DiaBlogue: Of Truth and Trust

Alan was kind enough to send me a short email saying he was 1) busy, and 2) confused by my last post about the “love connection” and suggested I might want to go ahead and answer his other questions.

That may take a while, though, so I did want to take another (short) stab at the relationship between community and trust. [Read more] to see whether it helps (and if I can really keep it short :-).

Hi Alan,

What surprised me most about your recent posts was not that we disagree about theology, but that we don’t even seem to share the same understanding of science. For example, you said:

While I do not expect that Ernie meant to imply that his (or any) Standard Model of Christianity was similarly successful, I want to emphasize this dissimilarity. The Standard Model of physics is universally acknowledged (by physicists) because it is so successful; there is convergence in belief because of vast empirical evidence that supports the model and secondarily due to aesthetic considerations like symmetry and (comparative) simplicity. The great variety of beliefs all included under the umbrella term “Christianity”, indeed the very fact that Ernie and I have to be careful to define what it is we mean when we say “Christianity” are indications that no corresponding convergence or success is associated with a Standard Model of Christianity, never mind that skeptics have generally not been convinced.

Again, I worry that Alan may be making a category error. The proper correspondence, I think, would be:

* Adherents: Physicists <=> Christians
* Discipline: Physics <=> Christianity
* Theory: Standard Model <=> Orthodoxy

The vast majority of groups that bother to use the term Christian — liberal, evangelical, charismatic, Catholic, even Mormon — all claim to be “orthodox” with respect to the foundational creeds of the church; they just have very different understandings of the “right” way to interpret and apply those creeds.

I honestly can’t see how that is any different than the situation with physics today, where different schools of thought have vastly different interpretations of the same core beliefs — some testable, some not. To be sure, Christianity is currently grappling with a paradigm shift due to the breakdown of foundationalism, but anyone who’s studied Kuhn or systems theory should realize that this is no different than what happened to Newtonian physics a century ago.

In fact, if you think about it, I suspect you’ll discover that we never have universal, precise definitions of any human institution. Rather, we merely have social norms about what we consider authentic — and not everyone agrees about what those are! After all, many physicists question whether “string theory” is really a “physical theory.” Even in something as mundane and structured as baseball, there’s considerable debate about whether Barry Bonds really broke Babe Ruth’s record. Heck, I’m sure you know of people who don’t believe the Holocaust happened, or that Americans landed on the moon. How does one deal with such beliefs?

I assert that the ultimate test of “justified belief” in physics — and, I wager, everywhere else — is not formal or empirical, but social. In the sciences, the strongest test we can devise is being published in a peer-reviewed journal; mere experiment by itself is hardly sufficient (remember cold fusion* :-).

But that merely begs the question: who counts as a “peer” — Are the beliefs of some communities more valid than others? And how is this any different than those ecumenical councils you view so skeptically? Consider the phenomena of:

a) Non-believers
Many non-physicists don’t believe in the things physicists believe in. For example, I continually get questions from skeptical lay-people who refuse to acknowledge special relativity and the speed of light limit. I don’t consider their skepticism reason to doubt my beliefs. Should I?

b) Heretics
Even within the physics community, there are always a few skeptics who refuse to accept conventional wisdom despite what most scientists consider overwhelming evidence, e.g. adherents to steady-state theory. I listen to their arguments, but their failure to be convinced by my data doesn’t mean I’m wrong, or even unjustified. Does it?

After all, as Max Planck himself pointed out:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

If that is true — and I assure you, it is — then on what basis can we assert that science is really correlated with truth, as opposed to just a “comfortable myth, held by a self-selected group, which seems to work much of the time” — If even my experiments aren’t deemed reliable unless confirmed by our peers, on what basis do I trust my peers? Or for that matter, myself?

Put another way, I would love to know:

A. In what — if anything — do you trust to discover truth?
B. In whom — if anyone — do you trust?
C. On what basis — if any — do you justify that trust?

Faithfully yours,
— Ernie P.