George Walford: NIAT (64)

Until IC draws attention to it, absolute truth (or the question whether absolute truth exists) attracts hardly any attention. It seldom forms the topic of conversation, and little gets written about it. This does not mean that it plays no part in thinking. IC‘s challenge provokes more letters than any other subject raised, and almost without exception these assert that there is something absolutely true. (Though nobody has yet made their point by the simple, direct and conclusive method of bringing forward an example). The assumption that absolute truth exists forms less a part of thinking than a presupposition from which thinking usually proceeds.

One form of it appears as confidence in the ability of science to find, eventually, some feature of the physical world which exists in total independence, something not further analysable which remains unaffected by whatever goes on around it. What science has in fact done is to demonstrate that among the phenomena studied no such feature exists, but the demonstration has not been taken up.

Rosemary Dinnage reminds us that in 1925 Bertrand Russell, in The ABC of Relativity, predicted the spread of relativity theory into everyday thinking. She goes on: ‘Of course, this has not happened, because, apart from their intrinsic difficulty, such concepts are counter-intuitive to the day-to-day way we handle the world… what we feel as non-scientists is that there is sure to be a hard-and-fast plan somewhere, patiently being uncovered by terribly clever people.’ [1]

Correspondents have more than once challenged NIAT on the ground that the speed of light is an absolute. We have replied that although it is certainly said to be so by responsible scientists, they are using the word in a weak sense to mean no more than ‘invariant.’ Now even that turns out to be not so. Rupert Sheldrake, (a biochemist, former research fellow of the Royal Society and director of studies at Clare College, Cambridge), has written Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (Fourth Estate). Reviewing it, Mark Edwards notes that although Einstein spoke of the speed of light as an absolute, in fact it keeps changing, being much faster after 1945 than in the 1930s. Finally, in 1972, the scientific establishment fixed it by definition. Far from being an instance of absolute truth, the statement that light travels at such-and-such a speed is a convention, something that qualified people have agreed to accept as if it were absolutely true while knowing otherwise.

Nobody has yet offered, as an example of absolute truth, the proposition that life is the greatest good – perhaps because it would be so easily disposed of. Many sufferers from terminal diseases prefer early death and now, with the admission (carefully muddled by the responsible authorities, but not directly denied) that the NHS operates a system of ‘triage,’ excluding those over 65 from some treatments, [2] it becomes clear that at least other people’s lives are not always sacred. (It must often be a consolation, to those responsible for such decisions, to know that they can rely on some investigating journalist to make the announcement, sparing them the embarrassment of having to do so themselves).

[1] TLS Dec 17
[2] Observer and Sunday Times 17 April.

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REALITY: Nicholas Taylor points out that, since our brains take a finite time to react to changes, ‘even the event of light reaching the eye “now” is external and in the past.’ He then continues: ‘What we experience is an evolving model of physical reality.’ Since, on his own showing, we can never experience physical reality directly, without a time-gap intervening, how can Mr. Taylor know that the model we experience is ‘of’ it? (Sunday Times Mar 20)

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.