Monday, May 11, 2009

Arguments vs. Discussions, II

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on dinosaurs. When I explained why I don't believe that God planted the fossils, one person started to strenuously argue. I noticed that he wore a jacket, hat tilted back, no tie, and a beard that had never been shaved.
"You're Chabad, right?" I asked.
Yes, he replied.
"So you're arguing this position because it was the Rebbe's position, right?" I asked.
Yes, he replied.
"Is there any circumstance under which you would say that the Rebbe was wrong?" I asked.
No, of course not, he said.
"So there's absolutely no point in having this argument!" I pointed out.


  1. The real question is why was a Chabad-nik at your lecture? Was it only to give you a hard time?

  2. "Is there any circumstance under which you would say that the Rebbe was wrong"

    This would be the test of rationalism in two other areas as well: 1) Defending Gedolim's contemporary policy positions 2) discussions regarding ikkarei emunah.

    Someone who wishes to defend policy of Gedolim, or prove/argue for/butress an ikkar in emunah(both noble goals), and at the same time consider himself a "rationalist", would have to be able to answer the theoretical question: "at what point would you acknowledge the weaknesses in your argument, or even take the other side in Socratic style to develop more strongly your opponents case". If the answer is "never", then the discussion shouldn't be framed in terms of pure rationalism, in my opinion.

    This, again, boils down to "Is Rationalism Futile" question to which R. Slifkin posted about:

    "Even if one’s attachments to the fundamentals of faith are not rational but rather a conscious leap of faith, a strong case can still be made for saying that one should implement a rationalist approach for the rest of Judaism to the extent possible."

    I would like to add the following from the Alter of Kelm Zt'l, originally posted on Cross Currents(A Torah Rationalist's Manifesto, Frbruary 24, 2005):

    " I will tell you this. I can point to an idea in one of Rambam’s responsa that is a central support of our yeshiva . He writes: “With all our might we will attempt to bring Torah matters in synch with rational thought. Wherever we find this impossible, we will concede that the Torah matter belongs to the meta-rational. I have seen amongst Torah personalities those whose goal is to take all of Torah – past and future – and turn it into the inexplicable. They wish for everything to be foreign to rational thought.” Rambam mocks them, and rejects them. "

  3. I propose that you could've suggested to the Chabadnik that he misunderstood the Rebbe. Then you could've gotten into a real discussion. You could've then quoted Iggerot Kodesh:

    "We must distinguish between empirical or experimental science dealing with, and confined to, describing and classifying observable phenomena, and speculative "science," dealing with unknown phenomena, sometimes phenomena that cannot be duplicated in the laboratory."
    "One CANNOT EXCLUDE THE POSSIBILITY that dinosaurs existed 5,722 years ago, and became fossilized under terrific natural cataclysms in the course of a few years rather than in millions of years, since we have no conceivable measurements or criteria of calculations under those unknown conditions."
    "Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we CAN STILL READILY ACCEPT the POSSIBILITY that God created ready fossils, bones, or skeletons (for reasons best known to Him), just as He could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal, or diamonds, without any evolutionary process."

    (From this, it's hard to say that the Rebbe was fully endorsing Gosse's theorem, as opposed to giving it a limud zchus.)

    These quotes, (with my capitalizations) were found here:,M1

  4. Alex, what would be the point of that? Believing that dinosaurs lived a few thousand years ago is not much better than believing that God planted the bones.

  5. > "What would be the point of that"?

    The point would've been to have a discussion with this fellow. Perhaps he would no longer maintain that he understood the Rebbe properly. His new position, thanks to your pointing out the Iggerot, would then be, "One CANNOT EXCLUDE THE POSSIBILITY that dinosaurs existed 5,700 years ago." And yours would exclude this possibility. In that case, ironically, (and I say this jokingly) the Chabadnik might be the one saying "so there's no point in having this argument!"

  6. No point in having the argument?
    The point was to try to convince you!

  7. Isn't this the fundemental problem in disucssions between a rationalaist and a fundementalist? The fundementalist says, "These things are true, and if you have evidence to the contrary, you must be mistaken."
    Also, once you bring God into the equation reational discussion ends. After all, God could do anything, including creating fossils to look like they're millions of years old. If we can't trust our observations (because God is faking the evidence) the entire sciencetific enterprise is unreliable and ultimatly pointless.

  8. "Also, once you bring God into the equation rational discussion ends."

    A rational, rationalist believer in God such as R' Slifkin isn't going to let comment pass by unchallenged, is he? (smirk)

  9. DT - Touche! But it's hardly fair for me to participate when it's so one-sided.

    G*3 - Please see my book The Challenge Of Creation for a host of different arguments, logical and theological, as why the idea of God creating fossils doesn't work.

  10. "When I explained why I don't believe that God planted the fossils"

    I understand that this isn't quite the topic, but is this a question that can be answered by science, or is it a theological one, in your opinion?

  11. It can't be answered by science - only by theology and reason. I recommend that you read my book!

  12. R' Slifkin, do you think the Rebbe believed that the bones were planted by God, or do you believe that...(see what Alex capitalized above)?

  13. Challenge of Creation is currently on sale at Amazon for $22.76 - down from $29 last week. I bought it last week, highly recommended, especially the chapter in question, which included much material not in Science of Torah.

  14. Sir Yitz, thank you very much! But in general, if people have a choice of whether to buy Challenge from Amazon or from a different store, I would really prefer it if they bought it from a different store. Amazon insists on an enormous markdown.

  15. I was wondering about that, figured you'd point out if it be so. For the consumer outside of NYC (or elsewhere where it's available), the shipping savings if you buy something else with Super Saver, plus the discounted price, will mean savings of $12. Each will make his own heshbon of saving vs. benefiting the author and any other parties (Yashar?). (I bought mine in person at Levine's on 30th - not the last copy, though one was perhaps misshelved near the English Rambam section)

  16. "Please see my book..."
    I will, just as soon as I can get over my strong inclination to be cheap.

    "the idea of God creating fossils doesn't work"

    Are you saying that God COULDN'T have created fossils or that you think its unlikely. If God is omnipotent He can by deifinition do anything, including planting false evidence. At that point the answer to any questions brought up by a rationalist is, "God did it."

  17. Obviously God CAN do it! But that doesn't mean that there aren't arguments that He wouldn't and didn't.

  18. I'm sure there are. I'm not trying to argue that that's what actually happened. Just that since you can't rule out that God planted evidence, that is good enough for many people. Its certainly the easiest explanation for anything that causes a contradiction. God can make things appear however He wants, and He did this to test our emunah.

    A real discussion can only start if some of the religious interpretations are discarded. That is unacceptable to many people. So anything written in a sefer is Truth, and science is either a hoax or is discovering evidence that God planted.

  19. "Obviously God CAN do it! But that doesn't mean that there aren't arguments that He wouldn't and didn't."

    Again, I recognize that this is a bit off topic, and understand your reluctance to repeat that which you've published (perhaps twice even) but insofar as both Rambam and Saadia Gaon seem to essentially require deductive proof prior to abandoning the pshat, do you really think that those arguments meet such a threshold?

  20. Although I agree that the notion of God planting bones leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it doesn't leave a bad taste to think that God may have "planted" "ready products as oil, coal, or diamonds" (to quote the LR.) I haven't decided how inconsistent this is. If you address this in your book, you can just say, "buy my book."

  21. G*#, Yirmiyah, Phil -

    Buy my book!

  22. "Buy my book!"

    Like I said, I understand taking such a position, but it strikes me as undermining the purpose of having a blog which discusses these topics.

    (I have, however, ordered one. Is sacred monsters going to be required reading for your blog or can I get by with my copy of Mysterious Creatures ;) )

  23. My idea for this website was to supplement my books, not to stand in place of them. This is really not the forum for the in-depth discussion that these issues require.

    Sacred Monsters isn't required reading for this website, but it is recommended - it has a huge amount of material that isn't in Mysterious Creatures, about 40,000 words' worth!

  24. "G*#, Yirmiyah, Phil -

    Buy my book!"

    O.K., done, and I'm starting from the beggining like you instruct (o.k. I only skimmed the intro and such but..)

    Perhaps I already have a suggestion for how you can use the blog to supplement the books: a correction.

    It would seem to me that your quote from George Wald on the bottom of page 50 may be hopelessly outdated....

    "That would be a depressing end to the story of habitable zones, if not for a series of amazing findings that life on Earth is not what everyone thought it was. “No one really expected it,” says Chris McKay, one of the pioneers of astrobiology—the hybrid field that studies how life could arise and evolve elsewhere in the universe. “People found strains of bacteria that don’t use food from the surface, don’t use oxygen from the surface, and don’t use sunlight from the surface.”

    These newly revealed life-forms, called extremophiles, thrive in conditions so harsh a biologist 50 years ago would not have dreamed it possible. Giant tube worms, crabs, and shrimp live in the dark, a mile below the ocean surface, huddled around superheated geothermal vents. These vents are known as black smokers for the plumes of dark hydrogen sulfide they belch into the ocean. The organisms around them survive off chemicals from the vents in an ecosystem that operates without photosynthesis.

    To McKay, these creatures are not the most exciting types of extremophiles, how­ever. “They still rely on oxygen that is indirectly created by sunlight,” he says. Far more compelling are the bacteria that have been found thriving deep underground. One type lives five miles deep in the bowels of South African gold mines. “These creatures get their energy from sources we never imagined,” McKay exclaims. “The South African extremophile bacteria are powered by the radioactive decay of unstable atoms in the rocks. Sunlight and surface water play no role. It’s amazing!

    While I don't think it takes away from the overall thrust of "Lucky Light" it seems to me that it refutes the whole first paragraph.

  25. Yirmiyahu, thanks for pointing that out.
    It's funny that in your quote, it says that these creatures "thrive in conditions so harsh a biologist 50 years ago would not have dreamed it possible" - the quote that I have in my book is from exactly 50 years ago!

  26. While I may not be able to spell, the math wasn't lost on me either :)

  27. If I may add a little additional humor...

    > “Chris McKay, one of the pioneers of astrobiology—the hybrid field that studies how life could arise and evolve elsewhere in the universe. "

    Astrobiology, or at least its father, exobiology, has been mockingly called "a science without a subject." --

  28. There seems to be a major difference between someone claiming that God planted fossils and someone who believes that fossil dinosaurs lived a few thousand years ago. The first has completely abrogated any minimal empirical data gathering at all and leads quickly to Last Thursdayism and other absurdities. Moreover, a deliberately deceptive deity should be theologically disturbing.

    In contrast someone who thinks that the dinosaurs were around a few thousand years ago might be amenable to discussion and changing their viewpoint.


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