There’s this undergraduate I know, Patrick. He’s a third year at the University of Chicago, occasionally posts to
his blog, prefers
traditionalist liturgy, and most importantly likes theoretical
mathematics. We actually took Math 207-208-209 together two years ago,
him as a freshman (my blog gets to use this term, as it is quite
appropriate) and myself as a second year doctoral student in Statistics.
We didn’t know each other, though, until we recognized each other around
Easter. Patrick sat in the front and was diligent; I sat in the back
and was lackluster, though a large part of that was due to health
reasons. At one point last school year, we got to talking in the lounge.
I wondered about his academic intentions. With the hubris of a
teenager, he touted the wonders of the mysterious field, group, and
topological space. I countered with the joy of searching the numbers of
applied statistics. Like most theoreticians, admittedly including me
when I was 17, he found the messiness unattractive. I think his actual
phrasing was like “statistics is mathematics without honor.” My
rejoinder translated an old political saying, “Statisticians are
Mathematicians Mugged by Reality.” (Substitute Republicans for Stats,
and Democrats for Maths.) Another quip from Patrick’s mouth is that “Statistics is Mathematics after original sin.” Unlike his first one – my strong sense of personal dignity really does not appreciate a challenge to honor – this one has potential. I like it. A lot.
For those of you not intimate with Genesis, let’s review original sin. To begin Chapter 3, Eve and Adam are just hanging out in the Garden of Eden, naked in a pleasure park. Earlier, the Lord told Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, on pain of death, and Eve knows too. The cunning serpent stops by, just to chat. He mentions that if they eat the fruit, they will not die, rather “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God who knows what is good and what is bad.” Eve eats the fruit and gives some to the man, who also feasts. The serpent’s statement is true, and they realize a lot of things, including nudity, shame, and evil. When God next stops by, they hide, and God realizes what they’ve done. The man blames it on “the woman you put here with me”, and the woman claims trickery on the serpent’s part; neither gender comes out well. The Lord is kind enough to make them leather garments before booting them from Eden. The term original sin is used to apply to this act, the loss of trust in the Lord, the need to search for seeming wisdom. The consequences are dire, as Adam and Eve lose the state of original holiness, and fall into decay and death. The story is in some ways allegorical, but the fundamental fact of the search for individual glory is true. After all, a friend once noted that the only doctrine of faith that can be empirically proven is original sin.
How do we respond and organize our thought? I don’t recall much from my Catholic theology elective as an undergraduate, but I remember a discussion on “from Below” and “from Above”. The terms are applied to Christ and Church. The Catholic belief is that Jesus is both human and divine. Early church history contains many false beliefs and starts away from this path; most of the false paths denied one of Christ’s two natures. (The Arians with logos denied both, but this site is not designed to expand on Nicaea and Chalcedon.) If one looks only at divinity, one looks at Jesus from Above, and denial of divinity means looking from Below. It’s not that hard to extend the concepts of Above and Below to the world. Patrick’s preferred study, theoretical mathematics, is world from Above; he creates structures irrespective of what humans perceive, then assigns the world into those structures. My preferred study, model development, is world from Below; I examine the rhythms and patterns that humans perceive, then create structures that attempt to contain those data elements.
At extremes, both Above and Below are problematic. Mathematical theorists can receive doctorates without considering a set that exists on earth. That denies one of the two natures of the world. It presumes a pure divinity, one without decay, death, or uncertainty. Theologically, it’s Gnostic, wanting only the symbolic. On the other side, applied statisticians grab hip waders and jump into the streams of despair. This has its problems; focusing so much on collection and optimization can form no structure, and grasp no sense on the underlying unity. Model builders become fully human; theologically, it’s A-Gnostic, wanting none of the symbolic.
To break this impasse, I go back to Original Sin. In Eden, my namesake had no knowledge of good and bad; his world was clean. After the fall, humanity was booted into a world with good and evil, and more importantly the knowledge of such. Becoming like gods means that we perceive, interact, and change the world. That requires investment in the causes and actions of earth. Running away from that, as some mathematicians do, fails in our humanity. It also denies the God on earth, the Spirit promised and delivered. I can’t see how it can be ignored.
Thus, when Patrick calls me a “Mathematician After the Fall”, I take it as a compliment. We all should be. I’ve even thought about a new title for this site, “Mathematics in a Fallen Land”. Given my consulting on foster care systems this year, it feels even closer. The image is appealing; walking the country, a long black coat flapping in the breeze, saddlebag and laptop computer on my back. I come into town, find the problem, put together the model, take the payment, and ride out on the sunset. Maybe that’s why I like consulting; I even have the soundtrack.