Truth as fact, Truth as Commitment

I have taken up the practice of listening regularly to the podcasts of classes by Dr. Hubert Dreyfus of the University of California at Berkeley. Recently I was very taken by something  he was saying that helped me get an even better understanding of the distinction I have been trying to understand between the Romantic view and the view of the Enlightenment.

Western civilization is based on two philosophies, both equally strong and at the same time fundamentally conflicting. One is the philosophy of the Greeks which can be most succinctly traced to Plato. The other is the Judeo-Christian tradition. One of the ways to see the fundamental conflict between these two equally strong parts of our minds is to look at the conception of truth in each tradition.

Plato and the Greeks were Idealists. They believed that ideas were real and that universal principles were alive and at work as the ultimate guiding forces of all that occurred in the world. In this framework truth was a measure of alignment with universal principles. A statement was true because it referred to a principle of the universe that was objectively and observably true. The Greeks looked outside of the world for truth. The universal principles that govern reality existed in a transcendent place outside of the bounds of time and space. These truths remain unchanged for all time. They are eternal truths, independent of time or space.

This is what I am calling truth as fact, because truth in this sense is independent of human activity and is only relative to universal principle. The law of gravity is “true” whether you or I believe it or not. We can even deny the “truth” of the law of gravity and walk of the edge of a cliff if we want, but we will fall just the same as if we believed.

The other great root the Western mind has grown from is the Judeo-Christian. This tradition had a very different view of truth. In this philosophy the action was in the world. When things were getting rough God came to earth to take action. Truth in this tradition is not an appeal to timeless universal principles, it is a stand that a person takes in relationship to an individual experience of higher reality – a call from God for instance. This kind of truth does not exist independent of our willingness to stand for it. God’s commandments are not just true – we have to be “true” to them. If we do not stand for the truth, if we do not abide by God’s commandments, then in the most important sense they are no longer true. Truth in this sense is not independent of us. Truth is not a statement of fact; it is a commitment to live in accordance with.

We can see these dueling conceptions of truth in our own minds. The Greek universal truth is the truth of science. The laws of science do not need us to be true. Gravity is gravity whether we stand for it or not. The Judeo-Christian truth is personal and must be stood for to be valid. And there are some real consequences to these two different conceptions of truth.

As an example consider the legend of Galileo Galilei who was told by the inquisition that he must renounce the notion that the Earth rotates, making it appear as if the sun were traveling around the Earth. As the story goes Galileo acquiesced to the demand, but as he walked away he muttered “E pur si muove” – “it rotates anyway” – under his breath. If your conception of truth is universal there is no need to stand for it to make it true. On the other end of the spectrum  we have the many Christian saints and martyrs who would not back down regarding their beliefs even in the face of death. For them the truth had to be witnessed in order to be real.

If we look in our own experience we see both of these conceptions of truth at work. Some truths are facts that don’t need us to be true. Others are convictions that we feel compelled to stand for to make them true.