How to Tell the Truth

September 9, 2005

“WHAT is Truth?” asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Good thinking, as otherwise he might still be there. In fact, Truth is becoming more difficult to find every year. For instance, you think the camera cannot lie? With computer graphics, I can supply a convincing sepia shot of you shaking hands with Abraham Lincoln.So what is Truth? Dictionary definitions are unhelpful, generally defining Truth as that which is true. Nevertheless, it is universally accepted that a proposition is true if it can be independently verified and used to predict something.Scientists have long spent a deal of their time and our tax dollars searching for Absolute Truth, so let’s look at their record. We’ll take astronomy, because the motion of the planets is particularly subject to verification and prediction. Around 350 BC, Aristotle proclaimed that the Earth is the center of creation, with the sun, the stars and the planets revolving around it. This was an obvious Truth, as you only had to step outside and look up to verify it. Ptolemy later did the math, and the Ptolemaic system was used for more than a millennium to time agricultural and religious events according to the positions of the planets.But by the 16th century, Ptolemy’s complicated system of epicycles and deferents became obviously unreliable, and Copernicus proposed a simpler system in which Earth and the planets revolved around the sun. This time, Newton did the math and showed that gravity, acting at a distance, kept the whole thing ticking with commendable predictability. But then, as observational accuracy continued to improve, Newton’s system, too, began to show small discrepancies in planetary orbits. So, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1917 rejecting Newton’s concept of gravity and redefining it as a warp in the space-time continuum occasioned by the presence of a massive body. No wonder Hillaire Belloc exclaimed: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light. It did not last: the Devil, howling ‘Ho! Let Einstein be!’ restored the status quo.”But even Einstein’s incredibly complicated equations, which revolutionized cosmology, failed to explain why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and his general theory of relativity is on the point of being superseded by the string theory, which I am totally incompetent to explain. Evidently we are on the wrong track looking for truth among the scientists.So where else can we turn? In “The Hunting of the Snark,” Lewis Carroll has the bellman say, “What I tell you three times is true.” Aha! Now we are closing in on it! Modern digital communication systems, from the Web to TV pictures from Mars, depend on that principle to clean up corrupted signals; hundreds of independent decoders collaborate to correct a faulty bit sequence on the basis of probability. Eureka! Truth turns out to be a democratic variable, meaning whatever the majority believes it to mean.No wonder the dictionaries are reluctant to come right out and say so.

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