Fact, truth and philosophy

An excursion through thinking structure of India and abroad, ancient and modern

Jitendra Khanna | August 28, 2021


#spirituality   #religion   #India   #truth   #ideas   #thinking   #philosophy  
`Plurality` by S.H. Raza (2013)
`Plurality` by S.H. Raza (2013)

During an online course promoted as a foundational step towards tuning one’s mind for personal spiritual growth (presumably for eventual greater happiness and even bliss through self-realization, liberation, and other big things), the guru asked a simple-sounding question: “What is the difference between fact and truth?” Then answering his own question, he explained that while it is a fact that each individual sees himself or herself exclusively as a man or a woman (or another gender variant), it is equally a fact that each person is a product of a union between a man and a woman. Therefore, the truth (inferred from those facts) is that each person must contain a bit of both sexes. He added, in jest, “If you want to kill a truth, call in some scholars!”

At first glance the guru’s answer, and his mudding of the reputation of scholars, seemed quasi-philosophical and intellectual jugglery. I believed that the difference between fact and truth was largely semantic. But over the next week or so, the more I thought about it, the more meaningful and significant the difference between fact and truth became. This essay is the product of my contemplation (and speculation) of the meaning of truth and philosophy and why appreciation of the two may be vital for transcendence.

Fact: science (and art) – two steps to truth

In terms of value to society of acquiring knowledge through education, an inevitable discussion point is the relative worth of science and art. The guru’s explanation of fact and truth appears to overlap with the counter positions of science and art. Let’s first consider how those disciplines relate to fact and truth.

Science has many definitions. But at its core it involves the use of clearly defined and accepted methods of observation (often involving measurements) of natural phenomena or experimental conditions to generate reproducible results (data). After peer review, these data are accepted as facts relative to the conditions and methods under which they were collected. Hence, most definitions of science refer to discovery of data/facts through scientific methods. Such discovered facts serve as building blocks of knowledge. Modern definitions of science rarely mention truth – probably because compared to facts, truths can have an aura of subjectivity around them.

Keeping the guru’s explanation about fact and truth in mind, it would appear that science helps establish facts (as they are now), but in doing so researchers and scholars can become so focused on the objects of study that they risk losing sight of the larger truth – a bit like not seeing the wood for the trees. Truth in this context becomes an inner mental/intuitive realization of the existence of the metaphorical wood, which is always bigger than the facts that build it up. From that perspective facts appear as fragments of “information” derived from an autopsy of the truth.

In themselves, facts are dry, heartless, and even temporal. Establishing facts is painstaking and time-consuming. A fact today may not be a fact tomorrow. For instance, a non-infective virus at one point in time can mutate and jump species and become virulent at another point in time. Moreover, a fact in one physical location may not be a fact in another: for example, time passes at a different rate on the earth’s surface compared with far away from earth.

Contrary to the cerebral and argumentative nature of science – what the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman called “a culture of doubt”– art is understood as a human creative flair with trappings of emotions and faith. Art takes the route of the “heart”. It helps visualize and express directly, without the need for a thousand words, intuitive images of understanding. Art imagery built from life experiences and feelings is prone to fallibility owing to its subjective nature. It has even been argued that intuition-based ideas (art) have lesser durability compared with scientific facts, which are more anchored in certainty. But that may not be necessarily true – beliefs, myths and icons have the tenacity to persist over millennia.

Since desire is the basis for initiation of all action, it is hard to move forward with any task without “putting one’s heart into it”, including the search for facts (i.e., scientific research). This suggests that objective facts almost always have their roots in subjectivity. Some science-leaning thinkers say that the reason for a perceived emotional experience in the arts being considered inferior (relative to science-based facts) is that matters of the heart are by definition subjective and individualized; and as such subjectivity is not sharable and cannot be experienced by others in a reproducible way. A good example of this is that everyone sees a different meaning in Mona Lisa’s smile. Moreover, individual “emotional” experiences are not consistent each time one encounters the same object, event or person. But the counterpoint to emotional states not being sharable is that people laugh and cry, and even become hysterical, watching other people do the same! Somehow people are entangled at an emotional/mind level.

Science represents what we sometimes mistakenly think we know and can agree on more or less collectively based on logic and reason. Art, on the other hand, is everything that we don’t know for a fact, but assume that our imagination/intuition can help to understand or explain our “ignorance”. Art allows us to make intuitive mental leaps beyond material facts. For the scientist, there is no path to truth without measurable certainty; for the artist, it is the contrary: as the American poet Heather McHugh puts it, “Absurd / We should approach the heavens / With a yardstick”.

While science remains the best tool for systematic observation to build up facts related to issues of interest, it is not without its limitations. In 2005, a paper by John Ioannidis in PLOS Medicine made headlines because it claimed that “most published research findings are wrong”. And in 2017 the BBC reported that, science is facing a "reproducibility crisis where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments”. Problems in science are often linked to two issues: insufficiency/inadequacy of research methods and difficulty with interpretation of result data.

Facts are data that emerge from a systematic inquiry. But in order to make sense of data they have to be interpreted. Science methodology is designed to reduce bias (gut feelings, etc.) in data collection, but to draw conclusions from data (mostly numbers) one needs the human mind with all its biases and quirks. To reach bigger truths one needs minds with intuition, imagination and boldness coupled with humility. Research training equips scientists with competence to select and apply methods appropriately, but it does not necessarily help with the next step. The corresponding scenario for art is that not everyone who can draw (practice of a craft) qualifies as an artist! And, needless to say, not every intuitive idea is the big truth.

Truth – above and beyond facts
When we think of “truth”, words such as facts, reality, evidence, and proof spring to mind. All these words are also associated with scientific fact-finding, justice, honesty and goodness. So what is truth? And how is it associated with those words, including science?

Psychologists say that by age two children begin to understand what is true and what is not true. But there is more to truth than that. The so-called bigger truths are the objects of pursuit in our myths and stories. Truth is the stuff for which our heroes fight and die. Some people spend entire lifetimes searching for one ultimate truth. An obvious property of any truth is that it is adept at hiding from our view and discernment. It is mysterious, and even rare, which is why it is so sought-after.

In a sense, every action and thought represents a quest for truth. Western philosophy has taken an “intellectual approach” in its search for the meaning of truth. In this approach investigation of objects or concepts happens by dissecting the entity of interest – a post-mortem of sorts. This has proved to be a very useful method in understanding matter and its composition (e.g., by smashing atoms and their components). But despite our knowledge of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles (which incidentally are more like waves than particles), are we any closer to the “truth” about the universe?  For example, after the discovery in July 2012 of the Higgs boson – the elusive God particle, physicists conceded that 96% of the universe remained unknown. Similarly, the mapping of the entire human genome was completed in 2003, but even today we do not know the function of 98% of human DNA. On the other hand, theoretical physicists combining abstract mathematics and imagination can foretell “truths” which are proved much later by experimental evidence. So, while as a general rule, facts precede the realization of truths, a shining example of the opposite is Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicted truths of curved space – time and gravitational waves long before experimental data confirmed the genius’s “leaps of faith”.

A good example of the Western intellectual approach to understanding natural phenomena is Aristotle’s definition of truth: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (Metaphysics 1011b25). This circular-sounding statement, which gave rise to the so-called correspondence theory of truth in philosophy, at best is a good beginning.

Following the intellectual approach, neuroscientists have been dissecting the brain in search of the mind, but like truth, mind too is a slippery customer. Observations made by the senses may be processed in the brain, but the experience of aliveness is created when all cells in the body work together. Unlike the physical body, which is relatively easy to understand because it has defined boundaries, the mind appears to be moveable and boundless: in one moment, thoughts can jump from the here and now to the distant past or future. And, in the state of aliveness, awareness of the self happens in the whole body, not just in some neurons in the head! The mindfulness theory –meditation in a new garb – recommends that each new moment should be approached with the “full mind” – presumably one that includes the body and beyond.

The Sanskrit word ‘Satya’, which loosely translates as truth, is used ubiquitously in all Indian philosophies (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) as the ultimate goal of human existence. Etymologically, ‘Satya’ relates to “being” and “essence” – i.e., that which remains unchanged and is unmanifested. Here ‘Satya’ alludes to the mind behind matter. In Western philosophy the study of things “as they really are” is considered under the sub-field of ontology, which asks whether things exist without there being an observer. While some philosophers believe that such a truth can never be observed so long as the observer is within the universe, Indian philosophical systems argue that since Satya (truth) is the essence of all nature, including humans, one need not go anywhere to experience it, except inwards.

Truth about everything is buried in the history of the universe, going back to the big bang. In everyday life the discovery of truth always relates to investigating the past. Anything that is observed in one moment is linked to multitude of preceding moments. In other words, no matter where one is, one has come there from somewhere else. Following that line of thinking, an individual’s mind carries the totality of the memory of the person (possibly in the unexplained 98% of the DNA). All behaviours exhibited by the dance of life are merely reactions between the un-manifested total memory of individuals and the external environment. Truth is realized when sensations associated with recognition of facts resonate with the total memory within. Here resonance is like the experience of listening to music. The brain finds only certain combination of notes pleasing; non-resonating combinations just feel “wrong”.

Resonance, which has spooky quantum connotations, is a good analogy for experiencing the sensation of knowing and realizing a truth. In quantum mechanics subatomic particles exist in the realm of probabilities beyond the world of cause and effect as we know it. Particles, such as photons, atoms, and even molecules can be in two places at the same time (non-local) and can be entangled with other particles such that they can “communicate” with their entangled counterparts instantaneously even if they are light-years apart. The role of quantum mechanics in biology is being increasingly recognized. For example, there is growing support for the idea that quantum properties of atoms enable our mere 400 olfactory receptors to distinguish up to one trillion odours! Moreover, increasing number of physicists are beginning to associate the quantum nature of matter with the concept of a universal mind and consciousness.

Another philosophical viewpoint about truth comes from the Sanskrit phrase “Satyam Shivam Sudaram”, which is commonly used in India to refer to the creation. Literally, the three words mean: truth, Shiva and beauty. Here, the meaning of truth is tied to the word Shiva, which represents the eternal creative dance-like movement of the universe. To the beholder, whether an artist or a scientist, every aspect of the creation is awe-inspiring. As Richard Feynman said referring to the beauty of a flower, “…it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimetre; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes”. Realization of the sheer beauty of the creation through observations of galaxies down to the magical quantum probabilities disappearing into nothingness is a truth like no other.    

In Buddhism ‘Satya’ is of two types: conventional and ultimate. So, at its simplest, truth is the realization that produces a common resonance within most people – for example, the popularity of a song. At its highest level, truth is that sense of knowing which satiates the mind completely, bringing tranquillity and humility. Here, truth is that which resonates perfectly with the truth an individual cognizant of the unmanifested essence of the universe already knows. But such truth doesn’t come easy. Some believe it takes many births! For starters it needs a lifetime of deep introspection in a prolonged state of stillness (mindfulness or meditation). (Remarkably, quantum effects need silence and stillness for accurate measurements.) The ultimate truth cannot be reached unless all aspects from the beginning to the end of everything are taken into account.

Philosophy – the path to truth

Humans experience strange paradoxes. Science is able to dabble in questions such as, "Is our brain hardwired to believe in and produce God, or is our brain hardwired to perceive and experience God?", but it is not equipped (in terms of methodology) to answer the question “Does God exist?” Science can show us the marvel that the cosmos is and tickle our imagination regarding as fascinating concepts as singularity, but cannot, as yet, answer where the singularity may have come from.  Art can create life-like representations of our imagination, creating for some people, sensations of “real” encounters with the “creator” (or not!). In this regard, an ironic situation was reported by Mark Ravenhill in The Guardian, in April 2008. Ravenhill says that when the crew of the popular British science fiction television series Doctor WHO met the eminent biologist and author Richard Dawkins (of ‘The God Delusion’ fame) they were “falling at his feet” in awe and reverence. Ravenhill’s blog argues that, “Richard Dawkins' secular army must be stopped or future generations will be denied a source of inspiration”.

When paradoxes puzzle the human mind and all the thinking leading up to those paradoxes is organized for purposes of systematic study, it becomes philosophy. It is by design that the highest academic degree in both the arts and sciences is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). In the absence of philosophy, sciences and arts (and fact and truth) appear as a naked duality. Philosophy helps to blend art and science like water and flour in kneaded dough – easy to know that both are there, but impossible to separate. Of course, philosophies are more complex than just kneaded dough; they encompass multiple facts and intuitions in the attempt to create a model that explains “everything”.

Researchers generate data and scholars argue about their meaning, filling science and philosophy journals and creating endless irresolvable discussions. Yet, continued conversations, retrospections and analyses are important, for both the sciences andt he arts. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (also called the Nalanda tradition), even the words of the Buddha cannot be accepted without logical analysis. (Ironically, the word Buddha in Sanskrit means one who has gone beyond the intellect.) Philosophies are intended as pathways to truth. It is expected that seekers of truth will transcend the Tao, reconciling facts with the truths they already “know” deep within. But many scholars get tangled in arguments, suffocating the truth! The Tao is rendered a deep trench from which it is hard to get out of. Systematic philosophy needs to avoid the science (fact) trap of getting lost in the trees.

Western philosophers since Plato have been searching for a systematic answer to creation and life based on reason and logic. This is much like physicists searching for a unified theory of everything. Both are pathways toa never-ending puzzle, the pieces of which keep multiplying. Eastern philosophies, on the other hand, recognize the contradictions, and accept them for what they are. As the 2nd century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna put it, “The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature.” That was Nagarjuna’s truth. Each individual has to find their own philosophy and therefrom truth, even if it disappoints. The circular nature of Nagarjuna’s statement is like Aristotle’s definition of truth, but maybe that’s what makes it whole.

Khanna is a science writer and editor who formerly worked with the World Health Organisation.
©Jitendra Khanna 2021
 

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