The oldest way of explaining the difference between facts and values is to posit some kind of metaphysical dualism: on the one hand, there’s the impersonal world of material bodies, while on the other there’s spirit, soul, or consciousness, some immaterial, immortal essence of personhood. This division in turn is traditionally explained, in ancient religions throughout the world, by saying there’s a supernatural, otherworldly realm which our immaterial essence calls home. Because people seem so out of place in mostly-mindless nature, the ancients assumed that we came from somewhere else, from some heaven in which values and ideals predominate instead of lifeless interactions of atoms. Somehow we fell from grace or some colossal blunder was made by some inferior or meddling deity, and so we wound up here, away from our spiritual home. The reason, then, values and ideals seem so out of place in the world of objective, material facts is that they are literally out of place: there are two places and we’re presently stuck in the wrong one!
Plato’s world of abstract Forms is a classic example, although he took as evidence of the supernatural realm mathematics, especially the set of ideal relationships defined by geometry, rather than the more general phenomena of our striving to achieve our goals and to live up to our ideals. Aristotle famously dealt with the conflict between facts and values by analyzing the concept of a process. He distinguished between potentials and actualities, which allowed him to relate the ideal state of all material things to their actual state. Thus, a rock is better off in one place (closer to the earth) rather than another (in the sky), and the same is true for the air and for all configurations of elements. Thus, it’s not just people who are out of place: all natural states of affairs are in the process of fulfilling their potential, which is to say their purpose, or what’s good for something of their type.
Aquinas merged ancient Greek metaphysics with Christian theology and for centuries that synthesis was the standard way of looking at the problem in Europe until the Scientific Revolution, when scientists successfully explained natural processes without appealing to any purposes or to what Aristotle called “final causes.” Instead, nature came to be thought of as a domain of “efficient causes,” of immediate interactions (concatenations) with no forethought or end in view. This modern naturalism reestablished the old fears that prompted theistic dualism and pantheistic teleology in the first place. The existential worries that people don’t fundamentally belong in nature, and that we’re cursed by our reason and our awareness of how different we are from everything else, including other animals, are primary. Children and teens go through a painful phase of existential awakening; cultures do as well, depending on the persuasiveness of their shifting religious and philosophical solutions. By undermining the Thomistic framework, modern science obliges us to consider existentialism, the philosophy of anxiety and alienation.
And indeed, existentialism did have its heyday in the last century, but this was only a fad driven by the popularity of Sartre and Camus after WWII. Most Westerners deal with modern anxiety not by turning to philosophy, but by embracing the modern substitutes for religion, which are liberal secular humanism and consumerism.
The Technoscientific Undoing of Impersonal Facts
Let’s look a little closer at the modern world of facts. A fact is something that is what it is regardless of what anyone thinks or feels about it. The paradigmatic way of discovering what the facts are is to use the scientific methods to detach from our prejudices and preferences, to look objectively at the evidence and appeal to the best explanation, given certain values of rationality. Scientists employ artificial and highly rigorous languages to describe nature without resorting to rhetorical tricks that prey on people’s emotions. And what scientists have discovered is the atomic cosmos, a world driven not by gods but by chaotic quantum fluctuations that add up to regular patterns. Unlike theistic metaphors which gratuitously import human personalities to natural processes, the impersonal order of nature isn’t a projection of the scientist’s objective stance; rather, we’ve reasoned that fundamentally the real world has only that order. We are not crucial to that reality but are accidental byproducts of the cosmos’s alien evolutions to nowhere. (For the sake of argument, I leave aside the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics.)
So human values are inessential to the real world. Whatever we may feel about physical processes, those processes are as scientific theories explain them with relative neutrality, contrary to New Age metaphysical idealism according to which mind is more primary than matter. And yet this isn’t the end of the story, because as far as I can tell this account of modern naturalism itself presupposes a kind of dualism. The idea is supposed to be that scientific theories are passive, objective mirrors that correspond to the facts that make up the real world. But the theories must be part of that reality, as must the scientists and their methods of rational inquiry. So however neutral, detached, passionless, objective, rigorous, and ingenious a scientist may be, that scientist isn’t torn from all of nature so that she’s afforded a godlike view literally from nowhere, from outside the cosmos.
No, there is some natural process afoot even in the very scientific explanation of things, and I don’t think we need look far to see this process in action. Science is a tool that certain clever mammals use as a means of transforming natural facts to the mammals’ benefit. We learn what reality’s like, to exploit the mindlessness and thus the helplessness of physically interacting chunks of matter; scientific theories lay bare how nature operates on its own, and we naturally use that information to transform nature with engineering. The technological applications of science aren’t accidental, meaning that we don’t choose to apply what our reason tells us, on a whim; instead, the curiosity, audacity, greed, desperation, and other human characteristics that motivate the rational inquiries that are perfected in modern science motivate also the engineering that puts those discoveries to work. Presumably, these motivations are part of some natural development in which mindless reality causes minds to impose mindfulness onto the former reality. Here, then, is the relevant point: whereas scientists discover that nature is mostly mindless, science doesn’t stand alone but is part of a natural process I call technoscience, and the process ends by a tangible projection of human values. Instead of speculating that invisible gods or monsters lie behind natural regularities, what we mammals do in so far as we’re rational is we use science to create technology to erase the mindlessness of nature and replace it with an artificial version that’s defined by our ideals.
In fact, technoscience may be a process of creating the very so-called supernatural heaven that theists have been fantasizing about for millennia. If we feel alienated in nature, because we’re social beings and the universe is cold, indifferent, and mostly lethal, and we have no obvious or proven means of escape back to our longed-for spiritual home, perhaps we can build the escape hatch and the spiritual realm, by creating the perfect civilization. Indeed, if science is a crucial part of this natural development, in which mammals physically personify nature, not just by imagining living things behind natural processes but by engineering those processes and replacing impersonal causes with artificial functions, so too the dualistic speculations may play a part in this development. Perhaps theism is a way of envisioning what we’re naturally bound to create, a way of motivating us by supplying us with models to guide the engineering process, just as a movie makeup artist, for example, sketches the finished creature before attempting to use the raw materials to fabricate the pieces and put together the costume. Perhaps we see ghosts, gremlins, and gods wherever we look not just because we’re afraid of being alone in an inhospitable jungle or because we choose to be superstitious or vain, but because those visions motivate us to transform nature, to make it less mindless. Perhaps the posthuman technological utopia is the end of a natural process that brings heaven to life on earth, all things being equal.
This can be seen, then, as a reworking of Aristotle’s teleological cosmology. Instead of saying that everything has an objective potential in some quasi-normative sense of purpose, the point is that one way in which nature evolves happens to transform at least parts of nature by instilling them with purpose. Initially, the purposes here are subjective, but the minds responsible for them act on their goals and intelligently recreate as much of nature as they can, so that the recreation is as objectively purposeful as any piece of actual technology.
What becomes of the question of how values arise from facts? Well, free-floating values, that is, speculations or ideals that aren’t yet technologically applied, are like prototypes, motivating just such applications which turn facts into hybrids of facts and values, replacing the parts of nature produced only by lifeless evolution with artificial environments filled with technologies that may one day humanize the cosmos. Take all the scientific explanations of the mechanisms involved in our choosing to set priorities, pursue goals, and worship sacred things. These explanations point to neurological processes, natural selection, social dynamics, and historical contingencies, but all of them amount to spelling out the concrete steps in a larger process of transformation within nature, as we take what’s inside us--our dreams, fears, and hopes--and incarnate them in the artificial worlds we build, including the infrastructure of our cities and our cultural practices. First, nature builds transformers, namely minds that entertain ideas, and then those minds embody those ideas in the outer world: we use those ideas as motivations to build things that are as much governed by meanings as they are determined by physical laws.
Existential Revolt and the Fact-Value Dichotomy
To summarize, we have the naturalistic fallacy which takes the logic of values to be the same as the logic of facts. This has been a source of philosophical and religious dualism, the ancient form of which spoke of two realms, fallen nature and heaven, to accommodate two types of entities, the chunk of matter and the immaterial spirit. Modern science focuses on the natural world but establishes another kind of dualism in spite of its monistic tendency to explain as much as possible in the simplest terms. The notion of scientific objectivity leads naïve supporters of science to presuppose that scientists have a view from absolutely nowhere, which allows scientific theories to stand outside of nature so that their special Truth consists in a magical mirroring between the arcane symbols of the scientist’s artificial language and the facts. When we dispense with this dogmatic worship of science, we’re still left with the more modest dualism of directions as opposed to places: technoscience reverses nature’s mindlessness by externalizing our minds.
Now, there’s a nonscientific version of this reversal: the existential, ascetic revolt against nature. Here, the motivations aren’t skepticism, curiosity, greed, or the urge to dominate. Instead, the outsider is disgusted by nature’s inhumanity; anxious about the fact that the fewer delusions we have, the more homeless we feel; and inspired to create art of one kind or another, to make the best of these impulses and to replace the offending world with one more congenial to accursed and doomed creatures like us. Thus, whereas most modernists participate in the technoscientific transformation of nature, by embracing liberal secular humanism and its institutions of democracy and capitalism which dehumanize the masses, turning them into sheep that must consume on an unsustainable scale to keep the money flowing and the wheels of industry turning, a minority go all the way with modern anxiety, turning to existentialism and to ascetic traditions. The revolt against nature has had theistic rationalizations, as in Hinduism and Gnosticism, but the version which best takes into account the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment philosophy proceeds from atheistic existential assumptions. Mind you, Jainism is an ancient atheistic religion of revolt against nature; indeed, Nietzsche was effectively a Jain.
The main point here, though, is that the dichotomy between facts and values can be understood in terms of this revolt. The reason prescriptions don’t follow smoothly from descriptions isn’t that there are two metaphysically separate worlds, but that nature reverses itself when it evolves sentient creatures. Values aren’t reducible to facts, because values indirectly replace facts. This is why there’s a fallacy of speaking as if facts were all-encompassing. On the contrary, throughout our history we’ve turned facts, which is to say things that are what they are regardless of what anyone thinks or feels about them, into cultural products that are subjectively meaningful and also objectively designed and functional.
If you prefer monotheism to atheistic naturalism, you should still consider some degree of existential rebellion. This is because the purest expression of monotheism combines Gnosticism and Philipp Mainlander’s theology, leaving us with the myth of divine creation as an act of deicide, in which case the natural universe is God’s decaying corpse. This amounts to a curious version of pantheism. God is literally dying but not yet completely dead: his body must create all finite configurations of elements, so that God’s transcendent being can be transmuted into a body that can finally be extinguished. This process of divine decay is horrific and depressing, and as sentient transformers of the factual environment, we seem poised to play an unusual role in this process. We embody God’s second thought: while the cosmos shuffles on to its eventual Heat Death or Big Crunch, we become aware of this horror and rebel against it by creating cultural worlds that better live up to our ideals. Now, God’s will shall ultimately triumph: our creations are finite and so they serve God’s suicidal intention, by adding to the list of creations that must be eliminated in time for the expunging of God’s infinite being. Still, although the revolt of the outsider, artist, omega, or ascetic is futile, this revolt is the best we can do under our dire circumstances. I hasten to add that this version of monotheism is an internal criticism of the whitewashes of monotheism that pass for mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and is intended as a highly speculative myth in the nonpejorative sense, which is to say that this myth is just a fictional story that encodes certain universal convictions.