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Rated: ASR · Editorial · Opinion · #331254
some comments concerning facts versus values
Prove It: Fact vs. Value

         I love the movie Contact. Early in the plot, one problem between Ellie Arroway and Palmer Joss is their different approaches to life. Ellie is a scientist and seeks reasons and evidence. Palmer is religious and seeks purpose with his belief in God.
         One difficult moment between them passed like this:
Palmer: I couldn't conceive of a world without God. I wouldn't want to.
Ellie: But how do you know you're not deluding yourself? For me, I'd want proof.
Palmer: Did you love your father?
Ellie: What? Yes, very much.
Palmer: Prove it.
Ellie: (speechless)

         This is a strong interpersonal part of the movie. It is effective because, even though Ellie is the heroine of the movie, Palmer's view can no longer be dismissed as religious dogma. He turns science on its ear with two words: "Prove it."

         To resolve this conflict, we must bear in mind that there is a difference between facts and values.
         Facts are events or objective truths: you can videotape them and hit "replay" or you can demonstrate them. Facts exist in the universe regardless of our opinions or desires. The airplane did strike the tower. An apple does tend to fall towards the earth. These things can be shown without rational deviation.
         Values are opinions or subjective truths that we create or assign. I prefer chocolate to vanilla. Americans are too fat. These are my truths about reality, but can I demonstrate them? I could question people to see if they agree about proper body weight or the relative qualities of ice cream flavors, but are opinions authoritative statements? No. Independent of people making judgments and feeling emotions, values do not exist.

         To put your mind at ease, apply this distinction to Ellie's and Palmer's questions. Just as Ellie needs the existence of God to be established scientifically, so Palmer asks her to prove her own love with evidence. This strikes home because she doesn't need to prove her love - she alone can define its truth because she creates it.
         No amount of videotape replay of the father-daughter relationship can change what Ellie herself feels about it. And just because Ellie herself cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, that doesn't invalidate Palmer's belief in Him.
         By the end of the movie, the two main characters look past their different approaches. They realize that their separate paths are really seeking the same thing: truth.

         Facts and values are both true. Facts describe the world, and values are our reactions to it. Scientific reasoning cannot explain will and preference, and emotion cannot deal with the workings of physics. Without facts, values are useless. Without values, facts are purposeless. Both are integral in our lives.
         Accept it and move on. But don't be tempted to try to prove it.
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