Saturday, March 26, 2011

The noetic effects of sin

Radagast, who usually blogs at a fairly sedate pace has decided to spend the month of March in an amazing and almost daily series on, broadly, the relationship between Science and Faith, but more specifically on both a meta-commentary on colour and, most fascinating of all, the Platonic nature of mathematics. Platonism, as philosophical system, carries a lot of baggage, and so it'd be great to see Radagast provide some pointers in untangling the good and the bad aspects of it.

However most interesting of all was Radagast's reminder of the noetic effects of sin. 
Emil Brunner suggests that such a noetic effect “reaches its maximum in theology and its minimum in the exact sciences, and zero in the sphere of the formal. Hence it is meaningless to speak of ‘Christian mathematics’” (Revelation and Reason: the Christian doctrine of faith and knowledge, 1946). Three kinds of noetic effect seem apparent from experience, however ...
For those who watched Collision, the documentary about a series of debates between Hitchens and Wilson, you might remember one of their between-debate conversations where Wilson briefly explains this idea to Hitchens.  In this diagram I want to explore the idea that theology (or ideology for non-Christian readers) which is at the heart of knowledge and thought, is the most likely to be corrupted and most influential when corrupted with the effects of sin working it's way out through the different areas of civilisation.

What's interesting is that divisions between concrete and abstract or between perception and epistemology don't necessarily correspond to the successive levels of sin's influence. I guess the centrality of theology/ideology says something about the way humans organise civilisation.  What are my readers thoughts, questions and comments about the noetic effects of sin?

[Update] The circle above I think brings together four different measurements for which I've created two info-graphics below.

Note that these two graphs (h/t Radagast) aren't a comment on either the value or the efficiency of things plotted. 


17 comments:

Radagast said...

This is fascinating. My mathematical biases would tend to place logic with mathematics, but more significantly, I see that there are two "axes" here. The first is strength of agreed mechanisms for detecting error: STRONGEST: Mathematics (proof), Science (experiment – but one thinks of "Cold Fusion"), Horticulture (success in planting – but one thinks of Lysenkoism), Art (people will not pay for rubbish, on the whole, though government-funded art can be much worse), Sociology/Philosophy/Theology: WEAKEST.

The second is motivation to produce bad results: LEAST: Mathematics & Science (professional pride, politics), Sociology/Morality(justification of sinful behaviour), Philosophy/Theology (fundamental basis of life, rebellion against God): MOST.

Combining the two, noetic effects are greatest in the Philosophy/Theology (WEAKEST/MOST) corner.

Luke Isham said...

I guess I was also considering the degree of cultural influence, which would put theology-ideology right at the centre. Would that be one of the key differences between Physics and Maths? (In other words Maths is "rawer" while physics involves application and therefore some degree of ideology?)

Radagast said...

Mathematics is certainly "purer." A classic example of ideology in physics (well, cosmology) is Hoyle's "Steady State theory," produced because he didn't like the idea of a Big Bang/Creation. But there's much less ideology in physics than in most other things (except mathematics).

It's also cheaper to show someone is wrong in mathematics than in physics. Many physics experiments are rather expensive to duplicate. Consequently, it took a while to develop a consensus that "Cold Fusion" was rubbish.

Radagast said...

BTW, I suspect that "most open to corruption" reflects either my suggested "motivation" axis (=level of desire to corrupt), or a combination of my two suggested axes (=desire and opportunity to corrupt).

jereth said...

I think that this is a very helpful way to think about the effects of sin, but some sciences are not immune to the effects of sin - eg. biology. Specifically: evolutionary biology

Luke Isham said...

Hi Jereth,

Thanks for commenting on this one. I think Biology is less effected by sin the closer it is to simply observing and gathering information but like with any area of science, as soon conclusions need to drawn or inferences made, ideology plays a part and the likelihood of sinful corruption increases. So yes I agree with you, observations about genetic mutations is one thing, making them into an overarching theory is another.

Andrew Bowles said...

For many of the Church Fathers, one of the key problems after the Fall is the split between what they call 'nous' and 'dianoia'. The nous is the direct perception of reality, the 'heart' of who we are, dianoia is the rational and intellectual faculty. A nous that is darkened by sin feeds fantasies and bad impulses to our intellect, which then spins false ideas of reality and systems of lies. The only way for your mind to be cleared is for your nous to be healed by repentance. Then you perceive things as they truly are.

In many ways a lot of the scientific disciplines actually perform a sort of repentance or ascetic effort in their self-limitating methodologies, afraid of false inferences, so that is why they are more solid in their findings. The only way to obtain objectivity in theology would be to be perfectly holy, then you would have a clear perception of God ('Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God').

From a loyal reader.

Radagast said...

The classic example of the noetic effects of sin in biology is the case of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976). Modern genetic theory was ideologically unacceptable to the Soviet Communist Party, and so Lysenko betrayed the truth in order to be ideologically acceptable. His theories didn't work, and led to death by starvation for millions of people; but he fixed that by sending all his critics to the gulag.

I think Andrew just about hits the nail on the head: the sciences respond to General Revelation by "reading" the book of Nature and, to the extent that they work, have found ways of dealing with the noetic effects of sin. Scientists engage in faulty reasoning, wishful thinking, deception, etc. as much as anyone else, but have methods for catching such things...

Radagast said...

... the same was once at least partly true in the Humanities: in 1936 Dorothy Sayers could still write: "She had expected an outburst of denial, but Miss Hillyard said, faintly: 'That’s evidence… incontrovertible...' Harriet thanked Heaven, with grim amusement, for the scholarly habit; at least, one did not have to argue about what was or was not evidence."

jereth said...

"I think Biology is less effected by sin the closer it is to simply observing and gathering information but like with any area of science, as soon conclusions need to drawn or inferences made, ideology plays a part and the likelihood of sinful corruption increases. So yes I agree with you, observations about genetic mutations is one thing, making them into an overarching theory is another."

That's right. The common descent of organisms via naturalistic processes is all inference and zero observation. It cannot claim to rest on solid evidence of any sort. Therefore, evolutionary biology is an ideology, not a science in the pure sense.

Radagast said...

Jereth, the way you worded that sounds like what Lysenko did, or what Galileo's opponents did: criticising a theory on ideological grounds.

In science, that's against the rules: ideology inevitably guides private choices of hypotheses, but public debate is conducted by producing a body of theory which provides a better and more detailed fit to the observations than previous theories have done, much as Einstein produced a better theory than Newton.

And those rules are important: they are what has allowed science to progress while philosophy, for example, remains mired in controversy.

jereth said...

Hi Radagast,

"public debate is conducted by producing a body of theory which provides a better and more detailed fit to the observations than previous theories have done"

I agree with that; however the point is that the biological "theory" of common descent provides neither a good nor a detailed fit to the observations. It is an ideological imposition on science, not a scientific theory.

You can't criticise something on scientific grounds which isn't even scientific.

Galileo's theory of astronomy was not an ideology, it was a science, so is in a different category to evolution.

Luke Isham said...

"Science in a pure sense" Science is almost too broad a term to be helpful in this discussion because it includes so many fields where ideology for better or for worse has a varying impact. Let alone, that each field of science, Biology, astronomy etc has areas of low-meta-commentary eg data collection and high-meta-commentary eg theory formation.

This of course isn't to say we can't lern from sociology but we need to know different it is from chemistry.

Radagast said...

Jereth, I think we disagree on what “Science” is, and on how it is done.

Luke, I guess that when I said “Science” I meant the natural sciences. The kind of thing the Science Faculty at Tas Uni teaches. Not this so much: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX5II-BJ8hI

Galileo said, and I agree: “Science is written in this grand book – I mean the universe – which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”

Radagast said...

The use of mathematics in the natural sciences gives – almost for free – a level of precision in writing that few philosophers manage. In theology, people are still trying to work out exactly what, for example, Rob Bell was trying to say – because he wasn't using formal logic (that may be why some theological schools keep logic in the syllabus).

There is also the fact that, in the disciplines studying human beings, observations themselves become strongly influenced by ideology. "Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth" springs to mind.

Marion said...

Very helpful diagrams and graphs (and now I've learnt a new word noetic - thank you Luke!)

andrew westerman said...

"Therefore, evolutionary biology is an ideology, not a science in the pure sense."

and

"Galileo's theory of astronomy was not an ideology, it was a science, so is in a different category to evolution."

Both astronomy and biology share a common process of observation, explanation and then the gradual and painstaking elimination of some explanations as less fit than others.

Evolutionary science relies on a forensic process of deduction. To use a non-biological example:

The small sharp stones of Pinnacle Point in South Africa can be explained as,

a. naturally occurring
b. evidence of human activity
c. evidence of alien activity
d. an elaborate hoax

The forensic process gradually eliminates all but b, with an 'ideology' operating of probability. I can still construct a huge conspiracy of scientists, publishers and visitors to the site and claim it is d.

However, in most scientific circles, rejecting such conspiratorial explanations is considered sound scientific practice. Some may see this as 'ideology' skewing the science.

Evolutionary biology is likewise a forensic science, it explanation being the best among many. You only label this as 'ideology' if you ideologically have something invested in another explanation, despite that explanation being entirely dependent on blind faith and not a single observation that can admit forensic inspection.