Ed Witten, meet Gerard Debreu

Oliver Kamm has a post arguing that theology is not an academic discipline, since (he asserts) it does not aim to discover anything new.   I am not qualified to assess this claim about theology (and, to be honest, nor do I think is he).  But I am intrigued that so many of the lord high panjandrums of contemporary western society, including  the normally-reasonable Mr Kamm, treat theology with such disdain, but present no such criticisms of mathematical physics or neoclassical mathematical economics.

What are the epistemological differences between theology and (say) string theory?   Most religious believers will claim to have had personal, direct contact with the divine, and these personal experiences provide evidence for their beliefs and/or practices.  Such evidence is personal and subjective; only rarely, if ever, is more than one person involved in these experiences, and these experiences and contacts are almost never able to be independently and objectively verified, or repeated, or deconstructed, or analyzed with experimental methods. But for all its many failings, this evidence is significantly greater, deeper and more compelling than anything yet presented for that part of mathematical physics known as string theory.   No objective, experimental or other, evidence yet exists that the universe is comprised of invisible entities, known as strings, vibrating in additional dimensions to our own three of space and one of time.  Indeed, it may be the case that no such objective evidence COULD even exist, since these entities are supposed to inhabit additional space-time dimensions inaccessible to us.   To my knowledge, no string theorist has yet claimed to have personal direct experience of these objects of their study.  Thus all of theology – even that part which claims the world is run by large extra-terrestrial lizards  – has firmer epistemological grounding than any part of string theory, or its younger siblings, such as M-theory, which posits a universe comprised of large, multi-dimensional objects called branes.

And what of the epistemological differences, if any, between theology and mainstream mathematical  economics?      Despite what a reasonable observer might think, mathematical economics is not concerned at all with economy or society, or the economic transactions which so dominate most of our lives.  Rather, mathematical economics studies abstract mathematical objects, called (in that enmystifying manner which western academics have made their own) “economies”.  These economies do not exist anywhere, not even in an ideal form, they bear no relationships whatever to anything a contemporary westerner would call to mind when the word “economy” is read or spoken aloud, and the study of their mathematical  properties has no relevance to any question any politically-engaged person might wish answered about the allocation of resources or the sources and distribution of wealth.   How could  it, when the entities of study are such abstracted objects, in some cases significantly simpler, in other cases more complex, than the real-world markets and economies which surround us?

Which of the two, then – theology or mathematical economics – deals with matters of importance in people’s lives?  Which of the two aims to talk about their direct, personal experiences?  Which addresses questions people have in their everyday lives, or even about those questions which societies only raise every generation or so?  Which, despite its failings and flaws, deserves our respect for its relevance and attempt at finding meaning, and which deserves disdain for wasting so many of our society’s scarce resources on self-indulgent, technique-besotted,  status-ridden, exclusivist, navel-gazing? 

As is probably clear by now, if I ruled the world, the string theorists and the mathematical economists would all receive compulsory re-education as theologians.   Of course, given what I have just written above, they should all prosper in their new careers.

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