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Facts, Theorems and Theories

Posted on: February 05, 2017

Category: Theology

Facts, Theorems and Theories

"Facts alone are what is wanted in life" is one of the opening sentences of Charles Dickens' Hard Times. Thomas Gradgind is the first character we know in that novel who is the teacher who wants the facts. Ironically, this seeker of facts is a fictional character. Perhaps this was Dickens' subtly way of indicating that facts alone are often not what's really going on.

Like many people I have been battling with the idea of facts and "alternative facts." Of course, an alternative fact is not a fact but an interpretation and maybe even a delusion. Still, the comment, which has been played and poked fun of over and over again, got me to think about what a fact is and what value a fact has.

There are three levels of knowledge that are helpful to recall: facts, theorems, and theories. It is not really possible to interpret a fact. The number of people attending an inauguration is not an opinion. The number is the number, and a number is true everywhere on earth and anywhere in the universe. That's just how facts are.

A theorem almost holds the same status as a fact. Evolution is a theorem. It's not really possible to debate whether there is such a thing as evolution. As comedian John Oliver once stated, it's like debating the question "are there hats?" Still there are interpretive elements to a theorem. The underlying "fact" does have to be applied to life dynamics and often needs to be developed or re-applied to information previously unknown. In other words, there are hats and there always will be, but hats and heads can have great variations.

Finally, a theory is an interpretation and usually a very good one. But a theory is subject to modification and even cancellation. That the sun revolved around the earth was once a theory that simply proved wrong. Subjecting that theory to mathematics and natural observations eventually displayed the theory as false. Being proven false does not make it less of a theory; it just makes it part of the history of knowledge.

My comments may be interesting or boring, but they do relate to religion and to human psychology. Some facts invoke feelings, and this causes denial. Human caused global warming was once a theory, then a theorem, and now a fact. But this fact causes economic worry, fear of loss, and resistance to change. The oil industry unfortunately can take advantage of this inconvenient fact, can invoke fear, and can successfully promote climate change denial.

In Christianity, the Q Sayings Gospel is a theorem. It too started as an observation and a theory. No amount of twisting or turning can deny the parallel sayings found in Matthew and Luke that are called Q. It is called a theorem because, like hats, it cannot be denied. Yet, in Christian academic work, there are "Q deniers." One must ask what is at stake for such a denial; what is the fear? Likely the fear is that Christianity might have to change. The Q document exposes us to a purely human Jesus without Christological titles and no resurrection. But the gut reaction to this news is often resistance and denial. These two elements are based on a psychology of fear. They rest on the desire not to be disturbed, to remain in comfortable habits, and to attack those who upset the status quo.

It is not necessary to raise political issues like restricting immigration based on religion or social issues like prejudice based on ethnic, sexual, or religious identities, but the same phenomenon of fear and resistance to change is evident. Facts do matter a lot, whether a scientific fact or a textual fact of the Christian gospels, and they do challenge us to change. Only in this way was the fictional character Gradgrind right: give me the facts, but let me be open to changing my life as a consequence.


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