Re: virus: Absolute Truth

C. David Noziglia (
Wed, 22 May 1996 20:57:41 -0700

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Richard Brodie wrote:
> It's comforting to hold beliefs in things like Absolute Truth, God,
> Karma, and so on. But as a practical matter I'd rather program myself
> with more useful memes.
> --
C. David Noziglia
Wellington, New Zealand

"Blessed are those who have no expectations,
for they will never be disappointed."
Kautiliya Shakhamuni Sidhartha Gautama Buddha

"Things are the way they are because they got that way."


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The Virus listserve is notable in my limited experience of newsgroups
and other Internet fora for having an unusually high proportion of
postings that are well-written, thoughtful, constructive, insightful, and
knowledgable. All this talk about "truth" has stimulated the following
overly long essay:

Many postings have offhandedly mentioned that science is a quest for
"absolute truth," and that in this way it is like religion, different only
because religion claims already to have found "truth" while science is
still searching.

My reply is: I do not wish to place upon any future
generation of mankind the terrible burden or punishment of being able
to at some point declare that they have found the "truth," and that
there is therefore nothing more left to explain or understand.

I prefer to believe that for knowledge, there is neither a beginning nor
an end point. Our knowledge, our beliefs, our thoughts, are
instead what one could call an "auto-catalytic set" of ideas.

We all know what a formal logical system is. We start from a bunch of
axioms, defined as statements assumed true without proof, and a bunch of
rules. From there, we build other ideas as proven based upon the axioms
and rules. This is the archetype established by Euclid, and followed by just
about every philosopher since, including Thomas Aquinas, Hume,
deCartes, Kant, and so forth right until today. The problem for every
one of them has been that whatever axioms they have chosen -- and they
knew it right from the start! -- were essentially arbitrary.

Nothing wrong with that, as long as it was understood that the
conclusions from an artificially constructed logical system cannot be
automatically applied to real life. Except as metaphor.

It was thought that a logical system in which the axioms can be proven
in terms of the logical statements built from them was, by definition,
"circular," and therefore invalid. But then came a whole set of
discoveries that challenged the very basis of logical systems.

The first was Reimann's showing that plain geometry was only a special
case, demonstrating that perfectly good, usable geometry could be built
from a set of axioms different that those that had been handed down as
given, necessary, even the only ones possible, by Euclid, and accepted as
such ever since. It then became understood that Reimann's geometry
was a better description of the real world than Euclid's. Einstein's
Theory of Relativity presented us with a logical system in which the
starting axiom -- the limitation of the speed of light -- led to
consequences -- the transformations of the coordinate systems -- that led
to a cause of the initial axiom. Circular, but in fact a better description
of the real world than we had had up to then. And then Godel showed
that for ANY axiomatic formal logic system, there were some statements
that we could SAY were true, but which could not be proven under the
rules of the system.

Under the new rules, later put in more formal terms by Popper, both the
beginning and the end of any formal logical system are open. Now, we
can't make this fit into any other field of inquiry directly, but we can say
that this is a good metaphor for other "sets of ideas."

Try this: In any endeavor of human thought and enterprise -- science,
mathematics, economic enterprise, social intercourse, political relations,
and so forth -- the basic ground rules (axioms, as it were) are
undiscoverable, and the final outcomes unattainable. Not because of
limitations on our thought or technology, but because they don't exist.
There is no "absolute truth" against which to measure our ideas, just as
there is no "absolute space" by which to measure our events.

Now, I immediately have to start jumping up and down and insisting
above all the shouts of outrage that no, this isn't cultural relativism. I
am not saying that any idea is just as good as any other. I am saying
that we can do better than to measure our ideas and deeds against an
absolute yardstick, a one-dimensional line with a definite beginning and
end. Saying that we have no endpoints on our standards does not say
that we have no standards. One idea IS (or can be) better than another,
but not on a single, one-dimensional standard line, but in a complex,
fractal, multi-dimensional "idea space," where context means just as
much as the idea itself.

There is no such thing as the best design for a bird (which is a
better flyer, a falcon, a swift, an albatross, or a hummingbird?). Having
said that, however, does not mean that we can't say that a falcon is a
better flyer than a duck! Just because there exists no Omega point of
perfection, that does not mean that we cannot make judgements about the
worth or value of things, ideas, or whatever. There were too many
negatives in that sentences, I know, but I hope that my point can survive
my bad writing.

Another example. We constantly hear in our political and social dialog
that something or someone is the "best." Clarance Thomas, said Bush,
was the "best man for the job" when he was nominated for Supreme
Court Justice. Aside from Thomas' qualities, this is a rediculous
statement on the face of it. There is no such thing as the "best person"
for any job, no matter how high or low. And pretending that there is
damages the people involved, the system within which the dialog takes
place, and the job that system and the people in it are trying to do.

But saying that there is no best person for the job does NOT mean that
anyone can do the job as well as any other. Some people will clearly do
a job better than another, but that judgement is a complex, subtle,
nuanced judgement, and most people on this planet are simply not
prepared to accept that complex, subtle, nuanced ideas at all, which
accounts for the political success of people like Pat
Buchannan and Ross Perot.

There is no "Theory of Everything" in physics, nor any "Absolute Truth."
There is no "best" way to run an educational system. There is no "best"
system of politics, trade, business, management, run the list out as far as
you like. And people who say there is are damaging us by limiting the
ideas that we can bring to the table, and simplifying and therfore limiting
the options we can use in running whatever we're talking about.

No one way of doing anything is the "best." No one way of running any
system is the "best." That's hard. That makes making judgements about
people, ideas, systems, anything, both very difficult to do and just as
necessary. That idea applies to social contexts, and to physical and
scientific contexts, as well.

I don't think that we will ever be able to totally explain all physical
systems in a deterministic manner that will totally satisfy everyone. To
me, the very idea is repugnant! But that doesn't mean that quantum
mechanics is not better and more successful than classical mechanics. I
relish the idea that the human race will spend the next several million
years -- if we allow ourselves the chance -- continually refining and
overturning our ideas, in a neverending quest for a final understanding
we know we'll never achieve, but the quest for which we know is its
own greatest reward. I also have some faith that the result of that quest
will be a "better" understanding of ourselves and the universe. And I also
understand that saying that we will one day have a better or different under-
standing of physics or sociology does not make our present ideas wrong.

Throughout history, people have used their understanding of the way the
universe works to determine and justify the way they run their lives and
their society. That's why I'm running the two areas of inquiry together in
this essay. What I've written above is in a way no better than a
metaphor for that. If it only gives us a better standard of introspection,
though, it will be an improved guideline for discourse in the phase space
of ideas that we are all exploring through this listserve and elsewhere in
our lives.

Don't you think that makes some sense?

If you think it does, thank you, and stop using terms like "absolute