Tom Gilson

The National Academy of Sciences and the Fact-Value Dichotomy

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), as reported in this morning’s Los Angeles Times, has made another statement in favor of teaching evolution in schools. There were the usual distortions in their report, but it’s only been a few days since that topic came up here on this blog, and there’s no need to go into that again so soon. Something else there was even more interesting to me:

The report stated that the idea of evolution could be fully compatible with religious faith. “Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future,” the report said.

I don’t know who originated the terminology of a “fact-value dichotomy.” Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, credits the concept to Francis Schaeffer, although he used different words for it. (I’m sure the concept could be traced to other thinkers, though I cannot do that work from where I’m sitting in my office today.) The idea is this: the Western world generally accepts that there are facts, and there are values, and never the twain shall meet.

Facts are in the realm of knowledge; they include things like scientific discoveries, political and economic realities, and so on. They are about things we can all touch and hold and agree on; they are public. Values, in contrast, are privately held. What we value is a matter of personal belief and opinion. They’re not susceptible to being shown right or wrong; they can’t be proven. To speak of proving a value to be correct is to commit a serious category error.

Facts are publicly shared (or at least shareable) knowledge; values are private opinions. In the realm of facts you can be right or wrong, in the realm of values what matters is that you have them, and they are neither right nor wrong.

Religion is widely held to be in the the realm of values: neither right nor wrong, but a matter of personal values. This assumption fairly shouts from the quote above. “Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world,” and they need not be in opposition. Why no opposition? Because, the NAS apparently assumes, they deal with entirely separate issues. Religion does not need to deal in facts; thus, it need not involve anything that might conflict with science. Religion is a matter of belief, which has nothing necessarily to do with knowledge.

The problem with that is that facts and values cannot actually be separated. Religion, more specifically Christian religion, cannot be separated from the realm of facts, and science is shot through with values. Conflict between Christianity and science, if it exists, exists in the realms of facts and values, and therefore it cannot be neatly waved away as the NAS suggests it can.

Christianity and the Realm of Fact
Christianity begins with a statement of fact: in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. This means that there is no ultimate explanation for anything in nature except for one that includes God in it. There is much we can say without reference to God, but these are not ultimate facts, only contingent ones.

Christianity says God can and actually does do miracles. The regularity of natural law does not rule dictatorially. God rules, and sometimes injects himself into creation in unpredicted ways. That is a statement of fact, or at least (if you want to deny it) it is a statement within the realm of facts.

Christianity says humans have eternal souls, that morals and ethics are based in reality, that we have free will, that we are actually sinners separated from God, that we can come back into relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Christianity says its understanding of values is rooted in a fact: the fact that a transcendent creator God is the ultimate determiner of what is or is not of value.

And Christianity says that these facts are known through revelation and attested to by many means, including history, philosophical inquiry, human experience, and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. All of these claims are inaccessible to science but are nevertheless claims in the realm of facts.

Science and the Realm of Values
Science, for its part, is laden with values. Science values discovery. It seeks, expects, and values regularity. It honors the unprovable but immensely useful Occam’s Razor. It respects ethics in regard to human and animal research. Naturalistic science leads to certain value conclusions, such as one discussed here recently, that humans are of no greater value than any other living thing.

One point on which I agree with Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (the atheist Gang of Four) is that they realize facts matter. They think religion is wrong. I don’t agree with that, but I agree it is the type of thing to which the word “wrong” could apply. They don’t treat it as a matter of mere private belief. I could wish for more of that clearheadedness. The NAS statement tends strongly in the other direction, and betrays a real confusion about facts and values.

“Needlessly Placing Them In Opposition”?
The NAS says we should not place science and religion “needlessly … in opposition.” But on some points, some conclusions of science and some conclusions of religion do oppose one another. This is needless opposition only if we assume that one will always yield to the other. Guess which one that would be? Yet there is so much of reality that science cannot begin to investigate. Why should we assume that it rules all possible knowledge?

My purpose today is not to show whose facts or values are better, but to show that differences between science and religion are not irrelevant, and working through those differences is not “needless opposition.” There are conflicts. If we understood science and revelation perfectly, and if we agreed on it all, there would be no conflict there, for truth is unified; but we are not at that ideal state, nor can we expect to reach it short of the return of Jesus Christ. In the meantime, the NAS seems to naively accept an unsupportable distinction between facts and values. We need not follow them there.

Postscript, 2:10 pm
No surprise here, but the Edge has just revealed their own fuzziness on this very subject. This was the opening of the email sent to their list today:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.

When God changes your mind, that’s faith.

When facts change your mind, that’s science.

Commenting Restored

The comment function here has been out of service, possibly causing frustration, for which I apologize. You can comment again now, and it will save and post as it should do. First-time commenters' comments will not appear, however, until approved in moderation.

1 thought on “The National Academy of Sciences and the Fact-Value Dichotomy

  1. Christianity says that God can and actually does do miracles.

    Yep. Here’s a recent one.

    “If you’re a believer in miracles, this would be one,” said Dr. Philip Barie, chief of critical care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell.

    “I’ve seen it all – or at least I think I have – until something like this happens.”

Comments are closed.


Subscribe here to receive updates and a free Too Good To Be False preview chapter!

"Engaging… exhilarating.… This might be the most surprising and refreshing book you’ll read this year!" — Lee Strobel

"Too Good To Be False is almost too good to be true!" — Josh McDowell

Purchase Here!

More on the book...

Discussion Policy

By commenting here you agree to abide by this site's discussion policy. Comments support Markdown language for your convenience. Each new commenter's first comment goes into moderation temporarily before appearing on the site. Comments close automatically after 120 days.

Copyright, Permissions, Marketing

Some books reviewed on this blog are attached to my account with Amazon’s affiliate marketing program, and I receive a small percentage of revenue from those sales.

All content copyright © Thomas Gilson as of date of posting except as attributed to other sources. Permissions information here.

Privacy Policy