“If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?”
“Mathematics is not a discovery, but a human invention.” (Andrew Louth).
Andrew Louth in his book length essay, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, engages ideas about whether truth can mean the same thing in the humanities as it does in science and whether these two realms of intellectual engagement with the universe can in fact use the same methodologies to evaluate truth claims. His essay is both thought provoking and informative. It caused me to reflect again on the claim of science and its relationship to truth.
Louth says, “Science is concerned with objective truth … Such truth is independent of whoever observes it…” Science is concerned with eliminating errors due to perspective or history and with establishing facts independent of the observer.
I have to wonder whether Louth’s definition of science or scientific truth is adequate given the insights of Einstein’s theory of relativity or those of quantum mechanics where in fact the observer effects and even determines what is observed. In the world of quantum physics – which also happens to be our world – the facts are quite dependent on the observer and on the observer’s frame of reference. The first law of science would have to be an observer must exist for truth or information to be observed, recorded, and/or interpreted. Truth does not exist where or when no observer exists.
Do mathematical relationships exist in nature? Only in as much as there is someone to observe them. The mathematical constant pi– “the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter in Euclidean geometry” – may be true, yet if there is no one to make that measurement/observation or to use that ratio, it is meaningless. It has meaning only to the extent that there is an observer to take note of it. So mathematics is indeed a human convention – at a minimum a human observation if not a human invention. Mathematical ratios, constants, patterns, formula or calculus are true/truths, but only to the extent that there exists observers to take note of them. As long as there are observers mathematics is true regardless of whether or not the facts/information are useful. Do such formula thus give us a true vision of the world, or are they truthfully mere conventions of those of us who can observe them? In other words are they a truth which the observers impose upon reality? It is humans who have invented the means – mathematics – to both make and make sense of the ratios, relationships and formulas which are observed to exist in nature. Though for humans there is a discovery of mathematical relationships, it is only because there are humans that such discoveries are made and then imposed upon nature as a way of relating to it.
If no one exists to observe the falling tree, there is no question about sound that has any meaning – it doesn’t matter whether or not vibrations or noise exist as both the energy and the tree have no meaning. There would be no one to know.
Mathematics, like science, is thus observer dependent. It may be for scientific and mathematical truth that any observer would note the same fact, but without the observer in the first place there would be no fact at all. It is the observer, or any observers or all observers which “make” something factual and thus establish truth. Truth holds meaning only to those who can observe it.
All of this raises the interesting question then as to whether before consciousness existed in the universe anything can be said to have existed? If there was no one to observe the Big Bang in what way can we say that we know of it? What we can OBSERVE are the effects of the cause, but before there were observers there was no “truth” (though we may have to acknowledge that there was truth to be observed!). The truth about the origins of the universe exist only because now there are beings to observe existence and to impose their understand on the beginnings.
There is of course the notion of God. If as Genesis says God existed, then there always was an observer even when the physical universe did not exist. How could there be an observer without there being an observed? Here at least Christians would say there was the Trinity – the Triune eternal persons who knew each other. It is they who decided to bring the visible universe into existence and observed it all from the beginning. There was a knowing Trinity of persons who brought into existence that which can be observed.
Humans, according to the Scriptures have received a revelation from God about all that can be observed. In creating conscious (self conscious and reflective) beings, God’s revelation can be observed. Meaning is created by the conscious beings interacting with that which can be observed. Because of God we are able to know of things which existed – truths – before we were there to observe them. We thus can impose on the past meaning, we can impose on the past scientific and mathematical formula to make sense of that which we could not observe. We understand these truths though they are based upon the assumption that existence even when it couldn’t be observed must be the same as it is now that it can be observed.
The existence of observers of the universe is what creates truth and meaning. The observer is necessary to impose on existence meaning and the appellation “truth” on existence. In this sense scientific truth is no less dependent on the existence of an observer than is theology.
When it comes to establishing truth, mathematics and science are dependent on the same thing as the humanities or theology: namely an observer. This is an anthropic principle – from the point of view of humanity at least, and a theistic principle from the point of view of God.