Don't let the truth get you down

Responding to the Edge's annual question Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, suggests that the truth is an approximation, helpfully pointing out that science doesn't seek truth, it "makes and test models."

Now that's apophatic thinking I can get behind. Here's why.

In the sense intended by Gerschenfeld, truth becomes something practiced, not proclaimed. More fundamentally, it acknowledges that our conscious selves, wrestling with all of reality, all at once, are not up to the job of understanding the truth because that's, well, impossible. The world is just that frigging big.

So build approximations. Test them. Make predictions based on the results. Test the new model, and so on.

Likewise, when we speak about the biggest and most transcendent ideas, we're only qualified to say what they are not, and occasionally, when it's least expected, leaps in knowing such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle will confound every expectation. The alternative are truths closed to an understanding made possible by active hands and feet. Unresponsive to their time, their place, their environment, such "truths" sooner or later become mere totems, demanding piety and, sadly, almost no faith.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed in the waning days of World War Two for his role in the resistance to Adolph Hitler, said "a God who let us prove his existence would be an idol." Whether one holds a religious faith or not he suggested, as does Gershenfeld, that an openness to risk, to being confounded, is absolutely essential to discovery. In doing so we are not diminishing or making the truth relative, but as its claimant, restoring the concept to working order.