Science as Relative Truth

Loyd Auerbach, MS

NOTE: I wrote the first version of this more than 20 years ago.

There often seems to be discussion as to whether Science delineates absolute or relative truth with respect to the knowledge it uncovers. I wanted to share my own perspective on this, having some background in the physical sciences and more in social science. My own understanding of objective reality points me more towards the relative, as the absolute would seem to be just outside of human reach.

Our understanding of the Universe around us has a boundary of the whole of human experience – a pretty broad border, indeed. Much of Science ignores, and too many scientists forget, that while the data may seem “objective,” those correlating, theorizing, speculating, concluding and such with regards to the data are still subject to human perceptions, biases and beliefs, no matter how detached they may try to become.

Science is the search for knowledge, yet the more we learn about the natural world the more our conceptions are assaulted by new “facts.” The more new observations turn up, the more we try to theorize as to the workings of the natural world, the more we are forced to look at our ideas and if necessary, alter them to fit the new knowledge. The more we learn, the more we find we don’t know.

It was once thought that Science was a collection of what was known about the natural order. Sadly, some still behave as though this is the case.

As scientists learned more and more, their thirst for new “truths” led to the aiming of Science towards the pursuit of those “new truths” rather than merely collecting as we go along. The more we learn, the greater grows our curiosity. Or at least it should.

Our conceptions, scientific and otherwise, about our world and our Universe are constantly undergoing changes. Scientists are more willing than ever to believe their ideas are not really infallible. Unfortunately, of course, there are holdouts in every branch of Science, as scientists are human and humans are notorious for resisting change in their belief systems. However, as Science moves along, new theories are constantly superseding the old ones and we are forced to look at the physical world somewhat differently. It is not only the knowledge and truth that changes, but also our conceptions of these truths.

Science may try to deal in absolutes, but the human element is there. The so-called “Laws of Nature” don’t behave as we always say they do. They are not dependent on human thought. However, as David Bohm says, human actions with relation to these laws must be guided by correct conceptions of these laws if we are to ever achieve the results we are searching for.

It is our concepts of these laws and how we perceive them that tell us how we believe them to work. Our concepts depend on past human experience. No natural law as we perceive it can be totally without error; absolute. All scientific laws must have built in error(s) as these laws are represented in terms of human (and therefore finite) concepts. Therefore, there can be no one valid method or approach to scientific problems, as the method or approach would be applied to the problem in terms of the agent’s conception of the variables and laws involved. If we are to define all errors in a given law flawlessly, we would have an absolute truth, rather than the relative truth we know now. Scientific research moves toward the absolute by studying the relative. By uncovering these built-in errors, we challenge previous knowledge and conceptions. By altering our conceptions to include these new “facts” we can move towards new knowledge.

Truth in relation to Science is, at this point in time, relative to the way we perceive the facts and place them in categories. Someone once said that a Science sufficiently advanced of our own, as well as that which that particular science defines, would seem to us as Magic. Many scientists argue this point by saying that we are beyond the point of accepting phenomena at face value. In relatively recent years there have been discoveries of tribes of people in remote sections of the world still living in the Stone Age (at that level of development). To them, our science made the anthropologists seem as gods. To them, all about us was magic, as how else could they explain a helicopter as something other than a godly creation.

Our world and the sciences that are found here have many cultures standing behind all that is uncovered in the way of “truth.” Technology jumps ahead in leaps and bounds, while human understanding of the science behind the technology plods along. Perhaps most scientists, if they were to be presented with something out of the realm of human experience, would not accept such things as they appear to be. However, many dismiss unusual phenomena as not worth looking into, while many a layman might see something “magical.” Many people look on Science as something “unknowable” or even magical. Our concepts of the physical world are relative to past human experience, whether those experiencing (or investigating) the phenomena are scientists or not, and those concepts partly make up the truth – the other part actually composed of the facts.

Parapsychology deals with phenomena beyond the realm of what is termed “normal” human experience. The type of energy – if energy is what it is — that composes the phenomenon called the poltergeist, for example, is something physicists have never encountered before, at least not in the form it appears, or it is something we already know about that is presenting itself in a way that is “outside the box” of what it is and how we might look for it. The science of Parapsychology calls out for an alteration of human concepts about the physical world. If this is a new form of energy, the physicist must alter his concepts to include this new “truth,” and the same is true if it’s a known energy showing itself in a “new” way. But the search for the truth with regards to such phenomena is still a search for relative truth, as human perceptions and ideas are still involved.

Theories are approximate, conditional, and relative truths. If they were absolute, there would be no way a new theory could supersede the old one. Much is made of theory needing to be falsifiable (capable of being proven wrong), yet there are theories in Physics today that are not falsifiable (e.g. String Theory and the concept of a Multiverse), if only because we simply are not at a level of technology (and Science) to be able to provide that possibility.

The whole of human experience is made up of approximations and probabilities, and as such our knowledge is composed of relative truths. The question arises as to whether objectivity aids in the scientific method. Unfortunately, even when a scientist looks at something objectively, and tries to collate data with total detachment, in the best of instances human perceptions and readings of the results are still part of the process, and the “truth” is therefore in those instances might still relative to human experience.

The Truth is relative, not absolute.

As a next step, please go to dealing with a debate as to whether untestable theories in physics (and presumably other sciences) ought to be trusted anyway.