Positivistic and Normative Information

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my training as an economist, my philosophy of science professor taught us to distinguish several types of information. Most important among these types were positivistic and normative information. Positivistic information observed information about what is (facts) while normative information focused on what should be (values). One might observe, for example, that a farmer owned one hundred pigs (a statement of fact) while the value of those pigs might depend on whether your religion accepts pork as a reasonable food that people might eat (a value statement). Christians usually eat pork while Jews, Muslims, and vegetarians typically do not.

Facts and Values

The usefulness of this distinction between facts and values arises when people disagree primarily on details, not the broad sweep of things. An old saw goes that we are each entitled to our own opinions (statements of values), but not our own set of facts (statements about what is). In the postmodern era as the consensus on basic values has broken down, the line between facts and values has also become blurred.

Breakdown in the Modern Consensus

A deconstructionist, someone who questions all authorities and focuses on power relationships, might argue that facts depend on whose value system is being imposed. The statement that a farmer owns one hundred pigs might, for example, be a provocative statement in a country where pork consumption is not accepted.

When the Gospel of Matthew writes—“Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them” (Matt 8:30), the implication certainly is that this region is outside Israel (where pork consumption was not accepted) and may also imply that the people in this region are morally corrupt or simply Roman. An Muslim commentator on American grocery marketing today might likewise conclude that the United States is obviously a Christian country because no Muslim or Jew would accept open sale of pork in a grocery store.

The point is not that we cannot observe whether or not pork is being sold. The point is that the interpretative gloss on such an observation quickly leads to a change in the conversation serious enough to make the distinction between value and fact less helpful.

Breakdown in Consensus Influences Professionals

The breakdown in consensus about basic values not only makes conversation about disputable matters more difficult, it also leads to challenges to authority figures, like professional economists. One forgets that professionals are specialists whose experience focuses on making fine distinctions that an ordinary person might not be sensitive to. When large values are in flux, small values get less attention and making such distinction adds less value. Thus, we see that professionals continue to earn high incomes, but the focus of their work has changed and it carries less status in a social context.

The New Testament makes frequent reference to the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews distinguished themselves from Gentiles not only by their religious beliefs, but by their dress, food laws, and other customs. As Christians in the first century began to evangelize outside the Jewish community to Gentiles, these distinctions made it harder to focus Gentiles on God’s character and Jesus’ teaching. The separation of the Christians from the Jews ironically came not over these customs but over the absence of Christian political support for a Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Starting Point for Science

Returning to the observation that now in the postmodern era the consensus on basic beliefs has broken down. What exactly were the beliefs that brought us the modern era and science? Going into the nineteenth century, nearly everyone in Western countries subscribed to belief in one God who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). This fundamental belief proved important to the growth of science because one creator implies one set of scientific principles that were assumed to apply to all of creation.

If more than one god were believed to exist, then this unity of principles would seem quite arbitrary and one would not spend a lot of time and effort to impose such an idea. Why wouldn’t another set of principles exist in the realm of another god? Consequently, the idea of objective truth is reasonable in the context of the first verse in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut 6:4) It is not surprising that in the early years of the modern era the best scientists were often religious individuals, Jews and Christians, influenced not only by their intellect, but by their faith in one benevolent God who created and loves all of us.

Positivistic and Normative Information

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent-2018

You may also like

1 Comment

Leave a Reply