Reality Check
Questioning Truth and Reality

by Victor Stenger
Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, University of Hawaii,
Visiting Fellow in Department of Philosophy, University of Colorado

Recent trends in some academic circles have called into question conventional notions of truth and reality. The claim is made in these circles that all statements, whether in science or literature, are simply narratives--stories and myths that do nothing more than articulate the cultural prejudices of the narrator. In this view, one narrative is a good as another, since each is expressed in the language of its particular culture and thus contains all the assumptions about truth and reality that are embedded in that culture. Texts have no intrinsic meaning. Rather, their meanings are created by the reader. The conclusion is then drawn that no narrative can have universal validity.

Today's college students, in the United States and elsewhere, hear this line of reasoning from many of their social science and (with less solidarity) humanities professors. The students' natural science professors, with their heads buried as usual in their research, hardly take notice. When scientists happen to hear assertions that science is just another tall tale, they generally flippantly dismiss the notion as nonsense. As usual, this is an ineffective argument that convinces no one.

But the assertion that Western science is unexceptional cannot be summarily dismissed. This claim begins with a plausible, though ultimately misleading, notion that we humans lack access to any mechanism by which we can learn the truth about an objective reality that exists independent of human thought processes. Certainly, science relies on thought processes and does not always follow a clear, logical path to the conclusions it makes about reality. True, it never proves the correctness of these conclusions. Science knows nothing for certain about the world and must always couch its results in terms of probabilities or likelihoods. Often the choice between competitive scientific theories is based on taste, fashion, or subjective notions of simplicity or aesthetic appeal.

Agreed. Scientists can never be certain of the "truth" of their theories. Nevertheless, the predictions of scientific theories are very often sufficiently close to certainty that we all bet our lives on them, such as when we are in an airliner or on an operating table. When predictions are that reliable, we can rationally conclude, if not prove, that the concepts on which they are based must have some universal validity. That is, they must somehow be connected to the way things really are.

For example, we cannot predict with complete certainty what will happen if we jump off a tall building. It is always possible that we might land in a crate of feathers that, by luck, just happens to protrude from a window on the floor below. However, a prediction based on the law of gravity can be made, with rather high likelihood, that we will pass that floor and hit the ground with an unhealthy splat. Performing the experiment many times, with different subjects of course, this is usually what happens. We can safely conclude: Something associated with the concept of gravity is surely "real."

Reality acts to constrain our observations about the world, preventing at least some of those observations from being completely random, arbitrary, or what we would simply like them to be. Although much of what we do in fact observe is random--far more than most people realize--not everything is. And while we humans can exert a certain amount of control over reality, that reality is not merely the creation of our thought processes. In a dream about jumping off a building, we might float to the ground unharmed. In thinking about jumping off the building, we can imagine whatever we want about the outcome. Superman can fly by and rescue us, in our fantasies. An airplane with a mattress on its wings can appear just in time. But, in reality, we fall to the ground no matter how we might wish otherwise.

Without getting too pedantic about defining reality, let me just say that our own observations in everyday life make it quite clear that we and the objects around us are subject to externally imposed constraints that neither we nor those objects can completely control. If I could control reality with my thoughts, I would look like I did when I was twenty and still be as smart as I am now. I don't. In science, we use our observations about what happens when we are not dreaming or fantasizing to make reasonable inferences about the nature of what supplies the impetus for the constraints we record with our measuring apparatus.

Modern physics strongly suggests a surprisingly uncomplicated, non mysterious "ultimate reality" that may not be what we wish it to be, but is supported by all known data. Furthermore, this reality is very much like what was inferred by some remarkable thinkers in the ancient world: a universe composed of elementary objects that move around in an otherwise empty void. I call this atomic reality.

This proposal flies in the face of current fashion. That fashion repudiates all attempts, within science and without, to describe a universal, objective reality. I repudiate that fashion. Where the validity of certain ancient and modern concepts of truth and reality are denied, I affirm them. Where arguments are made that Western science tells us nothing of deep significance, I assert that it remains our foremost tool for the discovery of fundamental truth.