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Incomprehension and ignorance in relation to systems of belief


Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #7)


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There would seem to be different facets of this theme -- a focus of considerable controversy, and readily conflated in various ways in the literature. Distinctions that can be made include:

  1. Incomprehension as a psychosocial phenomenon meriting attention in its own right: As the least controversial, this is characterized by the perception from a particular worldview of the regrettable ignorance to which many are subject. Typically recognition gives rise to programmes of education, as with respect to the illiteracy and innumeracy promoted by UNESCO. Although relatively "innocent" of any "hidden agenda", implicit in the promotion of such programmes may be the enabling of subsequent access to particular modes of understanding, as with the missionary activity of many religions.

  2. Incomprehension by wider publics of a mode of knowledge favoured by a particular group as the key to truth: This is characteristic of the explicit identification of a programme of education to ensure knowledge of that modality. In the case of religion, this necessarily takes the form of religious education in support of a particular faith, possibly framed in terms of the priority of "saving souls" (Heidi Rolland Unruh and Ronald J. Sider, Saving souls, Serving Society: understanding the faith factor in church-based social ministry, 2005). As with the Great Commission of Christianity and its metaphorical framing as a "crusade", this is a characteristic of many religions committed to their own rapid growth, a role in the corridors of power, and fulfillment of divine purpose. As a driving commitment it bears comparison with the Aleinu as the fundamental expression of duty in Judaism and with the commitment of Islam to extending sharia through jihad.

    A corresponding pattern is evident in concerns about ignorance of science, or of a particular scientific discipline, and the desirability of science education as a key to socioeconomic survival. The concern is articulated in terms of "public understanding of science" in response to incomprehension of the insights it has to offer and the problematic manner in which the methodology of science is misunderstood. As articulated by C. P. Snow (The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,  1959):
    But I believe the pole of total incomprehension of science radiates its influence on all the rest. That total incomprehension gives, much more pervasively than we realise, living in it, an unscientific flavour to the whole "traditional" culture, and that unscientific flavour is often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning anti-scientific. (pp. 10-11)
    More recently:

    Similar concerns are evident with respect to culture and the arts.

  3. Concern from the perspective of any preferred mode of knowledge of its incomprehension by alternative modes of knowledge: This pattern is only too evident in the case of different religions, effectively in "competition" with other religions, each failing to recognize and honour the particular claims of others as a unique source of knowledge. Typically this results in a form of defensive demonization of the other -- readily justifying conflict towards its annihilation..

    This pattern is evident amongst academic disciplines, each anxious to "protect its turf" and an "orthodox" approach to truth, readily characterizing other disciplines as misguided or purveyors of "nonsense" -- and as such meriting the severest condemnation (cf Henry. H. Bauer, Science or Pseudoscience: magnetic healing, psychic phenomena, and other heterodoxies, 2001; Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science, 1999). In the literature this pattern is recognized as the "science wars", of which notable triggers have been the Sokal Affair and the Bogdanov Affair.

  4. Concern by other modes of knowledge at the incomprehension characteristic of a dominant mode of knowledge: This pattern is evident in the schismatic tendencies of various religions and the recognition of the inadequacies of a dominant form (typically characterized in terms of arrogance), as with criticism of Catholic perspectives by Protestant groups. Criticism may also recognize a marked degree of exclusivism and an inability to appreciate the insights offered by the alternative modes from which the criticism is formulated. This pattern is part of a dynamic with that identified above.

    This pattern is evident in criticism of particularly dominant academic disciplines by others -- in the light of limitations and incomprehension (partly arising from that dominance) of the insights offered by other perspectives. Again this pattern, as in the "science" wars, is part of the dynamic identified above.

  5. Incomprehension engendered and sustained by a set of disciplines as a consequence of failing to "set their house in order": Whether the set of religions or the set of academic disciplines, it is evident that there is a collective inability to apply the insights of either modality to ensure a healthier dynamic than that appropriately described by phrases such as "religious wars" or "science wars".

    In each case the pattern is equivalent to that of "quarrelsome tribes" characteristic of the patterns of governance in many tribal societies.

  6. Incomprehension from, a more general perspective, at the problematic dynamics between competing modes of knowledge: This is evident in the relation between "religion" and "science" as distinct modes of knowing -- variously characterized by promotion of "antiscience" or "antireligion" perspectives. There is a tendency for each to condemn and demonize the other as a source of ignorance and incomprehension -- exacerbating incomprehension of the truth by which it is uniquely characterized. Typically neither is capable of using its insights to articulate the relationship in a more fruitful manner. This failure is echoed by the inability to address conflictual issues with which governance is confronted, exacerbated by either faith-driven or science-driven decision-making, or by both.

    As an example with respect to science, a compilation by Ullica Segerstråle (Beyond the Science Wars: the missing discourse about science and society, 2000) includes a discussion by Henry Bauer of the "incomprehension of science":

    The "strong programme" and its ilk are fundamentally and irretrievably wrongheaded, if the purpose is to understand science. So is its primary "principle", that scientific activity should be investigated "neutrally", without prior judgment about the correctness or incorrectness of the science being studied. As so happens so often, something that sounds reasonable in the abstract becomes ridiculous when applied to any real case. So far as science is concerned -- that is substantive knowledge about Nature -- it matters crucially whether data or theories fit or do not fit, are operationally right or wrong.... A common way in which some science studies scholars foster incomprehension of science is to focus on one aspect of it to the exclusion of all else: describing science as "business in disguise", say, or "deconstructing" a celebration of X ray crystallography as a "succession rite".... That sort of one-dimensional, externalist commentary requires no technical knowledge of science itself. This raises the question, How much or little does an interpreter need to know to be able to speak validly and significantly? (pp. 46-47) [emphasis added}

    Nothing is said of "incomprehension by science". In the light of Bauer's question with respect to "validly and significantly" -- and given that both are natural scientists -- what credibility can be attached to his views or those of Alan Sokal (Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, 2010)? On the other hand, how is the question to be reconciled with the recognition in corporate research and development that creativity breakthroughs come when people venture beyond their area of expertise, as documented by Jonah Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works, 2012; Proust Was a Neuroscientist, 2007)? Should the issue of reflexivity not be on the table, as argued by Hilary Lawson (Reflexivity: the post-modern predicament, 1985) and by Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, 1979) ?

    The dynamics are evident in the extensively articulated arguments for a faith-based perspective (as notably developed by Christian Evangelists) or for a science-based perspective. The latter is exemplified by various recent works (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006; George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God,  1974) to which protagonists of the religious perspective have variously responded (Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), 2007; John Cornwell, Darwin's Angel, 2007; John Lennox, God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, 2009; John Lennox, Gunning for God: a critique of the New Atheism, 2011; Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007). As in manifestations of the pattern above, the simplistic implicit message is in favour of an exclusivist worldview: if only others would subscribe to the correct worldview (we advocate), their misguided perspective could be ignored and all would be well with the world.

    The framework excludes the paradoxical possibility that consensus on any worldview may well be a delusion, as separately argued (The Consensus Delusion: mysterious attractor undermining global civilization as currently imagined, 2011). A case might then be made for generalizing "theology" to include any belief or mode of knowing (including science), and the merit in consequence for a focus on "mathematical theology, as separately argued (Mathematical Theology: Future Science of Confidence in Belief, 2011; International Institute of Advanced Studies in Mathematical Theology, 2011).

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