Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Truth, Fact, Story, Myth

As a religion professor, one common topic in my classes is the topic of truth. Interestingly, whenever I ask students to define the word "truth," I often get responses like the following:

"Truth is something that happened, something you can verify by reason or science."

I then ask students to define the word "fact" and get a nearly identical definition. In our modern world, truth has been reduced to and equated with fact. Fact is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin and is a participle of the verb facio which means to do or make. The perfect passive participle, factum, means something that has been done, something that has happened. That is almost spot on with the modern definition of fact. I quote the modern definition from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

1530s, "action," especially "evil deed," from L. factum "event, occurrence," lit. "thing done," from neut. pp. of facere "to do" (see factitious). Usual modern sense of "thing known to be true" appeared 1630s, from notion of "something that has actually occurred." Facts of life "harsh realities" is from 1854

In the modern world (I use the term "modern" in its technical sense as the world from about 1500 on with its focus on reason and science as opposed to the medieval and ancient worlds which focused much more on revelation and mythology as sources of knowledge) truth = fact. Only things that can be verified by reason and science can be considered "true" in the pure sense. One can see the beginnings of this movement in thought in Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy. Now, I am no Philosopher, and this is I am sure an extreme oversimplification, but Descartes method was to doubt everything he could not prove until he found something that he could not doubt, which led to his famous dictum "Cogito ergo sum" "I think therefore I am." Descartes could not doubt that he existed because he had thought.

The Modern world, with its culmination in the Enlightenment, swallowed whole the notion that only things that could be proven by reason and science could be called true, and this comes across in my students' definitions of truth. Yet, there is increasing uneasiness with the reduction of "truth" to mean only "fact." Certainly fact is contained in truth, but not all truth can be contained in fact. Truth is a much broader concept.

One vehicle for truth with is largely devoid of fact is that of story, and its Greek antecedent, Myth (μύθος). In an interesting definition of myth by Theon, a first century progymnasmatist (teacher of preliminary exercises of rhetoric), he states, "myth is a fictional story that images the truth" (my translation). Myth, or as it is more commonly translated in this context as "fable," then is said to be a fictional story (the Greek word is ψεύδος (our root for pseudo meaning false)) which tries to image, or represent in an image, the truth.

Before the modern era, story was often thought to carry the truth. Take for examples the teachings of Jesus. Much of Jesus teaching is in Parables, which I would argue follow almost exactly Theon's definition of "myth" or "parable." Jesus told "fictional" or "false" stories to illustrate great truths. For example, Jesus could have expressed the truth of "love your neighbor as yourself" in merely propositional language, and he did. Yet, to drive this truth home and really make it powerful for the hearer, he tells the parable, or, dare I say "myth" of the Good Samaritan. So much of Jesus teaching comes in the form of these "fictional stories that image the truth" yet so much of modern Christianity relies on "fact" as its basis. Modern Christianity, it seems, has swallowed modernity whole (except for a few aspects of modern Science). Yet this is a topic for another post.

In the end, I think that many today are clamoring for "truth" that is not limited to fact, truth that can only be expressed through story.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting how "fact" becomes associated with "truth." In law school, we looked at "fact" in a different way, I think more along the lines of the traditional meaning of the word. As I was thinking about how I would personally define "fact," my immediate thought went not to truth, but to an event or a happening. It wasn't until after I was thinking about it in that regard that I saw the classical definition.

    You see, in law school we are taught to distinguish facts from statements which are mere allegations, suppositions, or conclusory. The statement "Keith is a Dr. Pepper addict" is a conclusory statement. "Keith drinks 42 Dr. Peppers a day" is a fact.

    The thing is, fact does not equal truth. Just because "Keith drinks 42 Dr. Peppers a day" is a fact doesn't mean that Keith really and truly drinks 42 Dr. Peppers a day. It could be that I observed Keith drink 42 Dr. Peppers in one day one time. It could be that Keith told me that he drinks 42 Dr. Peppers a day, or that he drank that many once. But that doesn't make it true.

    More on the new post.