Big History and Truth: Knowledge as Mapping

Free Public Lecture

Big History and Truth: Knowledge as Mapping

Kathleen Fitzpatrick Theatre, West Wing, B101
Arts West


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T: 0434142369

The recent burst of talk about fake news encourages us once again to think carefully about what we mean by ‘truth’, and how we know when we are dealing with ‘truth’. In this lecture, Professor Christian will discuss the nature of truth from the perspective of big history, which links ideas from many different disciplines in order to construct a modern account of the history of everything, a modern discipline. Big history can be thought of as the attempt to tease out a modern equivalent of the origin stories that have guided the search for truth in all traditional societies. What has ‘truth’ meant in different human societies? And what does it mean within different scholarly disciplines, from cosmology to chemistry to biology and history?

Looking at different understandings of truth forces us to move beyond simple dichotomies between truth and falsehood, and towards a less stable but more realistic middle ground in which we work with truth as probability and approximation, but vital nonetheless. That sense of truth is, after all, anchored in our biological nature. As living organisms, getting some grip on the truth is a matter of life and death. But we do not seek absolute or total truth because the cost of certainty is prohibitive. In the real world, the truths we seek are local and approximate, like maps of the Moscow underground. Bits are missing and not all the details are accurate, but they work pretty well most of the time and they provide precisely the sort of guidance we need in order to pursue our lives. Helping students towards this more nuanced idea of truth is a major challenge for educators of all kinds, and one of the major challenges of big history.

This is the annual Kathleen Fitzpatrick public lecture in History, the History contribution to the 2018 SHAPS 'Truth' Public Lecture series, and a History Council of Victoria public lecture. It will be followed by the announcement of the winner of the 2018 Ernest Scott prize.


  • Professor David Christian
    Professor David Christian, Director of Big History and Distinguished Professor in History in the Department of Modern History