Truth is not a four-letter word

A man claiming to be Truth arrives at the temple, and wishes to meet the Dalai Lama.
Announced, Truth enters, sits, and the two sit long, in silence, examining each other.
Truth eventually breaks the silence, and says: “I am here.”
The Dalai Lama asks: “What took you so long?”
Truth responds: “I did not know what I was, nor where I was to be found.”
Dalai Lama: “Do you know now?”
Truth: “I cannot know.”
Dalai Lama: “Welcome, Truth”

I use the word “truth” when I write.  I feel the need to elaborate.

The word has come to have negative connotations, and that is a very bad thing, a testament to society’s sorry state.  What is a “truther” in modern diction?  A nut-case, right?  As soon as you read “the truth is that…” alarm bells go off, right?  Well, they should, because truth is a very precious thing, but it is important not to shoot messengers solely on their use of this word and persistent insistence of truth’s existence.

I will never forget one side of a conversation that occurred in the sunny living-room of our clapboard home in Toronto.  The professor of philosophy from next-to-next door, my father, and early-twenties I were discussing truth.  I took a position I stand by today.  Truth exists. They took the opposing position.  For the life of me I can’t remember what they said.  I have never had a very good memory per se, I can only remember what makes sense.  What I do know and remember is that I was in exasperation driven to assert then and there what truth was to this esteemed audience.

“Truth” I argued, exists but is not knowable to man.  We asymptotically approach Truth – capitalized there to distinguish it from what is knowable to man, ie the truth.  We began with a geocentric model, went heliocentric, Newton nailed the math (we thought), Einstein improved on that, and we moved on to quantum, chaos, and information theories.  Each of these is like another halving of the gap between truth and Truth.  Like Zeno, we get closer, but we cannot ever reach our destination.

That there is Truth in mathematics I am absolutely certain, and to the extent that we can correctly apply mathematics through theory we learn truths about us and our environment and all the interactions possible.  But there is much mis-application of mathematics and science, especially in so called “soft sciences”.  Our trust in “experts” who rely on mathematics in these areas is oft misplaced.

Despite this, we have truly advanced much in our understanding. But the conclusions as one probes deeper and closer to Truth are troubling for those seeking certainty through its knowledge.  It seems ultimately that no matter how one approaches the problem, faith is required for Truth to exist and thus even be approachable.  To some, this is unsurprising, to others, it defeats the purpose of the quest.  This was elaborated upon in “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”.

Godel, in 1931, managed to prove, in a nice tight little proof full of lovely mathematical symbols – an irrefutable proof, if one accepts logic and reason – and only loosely worded here, that:

Any self-consistent axiomatic system contains truths that are unprovable.

In other words, even in mathematics, faith is required.  We don’t yet know which of the various mathematical assertions will forever remain unprovable, but we do know there are at least some of them, and that we don’t know which they all are.  The good news is that so far as we know, none of the important math, the stuff that we use to regularly figure out what is going on in our world, is suspect.  But we can still mis-apply even the math we understand well.

Physics is the study of how stuff behaves.  Modern physics has become very good at modeling reality, and so allowing us to understand it, with some key exceptions.  First, relativity tells us that there are many versions of “now”, and thus many versions of the truth at any given “time”.  Alternatively, we all become aware of our truth in a differently-angled slicing of space-time.

Then quantum tells us that we cannot know everything about anything.  We cannot know both position and momentum, the exact things we need to know accurately to refine our models, but there are some limits Max Planck bumped into.  We cannot know where the electron actually is, just the probability that if we look somewhere we will see it there.  Schrodinger’s cat, by the way, is in fact either alive or dead, and not “alive-dead”.  Nature is an excellent observer of herself, and scale matters.  We are just a little behind Her, sometimes.  This is also why gold bricks don’t jump through vault walls, but electrons do.  Nature is watching, and scale of observation matters.

Non-linear dynamics and its Siamese-twin chaos theory pose some more problems with knowability and predictability.  Complexity theory elaborates on that.  Information theory rides along side and seems to start explaining it all, if you ask me.  If you are still reading, I’ll consider that asking.

How to explain it all.  It appears that complex systems behave differently than simple systems.  You don’t need to imagine a strict line separating the two, but at one end we have things like the biosphere, the blogosphere, the global economy, a city, a tree, a bird, a river, a mountainside, a cloud, at the other a bicycle, an inkjet printer, a pair of scissors, rock, paper.  Whether we see something as simple or complex may depend on what scale we are using to observe.  A bicycle may seem simple at our level, but at the atomic level things are buzzing indeed.  Which is true, then, that the bicycle is simple, or complex?  Truth depends on the scale we are using when we ask a question.

Further, complex systems have the nasty property that you need to know everything, everything, about the system, in infinite detail, if you want to have a chance at predicting its behaviour for any length of time.  And quantum physics tells us we can’t, and relativity that there will be other, perfectly equally valid versions of these details.  So not only does math itself fail in providing certainty, when we try to apply it to anything interesting, we find that predictions always diverge from actual outcomes.  The Truth is elusive indeed.  Or is it?  Can our final scientific contender, information theory, be our savior, our booster-jets to advance us closer?  Perhaps.

We can use information theory in studying complex systems and in trying to refine truth.  It appears to be the case that when we let complex systems freely evolve, they achieve information-optimal states (“strange attractors” to the chao-purists).  What do I mean?  Think about DNA.  Somehow it got here in a complex evolutionary path through which it was free to evolve.  Your DNA strands contain all the information required to make an entire you.  It will make you whether you are warm or cold, ill-fed or sated.  Information theory would appear to tell us that there is very likely no better representation of “you” that could be created.  If you were a JPEG image, and we had to save you on a packed hard drive, so we wanted to compress you, but wanted to lose no detail at all, none of your youness, we would wind up storing your DNA.  Ish.  Small issue of your entire nurture-to-date, but I hope you get the idea how complex systems left to freely evolve will evolve to achieve order, ie create information, and that the information that is so created is the best possible way to code it.

The evolution of free action in complex systems (i.e. Nature) creates self-organized information-optimal order.

I believe this is true at all scales, and it is a bold claim, though I think a direct result of complexity theory.  It completely flies in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, but is in perfect alignment with much that we see around us.  The second law roughly states that randomness is going up.  Order is decreasing.  Yet if we look around we see highly ordered systems everywhere, at all scales.  Sub-atomic?  The quantum model is highly ordered.  Atomic?  Are you acquainted with the periodic table of the elements?  Order indeed.  Molecules?  They are so ordered, we still can’t figure out how they get it right, and how a protein “knows” just how to fold itself into its minimum-energy state.  Biological systems?  Well, trees, and birds and fish and mammals don’t look very dust-cloud-ish to me.  More order.  Society?  Knowledge?  Economies?  Yes, all ordered.  Did we plan them that way, or did it happen and were we along for the ride, in the large?  Stars?  Planetary systems?  Galaxies?  And I am meant to believe I am looking at systems that are tending inevitably with the arrow of time towards disorder?  Really?  That is Truth?  I think not.

It must confound the astrophysicists and scientists who have not yet embraced all the Zen weirdness of later math and science that the second law appears true on some scales and not others.  I believe that those who are in search of “dark matter”, “the God particle”, and such are in for a surprise, and that they are not moving towards Truth.  John Moffat points out that we have searched for dark matter before, they called it Planet Vulcan, to explain the wobble in Mercury’s precession.  Einstein came along and proved we didn’t need more mass within the current model, what we needed was a slightly different model, one just a smidge closer to being Truth.  The search for Vulcan went poof pretty quickly, but at least it gave Spock a birthplace.

Moffat explains we could accommodate our observation of the apparent discrepancy in rotational velocities of far galaxies if there existed a force that unlike gravity increased with distance from the centre of mass (as opposed to gravity’s decreasing in a square-law relationship).  I posit that Moffat’s force is created from the order enclosed within a volume of space-time.  We don’t need dark matter to better understand Truth. It is order we need to understand better. Vulcan doesn’t exist.

I write of all this because it bears on how we consider truth in the softer sciences and in our daily lives.  It also bears on the way we compute truth in our brains, that our minds might make use of it.

Our brains compute truth for us, as best they can, and they are amazing at it.  Consisting of billions of freely-interconnected neurons, massively entwined in a marvelously ordered yet self-organized mesh, our brains are each a complex system.  Our thoughts are the strange attractors through which the state of this system swirls.  Consciousness and our minds emerge from this self-ordered chaos, minds that are driven to seek truth, if everything is working right.  But the magical nature of our DNA can be twisted by improper nurture.

Plato two thousand years ago imagined people raised in a cave watching images dancing on the cave wall. He imagined the images created by the shadows of shapes played in front of candles, but his scenario is remarkably prescient of today’s TV/entertainment culture.  The thought certainly crosses my mind sitting in my basement in the darkness in front of the Panasonic plasma.  The people, Plato argued, would perceive the images as truth, as reality.  Led outside, and shown the real objects and scenes being depicted, now in all their detail, splendor and glory, they would mostly deny this reality, and return to the cave.  Only the most questioning and open-minded would choose to stay and embrace reality.  I say those who believe they are outside now owe an obligation to those still in the cave to keep showing them the true light of our version of truth, which we must hope is closer to Truth than theirs.

But as science tells us and as we can observe from Plato and our traffic-accident acquaintances, we all have our own notion of truth.  Does that mean we’ll never know Truth?  Perhaps not perfectly, but I argue we can get close enough for horseshoes and hand-grenades.

It appears to be the case that at any level in the complexity-hierarchy, from sub-atomic quantum particles (waves? probability-density distribution functions? What is the Truth there?) right up through atoms and molecules and organisms to Man’s consciousness and beyond, it takes the self-emergent order at the next level up, swirling in the complexity created above any given level to “understand” the level, to find the order in that level and exploit it, to find a version of Truth at that level.  There was a time when the universe was hot when there was no chemistry.  Complex compounds had not yet formed.  As chemistry grew more complex, the molecular-level “figured out the Truth” about the atomic level and how it worked and how to make order out of all that atomic chaos.  Every protein now “knows” how to fold itself just so, once it is born, but that wasn’t always the case.

What then, of the artificial level, where Man’s consciousness can both construct complex systems and exert free will within those system?  It seems so obvious.  What we need to do to guide us towards Truth is build free complex systems at our conscious level, and see what emerges.  If the “atoms” at the consciousness-level, ie our individual free will, are diverse and free to interact and self-organize, complexity and information theory suggest that order will emerge, and it will be optimal.  Truth can be thus found, not through the efforts of one conscious mind, but by us all collectively interconnected, each of us a neuron in a larger brain at the next layer up.  But there is a catch.  If we are not free to self-organize, we will not approach Truth.

The economy is a complex system created at the conscious layer, where one mind/body pair is like an atom, or like one neuron in a complex brain.  We have observed that trade produces benefits for us above that which we alone could provide.  In fact, we have, willingly or not, already abandoned knowledge of Truth in economics to the self emergent order of the markets because we can no longer answer the simplest of economic questions: “How does one make a pencil?”  We can notice that when we try to coerce this complex system, as in command economies, or even with simple tweaks like price controls we decrease its benefit to us and/or its efficiency.  Left free and allowed to trade in sound currency, the complex system we call “the economy” computes truth.  It learns better and better ways to accomplish all the tasks demanded of it, and new ones as they come up.  Distort it, and things can only get worse than the free state.

We need to talk about what we mean by freedom.  The trouble with complex systems above the organic is that physics doesn’t seem to immediately apply.  If it does, it has some pretty long lags and time-constants.  Physics sure took a while to take down the Roman Empire, for instance.  Because we have free will, our systems (social, political, etc) are not bound by physical law as is say an electron or a rock, thus natural feedback mechanisms, essential for stability in complex systems, may not naturally exist at our level.  We have observed the result of the lack of disincentives to excess – a lack of feedback – in our financial affairs.  Newton’s action-creates-reaction has been notably absent for our bankers.  Because we have free will, we can do wrong if the neural-system isn’t working right.

We thus need to self-organize ourselves up some laws that will help ensure the systems we develop at the conscious layer are resilient to this mode of failure.  Thus, despite being quite Libertarian by nature, I might seemingly contradict myself in believing it is true that sound and tight banking regulation is a good thing.  But you see, the layers below us had their laws made for them.  We have to invent ours, or have faith that the ones that arrive on tablets or scrolls are both necessary and sufficient to ensure stable emergent order occurs.  We should look to the examples in physical law as we consciously make our law, else we will not compute truth in our social systems and thus be rendered incapable of meting justice.  Frankly, I think the Amish probably have it about right, but the model is a little tough to scale.

The “law of the internet”, and its embracing of freedom is what made it so successful that now a whole new layer of complex systems are forming on top of it, complex systems that include our minds as atoms/neurons.  It was long ago, not long after my discussion of truth that I realized how truly glorious the internet was.  There was no world-wide-web, just a bunch of machines that talked, some phoned each other, and files slid around amongst them.  But it was clear that out of it could blossom a machine that might compute Truth, and save mankind from himself.

I say blossom, because organic interconnection of our minds and free will are required for truth to emerge from the ‘net.  If we try to engineer truth on the net, say, by paying people to advocate a position that is not their own, or by invading upon its self-emergent order, we do so at our peril.  The internet is a precious flower, the best thing Man ever created, better than the wheel or the printing press.  It is true that we owe to all future generations an obligation to keep it alive and thriving for their use and benefit.

I am still, a quarter-century after first shivering in awe and delight at the idea, thrilled and extremely optimistic about our prospects, now that we have the Internet.  The truth brought by Gutenberg brought enormous positive change for man, and the Internet will do better for us yet.  Provided.  Provided we keep each of us contributing our version of truth, listening to others and theirs, and then modifying ours, just as a neuron would.  If the ‘net is allow to compute truth, the rest will follow.  Don’t let anything stop it in this quest.  Thanks for reading.

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One Response to Truth is not a four-letter word

  1. pranay says:

    excellent!

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