“Faith is about values and science is about facts!”
How often has a skeptic made that definitive statement or something similar? It often comes near the end of a discussion about God and science, as a final statement that places you in an awkward spot. It’s known as scientism—the idea that the hard sciences provide the only true knowledge of reality. The professional philosopher can readily respond to this claim, but as a layperson or even a scientist you may not know quite how to answer it.
What if we take the introductory statement, reverse it, and make the following statement: “Science is about values and faith is about facts.” Is this true? Well, not completely, but partially. But what about the original statement, “Science is about facts and faith is about values.” Is this true? Well, not completely, but partially.
How do we distinguish between values and facts? And what are some of the values of science?
Polanyi on Justifying Science
I’ve found the work of Michael Polanyi to be helpful in this regard.1 Though not formally trained as a philosopher, Michael Polanyi was a physical chemist and a polymath of the highest order. Many people argue that were it not for his later shift to the humanities, he would have won the Nobel prize for his scientific work. Polanyi knew science and how it worked, which makes his comments so incisive. Consider this quote:
The quickest impression on the scientific world may be made not by publishing the whole truth and nothing but the truth but rather by serving up an interesting and plausible story composed of parts of the truth with a little straight invention admixed to it. . . . If each scientist set to work every morning with the intention of doing the best bit of safe charlatanry which would just help him into a good post, there would soon exist no effective standards by which such deception could be detected. A community of scientists in which each would act only with an eye to please scientific opinion would find no scientific opinion to please. Only if scientists remain loyal to scientific ideals rather than try to achieve success with their fellow scientists can they form a community which will uphold these ideals.2
No scientist worth their salt would ever stoop to such lying to advance their career. And that is the point; without this value (of upholding truth) the institution of science would soon sink into a morass of lies and deception. It’s obvious, but where does this value come from? You can’t prove it scientifically. The value of honesty in reporting observations is such a given that if you want to advance your civilization you better have this value. Only by telling the truth about your scientific, historical, literary, and engineering work, will you advance your discipline. The journals of any discipline are dedicated to that fact. If not, we are in deep trouble.
But how do you scientifically justify this obvious tenet of science? You don’t—you just accept it and move on if you wish to become a serious practitioner of science. This is an example of “tradition,” the past collective wisdom of others that has been passed down to us.
Another tradition of science holds that any given set of numeric physical data can be modeled by an infinite number of functions. For example, the positions of the planets can be modeled in Newtonian space by a simple inverse squared distance relationship or an infinitely long Fourier series, etc. But the scientist Isaac Newton chose the inverse squared relationship over many others. Why? Because it was simpler and more mentally satisfying. Consider this quote by Werner Heisenberg in a conversation with Albert Einstein.
You may object that by speaking of simplicity and beauty I am introducing aesthetic criteria of truth, and I frankly admit that I am strongly attracted to the simplicity and beauty of mathematical schemes which nature presents us. You must have felt this too: the almost frightening simplicity and wholeness of the relationship, which nature suddenly spreads out before us . . .3
Simplicity, beauty, wholeness? How do you scientifically justify these values? Since they were recognized by scientific giants such as Einstein and Heisenberg, we must take them seriously. But where did the values come from? Another scientific value affirms that a theory should have predictive success. It should be internally clear and coherent in all of its explanations. There are others. Experiments with controls are better than experiments without them. Double blind experiments are better than single blind experiments. Two-point calibrations of instruments are much better than single-point calibrations. If your data points differ from the average by three standard deviations, consider throwing them out.
How do you empirically or rationally justify such values? Can you scientifically prove them to be the best values to base science on? No, and no one even tries. You just assimilate these values as a budding scientist and move on.
Seeking a Foundation for Universal Values
Science is full of such values and they reflect how science should be practiced. But few scientists discuss or see them, or realize where they came from. They’re built into the teaching of science to such a degree that few people question it. But wait—most disciplines are based on these values and facts! That’s my point—science is no different. It needs these values like everyone else. Do such values emanate from the mind of a Creator who instilled them in human beings so that civilization would flourish?
Christianity likewise depends on these values. Consider this New Testament quote:
For we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16).
Yet Christianity also depends on facts. “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Thus our faith depends crucially on observed facts that are historically accurate. And science depends on values that cannot be proven—we just accept them as part of our reasonable and justifiable scientific faith. Perhaps now we can see why the statement, “Science is about facts and faith is about values,” is so badly misspoken. In this way, the parallels between Christianity and the institution of science seem satisfyingly and surprisingly consistent.
A few years ago my wife and I were standing on the floor of the great theatre of Ephesus in the nation of Turkey. It was a “bucket list” moment standing where the apostle Paul stood when the great riot over Paul’s teaching took place. Paul was preaching a different God than Artemis—the god of the Ephesians. As I read aloud the 1,900-year-old New Testament incident (Acts 19:23–41), a listening secular Jewish biologist tour companion exclaimed, “This really happened!”
As a Christian I often fail to realize how “factual” my Bible really is. If you are a scientist and are unsure about the Bible’s truthfulness, I invite you to study the Bible from this perspective. Do the facts expressed really match up with accurate historical narrative?4 As a scientist you owe it to yourself to read through the Bible with that perspective and see what it shows.
- Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith, and Society: A Searching Examination of the Meaning and Nature of Scientific Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964). Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983).
- Polanyi, Science, Faith, and Society, 54.
- Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 220–21. Davies is citing Heisenberg.
- The Reasons to Believe website offers a wealth of resources to help determine whether the Bible is based on cleverly devised stories or facts.