Proof, Truth and Science

David: Do you think literature gets at truth? Because this resonates through the series. Science is very happy with proof – things that are proven – and then this word ‘truth’ comes in, and it starts to get murky and people get worried faces.

BO: Yes, that's because we're talking about different kinds of truths and different layers and levels of truths. Absolute truth is – let's just put this on the table straight away – absolute truth is beyond all of us – scientists, metaphysicians – absolute truth is beyond all of us.

Truth is a problem, I think, in almost all spheres of endeavour from science to philosophy. I think truth is a problem.

David: Oh, you see, the scientists think they've got truth and that nobody else does.

BO: Well, I will say the scientists, if they are honest with themselves, they know that they're wrong, because they've had this perception of truth for the last two, three hundred years and it keeps changing. It keeps evolving in relation to how much they know, in relation to what new principles, new ways of reading the world, new measurements, come about. So science itself, and its perception of the world, it evolves.

There are very few absolute truths that we have now that were there at the beginning of the scientific endeavour. Our sense of absolutes just keeps changing. I think what science can claim to have is the pursuit of all objective truth, as much as possible: measurable objective truth. But even that, I would contend, is constantly behind absolute truth, because the tools of our measurement are primitive compared to the infinite subtleties of the manifestations of the great laws of nature.

David: Alex Rosenberg, particularly, said, well several of them said, ‘Look, science has truth. We can prove things, and the only things you can prove are truth. Art and literature that's make-believe.’

BO: I wouldn't say that truth is only that which can be proven. I think that which can be proven is that which can be proven, truth is something else. That which can be proven is more in the order of fact. It is more in the order of… We need another word for that truth. Again, this is why I come with the order of truths. There are some things that will, unless our science undergoes astronomical, phenomenal developments, there are some things that will be beyond proof.

But about ‘make-believe’; we need another phrase for it. I would use the word ‘imagination’. I always say that a story is not just make-believe: a good story, or a good poem, is not just a fantasy. The thing about a good story, especially one that has fascinated us for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, and the reason why they go on fascinating us, is because they carry within them, for want of a better word, these archetypes, these patterns, these shapes of human lives.

And I think really great stories have the, kind of, accumulated wisdom of the human race passed on. So it's not make-believe. These are things that are drawn from the great well, the great river of experience of living and being here on this planet. So it's not make-believe at all. These are great inward truths of human life.

Ard: John Cottingham talked about being porous to things: so opening yourself up and allowing yourself to receive knowledge. And there are things that we know, but if we insist that's not real knowledge, we actually lose something.

BO: Maybe one of the worst things that we can do is to diminish the possibility of the universe in our insistence on our description of it. I think there should always be a tentative space left open in how we tell the story of truth and of the universe. There should always be this tentative space that says we don't know just yet. And that space, I think, is the most dynamic space in in the human story, in human civilisation. It's that space that we really pass on from one generation to another, not just facts.

Why this is important is two ways of dealing with knowledge, of dealing with truth, of proof, of our different endeavours. I think it's important because of the structures of belief that make it possible for us to be receptive.

If you believe that the world is completely explicable and is completely as it is, you are less likely to be receptive to the intuitive. I think your belief, therefore, has a great impact on whether you're an insistent, an obsessive, thinker, grabber, shaker, shaper, grasper – and you believe that's the only way in which something can be known – or whether you're someone who can also be receptive to the possibility of dreams, of intuitions, of hints from all manner of things. So I think one’s belief has a great impact on the ability to know.