Can Science Reveal the Truth?

In St John's gospel, Jesus Christ tells Pilate that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth. To which, Pilate famously responds: "What is truth?" - a question that, for me at least, makes Pontius Pilate leap off the page as one of the most human of Biblical characters.

Perhaps the single greatest strength of science is that doesn't have to face up to the meaning of truth: Science's very methodology allows it to sidestep the whole issue of truth. The scientific method is a way of translating our individual responses to the world into something that's collective. We can personally validate a scientific description of reality by repeating an experiment (or, more likely, by believing that experiments are repeatable, since many experiments require considerable effort and resources to duplicate). More obviously, we see that science works because we live in the material world that science has made for us: the world of indoors that is largely separated-off from Nature. The steam-engine, drugs, central heating, weapons, particle-accelerators and i-Phones all convince us that the world is as the scientific method describes it, and somehow is getting more real (by which presumably, we mean more like Nature) the more science progresses. It's easy to forget that no matter how elaborate the material world has become, it is always a sieved-out part of the larger reality of Nature. A hard-line materialist might claim, as a matter of faith, that science will ultimately pass all phenomena through the sieve of the scientific method. A sceptic like myself (sceptical of certainty in all its forms: material and spiritual) must, then, be able to indicate ways in which the Universe might always be much larger, perhaps infinitely larger, than our ability to describe it materially.This doesn't seem to me to be such a tall order.

Science begins from the premise that there is a world out there made of things that move. However, finding out what these things are made out of, and what we mean by motion, turn out to be very difficult questions to answer. We think we have an idea what a separate object 'is' and what it is to say something is 'in motion', but our everyday understanding is based on Sir Isaac Newton's conception of the world of absolute space and time, and the certainty of cause and effect. The Newtonian view is so deeply ingrained in us that it's easy to forget that science today is based on the views of Albert Einstein (below left) and Werner Heisenberg (below right) and they tell very different stories from Newton. Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity shows that all motion is the motion that light has, and we would know this if we could see reality in the four-dimensions of the space-time continuum. Einstein tells us that motion is NOT relative (because the speed of light is a constant), which means that space and time are discovered to be relative concepts, and not the fixed coordinates of the Newtonian world. Furthermore, Heisenberg one of the pioneers of quantum theory - revealed that the separation of things in our everyday Newtonian world is underpinned by a world in which there are no separate things. We would understand this illusion if we were atom-sized; then we would see that reality unfolds as a wave of probability. It's all a matter of perspective; and our perspective, living here among mid-sized slowly-moving things is peculiarly human. Science attempts to find a universal perspective. Whether that is ultimately possible is open to question.

There is a paradox at the heart of science. Everything science has found out about the world tells us that we live in uncertainty, and yet this uncertainty is founded on a belief in eternal laws of nature. The great physicist John Wheeler began to question the idea of eternal laws some 30 years ago, and this question is beginning to be addressed again today. Perhaps what we call 'laws' may have started out as something blurry that evolved through a process of natural selection into the laws as we find them today. And yet even this does not entirely get us out of the paradox. If we reduce the whole of current scientific thinking to a single sentence it goes something like: 'the Universe is a patch of radiation that is expanding and evolving.' The Universe began as a dense area of light that rapidly expanded and has evolved into all the structures we see in the Universe today: stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, trees, and sentient beings like ourselves who can tell this creation story. What then are we to make of the principle of evolution? Does that become the ultimate law of Nature? Or is evolution some sort of logical inevitability, an inescapable consequence, perhaps, of how we tell the story? It is in this sense that the leading evolutionist Richard Dawkins despairs of philosophical relativism. He claims evolution as something we have found out about the world that is actually true. He has gone so far to say that when aliens arrive here, the first thing they will ask is "Have they discovered the theory of evolution yet?"

My determined scepticism doesn't allow me to make Dawkins' leap of unfaith. Science itself evolves. The word was historically meaningless two thousand years ago, though there are historical elements that can be traced through to the revolution that began four hundred years ago (to the year) when Galileo first lifted a telescope to the Heavens and described what he saw there.

We don't know what materialism might look like in another two thousand years time. And just because we can't imagine how to tell the story in some other way doesn't mean that such other ways don't exist.