Local Truth and Revelation

Pilate asked, "What is truth?"

At the time of writing, The Transfigurist didn’t have a comment system yet, but the essays published had been shared on various social networks and stimulated interesting discussions. I found a comment from a respected friend to my essay “Religion Fiction Inspires Real Religion” very interesting, and worth replying to in detail.

“Sadly, the message I get from this piece is that truth doesn't matter at all. Religion might as well be fiction! [T]ruth matters.”

I totally agree that truth matters, but I invite you to consider Pilate’s question: What is truth?

I am trained as a scientist, so I will start with my thoughts about scientific truth.

I consider scientific truth as a generalization of practical experience, conveniently elevated to the status of truth. Therefore, it’s always important to state the scope of application, and validity, of scientific truth. Things fall - unless you are on the Space Station in conditions of zero-g.

It’s often said that the classical physics of Newton was obsoleted by Einstein’s relativity and quantum physics. But every civil engineer who designs and builds concrete houses or bridges knows that the physics of Newton is not obsolete at all - as a matter of fact, classical physics is what he uses every day for his calculations. For civil engineering applications, classical physics is valid.

Electronic engineers must take into account quantum effects in semiconductors. Similarly, the space engineers who operate the GPS satellite fleet must take into account both special and general relativity. Therefore, for electronic and space engineers, classical physics is not valid but superseded by relativity and quantum physics.

Of course, in principle the civil engineer could also use modern physics for his calculations of the behaviour of concrete structures, but no engineer in his right mind would ever do that - the result would remain the same for all practical purposes, but the calculations would be much more complex. We can consider classical physics as an approximation to “true physics,” practically valid in a limited scope. But who said that modern physics is “true physics”? Perhaps relativity and quantum mechanics will turn out to be but useful approximations of something else. And that something else, a useful approximation of something more. I have written about The Big Infinite Fractal Onion Universe, an endless progression of layers of truth.

In science, different interpretations of reality can co-exist. Thermodynamics is often considered as a secondary truth that can be derived from the more fundamental physics of particles and fields, but engineers use it as a stand-alone tool because that’s more convenient in practice, and theoretical physicists are still unable to fully reconcile the two descriptions. Prigogine thought that the thermodynamics of irreversible processes should be considered as an aspect of fundamental physics, with the same status of the laws of motion.

I believe science can do without the notion of global, ultimate Truth with capital T. What science needs is a toolbox of local truths (lower-case t), with clear indications of when to use classical hammers or quantum screwdrivers, or magic drills bases on yet unknown physics.

What about pure mathematics? Isn’t that the science of absolute truth?

Not so, according to Gödel, who demonstrated the existence of valid mathematical statements that can’t be proven by any formal system. In geometry, parallel lines don’t intersect - unless they do, which is the case in the curved geometries that, according to Einstein, are a better approximation of the geometry of space-time. In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a fictional Alan Turing describes mathematics as the “physics of bottlecaps,” and I find that approach - considering pure mathematics as a generalization of practical experience - very sound.

I am always kind to children, and I often help old ladies to cross the street.

But whether that reflects ultimate moral Truth is mostly irrelevant to me. Others could argue, based for example on overpopulation and the need for survival fitness of individuals and societies, that we should do without weak children and old ladies. But I wouldn’t even begin to listen to their arguments, because kindness is the moral truth that I have chosen to believe in. While I don’t know, or care, if kindness is the ultimate moral Truth, it’s my local moral truth.

Now, let’s come to theological truth.

Most religions are based on revelations. For example, Mormons believe that the Prophet Joseph received a revelation from God. Others believe that he made everything up. I suspect that both interpretations might be equally valid (like in Prigogine’s claim that thermodynamics is as fundamental as the laws of motion) and local approximations of higher level truths. God might have spoken to Joseph over the communication channel of Joseph’s own imagination and inner voice, and the two descriptions might be too deeply entangled to be separated by our limited understanding.

Some years ago, participating in a moving service and seeing others comforted and healed by their faith, I asked God, "Why can't I have their simple, beautiful, healing faith?"

God answered, "But you have it."

Of course I don't know that God spoke to me. But in retrospective I see that the episode was important. It made me realize that I believe in some kind of God and afterlife, and try to find ways to make my belief compatible with science. I started to dedicate a lot of time to developing my non-traditional religious ideas (ideas that I always had since I was a kid, but previously kept in the background), and all my writings about science and religion are a direct result. The "voice of God" was so vivid that I could interpret the episode as a revelation. I prefer, however, not to make such claims. Does it really matter if that was the voice of God, or my own inner voice, or some weird combination of the two? It was my revelation, and it made a positive difference in my life.

Perhaps God speaks to us via our minds, and His revelations are filtered and interpreted by our own thoughts, which would explain the differences between the local truths of revealed religions. Of course, our interpretation of God’s message is also colored by cultural influences. In the time of Joseph, revelations from God were culturally acceptable, but that isn’t always the case today. Therefore, in our time, a person who receives a revelation encoded in thoughts, feelings and vivid intuitions, may not consider it as a revelation and describe it in a philosophical essay - or maybe a science fiction novel. The “Words of God” in Douglas Preston’s scientific thriller Blasphemy, described and praised in my previous essay, might have been inspired by the voice of God after all.

So in reply to the comment “Religion might as well be fiction!” I say that fiction, philosophy, art, and science may be inspired by God just like religious revelations.

Image: Pixabay