“Lux et Veritas” in a new light

For nearly 40 years, I’ve wandered past this cornerstone on Georgia Tech’s campus, but it was only just today that it caught my eye. Perhaps the effort to translate from Latin to English had been the hurdle in the past, but today, the phrase “Light and Truth” popped up in my head effortlessly.

The training I received at Georgia Tech while earning my engineering degree has strongly influenced my worldview, and the phrase “Light and Truth” sums this up rather well. Many colleges and universities refer to this phrase intending to prepare the next generation of leaders. The idea is that we advance ourselves by facing the light and commitment to learning the truth.

Without getting too philosophical, there is an idea that truth is an absolute which exists independently of any single human’s thoughts and that our goal is to come to an agreement amongst ourselves — through reason — on what that absolute truth means. Performing independently verifiable (there’s that Latin root again) experiments to confirm or refute our idea is called science.

Not everyone attends Georgia Tech, and this has often led me to frustration. My training focused my problem-solving on the elements of the problem that matched up with science. When you build a bridge, you pay attention to the length of the span, the distribution of stress forces under load and crosswinds, and the strength of the materials and foundation. You set aside whether the color is pleasing, whose business friend might get the contract, and how the funding might be negotiated. Sure, there are reasonable ways to make those decisions, but the first set of decisions is independent of the people involved and the second set of decisions is completely dependent on the people involved.

My idea of “Light and Truth” was much like the philosophical idea of truth existing independently of who was thinking about it. I would hit people over the head with facts — and I found a good bit of success this way — but some significant failures too.

Letting those failures come to light, I came to see that each person carries their own truth — even when reasoning about facts. Again, without going too far into philosophy, we’re finding that yes, truth probably is different from person to person.

And so, the phrase “Lux et Veritas” has changed for me, although I still hold onto this idealistic notion that advancement requires that humans come to agreement. In particular, we can’t hit each other over the head with facts. We have to develop the skill to argue persuasively for our particular truth, and that means understanding the other side’s truth. It is even possible that your own truth may change to accommodate experiences that are not your own.

Light shows us the way. If we face the light, we are probably facing the truth. If we find darkness, if we find fear, if we find blame, we probably need to look somewhere else for truth.

As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

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