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Fact versus Truth

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on November 5, 2012 at 4:56 am

The idea that Science and Religion are at odds is a very common misunderstanding.  For instance, I stumbled across a website that argued that Science and Religion are are both concerned with finding out about the truth about the world and our place in it, but they come up with different answers.

So which one are you going to believe?

It offered the following comparison to assist you in making choosing science as your reliable source for truth:

 

 

 

Science Religion
Gather Empirical Facts (the “evidence”) Study an Ancient and Revered Book(believed to be God’s word)
Use Critical Reasoning (based on the evidence) Accept it by Faith (based on instinct, a feeling, intuition?)
Form A Tentative Theory (Either the reasoning or the facts may be wrong, so best if submitted to a jury of one’s peers for their agreement.) Revealed Truth (must not be doubted?)

 

The roots of the perceived conflict between religion and science came out of, not a battle between science and religion, but a battle between science and language (Klassen). The root of this view is in two ideas called empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism comes from the method articulated by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and rationalism from the fertile mind of René Descartes (1596-1650).

Both empiricism and rationalism were seeking to ground reality in certainty. In the previous centuries, reason and emotions were not antithetical, but part of an integral whole which found expression in language. Language reflected a delight in elaborate patterns and complicated ornamentation. Like the elaborate patterns in gardens, gowns and poetic forms, language was a marriage of wisdom and eloquence, of content and style.

By the time the 17th century arrived there was there began to be more interest the particulars of the physical world that in universal ideas and the world to come. The interest in the things of this world prompted thinkers like Bacon and Descartes to escape the ambiguities of language and emotion (not Christianity) and get at certain knowledge.

Empiricism

Bacon sought to achieve a more direct path to knowledge than one mediated through language. His approach is called empiricism, or the inductive method: through experimentation and observation one might use reason to draw universal conclusions–the truth.  He believed that knowledge could be accumulated through impartial observation of the natural world; this information would be shared publically so that it could be critiqued and verified by others and, through this process, human knowledge would grow.

Rationalism

Like Bacon, René Descartes desired a more certain foundation for knowledge, but rather than using inductive reasoning from experience, Descartes used deductive reasoning that began with the mind. He purposes to seek certainty by setting aside anything “which admits of the slightest doubt” even if the only certainty discovered is that there is no certainty. Since it is possible to doubt the existence of the body, all operations of the body, (and consequently the attributes of the soul which require a body,) are also in doubt. So Descartes looked to the mind and concludes that he does in fact exist because he can conceive in his mind. Even if he is deceived, and everything we perceive is an illusion created by a deceptive God, his existence is still a certainty because one must exist to be deceived.  His conclusion is that truth is deduced using reason.

The influence of these two thinkers on western thought cannot be exaggerated. Reason became the means by which we can understand all reality and intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs are sent packing.

The Limits of empiricism and rationalism

Do the principles of empiricism and rationalism provide us with a clearer picture of the truth than truth that is mediated through language (and intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs)?

Here is a list of empirically collected facts about the bald eagle.

  • Color – Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck, and tail; and yellow feet and bill.
  • Size – The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches, slightly larger than the male.
  • Wingspan ranges from 72 to 90 inches.
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 mph.
  • Bald eagles weigh from ten to fourteen pounds.
  • Eagle bones are light, because they are hollow.
  • The beak, talons, and feathers are made of keratin.
  • Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
  • Longevity – Wild bald eagles may live as long as thirty years.
  • Lifting power is about 4 pounds.
  • Diet – Mainly fish, but they will take advantage of carrion (dead and decaying flesh).
  • Hunting area varies from 1,700 to 10,000 acres. Home ranges are smaller where food is present in great quantity.
  • All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
  • Nests are built in large trees near rivers or coasts.
  • An eagle reaches sexual maturity at around four or five years of age.
  • Fidelity – Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies.
  • Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs.
  • The 35 days of incubation duties are shared by both male and female.

It’s a pretty long list, and more could be added, but even if we added a million such facts and the entire genetic code, would we still have the whole truth about the eagle?

Of course not.

. . . crossing the line between fact and truth

Some of what is missing is captured in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem.

THE EAGLE
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The alliteration in the first two lines reinforces the idea that the environment in which we find the eagle is both harsh and vast. Referring to the claws as “crooked hands” equates the eagle with an aged person, not so much weak, as wise. The eagle is “Ringed with the azure world” and figuratively close to the sun; both of these emphasize the loftiness of the king of birds. The comparison of eagle to king dominates the second stanza which begins with the sea prostrating itself before the eagle-king, who watches from the cliff as from the walls of his castle. The thunderbolt is a weapon of power associated with the Thor, and Zeus—kings of Norse and Greek pantheons, respectively.

This poem captures aspects of truth that anyone who has seen an eagle close up understands. It captures something of its … regality? This is a quality that cannot be accurately named, let alone measured, but it is true.

Tennyson’s description of the eagle is not quantitative, like the list of facts, but qualitative. Yes, this sort truth is the very thing Bacon and Descartes were trying to get away from, but were they right to do so?  You will never have the complete truth about an eagle, but if you complement empirical evidence with some very good poems, you will be closer than if you had a list of facts that reached to the sun.