Home > Science! > There Is No Fire Truck Of Certainty

There Is No Fire Truck Of Certainty

One of the biggest problem in communicating is that each of us recognizes a different threshold of certainty, and it’s really hard to get across in every day conversation. “True” is kind of like “red”. It’s impossible to know that what I see as red is the same color that you see as red, because our language doesn’t give us the tools to describe the experience of a color. We can say something is red like a fire truck, but it never gets past that barrier.

In real life, though, it doesn’t really matter if our reds are the same, as long as there’s a reference point. We can all agree that whatever a fire truck is, that is what “red” is. Certainty doesn’t have a reference point. There will always be some jerk telling you everything you think is true is actually lies, all lies! People end up talking past each other because they’re using the same words to mean different things.

Richard Dawkins brings this up talking about evolution:

There was a time when people thought the world was flat. Then it became a hypothesis that the sun was the center of the universe, and then there was the hypothesis that even the sun was not the center of the universe. In the ordinary language sense of the word “fact,” is it a fact that the earth orbits the sun and the sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy. There’s never a hard and fast line when something ceases to be a hypothesis and becomes a fact. You realize with hindsight, that something has become a fact. Philosophers of science, of course, will say that nothing ever becomes a true fact, that everything is just a hypothesis that can never be adequately proven and that we could all wake up one day and discover that everything was just a dream. But in so far as the general public ever uses the word fact, evolution is one.

This effects us more than just in some “Hey, we could all be in the Matrix, man!” kind of way. We live in a world where science is a larger part of our lives than at any other point in human history. Keeping up with it all in any meaningful way would be a full time job. So we have to rely on authorities to translate the state of science. But one thing that’s hard to put across is exactly how strongly we know this.

I am not trying to shed doubt on the scientific process itself. Throughout history, science may not always have been right, but it has always been progressively better than what came before. That is, from time to time new discoveries overthrow our understanding of the world. It’s likely to happen again at some point in the future, maybe within our lifetimes. But never has a new discovery taken us back to an older way of looking at the world. It’s like looking at the world in progressively sharper resolution; we continue to see more, not less.



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