During recent online conversations with commentators, I heard a refrain about science: science is only a model, it has nothing to do with reality; our models may get closer to reality over time, but we have no way of knowing that they have gotten to reality, nor do we know that they will eventually get there. I was taken aback by this line of argument, because I thought we still had some faith in something. I personally could not imagine an existence in which faithlessness pervades our minds to an extent that we treat all possibility of knowing truth as impossible, and be so comfortable with it. After I recovered from this shock, I decided to explore this idea more thoroughly in a post.
The Problem of Realism
The problem of knowing reality is quite old in philosophy; it started with the question: How do we know that we are not dreaming, hallucinating, misperceiving or thinking wrongly? No matter what method we use to overcome this problem, that method too suffers from the possibility of illusion and mistakes. In principle, it seems that there can never be a method to knowledge that delivers the ultimate truth. Over the centuries, however, philosophers have tried to find workarounds to this problem. These include the methods of induction, logical consistency, coherence, collective agreement, etc.
After all, if we repeatedly find something to be true, if all the things that are found true through repeated observation logically agree with each other, if they collectively form a coherent system of ideas, and if lots of different people can agree to it, then it is very likely true. But, individually, each of these approaches suffers from a problem, which I previously described in this post. Here I talked about why even after all these methods have been applied, science still remains either inconsistent or incomplete: there are theories which describe only parts of the world (and they are incomplete) but collectively these theories are incompatible (therefore they are inconsistent). The post also traced the path upon which they could be reconciled: the path required the metaphysical premise that wholes are more real than the parts.
The Problem of Incompleteness
These wholes have to be described conceptually rather than physically. For instance, when we combine wooden pieces that represent legs, seat, and back, the whole must be called a chair. It is logically impossible to deterministically determine the idea of a chair from the ideas of legs, seat, and back, although if we had the idea of a chair, then we could derive the ideas of legs, seat, and back from it. The problem arises from the fact that you may interpret the same thing in another way, thereby arriving at a different idea.
In a later post, I then described how the total number of such possible misinterpretations is so large that they would require a space and a time greater than the space and time occupied by the object itself. There is no rational or empirical method by which to quickly and easily eliminate these alternatives prima facie. If, therefore, we stuck only with reason and experience, we would actually never completely determine the nature of the universe because that would require something much bigger that the universe to store and eliminate all false conceptions about the universe, and a time far greater than the lifetime of the universe. This is of course assuming that the universe is finite; if the universe is infinite (called aleph zero) then the time and space required to eliminate all false notions about the universe is an even larger infinity (called aleph one). [The reader is encouraged to explore this detail further in Georg Cantor’s work on infinities.]
This, I believe, is the most accurate characterization of the problem of realism given thus far: the problem is real and unsolvable. If we can make mistakes, correcting those mistakes requires a space and time far greater than the universe, and the process can therefore never come to an end in time. The skeptic who argues that science is always a temporary model is essentially right. If you begin from the smallest things in the world and try to understand bigger and bigger wholes, then this knowledge can never be complete.
Ascending and Descending Methods
This is where the skeptic’s argument ends, but this is not where I would end. Recall that if you have the ideas of legs, seat, and back, you may not arrive at the idea of a chair, but if you had the idea of chair you will arrive at the idea of legs, seat, and back.
Let’s call these the ascending and descending methods of knowledge.
In the ascending method, you observe the smaller parts and try to interpret the nature of the whole. In the descending method, you understand the whole before you understand the parts. The problem of realism—at least the way it is conceived right now—concerns the ascending method: we look at the world and form abstractions about it, and we could be wrong about the abstractions, and the number of possible mistakes is so enormous that this process can never terminate, and hence the abstractions can never be truly known.
This problem does not exist if we begin in the abstractions, but now we are faced with the difficulty of knowing the abstract before we know the contingent. If abstractions are derived from the contingent, then there are too many possible derivations and we could never be sure if your abstraction is indeed correct. If, however, we knew the abstraction a priori, then it would be possible to confirm it in the contingent. But now we must find a way of a priori knowing the abstractions before confirming them in the contingent. The previous post illustrated this idea in the context of a password verification: if you knew someone’s online password, you can verify it through a computer.
The descending method, therefore, is free of the problems that encumber the ascending method. But it presents a profound difficulty of knowing the truth a priori before validating or verifying it in the world. Reason and experience are needed for both discovery and verification, but in the ascending method they are employed in a process that never terminates and in the descending method they would be employed in a process that will quickly terminate, although knowing the truth now needs a different approach.
Trust But Verify
The solution to the problem of realism needs a method in which we find the truth from someone who knows it, but we verify that truth using reason and experience. This is called the śabda epistemology in Indian philosophy where the truth is learnt from an authority but it is verified using reason and experience. This necessity arises because reason and experience are logically incapable of delivering the truth.
Accepting the authority’s version of truth requires faith, but it is not blind faith. You accept the claims of truth on faith but you verify them using reason and experience. The verification process works very fast relative to the discovery process—e.g., you can verify a password very quickly relative to hacking the password to discover it. However, if you happen to have been told a wrong password, you must also reject it and ask someone else who really knows the password. In a similar vein, if you were given a version of truth that you accepted on faith but which fails verification you must rely on finding another version of truth that can be confirmed through reason and experience.
The failure of the password accepted on faith does not imply that you go about hacking the password; it just means that he person who told you the password did not know it. You may have been frustrated with receiving passwords that do not work. But if you reject the process of asking for the password, then the process of hacking it is infinitely more complex can never terminate if the problem is complex.
This leads us to the central questions surrounding this post:
Q: Is knowledge a model of reality?
A: Yes, it is.
Q: Do models need to be tested?
A: Yes, they do.
Q: Do models have to be discovered?
A: Yes, but not through speculation.
Q: Can the truth be known?
A: No, if you speculate. Yes, if you trust but verify.
The End of Speculation
Philosophy and science as they are defined currently—i.e. methods of speculating the nature of truth before confirming them via reason and experience—are logically impossible. However, a newer method of knowing (and verifying) based on information received from those who know can replace the current methods. The reliance on revealed knowledge counters speculation rather than reason or experience.
In short, we don’t search for the theory that will fit the reality by speculation; we rather search for the person who truly knows. This method of knowledge is at the heart of Indian philosophy and has been in use for millenia. The answers received would be accepted based on faith, but rejected if they fail the test of verification. This process is also philosophical and scientific, but only in the verification phase.
Whether you believe that the truth can be known, whether you search for the person who might know the truth, whether you find the person who can tell you the truth, whether you accept the truth to begin a verification, and whether you follow the process of verification, are neither philosophical nor scientific—they are simply choices that we as individuals can make, if we are interested in the truth.