Scaling the Mountain of Truth

One of the many areas of overlap between science and Christianity is that they are both seeking the Truth.

The attainment of truth is often likened to climbing a mountain, and any hiker or climber can immediately understand why. Not only is it hard to do, but once you’re at the top you can suddenly see everything. What was previously obscured is now laid out clearly; what you saw in part from the plains you see in full from the heights. It’s a powerful metaphor, so let’s extend it a bit.

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Mount Everest aerial view by Kerem Barut

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How exactly should we go about scaling a mountain? We know that we want to reach the top, but we have never climbed this mountain before and we can’t see a route to the top – or even the top itself – clearly from where we stand.

Well, one method could be to employ an algorithm. If we examine the ground at our feet , we will notice that it is inclined in a particular direction. If we head off in the direction of steepest incline for a little bit, we will have a different patch of ground higher up. Again, examine the ground, find the steepest incline, and go in that direction. Keep doing this and you should slowly tend towards the summit of the mountain.

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In many ways, this is how Science seeks the truth.

We look at the known, the previous discoveries, we hypothesise, we test, we repeat. Slowly, incrementally, we rise.

There are a few potential problems, though. We may find that we reach a minor peak, or what mathematicians would call a “local maximum”, which is not truly the top of the mountain. The ground slopes down in all directions, but we aren’t yet at the true summit. We know this because there is still a part of the mountain higher than us: our current theory can explain much, but some things are still above us and beyond our understanding. By this we know that our theory is incomplete; it needs revision. At this point, we need to retrace our steps back down into a valley and try again.

Alternatively, we may run into an incline that is too great, an impassable cliff. Our algorithm points us up the rock face, but the limitations of observation, or of experimental possibility, or whatever, make it impossible to proceed in that direction.

So the scientific mountaineering method is useful, and allows us to build on previous experience, but it clearly has limits. It may take us to false peaks first, it may get stuck, but in theory it should bring us closer to the summit with every iteration.

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Of course, as any mountaineer knows, this isn’t how we actually climb. So let’s think about some alternatives.

What about a path? Not every path is guaranteed to lead to the summit, but some might. What if there are signposts? What if we meet someone who says he has been to the top, and tells you which path he took? What if other people have gone before us, and drawn a map for those who follow?

Should we not investigate those alternative, indirect, less rigorously scientific methods of reaching the summit?

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Maths, science and abstractions

Faith: reflecting on evidence

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2 thoughts on “Scaling the Mountain of Truth

  1. In your analogy, the scientific method is equivalent to putting one foot ahead of the other and then looking around to see if we are any farther ahead. This has the practical benefits of working reliably and consistently well. Although many may believe they have been higher and seen farther, without any evidence from reality to back this up their tales are just that: stories.

    Also, I think it helps not to think of truth as an object – The Truth TM – but rather to understand the process to be that of finding out what is true. And that requires an epistemology that is trustworthy. Faith is not trustworthy in that it does not provide us a reliable and consistent practical method of inquiring that we can test and find works for everyone everywhere all the time.

    You write the scientific mountaineering method is useful, and allows us to build on previous experience, but it clearly has limits. These limits you introduce are not in any way reduced or avoided by turning to wishful thinking or untestable, unfalsifiable beliefs as some kind of legitimate alternative. They are not. If something worth investigating exists within reality, then the very best method we have is science because it demonstrably works to produce knowledge that is true for everyone everywhere all the time. That’s not a bad track record.

    Turning to some kind of pseudo-explanatory woo and believing it to be true on a matter of faith is neither an equivalent method of honest inquiry into what is true in reality nor any kind of legitimate substitute ‘knowledge’ about reality; rather it is a capitulation to one’s beliefs to arbitrate what is true, and this a priori method of empowering belief to the role of arbiter (and no way to test or falsify its truth claims that fall outside of this area for science’s purview) is in direct conflict with and contrary to the scientific method. If the method of belief was reliable, faith would have produced new knowledge… or at the very least agreement about the conclusions reached by those who respect faith that they have a method that produces consensus. Obviously, with more than 30K christian sects alone, such consensus is farther away than ever. To date, the inquiry through faith has produced zero knowledge that is true for everyone everywhere all the time. As an alternative method of inquiry into the universe and everything in it, privileging beliefs to some level of equivalency with the scientific method to produce knowledge is without a shred of intellectual honesty because it has produced nothing. And that’s the truth regardless of how you craft an analogy to present faith as any kind of legitimate alternative method of inquiry. Quite simply – and honestly – it isn’t.

    • tildeb :

      If something worth investigating exists within reality, then the very best method we have is science because it demonstrably works to produce knowledge that is true for everyone everywhere all the time.

      Your whole line of argument, of course, begs the vital questions of what is defined as “reality”, and whether that has a complete overlap with what is subject to scientific inquiry.

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