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← Dawkins & Krauss Discussion from ASU 4 Feb

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 30 by Cartomancer

The idea that two contradictory things can both be true at once, the one in the scientific, the other in the theological sphere, is not a new phenomenon by any means. In the Middle Ages it was known as the doctrine of the Double Truth (veritas duplex), and a number of prominent theologians of the thirteenth century appealed to it in order to paper over the cracks between what the (heavily neoplatonic) christian tradiiton held and what was being discovered in the newly translated Latin versions of Ptolemy, Galen, Euclid and above all Aristotle. It is thus a very venerable response indeed, going back to the very beginnings of serious christian engagement with scientific knowledge.

It makes sense, of a sort, given the propositions it stems from. The idea was that one thing is true according to observation (scientia), the other according to revelation (sapientia). If you genuinely believe that these are both valid sources of knowledge then an irreconcilable contradiction between them is a real problem. You can't throw out either conclusion, but you can't make them agree, so the only sensible option is to say that each is true in a different way and take the inquiry no further. Human fallibility in matters of perception furnishes a more than adequate justification. The most prominent champion of this doctrine was the ill-fated Siger of Brabant, a staunch supporter of Aristotle and his Arabic commentators and a critic of human (i.e. papal) infallibility in all things. Siger was killed in 1280. By his mad secretary, With a pencil sharpener.

Of course, there were other solutions to the issue. Some medieval thinkers, such as John Blund, stuck rigorously to only one field or another - theology or natural philosophy - and made it quite clear which they were doing at any one time. This was easier thanks to the fact that most masters who wrote on philosophy had not yet begun the study of theology, which you generally had to be 35 or over to do in a Medieval university, and have a string of lower degrees under your belt already. Or you could reject one or other source of authority and hold that, whatever the truth was, there was only one of it. Usually this meant rejecting Aristotle, especially on important matters like whether the universe was eternal or not. Though you could quite easily have your cake and still eat a good portion of it by saying that Aristotle's account is the best you can get through unaided reason, but you need revelation to go the whole way and understand how the universe behaves under the non-standard conditions of divine intervention. Aquinas was one of the most prominent who held this view, and it later became catholic orthodoxy, though until the time of the reformation there were still theologians who resorted to double truths to square the circle of believing the scriptures and keeping up with the science. There were even some at the time of Copernicus who proffered it as a way to keep biblical astronomy and still embrace a heliostatic model of the solar system. Eventually it became a heresy punishable by excommunication, but it had waned in popularity significantly by early modern times.

Such compartmental thinking was perhaps easier for a mind thoroughly steeped in medieval theological exegesis, where the same passage, symbol or event in scripture could be understood not only in at least four different ways (literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical) but, crucially, in all of those ways at once. The casting of Adam out of Eden, for instance, could be understood as an historical event, the symbolic loss of innocence, a moral warning about the importance of obedience and an allusion to divine justice. When you believe that god communicates on all these different levels at once, the idea that two things are simultaneously true in different ways is easier to swallow, or so it would seem. Of course, Augustine was fairly adamant that this sort of communication had ceased with the incarnation, but that didn't stop people applying the same modes of thinking to contemporary matters.

I wonder if something like this isn't behind the people one occasionally hears of like Richard's astronomer and the medical doctor of the example. Is what we are witnessing merely a "hold off and see" approach to reconciling what these people believe are two equally valid but incompatible sources of knowledge? Such an approach has been little in evidence among serious thinkers in the West for over 500 years, so it seems surprising to find it cropping up today. But perhaps it is a symptom of the more open, less violently sectarian religious atmosphere in parts of the modern world. Although heresy and dissent was becoming an issue in the thirteenth century (it did see the Albigensian crusade among other things) academic discussion of theological matters was still not so sharply sectarian and dangerous as it would become when there were competing protestant and catholic factions after the reformation. Then a certainty that observed reality accords completely with your version of religion was a necessary thing to have, and encouraged, and there was little place for the much quainter and less adversarial solution that the two could both be right in their own way.

Mon, 13 Feb 2012 06:23:05 UTC | #917099