The doctrine of double truth

Somewhere on the internecks, I engaged in a discussion of the origins of the “double truth” theory. I wish I could find it again (let me know if you know), but I was asked where the doctrine arose. I have done a little digging, and this is a report on that.

The “double truth” theory is roughly this:

If you use reason, then you will be led to a number of conclusions (where “reason” is the use of evidence and logic of various kinds).

If you rely on faith and revelation, which is the source of knowledge of the things of God, etc., then you may be led to a number of different conclusions.

These are the two truths, and the relationship between them is the subject of much debate in theology (not so much in philosophy, and almost not at all in science). Some have held that the truths of faith must agree with the truths of science, because God is author of both, and so any apparent conflict shows that we have failed to understand one or the other. Some (like Luther in his more excitable moments) have held that faith always trumps reason. Some have held that science must trump faith (if religion is to apply in the modern world). And so on. Some take a misquoted slogan of Tertullian’s and argue that we should hold to faith because it is absurd according to reason (a view he did not hold).

So, where does this come from?

It appears to have been based on, but is not found in, the work of Averroes (Abu’l Walid Muhammad Ibn Rushd Al-Qurtubi) in Spain and northern Africa, around the latter part of the 12th century, in response to the increasingly “fundamentalist” views of Islamic scholars against secular science, which had flourished until that time, but which was eclipsed by the Almohad Dynasty and its rejection of the liberalism of the Almoravids they supplanted. Ibn Rushd was regarded by early western scholars of the revival that followed shortly afterwards as “the Commentator” of Aristotle (“the Philosopher”), and his views found a willing champion in Siger of Brabant, who was a prominent Averroeist in Paris. Siger held to a view that reason and faith would deliver different conclusions and taught an unreconstructed Aristotle to the students at the Sorbonne.

A parody of his views, most likely introduced to combat his political influence between the “nations” of the Sorbonne (France, Normandy, Picardy, and England) and to assert the primacy of the Theology faculty over the faculties of Arts, Medicine, and Law (Arts then, as now, had the lowest rank. Some things never change), was issued in a Condemnation in 1270 by the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier. Tempier issued a second Condemnation in 1277 in which Siger was a key target, and the notion of double truth banned from teaching (effectively defeating Averroeism): “as if there were two contrary truths, and as if against the truth of Sacred Scripture, there is truth in the sayings of the condemned pagans.”

Of course, nobody held the views Tempier denounced, but it was enough to have Siger and others banned from teaching and sent into exile. But at the same time, Thomas Aquinas was writing his various Summas, and in them he noted that faith and reason do not always agree, and held that faith perfects reason (Summa Theologica Prima Pars, Question I, Article 8; Summa contra Gentiles 1.7.6-7), rather than supplants it. He wrote in the latter reference:

Now, although the truth of the Christian faith which we have discussed surpasses the capacity of the reason, nevertheless that truth that the human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith. For that with which the human reason is naturally endowed is clearly most true; so much so, that it is impossible for us to think of such truths as false. Nor is it permissible to believe as false that which we hold by faith, since this is confirmed in a way that is so clearly divine. Since, therefore, only the false is opposed to the true, as is clearly evident from an examination of their definitions, it is impossible that the truth of faith should be opposed to those principles that the human reason knows naturally.

Shortly afterwards, the doctrine also found its way into Jewish thought, via Isaac Albalag.

Aquinas’ writings became effectively canonical for Catholic orthodoxy, and as a result, the Condemnation of 1277 was rescinded. Thereafter the doctrine that truth cannot contradict truth held sway, and it still does. The accommodation that the Catholic church has reached via Aquinas is that when no spiritual doctrine is at risk, one should always accept the truth of a scientifically successful theory (in the same manner that a scientist would, provisionally and according to empirical adequacy). When a spiritual doctrine is at risk, as when someone might claim that whatever “soul” refers to it evolved as a disposition of brains, then the doctrine takes priority, but in truth, the doctrine is reinterpreted so as not to conflict with the science. An example I like to reference is given in Harry Paul’s book – attacks on Daltonian chemistry, which contradicted the form-substance theory of Aristotle on which the doctrine of Transsubstantiation was based, developed over time into a redefinition of terms like “form” and “substance” to permit atomistic accounts, reluctantly.

As Harnack spent so much energy demonstrating, dogma is a dynamic and fluid thing, always adapting to the social and intellectual conditions in which it finds itself. We have a rather foreshortened view of this history today, because we are used to conservatives and literalists trying to change the conditions rather than adapt, but even today the bulk of western religion adapts to scientific thinking in one way or another.

Paul, Harry W. 1979. The edge of contingency: French Catholic reaction to scientific change from Darwin to Duhem. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida: A University of Florida Book.

17 thoughts on “The doctrine of double truth

  1. I agree, Thony. By something like coincidence (as I am a regular reader of this blog it would seem I’ve been on a similar train of thought), I posted something similar today over at my blog. My post would have benefited greatly if I had read this one in advance, as I would have been able to link to previous episodes of truth pluralism by directing a link here.

    I would say that my thoughts pick up at the end of this one, though. I don’t advocate truth pluralism, but if you take “truth” out of the equation and specify different fitness conditions for explanations (the religious on the one hand, the scientific on the other), an interesting hybrid of a theory might emerge.


  2. Any number of imaginary worlds, each with its internally consistent truth system, can be invented. And any number of religions with their own gods and their own “truth” systems can be invented. One calls this “fiction” and is entertained by it, but one remembers that fiction is in direct opposition to fact.

    One can only wonder why religion always gets such a special place at the table of philosophers, who somehow begin their “proofs” with the assumption of a “God”.


  3. Thats intresting. I just came across a disscusion on Transsubstantiation from the 2nd century a.d.

    Although Irenaeus of Lyons also appears rather intrested in the dew of God. A spiritual substance that prevents sterility or consumption by fire.

    For as dry flour needs water to make bread, Jesus needed the water from heaven to be born and baptised; so also humanity which was once a dry tree and could not bring forth fruit without the “gracious rain.”

    Debate seems to centre around Isaiah. Particularly the line “a shoot shall rise from the line of jesse and a blossom shall flower from it.

    Refers to the Virgin birth and appears to have been interpreted as indicating the means of production for the virgin birth, which Gerald of Wales gives such a famous example at a later date.

    It also seems to have been related to John 1.1 refering to creation by the word. A particular pictoral type emerges in Art in the book of Kells and other Anglo Saxon material, most famous being the Alfred jewel. These motifs also have a relationship with learning and instruction and may continue to do so well into the historic period in lit., poetry and art.

    It would appear to cover a range of themes central to christian belief and a range of images that christians were expected to contemplate and use to form a reasonable opinion.


  4. p.s what is also coincidental was the talk of gazelles and laterns in donescience’s remarks on population thinking, reminded me of a chapter in Peecham’s Complete Gentlemen. The first gentlemans etiquette book published in 1634. Its not dealing with gazelles but inner luminance does pop up a number of times as a theme.

    “Of Nobility in General: That it is a Plant from Heaven; the Roote, Branches, Fruit”


  5. I’ll take credit for instigating this, as I was pointing out to snex on t.o. that Catholic doctrine held that “truth cannot contradict truth” and thus the “actually happened” question he was posing of miracles was simply irrelevant. I stumbled across a reference to Ibn Rushd that held the same thing, noted similarities in Jewish thought, and asked you for comment.

    Thank you very much for such a complete reply.



  6. Thanks, Garamond. That is indeed where we started. I should keep a log of interesting discussions so I can credit/blame those involved. I expected it to go much further back, but I couldn’t find anything.


  7. While I am learning philosophy on the hoof. I would be tempted to look at optical theory, the notion of double image and reflection to see if there is a relationship between this and the doctrine of double truth.

    I wonder if it has implications for art and image, the form it takes and shapes through inward reflection? A sort of internal spontanious generation of image as it reforms in the mind as a distinct species of idea.


  8. Some have held that the truths of faith must agree with the truths of science, because God is author of both, and so any apparent conflict shows that we have failed to understand one or the other.

    Am I the only one who sees a little bit of Thomas Kuhn in this? As much as partisans on both sides hate to admit it, doctrines of both science and religion are subject to more or less constant revision and reinterpretation. Even rock-solid stuff like Newtonian mechanics doesn’t “mean” the same thing today it did a century ago, and depending on who the Pope is at any given time, the doctrine of Hell may or may not be metaphorical.


    1. I do not see why this must be Kuhnian. Surely we know that intellectual traditions are dynamic independently of him?


  9. Yes its the shifting sands and changing contests that makes the whole thing so intresting.

    Gerald of Wales seems to have been on the fringes of a group who were translating arabic material at an early date.

    I wonder if his discription of the barnacle goose could have been inluenced by it. It is very much a double truth leading to christian tradition and Isaiah on one hand and the world of Science and theory regarding generation on the other.

    A double truth and perfectly balanced image. The early anglo saxon riddles concerning the barnacle goose seem much more concerned with Isaiah and the soul. So shifting sands as well.

    Nice find Garmond! A nice thing to wonder about


  10. Snowflake,

    Yes. “Kuhnian” is easier to type than “the dynamic nature of intellectual traditions” but they are more or less interchangeable in this context.

    The point is just that interpretation can have a significant impact on the apparent incompatibility of doctrines. I don’t mean to imply that any two doctrines can be reconciled in this way, just that the unity of seemingly disparate things is not always obvious (e.g. before quantum physics it wasn’t demonstrable that matter and energy share a fundament).


  11. Whereas in the thing, there is but one single unity, that sheweth (as it were in a glasse, at severall positions) those various faces in our understanding. In a word ; all these words are but artificiall termes, not reall things : And the not right understanding them, is the dangerousest rocke that Schooles suffer shipwracke against.

    “Observations Upon Religio Medico”
    Kenelme Digby

    Related? Rather nice whatever.


  12. Definitions and double truths. Sir Robert Morray’s
    looking glass? Could be any number of perspectives and positions being turned over by his mind as he gazes upon a thing of wonder and a creature of science on a remote Scottish Island.


  13. “These are the two truths, and the relationship between them is the subject of much debate in theology (not so much in philosophy, and almost not at all in science).”


    Or else there is only one “truth” and religious “truth” is nonsense unless it conforms to scientific truth. Maybe you should try to use the word “reality”.

    There are two “realities” – there is scientific reality and there is religious wishful thinking.


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