Fire in the Equations – Kitty Ferguson

Truth

“I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs in both word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must look for it.”  — Plato, in Meno.

Truth is an elusive animal. We’ve spent lives in and lives out searching for it, in the deepest most obscure places of our souls, in the most far away places humanity has ever had the gut to dream of, in impossible technological laboratories created by once-in-a-big-bang masterminds who’ve changed the way we perceive our world forever. But truth, has still managed to slip through our fingers like sand. Some argue that we’re closer to reaching it as we’ve ever been, others don’t believe we’ve taken as much as a single step towards it, others see it as something way out of our reach, impossible for the human mind to comprehend.

Whatever the case is, the first questions to ask ourselves need to be, is the search for truth something for which our lives are worth devoting to? How can we achieve truth, if it is ever reachable? What are the alternatives? Can we function as a society in a world where there is no objectivity and truth is completely dependent on the individual? The answers to this questions might never be known. The words that are to follow are an exploration into them, the solutions I propose are in no way infallible or absolute.

Science

If we ask most people they will affirm they believe in an objective truth, most would also say that science and the scientific method in particular, are the way to reach it. However, science strictly works with probabilities, it does not affirm to know anything with absolute certainty. Especially after the contributions of people like Karl Popper, or Heisenberg and Feynman who’ve advanced our understanding of the quantum level of physics and the uncertainty we face when trying to understand the smallest levels of our world.

Science does not even claim to be objective herself. Scientists are often biased by their personal beliefs on God and the universe, by what is ‘in’ in the scientific community at a particular time, they face a market of ideas where the theories that are more useful to other scientists are more accepted than theories that are complete paradigm shifts. Scientists go through life with spectacles which they can never take off, they, as every human being, have underlying assumptions about how life is and should be and adjust and contrast their perceptions of the world through the lenses of the blueprint they grew up with. It is very hard to imagine something like a completely objective human, who does not have any beliefs of his own but manages to see everything as it is, who is not influenced by what other people need or want, not even by what he wants; he must have no wants of his own. I will take a little risk and say with some confidence that I have never met and will never meet, a human of this nature.

Understanding the limitations science has is of much importance if we are serious about reaching truth. An even more serious matter is however, if there exists such a thing as an objective truth; and of this, we may never be sure up until the moment we reach it, if such moment ever comes.

“Provability is a weaker notion than truth” – Hofstadter, In Godel,  Escher, Bach.

Leap of Faith

We, as humans, and I’m sure I can speak for you on this, share the feeling of trying to understand what surrounds us and what is within us. There is a strong sense of curiosity inherent in the human experience. And while we might not be sure if this curiosity will ever lead into something concrete, it should result impossible for us to resist these urges, the urges that lead us in the look for answers, for reasons, for explanations. To embark on this journey with the prudence it requires, we must start with the belief that we will indeed reach truth.

“Ultimate reality, whatever that turns out to be, is the end of the quest. Paradoxically, it must also be the beginning. We must ask whether there is anything about our universe, about ourselves, that we can take for granted—any fundamental we can use as a starting place for the exploration of everything else. If it is difficult to find such a ‘still point’—and we shall find that it is indeed difficult—then the quest for ultimate truth must begin with a leap of faith. Not faith that we are capable of complete understanding. Faith that we can know anything at all.” — Kitty Ferguson, in Fire in the Equations.

Not taking this leap of faith would signify that we could never take a statement more seriously than another, there would be no more or less validity to anything in relationship to another. As far as I would know, both sentences ‘octopuses like to eat bananas at a wedding’ and ‘the earth orbits the sun’ have the same validity.

It seems as if with the quote just above, Kitty Ferguson was repeating the words with which I opened this piece of writing, Plato’s quote from Meno. By taking this leap of faith, having the will to pursue something bigger than ourselves, and by understanding how science works and all the limitations that go with it, we’re taking the first steps in the direction of truth. It may be true that these are just the first steps, and that often we’ve disregarded them and their importance, but they’re not easy baby steps, they are the steps of a giant.

Perspective

As in a singularity, where all the laws of physics break down, objective reality seems to break down when we approach the quantum level, objective truth gets harder to pin down when questions of morality, human behavior, and religion enter the picture. We need to be tolerant and humble with our opinions, not because truth is relative and everyone is right to the same extent, but because we have no way of proving who is closer to the truth.

When two people enter a room, it’s very unlikely that they focus on the exact same objects, and even less that they focus on them from the same angles, the same perspectives. They will not observe the exact same thing. This example is no different than two scientists approaching an experiment, than two philosophers discussing the meaning of life, or than two physicists coming up with a theory of where everything comes from.

For better or for worse we are tied down to our bodies — In the metaphorical sense — and what can be perceived through our senses, influenced by our own particular experiences. We know our perspective is not objective and we know others are no better. We are in need of finding more effective ways to work collectively so we can start getting a better sense of the bigger picture.

“Thus, if people are to co-operate (i.e., literally to “work together”) they have to be able to create something in common, something that takes shape in their mutual discussions and actions, rather than something that is conveyed from one person who acts as an authority to the others, who act as passive instruments of this authority.”

— David Bohm, in On Dialogue

Working with others, and when I say that I mean, truly working with others, has to be one of the most difficult things to learn. We need to be on the same page, start from common ground, listen, let go of our assumptions, don’t judge, create something together, something in the middle, not something that was pushed by just one participant. In order to achieve this level of honesty in our collaborations, we need to understand ourselves first. Which, as we’ll find out, is much harder than it sounds.