Friday, May 22, 2009

Chazal and Science

I heard that R. Reuven Schmeltzer of Monsey, who was one of the arrangers of the ban on my books, has published a new sefer which insists that not only were Chazal infallible on science, but further that there is absolutely no legitimate alternate point of view. He also put together the notorious kuntrus on this topic that was printed at the beginning of R. Moshe Shapiro's Afikei Mayim, which I responded to here and here.
This is probably a good time to advertise a phenomenal website put together by my friend R. David Sidney, which lists and categorizes many sources from Chazal, Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim which state that Chazal were not infallible in science. The list can be found here. I recently sent him a new source:

Rabbi Aryeh Leib Feinstein
(1821-1903; Lithuania), Shiltei Hagiborim, Sela Hamachlekot 2:

ר' אריה לייב פיינשטיין, שלטי הגבורים, סלע המחלקות, ב (ווראשא, תר"ס); ז"ל

Hebrew text available at http://www.hebrewbooks.org/31346, pp. 74-76 (HebrewBooks pagination).

To this category [of dispute] belong also Talmudic disputes regarding knowledge of the world and of nature. For it is known that most of the tannaim and amoraim were knowledgeable in all disciplines, as many gentile scholars testified (Me’or Einayim, Imrei Vina), and as the contemporary scholar R. Y.M. Rabinowitz has demonstrated in his book, Mevo Hatalmud. Notwithstanding that most of the knowledge of the world and of nature has already been discovered by scientists, with clear demonstrations and reliable experiments, there are still many things that have not been reliably determined. With regard not merely to specific details, but to general approaches and broad theories as well, the opinions of scholars still diverge, with different scholars adopting differing approaches. Therefore it is not surprising if in the Talmud, too, there are disputes in matters of nature, even regarding matters that have now been clarified through new experiments. There are therefore many disputes regarding tereifot [i.e., which physical injuries are fatal], salting [of animals], mixtures [of permissible and forbidden foods], the laws of niddah, pregnancy and nursing, which all relate to the disciplines of physics, chemistry and medicine. Even now, with our own eyes, we see that there are disputes between prominent physicians about major issues, like bacteria, for example. There is no reason for surprise at the existence of disputes among Chazal, in their days, before the various disciplines, including the sciences, developed. Similarly there are many disputes in matters of seeds and saplings, which are rooted in the knowledge of the abilities and the nature of plants (botany). This is especially true in matters related to astronomy, which, as is known, was not well understood in the times of Chazal, before later generations investigated and established it using telescopes.... Early gentile scholars, as well as Chazal, in their day, believed the earth to be flat, in contradiction to what has now become clear through compelling demonstrations and the testimony of those who have circumnavigated the earth—that the earth is spherical. They also accepted the Ptolemaic view of the sun’s motion, against the Copernican model which has now been proven with compelling demonstrations. Therefore we find that both the sages of Israel and the gentile sages were of two minds regarding whether the sun revolves above or below the earth and regarding the orbit of the constellations, until one time the gentile sages agreed with the Jewish sages, and one time the opposite. The dispute we quoted earlier between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua regarding the sanctification of the new moon is not surprising, even though they were both great in intellectual reasoning, because the various disciplines had not yet been researched, and they used reasoning and hypotheses founded upon comparison and analogy, without demonstrative experiments. However, in matters founded upon pure intellectual reasoning (pure mathematics), like the reckoning of measurements and triangles, and in inferences proven with physical trials, there is no dispute amongst the sages. If one or many sages made an error in such matters, the rest of the sages quickly determined that it was not so; it did not enter into the study hall as a matter of dispute at all—just as they at once contradicted and immediately rejected the rabbis of Caesarea (at the beginning of tractate Sukkah) who said that [the area of] a circle that is inscribed within a square is [less than the latter by] a half [sic], when it is not so, for we can see that that is not accurate.

[Translation by DES.]

23 comments:

  1. What seems interesting to me is that in the beginning of Mystical Creatures you actually say there are 5 approaches to Chazal's knowledge in science. It is not like you ignore this point. However, you go on to give possibilities of animals that Chazal could be talking about. You are never saying, "This is definitely true!" Why did that deserve a ban?

    I was recently told by someone close to a few Gedolim that this is how a lot of people ask a certain Gadol for his opinion. They go to this Gadol and they put their question in such a way that the Gadol will answer whatever they want. For instance, some people came to the Gadol about an issue, I think it was about the drinkability of the New York City water. Half of them got the Gadol to say it is kosher and the other half got him to say it is not kosher. It all depends on how you phrase the question. Some Gedolim are not like this, but others are.

    This is truly what I think happened here. Anyway, thanks for the link to your friends page. Kol Tuv

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  2. K'vod haRav, I for one am sick of this debate. It is a non-issue.

    We are not discussing halacha in which we hold that Chazal had absolute authority and knowledge. We are discussing science which runs by an entirely different set of rules.

    I don't doubt for an instant that if Abaya, Rava, Rabbi Akiva, et al, were to come back to life today and be told about what has been discovered in science since they died, they would immediately learn all the new information and become experts at it, just as they were experts in the scientific knowledge of their day. To say that they would continue to insist that lice are generated from sweat or that the Earth is flat is idiocy.

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  3. E-Man, your second paragraph is true, but not the first. While in some cases I give various possibilities, there are cases where I definitively state that Chazal believed in something incorrect, e.g. with mud-mice and sweat-lice.

    Garnel - it might be a non-issue for you, but unfortunately Schmeltzer's nonsense is still a prevalent viewpoint. Many mechanchim in yeshivos and seminaries subscribe to this view!

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  4. Garnel IronheartMay 22, 2009 at 5:21 PM

    Great, and there's a billion folks out there that think a lonely sheepherder spoke to God and wa annointed his last prophet. So what?

    The problem is that the part of the Chareidi community that believes all this has managed to polarize the debate: you either believe that Chazal were infallible in science, or you are a kofer b'ikkar. I wonder how many OTD's today are where they are because they were presented with this choice to either accept something unbelievable or leave the path entirely?

    The answer is to develop a halachically valid third option, one which accepts that Chazal were, in fact, incredibly expert in the science of their day but just as we hold Galen and Archimedes in high esteem because of their intelligence without mindlessly accepting their science because its been disproved, we can also note that Chazal were masters of these fields to the standards of their day without implying some defect in them.

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  5. "there are cases where I definitively state that Chazal believed in something incorrect, e.g. with mud-mice and sweat-lice."

    What I meant was that you state in the beginning of your book that there are 5 approaches to understanding chazal's knowledge of science. In the case that they are wrong (one of the 5 approaches) then here are some possibilities of the creatures that threw them off. That is what I was saying.

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  6. I wonder how many OTD's today are where they are because they were presented with this choice to either accept something unbelievable or leave the path entirely?Probably quite a few...

    The answer is to develop a halachically valid third option, one which accepts that Chazal were, in fact, incredibly expert in the science of their day...I don't see why this is necessarily true nor truly necessary. After all, in Pesachim 94b we see that the non-Jewish scholars were superior in astronomy.

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  7. Nice post. Just a couple of quick comments:

    "Notwithstanding that most of the knowledge of the world and of nature has already been discovered by scientists, with clear demonstrations and reliable experiments, there are still many things that have not been reliably determined. "

    I'm not clear as to whether the word "most" in the first line applies to "the knowledge of the world and nature that can be known" (as in, "there is X knowledge that can be known, and we now know >.50X), or, rather, "it is scientists, as opposed to others, who discover most of the knowledge of the world."

    "Early gentile scholars, as well as Chazal, in their day, believed the earth to be flat, in contradiction to what has NOW become clear"
    Depending on how this is understood, it can be very misleading, especially considering what is written here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth -- "After the fifth century BCE, no Greek writer of repute thought the world was anything but round"

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  8. The following is only a devil's advocate type of question.

    "R.RS has published a new sefer which insists that not only were Chazal infallible on science..."
    " If one or many sages made an error in such matters, the rest of the sages quickly determined that it was not so..."

    Could it be that R.RS means that Chazal -- not the individual Sages, but rather the collection of the Sages' teachings after all the arguing is settled (assuming it GETS settled) -- is infallible. (I realize this doesn't answer the mudmouse question, but maybe it could answer the squaring the circle question.)

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  9. I was misunderstood.

    I didn't mean to claim that Chazal were the greatest scientists in the world. Your example and others I can think of suggest, however, that they were in the "first class" in that which they chose to concentrate it. And the fact that they recognized superiority in other scientists despite their being non-Jewish points to a maturity missing in many of their modern day defenders.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Could it be that R.RS means that Chazal -- not the individual Sages, but rather the collection of the Sages' teachings after all the arguing is settled -- is infallible.No.
    (Nice try, though.)

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  12. Why can't I put line breaks in my comments? I hit enter twice after quoting the comment to which I responded, but my response showed up immediately after the comment with no space or line breaks. Anyone know why?

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  13. It's unnecessary to feel compelled to argue about the accuracy of Chazal vis a vis science...a concept that started to replace "natural philosophy" only three or four hundred years ago.

    The question of whether Chazal were scientific is irrelevant because there was no science to speak of at the time. Therefore, they were not trying to be scientific. They were trying to fit into the cultural milieu of the local natural philosophy.

    The concept of an "argument from authority" was disposed of by science. Therefore the idea that a theory is or is not true because it was stated by a Gadol is, in itself, anti-scientific. However, The argument from authority WAS central to natural philosophy....especially if that authority was Aristotle or, in our culture, Chazal.

    The concept that any of the Chazal could not be wrong because they were formative in Rabbinic Judaism is simply special pleading... another fallacious argument.

    I suggest brushing up on "logical fallacies". Here's a link to one list of logical fallacies.
    http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx

    Take care

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  14. The real questions start once we accept that Chazal were fallible in their interpretation of science. For example, Chazal in general very obviously beleived in demons, as the following from Maseches Brochos daf vov omud beis illustrates:
    תניא אבא בנימין אומר אלמלי נתנה רשות לעין לראות אין כל בריה יכולה לעמוד מפני המזיקין אמר אביי אינהו נפישי מינן וקיימי עלן כי כסלא לאוגיא אמר רב הונא כל חד וחד מינן אלפא משמאליה ורבבתא מימיניה אמר רבא האי דוחקא דהוי בכלה מנייהו הוי הני ברכי דשלהי מנייהו הני מאני דרבנן דבלו מחופיא דידהו הני כרעי דמנקפן מנייהו האי מאן דבעי למידע להו לייתי קיטמא נהילא ונהדר אפורייה ובצפרא חזי כי כרעי דתרנגולא האי מאן דבעי למחזינהו ליתי שלייתא דשונרתא אוכמתא בת אוכמתא בוכרתא בת בוכרתא ולקליה בנורא ולשחקיה ולימלי עיניה מניה וחזי להו ולשדייה בגובתא דפרזלא ולחתמי' בגושפנקא דפרזלא דילמא גנבי מניה ולחתום פומיה כי היכי דלא ליתזק רב ביבי בר אביי עבד הכי חזא ואתזק בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ואתסי:
    It's also clear that the Rambam didn't believe in them. Is it legitimate to say that Chazal were influenced by their surroundings, which believed in such things, but we can reject this as being wrong? This goes a step further than saying that Chazal based themselves on the science of their times-it would be saying that many of their fundamental ideas were mistaken and were simply imbibed from the culture they lived in. The problem with this is that it's very hard to draw the line. What other parts of Chazal's worldview can be attributed to the times they lived in, e.g. the way they related to women? How do we differentiate between the eternal 'truths' of Torah, and that which is merely a reflection of a more primitive cultural milieu?

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  15. Gary - it's all very well to say that "it's unnecessary to feel compelled to argue about the accuracy of Chazal vis a vis science," but your reasons will not affect those who protest that this approach is heretical!

    Joseph - according to the approach that I presented in the last chapter of Sacred Monsters, it wouldn't make any difference even if one were to believe that.

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  16. Rabbi Slifkin - The question remains, however: Where do we draw the line? Can we say that their ideas about hashgacha protis were taken from the culture they lived in? What about the rationale behind halachos? The problem with saying that it's fine to accept that whatever Chazal said on these topics is a mere reflection of their cultural milieu is that, when all is said and done, you're not left with much Torah. Which of their ideas can we learn from? How do we draw inspiration from such Talmudic passages if they are mere reflections of Babylonian demonology? Can we 'distill' a set of pure Torah ideas from the works of Chazal?

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  17. Undoubtedly many of their ideas were influenced - just look at the Moreh! But this doesn't mean that it's not Torah. And with regard to halachah, it's binding regardless.

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  18. Dear R. Slifkin,
    One can easily argue that Chazal form some type of authoritative basis for Jewish natural philosophy. This may be a historical fact. Or, more likely, Chazal were reflecting the natural philosophy of their times.
    Simultaneously, one can easily argue that being thought of as a Gadol has no positive or negative impact on the scientific veracity of his/her statements. That is BY DEFINITION a part of the scientific paradigm. That's why I note that fallacious arguments [including the argument from authority] are ultimately irrelevant to science.
    So, the important point, I think, is to teach the difference between science and non-science. If we do a good job of that, then those who are fortunate enough to think it through will at least understand why authority has no long-term standing in science.
    Thank you

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  19. I have to disagree with Gary Goldwater's assessment that the issue is simply one of appeal to authority.

    The fallacy of Appeal to Authority is committed when one attempts to arbitrate a claim by citing someone without sufficient credential (such as a mathematician or popular writer on a dispute internal to biology :) ) or attempt to present a legitimate authority as overly decisive in determining the conclusion.

    Often times you will see secularist/skeptics say that citing the Bible with respect to moral questions or other issues is an appeal to authority fallacy. This is not the case, however, if one can establish the authority of the Bible to speak to such matters (i.e. it is Divine Revelation etc.). Practically, however, one has to recognize that that is its own issue that must be dealt with on its own and unless that is taken as a postulate in the argument then you're not going to get anywhere.

    The question about Chazal and Science is to what extent Torah gives "authority" to Chazal. Does Torah give its Divine stamp of approval to any statement on any subject? To an individual or consensus? Is it limited? This question is a separate issue from the correctness of their statements, it is just hard for us who accept Chazal as authorities to address them separately. It is quite possible theoretically for the Torah to only give them limited legal authority yet their pronouncements on other issues never happen to be wrong, conversely אם יעלה על הדת the Torah gives them unrestricted authority in their pronouncements and some are proven incorrect, the problem is not in appealing to Chazal, but the source of their authority.

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  20. Yirmiahu notes that the Appeal to Authority is, basically, an appeal to the wrong authority. This is incorrect [although I will cite support for Yirmiahu's point of view below.]. The logical fallacy of the Appeal to Authority is made when the invocation of a strong OR weak authority is used as evidence. Authority is not evidence. Rather, a theory should stand on its own with robust evidence from multiple approaches. The data from these multiple approaches can lead to validation, refinement or dismissal of the theory.

    See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_authority

    I see on other websites that the fallacy is explained as Yirmiahu describes it. For instance:
    http://www1.ca.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-authority.html

    However, this is some sort of variant and appears to be used for non-scientific matters [i.e. morality].

    So, I'm going to stick to the definition of the Argument from Authority or Appeal to Authority as used in the scientific sense. This would be more relevant in the context we are using in this discussion.

    As to G-d being moral by definition...this is a completely separate discussion. &, I would add that if this were one's premise, s/he would putting him or herself at a severe disadvantage in any logical argument. Morality is a humanistic construct. It is misplaced when applied to the Divine.

    As to any group or individual being infallible about ANYTHING....this excludes falsifiability and is by definition not valid scientifically.

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  21. I believe that although his point is well thought out and has merit, Gary Goldwater has supported mine.

    I am not familiar with the more extensive definition but it makes sense with respect to research. And while I haven't double checked, I believe my definition accurately reflects the approach in mainstream logic texts and should not be so easily dismissed as "wrong".

    Reb Gary's definition would make sense in the limited arena of research where it is necessary to be able to reproduce an observation or result. In such a context the view/result/etc. of even the most distinguished scientist isn't an issue. One needs to be able to replicate the data. Furthermore, one needs to replicate the data.

    But I would argue that while we must always be able to confirm positions which have been presented, it would be crippling (even for science) if such a maximalist definition where to be applied consistently. In effect no research could be relied upon without personally replicating prior conclusions since otherwise one is relying on the authority of the previous researchers. Each scientist would need to reinvent the wheel.

    I think that this is fairly intuitive, which is why I doubt you would make such an objection to Rabbi Slifkin's comment, "you are overlooking the fact that this writer of popular books happens to share the same view on these topics as the entire scientific community." When discussing scientific matters the consensus among authorities is significant. I would argue that the issue he was discussing was a little more philosophical than he would concede, but that is already evaluating the situation according to "my" definition of "appeal to authority".

    Incidentally I would argue that insofar as you challenged my definition by citing sources while I evaluated yours (for better or worse) via independent reflection, we have a bit of a role reversal where you are working by my definition and I by yours. :)

    If morality is a human construct then it is nothing. I didn't agree to any such limitations on my personal liberty. Unless there is a Creator who can bring moral law into existence in the same way that there is physical law then morality is simply a matter of taste. While you are correct that this is a whole other topic, I would firmly argue that you cannot present a binding secular definition of morality without argumentum ad baculum,argumentum ad populum etc. This is not a matter of arguing that God is inherently moral, it means that God is the only possible "authority" on morality.

    "I would add that if this were one's premise, s/he would putting him or herself at a severe disadvantage in any logical argument."

    I believe I already noted that one always puts oneself at a disadvantage if one is arguing based off of a premise which isn't established (at least for the sake of argument). This is a rhetorical consideration.

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  22. But if we're going to cite sources, let's not just cite "some websites":

    "But when an authority is appealed to for testimony in matters outside the province of that authority's special field, the appeal commits the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam [appeal to authority]." I.M. Copi, Introduction to Logic, 5th Edition page 95.

    "This fallacy may be defined as the one we commit when we are let to accept the testimony of an (alleged) authority who has no expertise in the relevant area." Critical Thinking, Fanacis Watanabe Dauer, page 78

    "The appeal to unqualified authory fallacy is a variety of the argument from authority and occurs when the cited authority or witness is not trustworthy." A Concise Introduction to Logic, 5th Edition, page 134.

    "We regularly make appeals to authority by citing the opinion of experts to support our position. Because what is taken as fact is often derived from statments by legitimate authorities on the topic under discussion, an argument that rests on such supporting opinion is not necessarily fallacious. An appeal to authority is fallacious, however, when the person appealed to is not truly an authority on the subject under consideration." Logic 4th Edition, Robert Baum, page 556.

    "We all have to appeal ot experts for information or advice--only fools don't do so with some regularity. Improperappeals constitute the fallacy called appeal to authority." Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric, Kahane, page 38.

    "The fallacy appeal to authority applies chiefly to improper appeals to an authority." Logic and Philosophy,Tidman/Kahane page 352

    But again, the question isn't the propriety of citing Chazal as an authority on the laws of nature, the question is whether the Torah claims that they have such authority. If it does, yet they don't, it is the Torah's authority which is challenged.

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  23. Gary Goldwater said...

    The logical fallacy of the Appeal to Authority is made when the invocation of a strong OR weak authority is used as evidence. Authority is not evidence. Rather, a theory should stand on its own with robust evidence from multiple approaches. The data from these multiple approaches can lead to validation, refinement or dismissal of the theory.

    See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_authority
    I think the complexity of this notion of fallacy may become clearer with an excerpt:

    "On the other hand, arguments from authority are an important part of informal logic. Since we cannot have expert knowledge of many subjects, we often rely on the judgments of those who do. There is no fallacy involved in simply arguing that the assertion made by an authority is true, the fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the authority is infallible in principle and can hence be exempted from criticism..."

    By the by, pardon the irony, but is there anyone here who can suggest and perhaps quote from a more authoritative source on logic than Wikipedia? This is totally out of my experience.

    I would tend to agree that RNS's remarks here about the background of RDG are not a valid support for RNS's argument against RDG's position per se, though I might take them as a reason here to be extra scrutinous of RDG's position.

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