The Slow Walk to Truth

Niels Bohr

Physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

I’ve also heard this translated as the difference between trivial and profound truths.

So often we are pushed to choose sides around issues that don’t really lend themselves to black and white “sided” decisions. When profound issues are reduced to the dynamics of trivial issues, we lose out as individuals and as a community of human beings when we accept the pressure to name one thing completely right and the other completely wrong. There are elements of rightness and wrongness in all the decisions we make about profound issues, though you might never know it the way our culture demands allegiance to extreme ideas.

Opportunities to see the subtleties in a quest for truth are everywhere.  I recently read an article examining the ethical issues and evidence surrounding public campaigns to promote specific health behaviors in the Journal of Health Policy, Politics and Law that has a great line in it:

“It is all too true that the American public does not understand the concept of risk. They also do not understand the nature of science. Science does not answer questions, in the simple sense of the phrase – it refines them incrementally in its approach toward understanding natural processes.”

I love the idea of the refined, incremental approach to understanding something. It seems so important to internalize the idea that we are always in the process of understanding life’s most significant issues, and that complete understanding is an unrealistic goal. This illustrates the relationship of faith and science and their overlapping dimensions, not their stark opposition in every case. I can switch a word or two and get another sentence that works for me:

“Faith does not answer questions, it refines them incrementally in its approach toward understanding spiritual processes.”

It seems to me Bohr’s principle of profound truths applies. It is not faith or science, it is elements of each that illustrate the best, most comprehensive version of understanding our world.


Photo credit: Atomic Archive

Bohr developed the theory that explains the structure and action of complex atoms. During World War II, Bohr fled his native Denmark to escape the Nazis. He travelled to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to advise the scientists developing the first atomic bomb. He returned to Copenhagen after the war and later promoted the peaceful use of atomic energy.  Today’s post revisits some Esse Diem ideas from April 2009.

6 thoughts on “The Slow Walk to Truth

  1. Elizabeth,

    This is a great piece. I appreciate any effort to bridge the divide people often see between faith and science (or, as C. P. Snow would call them, “the two cultures”). I believe that we’re after understanding, and I agree with you and the author of the article on health that we approach understanding incrementally.

    The first “intellectual” love of my life was science, and I loved it precisely because despite its reputation for being cold and somehow absolute in its truths, it is actually among the humblest of human endeavors. It’s a process that takes as givens human fallibility, on the one hand, and the profound complexities of the world on the other. Reading the works of the great physicists like Bohr, Einstein, and others reveals a mentality that respects the cosmos, marvels at the beauty of the world, and understands that truth comes with hard, deliberate work, and that most of the time we’ll be wrong in our assumptions about how the world works. We need the assistance of a process, an approach to acquiring understanding, and both faith and science provide that.

    Thank you for sharing the link to this post! Your writing is SO conciliatory. I love that. You’ve inspired me to share some of my own favorite quotes from physicists 🙂


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