry, society can determine which ideas work and which do not. Dewey’s vision is a society, which is open to scientifically try out new ideas, learns from its experiences, and continually grows in whatever direction it functions best (similar to natural evolution).  Pragmatism seems to work well to advance technology and solve problems, but it gave up on ever finding Truth.

As we cannot find Truth independent of cultural influences, Dilthey suggested approaching Truth by going to opposite way - by further deepening our understanding of cultural influences in our mental frameworks. Studying another human means to communicate from one mental framework to another. There is no “view from nowhere”. Projecting one’s own framework onto another person’s framework does not lead to true understanding. Noddings suggests to perceive the other person’s view instead of projecting one’s own views onto the other. 

Truth is no longer seen as being external and to be discovered, but as a construct through negotiation. This is a different definition of truth than the transcendental absolute Truth that exists outside of language in humans’ heads. This is the practice in communities of scholars: The scientific community aims to create a shared understanding by creating shared definitions and agreeing on certain methods.  If truth is defined as a mental construct, then truth is no longer an external fix point, but is only “relatively true”. Instead of looking for Truth-out-there, we can try to understand how truth inside our heads is constructed. This is a loop back to Aristotle’s Episteme. This line of (qualitative) research aims to understand the factors that influence human thought and how human thought is structured. Humans are no longer seen as objects that behave according to causal “laws” but as subjects who have intentions (will). As a researcher cannot step outside his or her own conceptual framework, it is important to make underlying factors of conceptual frameworks explicit, for example our conventions, definitions, and social visions. To understand another person’s intentions, one needs to understand one’s own intentions. However, Freud destroyed our belief that we understand our own intentions. Our intentions (our will) are not primarily controlled by our conscious verbal rational mind (ego), but by the nonverbal subconscious (Id and super-ego). Only through indirect methods (symbols, dreams, self-reflective psychoanalysis) can we try to access the subconscious (which contains also cultural and social experience). Understanding of the human mind (its conscious or subconscious parts) is ultimately an interpretative activity with no ultimate answer. Our trust in knowledge (certainty) cannot be found in an external ultimate foundation, but can only be grounded in our capacity to interpret what is there. 
This review of the search for certain Truth showed that the current approaches fail to find absolute Truth. I believe that there is only one reality (Truth) out there that existed long before humans came along. Being human however, we cannot ever perceive this true reality unbiased. Through our limited senses, we do not see the world as it is, but perceive only a filtered and interpreted representation of it. Depending on our existing mental framework, we interpret what we see differently. This perception varies from person to person to some degree. We do not passively perceive the world, but rather actively construct our view of the world. I agree with Kant that all humans have certain inherited mental processing capabilities. However, the interpretations of those perceptions are dependent on our concepts, which are culturally acquired. We cannot step outside of those cultural bonds.

While I consider it desirable to find ultimate Truth that could give us the comfort of certainty, philosophy showed that our current epistemological approaches couldn’t lead us there. Science aims to find culture-neutral truth, but it can only lead to pragmatic approximations. Science made the development of modern technology possible, but it cannot discover or construct Truth. Constructs of truth are always influenced by culture. This can lead to the view that there are many truths and that no judgment can ever be made (no certainty; anything goes) over another viewpoint (hard relativism). However, while I agree that we cannot know which idea is absolutely right or ultimately best, we can at least say which ideas are wrong (soft relativism). Based on Popper’s falsification concept, evidence shows which ideas did not work in the past. This pragmatist view represent a middle ground between only one Truth (ONE Truth) and everything goes (MANY truths). Evidence-based judgment of false ideas is justified and necessary while still allowing for alternative ideas (SOME truths).

Living in a world dominated by science means living in a world without the comfort of (albeit illusionary) certainty of pre-scientific times. Science took our false trust in the certainty of knowledge away (See blog entry Knowledge comes at a high price). However, science does not provide us with ultimate Truth either, it can only show us in a piecemeal fashion what is not true. I find it disappointing that there seems to be no way to ever reach Truth. Living in a science world comes with the price tag of living in a world without the comfort of certainty of what is true.  Our next best approach is to pragmatically construct relative truths that aim to approximate Truth, without ever reaching it. I agree with Popper who said “I believe in absolute Truth, but I don’t believe anybody has it in his pocket.” Despite all our scientific and technological advances, finding ultimate certain Truth still seems to be as far away as it ever was. As all our knowledge is influenced by culture, we need to critically self-reflect on our own and our culture's concepts, definitions, conventions, methods, and goals. This allows us to define a social vision and ethics, but they will always remain relative and only one of many possible ideas.

[1] Knowledge is traditionally defined as “justified true belief”. Therefore “trustworthy knowledge” is a pleonasm. In vernacular language, “belief” is often used in a religious or moral context. In philosophy, “belief” refers to all the content in a human’s mind. In vernacular use, “knowledge” refers to justified/trustworthy beliefs, while philosophy considers only “true” beliefs as knowledge. (This implies that there is one Truth out there against which beliefs can be compared to (absolute truth). Otherwise, “true” could also mean “internally consistent”, “no contradicting evidence found yet”, or “true according to a self-defined value” (relative truth).
[2] Truth (capital t) refers to the one absolute Truth (independent from humans, language, or cultural influences), while truth (minor case t) refers to multiple possible human constructed truth.


  1. RE: I find it disappointing that there seems to be no way to ever reach Truth.
    There is one sure way to reach truth and that is through death. But I wonder if, once there faced with truth, would we care so much about having found it. Rather our 'consciousness' would not 'care' and just 'be' a part of that truth.

  2. Truth is cultural
    Our Western World very much became an Aristotelian Paradigm (via Aquinas)

    have a look at