Anyone dealing with science and its findings sooner or later faces a term that has its roots in philosophy, and even its original discipline has never been able to exactly determine its actual meaning: “truth”. But also in everyday use, we surprisingly often encounter this term in relation to science: “checked scientifically”, “as scientific studies show …” or “science has shown that …” whoever reads – or writes – such phrases knows that with them all too often a claim for higher truth is connected. This goes even so far that truth and science in our present understanding are usually so intimately linked that one might be tempted to talk of truth only within the scientific thought.
However, already in the 30s of the 20th century the philosopher of science Karl Popper developed, thereby referring to the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, a thought building in the center of which stood the insight that science can never be sure if it has actually found the truth. According to Popper scientific theories can never be verified (but only falsified). The Popper-Humian insight possesses strong references to the teachings of the ancient philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, a contemporary of Alexander the Great and founder of a skeptical attitude in philosophy, which consists of abstaining from a judgment on ultimate questions, based on the insight of the uncertainty of all knowledge about the true nature of things. His philosophy coined the term “epoché” which means something like “abstention from the final judgment” (it was later taken up again by Edmund Husserl). Pyrrhos philosophical thought are said to be directly influenced by Indian thought, especially the Buddhist doctrine of “relative truth” in the Madhyamaka tradition which reached its peak with Nagarjuna in the 2nd century C.E.
In this necessarily ultra-short description we recognize that there already existed numerous philosophical traditions that questioned science’s claim for absolute truth, when in the early 17th century it started to develop its own ideas about the true “nature of things”. This is not the point at which to reflect on the historical origins of modern scientific thinking. We only want to mention that the scientific revolution of the 17th century was imbued with religious truth provisions in such a way that one must ascribe them a constituting role in the development of science.
Only in the last 100 years can we observe a radical change in the scientific claim for explaining the world which a last bears a profound significance for the discussion of social affairs. The historical origins of science are the philosophical desire and search for an absolute and ultimate truth. Already with the pre-Socratics, the ancient natural philosophers before Socrates, we can observe the development of the foundations of a metaphysics that was looking for the ultimate causes and contexts that lie behind the phenomena in nature. Regardless of the philosophical problems that arose with the idea of an absolute and final knowledge of nature, this intellectual drive continued into the modern age. It motivated Kepler in his teaching of the movement of the planets, it was the basis for Newton’s mathematical system of mechanics and let the physicists still at the beginning of the 20th century dream of the unity of science. Also beginning with Descartes and Leibniz modern natural philosophy was led by the desire and the belief in the possibility of absolute certainty – which ultimately can only be found in the transcendent beyond sensual perception. Only with the rise of modern physics a process started and accelerated in which the idea of the absolute was systematically suppressed in the natural sciences in favor of an empiricist-positivist orientation. The detachment from an absolute certainty in quantum physics can be considered as one of the greatest philosophical insights of the 20th century. We recognize that the success of science in the last 100 years gained its central developmental moment just with the persistent elimination of metaphysical dream of a universal truth (along with the realization that the perception of nature is not detached from ourselves, i.e. “observing” is not a subject-independent process). Well-known examples are the replacement of Newton’s notion of absolute space and absolute time by the relational space-time in the theory of relativity or the new object concept in quantum physics. In addition, consider the central importance today of the concept of information in evolutionary theory and genetics, the two pillars of modern biology. In summary, we can say that science has “de-rendered itself from the absolute”, i.e. it is no longer looking for the absolute.
This development possesses a socially relevant dimension: This scientific detachment from claims of absolute truth displays some astonishing parallels to the dynamics of social power – what equally Popper pointed out. Every time when people thought they had found the perfect form of society, the end result was the solidification of a despotic absolute. The natural sciences teach us the permanent and constant questioning of our own status quo, the never-ending critical reflection of contemporary thought and action. As science politics are in a permanent repair mode, must constantly question itself and find progress in the constant correction of wrong decisions. A form of government in which power is democratically justified and can be corrected in its actions or even voted out of office enables a very different social progress than authoritarian forms of government.
As science has given up its claim of absolute insight and our knowledge of nature is repeatedly corrected and expanded, the associated realignment in our view on “the truth” ultimately enabled the unfolding of the historically unprecedented dynamics of modern scientific progress. Only from here leads a way from error to – albeit temporary – truth, where we are dealing with a science committed to progress. Before humans did have theories of nature, but not scientific ones but rather literary (mythical), philosophical and religious narratives which had a completely different function than to uncover the truth, – namely, to provide meaning.