Goals and some initial thoughts on truth

In this course, we are about to embark on a study of how the earth works. We will focus on the ‘solid’ earth, from the soil down, that standard realm of geology. However, such a neat division between things geologic, and what happens in the atmosphere and in the earth’s surface waters (hydrosphere) is artificial and stifling to understanding the geology. Obviously rainfall affects how much water flows in a river, which in turn influences how much sediment the river carries. The solid and fluid of the earth are truly interwoven. Indeed, we can’t limit our consideration to what happens in the atmosphere and in the hydrosphere – life on earth, the biosphere, is also woven into the fabric of things and must be considered. This may seem daunting at the onset – we have gone as a goal from undertaking understanding things geologic, to considering other sciences such as meteorology and biology. Yet, that is part of the fun, to pursue questions wherever the answer(s) lie, and not artificially limit our exploration. We will focus on the solid earth, but wander where we need to in order to understand.

I would argue that in our pursuit of science we need to be willing to feel stupid. Stupid is a strong word, and I strongly encourage my kids not to use it. Hopefully, they won’t read this until they are old enough to understand the whys of my stricture better. So how am I using it here? Science is fundamentally about answering questions, especially questions where the answer is not clear. Questions where the answers are clear are considered less interesting, trivial. So when you start out with a question that you don’t know the answer to, you may forgiven for feeling at least a bit stupid. Every time I start on a new research project I feel at least a bit stupid. Then through processes of testing, data collection, analysis, reasoning you begin to understand better. So science can be thought of as the art of getting less stupid – but in order to make progress you start out feeling stupid, and the more stupid you feel the more that can be gained. As an introductory course we are at the start.

A primary goal I have in this course is to help you to literally see the world differently. If a group gazes upon the same scene they do not see the same thing. This is most striking in the true story of man who had grown up blind, but had his sight restored in his 50s. The details are fascinating, but for our purposes the important aspect is that while he could see colors and shapes, it took tremendous effort or was not possible for him to understand the visual input. To see is to assign meaning to the forms and colors, something we learned when we were very young and now do without deliberate thought. In modern parlance, you have to have the interpretative software to go along with the visual hardware. He basically gave up and continued to live functionally as a blind person, even though there was visual input. What we see is a function of what we have learned to see. When I look at a landscape I see patterns, association, and implied geologic history that you do not yet see, but some of which you will learn to see in this course. This is perhaps captured in the phrase - if I didn’t know it was there, I would not have seen it.

I think it is fair to say that science is fundamentally interested in the truth. Truth is naturally a very tricky topic, and some delight in exploring just how elusive it is. This raises the question - how do we know when something is true? This is not a trivial question, and since it is fundamental to science, it is worth thinking about a bit more.

A truth needs to be consistent with our own experience, with the evidence. If we see a bumble bee fly, then even if the most powerful computer models tell us that bumble bees can not fly, we conclude it is true that they fly. There is something wrong with the computer model, not with the bumble bee. However, our human senses can also be fooled in some cases – we see ‘mirages’. Our senses also do not ‘work’ in any direct way at atomic scales, or at the speed of light, and so our own experience is limited and can not always be trusted.

We expect truth to be logically consistent, without internal contradictions. We have a world with laws of logic. You were probably introduced to some of this with set theory. If X is not a member of set A, and set B is a subset of A, then X can not be a member of set B; or if Sam is not related to me, then she also can not be my blood sister (since a family, ignoring adoptions, is a subset of those related to me). For some, the truth also has a certain simple elegance, and can be recognized by this trait. There is an emotional or aesthetic component to this approach. Perhaps the term “rhyme and reason” captures the combination of aesthetic expectation (rhyme) and hard logic (reason). Intuition is also an interesting phenomena that may come into play here. However, recent advances in particle physics challenge the expectation of elegant simplicity and intuition may be a place to start, but insufficient by itself.

Often it is easier to identify when something is not true. This is an interesting asymmetry in the universe - if you have eliminated all the false possibilities, then perhaps you are left with a true possibility by default. There is an idea that science does not proceed by proving things, but instead by disproving things. The first time I heard this it struck me as very counterintuitive, but there is a lot that is counterintuitive at first, that turns out to be true. This idea that science advances by disproving ideas is known as falsification. A flip side of falsificiation is the idea, that if there is not a potential way to disprove an idea, no possible observations that would be in conflict with it, then it is not science.

Something that is true should be dependable, consistent. If it was true yesterday, it should also be true today. Gravity doesn’t work differently on random days, or in random places. This aspect of truth is sometimes termed repeatability. The reason that cold fusion was deemed not to be true, was that other labs could not replicate the findings of Pons and Flyschman. This also makes scientific truth useful, since we can predict behavior. Utility is one reason that science is so highly prized. You can predict whether a building will stand, whether a river will flood, whether a certain chemical will make you sick or better, and on and on and on. The prediction may not always come true, but it is better than chance and you can do better, and often much, much better, that with any other approach to prognostication. With such dependable truths people can manipulate the physical world to their benefit, build new things, and nowhere is this more striking in our times than in genetic research. Therefore, scientific truth has tremendous utility. Note that I have inserted an adjective – scientific.

People often refer to religious and/or revealed truth. Religious and/or revealed truths often come or came from distinct people such as the Dalai Lama, Buddha, Mohammed, or Jesus Christ. After they die these truths are often captured in religious texts. This is a topic that is avoided in many science classes, but this ignores that simple fact that for some people there are fundamental conflicts between religious or revealed and scientific truths. This is not true for all people, and some see harmony between their religion and science, but many do not. They must chose what to ‘believe’ when. Think of the discussions on the age of the universe and the age of the earth, the origin of life, the formation of species through the process of evolution, and even more recently on global warming. The very famous case history of the Scopes Monkey trial is just one example of where scientific and religious truth were in fundamental conflict. Why should this discussion be avoided? What are the differences between religious and scientific truths, and when do we choose one versus the others are questions many face.

A crucial difference is that questioning current truths and understanding is inherent and highly valued in science, but for the great majority questioning of religious truth is considered sacrilege, out of bounds (and in the past, and even in some places today could get you killed). A related difference is that scientific truths are expected to change and expand as science progresses, and in contrast many religious truths are considered as unchanging. A close look may reveal that both change, but both the speed of change and intent to change differs substantially.

Another difference is the great diversity of religious truths that different groups have versus a much more uniform agreement on scientific truth throughout the world. Religious truth differs substantially dependent on the dominant religion in any given area, but science is practiced fundamentally in the same way. Math and logic are common languages that underly the bulk of science everywhere. The focus of religious and scientific truths also differs appreciably. Science is clearly focused on the ‘physical’ world, while religion is often focused on the spiritual, moral and ethical worlds. Science is focused on the here and now, while religion is often focused on the afterworld. Science does not indicate what is good or evil. Science does give the best ability to predict, so it can inform outcomes, and therefore play a considerable role in judging whether a certain action is good or evil. Many books have been written about the conflict and possible resolutions between science and revealed truth, but we will naturally focus on the science in this course.

Scientific truths are limited in some manner – they can typically explain some portion but not all of the data, of what is going on in the physical world around us. Inherent in much science is that you accept for the moment, as truth, the best working hypothesis, at the same time you test it and try to make it even better. The idea that explains more of the data, or makes the better predictions has greater explanatory power and is considered the truth of the moment. Ideas that have survived intense scrutiny over time and increased their explanatory power are elevated to the status of scientific laws, are considered as closer to the truth. One common view is that these are approximations of the truth, that through the scientific process are getting better and better. The world of scientific world is very dynamic, has uncertainties, but it also has unsurpassed power to manipulate our world (to benefit or detriment). It often has a statistical character to it, where you may be ‘right’ 95% of the time, but 5% of the time you are wrong. Some find this dynamic and evolving character of science unsatisfactory threatening, while at the same time others find it deeply engaging and exhilarating.