The Impossibility Of Knowing The Truth

A couple of days ago the media was abuzz with the news that some truly enormous fossilised dinosaur bones had been unearthed in Argentina. At a hundred and twenty feet long and sixty five feet high, which is slightly bigger than the last contender for the title, it was duly pronounced the biggest creature that had ever walked on dry land. Of course, we have no idea if that is true or not. One day we may find out that this dinosaur was not the biggest but we will never find out that it was because we do not know what we do not know and never will.

Today I read the following on the Los Angeles Times website:

"Five thousand years ago, in ancient Sumeria (what is now Iraq), an Akkadian princess and high priestess named Enheduana composed what many historians believe are the first signed poems, preserved on inscribed clay tablets, ensuring that she is one of the few women in early history whose name is known to us."

Once again, we cannot possibly know that these are the "first signed poems preserved on inscribed clay tablets." We may one day find out that they are not but we will never find out that they definitely are.

There seems to be something in the human brain, even the brains of academics and scientists, that leads people to form definite opinions about what is real based only on the evidence they have without any reference to the fact that they have no knowledge of what is not yet known. This is something that both scientists and theologians definitely have in common. If you don't believe me about the scientists go away and read about the history of the designation of Pluto (the astral body, not the cartoon dog). It was once, based on what they knew about the solar system at the time, regarded by the vast majority, if not all, astronomers as a planet. But now, because lots of similar big rocks have been found orbiting the Sun out beyond Uranus and Neptune, it has been demoted to minor-planet status and there are some scientists who think that also is too grandiose a title for it.

Scientists are constantly changing their minds about things that they once thought immutable because of new discoveries. However, this does not appear to stop them being convinced that every new discovery is the last word on whatever the discovery relates to.

A lot of theologians are even worse. They have made their minds up about God based on what evidence was available to them when the canon of scripture was declared closed by the leaders of whatever church tradition they belong to. But, unlike the vast majority of scientists, they refuse to adjust their understanding of the divine when new evidence comes along. The obvious example of this is the ridiculous belief by far too many Christian theologians and leaders that the earth was created as described in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis even though there is overwhelming, empirical evidence that this is nowhere near to being the truth of the matter. However, it is the less gargantuan sillinesses of fundamentalism that cause the most problems in our world today; archaic and indefensible views about women and gay people for example. When modern people base their theological beliefs on the evidence as perceived by people alive two thousand or more years ago they are going to be as accurate in their understanding of the divine as a modern day cosmologist would be about the universe were he to base all his science on the evidence as perceived by natural scientists prior to the discoveries of Copernicus.

Theologians should be as willing to say that Saint Paul was wrong about certain things as scientists are now willing to say that Newton's laws about gravity have been superseded, to a great extent, by the theories of Einstein. In fact, theologians should go further. When they decide that a former belief has been proved to be incompatible with modern knowledge they would be wise to refrain from being over definite about their conclusions. It may well be that their new understanding will be as far from the mark in the future as they believe the understanding of previous generations of theologians was in the past. Saint Paul appears to have been right about one thing, that our understanding of the divine is tentative, as if seen through dark glass, and that it will remain so until we are freed from the physics of our present existence.

As long as we are subject to time's arrow we simply cannot know the truth and that might be the truth or it might not be. Who knows?


The Impossibility Of Knowing The Truth — 7 Comments

  1. All this can be corrected by the inclusion of the words “that we know of” at the end of each pronouncement. And may I say MP that this is the most perceptive analysis of this phenomena ever made (that I know of).

    • Thank you, DC, although I fear you may well be proved wrong in the future.

  2. Elsewhere, on Facebook, I quoted Heisenberg commenting on his Uncertainty Principal, “Now we know that we shall never know.” I think he nailed the short form. You did a masterful job of taking the subject on in an essay. Of course St. Paul could err, in fact I think he said as much in his comments about some in Corinth.

    The problem is I think, that at least some people really cannot handle uncertainty. They need to know, or have been taught to need to know, that there are absolutes. And there are darn few available.

    Or such is my current thinking. 🙂

    • I can understand why people need to act as if the latest uncertainty is a certainty. What is illogical is to act as if a superseded uncertainty is a certainty.

  3. Very insightful, MP. If I might add a few thoughts…

    From the example and revelation of Jesus, “religion” had it right in the beginning whereas science is based on discovery. The Early Church fully included women and outcasts, formed communities, shared what they had, and cared for the less fortunate. They lived the Gospel.

    Our bishop recently visited our parish and gave a most thought-provoking sermon. What was it about Christianity that allowed it to flourish and draw so many converts in ancient Greece, the land of great philosophers, advancement, and sophisticated civilization? Real love and community. And we can look on that for answers to how Christianity is relevant and appealing today.

    We have all of the revelation that we need really. It is only those who are fearful and arrogant who want to insist on Scriptural literalism, on one hand, and misguided, fractional activism, on the other hand.

    Science, for its part, tends to be smug — and while it’s careful to call new pronouncements “theories, ” it behaves as if the questions have been resolved. And there’s an arm akin to religious fundamentalists that denies any place for religios/spiritual questions and meaning in impotant questions.

    I won’t even go into the troubling relationship between science and big business interests here in the States, particularly in medicine. 🙁

  4. Yes, we can prove the negative–that an apple is not a pear. But we cannot prove that an apple is an apple.
    But, I don’t think the desire for certainty is related. Rather, I think some people have no sense of time or sequence and so exist in an ineffable present where all is just a jumble or muddle. So, they are in a state of confusion and seek something to hold onto. Perhaps the sense of time and sequence is related to the sense of touch, to which most of us pay little attention. In Helen Keller we have an example of a person whose sense of touch was able to compensate for the senses she had lost.
    We say some people are “out of touch.” There may be a basis in fact for that. Without a sense of touch it’s difficult to validate the reality of the material world.

  5. Survival. I am still alive, therefore that which I believed and did yesterday must be true. Any new information that can’t be integrated easily into that must be denied as a threat to my continued existence. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.