The quest without end

Science cannot arrive at an ultimate truth.  Science searches for understanding, not for Truth.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Astrophysicist

Burnell’s understanding of religion – she is a life-long Quaker -is similar.  She believes we need to continue to explore our understanding of god (or whatever term you prefer) all our lives – not to arrive at a static and unchanging ultimatum.

So we never ever finally get to some place where we know it all.


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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4 Responses to The quest without end

  1. Cee-Ell says:

    Her observation is just as important for the conduct of scientific inquiry itself as it is for questions of metaphysics. If Einstein’s Theories of Relativity taught us anything (especially those of us without the maths!) it is that the models and conclusions of science can be, at least for a while, “good enough” without being “true” in any ultimate sense. How much more so, then, does that apply to stretching those models to draw conclusions on ultimate truths?

    Marcia Bartusiak’s recent “The Day We Found the Universe” paints a very human portrait of the people responsible for the beginnings of our current understanding of the universe. It was striking how many of those great men and women had near-religious assurance in their theories, even beyond the point where the evidence tended otherwise. We are all, ultimately, only human — there’s a truth we can all agree on, I think.

    • Thank you, thank you for understanding so precisely what I was trying to illustrate: science isn’t absolute truth; proof doesn’t mean “beyond doubt.” It is, as you say, “good enough” at the moment – until we think of a theory that works better for our present goals and information.

      I am not familiar with Bartusiak’s The Day We Found the Universe,” but I do know that almost all the early scientists were profound believers. Many of them were even ordained ministers.

      I would like to hear more about the truth you think we can all agree on. Although it seems to me there are universal truths, I’m not sure we are in universal agreement about what they are. Seriously, I would be most interested in your further thoughts about this.

      Terry Sissons

  2. Cee-Ell says:

    Ah, well, in this case I only meant the universal truth that “we’re all only human” — our understanding is necessarily limited and our failings are common to us all. Not very earthshaking, I’m afraid!

    Too, there are plenty of people that would count themselves as an exception to that particular truth.

    There are also plenty of people that don’t acknowledge what you or I would see as the simplest and most obvious truths about the physical world. Gallup, 1999: “about four out of five Americans (79%) correctly respond that the earth revolves around the sun, while 18% say it is the other way around.” (Britain and Germany were worse yet, so I am not hammering the USA here!) If you require universal truths to be universally believed, you can’t look to the physical world, I’m afraid. But universal subscription might be just too high a human standard to apply to even universal truths — see above.

    That said, the recently vocal anti-theistic writers seem pretty convinced that there is a moral standard intrinsic to humanity that lies outside of any religious consideration. If they’re right, then perhaps universal truths can be found in some common ground there — once you set aside the need for even psychopaths and opportunists to agree with them!

    • Thank you for answering my question. I’ve been away from my computer for some days and thought that perhaps you thought I was not serious in asking. I’m reaching the same conclusion as you. Emmanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative always seemed puzzling to me with its insistence that we all instinctively recognize good and distinguish it from the bad. I couldn’t see where that “instinct” came from, and it certainly doesn’t seem evident in universal agreement among people of all religions and cultures. But ethnology is uncovering so many examples among animals of almost every species we look at of altruism, sharing, mourning, of caring for, of generosity that it seems to me that there very well may be reason to believe that there is some fundamental direction towards goodness in all living organisms. Religion has co-opted it for many, but I have seen heroism and generosity among non-religious people perhaps even greater than among believers. I sometimes worry that religion, with its emphasis on reward and punishment, has blinded us to how simply good it feels to be kind or selfless or even thoughtful. These things are rewarding in themselves, and do not need a promise of heavenly reward to make us want to do them. I do sometimes wish, though, that some anti-theists did not sound quite as intolerant as they sometimes do. I often agree with them while at the same time wanting not to be associated what sounds to me so very arrogant. Thank you again for your comments. I would be interested in any other thoughts you have, especially as I am slowing working on a second edition of The Big Bang to Now. Terry Sissons

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