How do “scientific truths” live?

Enlightenment philosophy advocated the idea that the sovereignty of a free people faced a limit, the limits of truth, beyond which it could have no force. David Hume wrote in 1742: “Even if all mankind should conclusively conclude that the Sun is in motion and the Earth is at rest, in spite of these considerations, the Sun will not move an inch from its place, and these conclusions will forever remain false and erroneous.” (1). Scientific truths, the Scottish philosopher tells us succinctly, cannot be derived from voting.

“Having an opinion is not the same as knowing the truth or falsity of a scientific statement”

The right of citizens to ask questions, to conduct research, to express opinions, to question researchers as well as those in power remains an absolute right. And they should be answered in the most sincere way. But having an opinion is not the same as knowing the truth or falsity of a scientific statement. Moreover, the independence of scientific truth advocated by Hume does not take anything away from individual freedom: neither Galileo, nor Newton, nor Darwin, nor Einstein were potential dictators. On the contrary, it protects it, at least in a democracy. Because when power lies, deceives, or makes a mistake, the individual can challenge it by claiming this truth.

The “truths of science” are neither absolute nor definitive.

However, Hume leaves an important point in the dark: the “truths of science” are neither absolute nor definitive. Of course, some are so solid that it’s hard to see how they could one day be falsified: for example, the Earth is round and everything points to it being permanent; atom exists, and here again it is a statement that is not about to be false. But some truths of science turn out to be completely false in the end. For example, in the 17th century, the phlogiston theory, which suggested that the burning of a body consists of the release of liquid, that is, phlogiston, was invalidated by Lavoisier in the 18th century. Phlogiston does not exist. So it is for the luminous ether, which in 1905 should serve as a support for the propagation of light, which, after a good century of virtual existence, gave up the dream.

The Earth is round, but it does not revolve around the Sun

But other “truths of science” can present a face that changes over time without being denied. Thus, to a certain extent, it has become inaccurate to say that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This statement really suggests that the Sun will occupy some sort of “center” or form a frame of reference with a certain status in contrast to others. However, the successes of general relativity formulated by Einstein in 1915 formally confirmed it: all reference frames are strictly equivalent. Obviously, it cannot be said to have anything special compared to others, and this is certainly true for the Sun-related frame of reference. Were Copernicus and Galileo wrong? No, not really: they answered the question in a certain way in their time. Since then, scientific revolutions have overturned the way we understand gravity and therefore the way we describe the phenomena it governs.

Just as when addressing “scientific truths”, it is advisable to be precise and careful when declaring them. Otherwise, the door is wide open for those who do not recognize their status, treat them with contempt or argue in the name of intuition. Franz Kafka wrote: “It is difficult to tell the truth, because there is only one, but it is alive and therefore has a changing face.” This is what is good about Kafka’s sentences: there is always something to “think about” (…)

(1) David Hume, The Skeptic, in E

moral, political and literary essays


alive, 1999, p. 21

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