The Enlightenment as a Copernican Revolution in Truth

July 6, 2012    By: Jeff G @ 12:14 pm   Category: Life,Truth

A great deal of my thought surrounding the nature of (R)eligious, (S)cientific and (P)ragmatic (or pre-modern, modern and post-modern) approaches to truth is based in the premise that rule-following is the only path to truth.  Empirical observation, logical deduction and everything in between only get us anywhere inasmuch as they are normatively constrained by rules of various kinds.  In this post I would like to briefly unpack this position in terms of a familiar metaphor.

In my metaphor, the earth will correspond roughly to the end that “we” most seek, the ultimate destination to our journey, our final cause.  The sun will more or less represent our explanations, theories, descriptions and stories.  It is rather tempting to call these two realms “value” and “fact”, respectively.  There are two reasons why I will largely resist this temptation.  First, we will see that the fact/value distinction is itself an invention of the modern mind which simply did not exist for the pre-modern and has come to be rejected by the post-modern.  Second, labeling one side with “fact” suggests that the other side might be “non-factual” or even “fictitious”, which is to bias the question the question of truth and falsehood from the very start.  Indeed, in my metaphor, truth is not an object like the earth or sun, but is instead the characteristic or quality which an object might have of being fixed and immovable, the object around which all other objects pivot.

Let us now characterize the pre-modern mind set in these astronomical terms.  The pre-modern mind saw the earth as being the fixed, immovable point around which the sun rotated.  In other words, the journey which we are on is the true journey, the end which we most seek is the true end and our cause is the true cause.  Around these things our explanations, theories and stories are free to pivot in the most ptolemaic of ways.  In other words, the inconsistencies, contradictions, violations of parsimony, etc. within the explanations and theories of the pre-modern mind simply are not signs of falsehood since truth lies elsewhere.

The rise of the modern mind with the Enlightenment can thus be described in Copernican terms.  The sun came to be the fixed point around which the earth, being just one among many other planets, was free to pivot.  Less metaphorically, our system of “values” came to be seen as just one among many possible systems each of which was free to pivot around the “facts” which were taken to be non-negotiable.  Thus, truth came to be seen as fixed and absolute depictions of the world in contrast to variable and non-depictive values.

The post-modern mind can be compared to the realization that neither the sun nor any of its planets are absolutely “fixed”.  To be sure, some of these objects can usefully be treated as if they were fixed within many contexts and for many purposes but the immutability of any such object is never absolute or universal.  This is not to say that the nature of and relationship between these objects is an unconstrained free-for-all, but there must always be some degree of arbitrariness in such matters.  Accordingly, the post-modern mind rejects the fact/value distinction and embraces a more historicist and contextualized notion of truth.

In conclusion, I would like to briefly reframe the metaphor in terms of rule-following.  An object just is a set of rules which are supposed to be followed.  In the pre-modern mind, the most important rules are those having to do with otherworldly destination or person in which authority is thought to reside.  In the modern mind, the most important and least negotiable and fixed of rules are those concerning the law of non-contradiction and the importance of third-person observation.  In the post-modern mind, the rule that no rule is to be taken as absolute and non-negotiable is paradoxically taken to be absolute and non-negotiable.  The difference between these various positions, then, lies in their assigning different weights (or masses) to these various rules (astronomical objects).  It is my belief and hope that framing many the differences found within the bloggernacle in this way can facilitate clearer communication and great compassion.


  1. I think I see your point; three frames of reference each containing some worthwhile portion of truth form a progression. But in order to help the bloggernacle a broad number of participants must come to understand this and once they do some may be unflattered to learn you see them as pre-modern minds!

    Comment by Howard — July 6, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

  2. I hope they wouldn’t take it that way, of only because it gives way too much credit to the modern mind set, since they are the only ones who would think that’s an insult.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 6, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

  3. Well that’s a nice logical wish but it ignores human make up. I generally think it will be easier for the more enlightened to understand the less enlightened view than the other way around.

    Some people are far more permeable in thought than others, to use an analogy they can easily see both the old woman and the young woman in that common optical illusion. Others can only see one of them. So some people are very open to and comfortable with new thought and others are not. People who are impermeable tend to be rigid and hold tightly to their positions and it is very difficult to get them to see the other view even by using therapeutic methods. I would expect to find far more of them in the pre-modern than post-modern groups.

    Comment by Howard — July 7, 2012 @ 7:01 am

  4. I agree that people tend to be that way, but the whole point of my post is to help people move past that mentality.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 7, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

  5. I know that is your goal but given the way people tend to be do you think your post can get through to those who are impermeable?

    Comment by Howard — July 7, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  6. Well, no doubt this isn’t an all or nothing issue. I just figure that every little bit helps.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 7, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

  7. This pre-modern mind found this metaphor extremely helpful in understanding your paradigm in your last few posts. I don’t know that I am yet persuaded by your paradigm, but your really cool metaphor at least illuminated it for me.

    Comment by Adam G. — July 9, 2012 @ 4:53 am

  8. Well Adam G’s comment is encouraging! I may have underestimated this.

    Comment by Howard — July 9, 2012 @ 6:06 am

  9. Glad to hear it, Adam. Sometimes I feel that our language has become so modernized that it’s almost impossible to describe and/or defend a pre-modern mindset without making it sound out-dated or worse.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 9, 2012 @ 8:26 am

  10. I tried but I don’t feel like I’m following you. Maybe I’m missing some background.

    You write, “Thus, [during the Enlightenment] truth came to be seen as fixed and absolute depictions of the world in contrast to variable and non-depictive values.”

    It sounds like you are saying that before the Enlightenment, the truth was not thought of as “fixed”. Am I right?

    Comment by Agellius — August 28, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

  11. Agellius,

    Not exactly. What I’m saying is that during the Enlightenment values were free to vary across people’s and cultures so long as they were consistent with “true” depictions of reality.

    This is in contrast to the premodern world where descriptions were allowed to vary somewhat as long as they were consistent with “true” values.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 29, 2012 @ 3:53 pm