Peek-a-boo: searching for reality

Is Stephen Hawking right, is there really no real there there?

Michael Shermer, science writer and historian of science, writing for the BQO website (url below), discusses Stephen Hawking’s view that what we know of the world are only models of an unknowable reality. According to this view, the actual world is beyond our reach, and we can approach it only through our perceptions and our explanations of those perceptions.

At any given moment there are, in fact, hundreds of percepts streaming into the
brain from the various senses. All of them must be bound together for higher brain regions to make sense of it all.

In this way, we construct reality out of multitudes of tiny perceptual bits.

The models generated by biochemical processes in our brains constitute “reality.” None of us can ever be completely sure that the world really is as it appears, or if our minds have unconsciously imposed a misleading pattern on the data.

Doesn’t this suggest that our knowledge is not real? Are the theists and the postmodernists right, that human knowledge is always arbitrary, relative, approximate — that “truth” is not “real”? After all:

It is not possible to understand reality without having some model of reality,
so we are really talking about models, not reality.

Does this spell doom for human knowledge? No, Shermer says, it doesn’t.

Is there a way around this apparent epistemological trap?
There is. It’s called science.

Even if we can never apprehend reality entirely or for certain, we can find and adopt models that come ever closer to explaining, to representing, reality.

In the long run, we discard some models and keep others based on their
validity, reliability, predictability, and perceived match to reality. … I believe
there is a real reality, and that we can come close to knowing it through the
lens of science — despite the indelible imperfection of our brains, our models,
and our theories.

And this idea of knowing “through the lens of science” is Shermer’s key point, for it’s in the methodology of empirical investigation that science differs from other belief systems, in its requirement of testability and falsifiability.

When the empirical information changes, the model changes. This is not a very common occurrence with literalist religious models, which too often claim to be not representations but revelations, not models but truths. It is its very impermanence which affords science more credibility, inspires a greater sense of confidence, than does the rigidity of “infallible” theistic models.

(Non-literalist religious beliefs, not the issue here, are discussed in I don’t believe it, but you go right ahead, posted on November 23rd.)

The inspired and revealed religions, the ones that rely on faith in the literal word of their God or of his spokes-prophets, are typically unresponsive to advancements in science. As our ability to investigate the world increases — or, to give Hawking the point, as our ability to construct models which explain our perceptions increases — through Galileo’s telescope, or carbon dating, or whatever other technology, the scriptural models resist: they do not change to keep up. The earth remains the spiritual and often the physical centre of a specially-created universe, one which is apparently 6,014 years old.

In other words, there is no discernible investigative methodology in these models. Their authoritarian invariance makes them attractive, in a way, steady and dependable, but that inflexibility is a fatal flaw when the evidence is against them.

As Shermer reports, Hawking believes that when two models of reality equally explain the observations we are able to make, there’s no reason to choose one over the other. Take your pick. Let light be a wave, or a particle, or both, or neither, so long as the observations are not contradicted by any of those descriptions.

This imprecision should not provide any comfort to literal theists, despite their frequent tendency to think that it does. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that it does not follow from “X is not final and complete” that “therefore, Y is true.” It shouldn’t be necessary to point this out, but for the less-sophisticated critics of science, it often is.

Again, the core issue is this: the reason that empirical science and scriptural religion are not co-equal systems of belief, are not in fact similar at all, is that scriptural religion ignores the evidence of relevant observations. As time goes on, these observations mount up, and the scriptural model increasingly does not explain the world (or articulate our representations of it).

Thanks to the implementation of an empirical methodology, science is no longer merely “natural philosophy” but contests the accuracy of its models in the arenas of the material world. For example, evolution over long eons of time usefully describes the empirical observations of geographic strata and fossil evidence. A recent and complete creation does not. Why are dinosaur relics found only in strata millions of years older than those strata in which human remains are found?

Science attempts to answer the question, presenting ever-more detailed and ever-more complete approximations, while literalist religion typically either ignores the question entirely, idiosyncratically recasts experimental results, or mounts a flanking assault on the scientific method itself, in an attempt to avoid the unacceptable consequences of the evidence.

To some extent, it can all be cast as a clash between induction and deduction. Where science says “if this is true, then …,” literalist religion says “that can’t be true, therefore ….”  Through this crucial difference, of both approach and aim, one can see how Shermer is certainly right, that the scientific method affords a unique and invaluable way of investigating the world.

Such is the nature of science, which is what sets it apart from all other
knowledge traditions.

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The full Shermer article is available here.

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4 thoughts on “Peek-a-boo: searching for reality

  1. Ron,
    Bishop Spong said it all some time ago, so I think it is time to move on. And as Yuri said, to paraphrase, I did not see heaven up there.

  2. Hawking worships human knowledge. Of course he will say that subjectivity trumps objectivity. To say that science establishes a weight of evidence that demonstrates God’s revelation is fatally flawed would be meaningful to a rational mind, if it were true. Hawking is a man with a brilliant mind, but he is still a man and he lives according to his own set of beliefs.

  3. I’m not sure that “worship” is the word for what a rational empiricist does. Certainly, we all live according to one or another paradigm, to use Kuhn’s word, and that may be the equivalent of what you mean by “worship.”

    Our disagreement is almost certainly less over whether or not everyone has a way of looking at the world than over what constitutes legitimate evidence to support that model. As Dawkins points out in A Devil’s Chaplain, “revelation” has no scientific equivalent.

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