Monday, May 18, 2009

Defining Rationalism

There is a lot of confusion about the term "rationalism." What is a rationalist? The differences between rationalists and non-rationalists fall into three categories:

• KNOWLEDGE - Considering it as legitimately obtained ourselves via our own reasoning and senses, and considering that it should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims.

• NATURE - Valuing a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceiving a consistent natural order over history, past and future.

• THE SERVICE OF GOD - Understanding the role of mitzvos and one’s religious life in general as furthering intellectual/moral goals for the individual and society rather than the mechanistic manipulation of spiritual or celestial forces.

(This primarily refers the medieval rationalists of Sefarad, in contrast to the non-rationalist approach that subsequently emerged.)

27 comments:

  1. You left out one important category: BELIEF--
    Valuing the establishment of the truth of religious beliefs via philosophical arguments without having to rely exclusively on tradition.

    I'm sure you're aware of this. Any reason why you left it out?

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  2. I subsumed it within the first category.

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  3. It is not really made explicit enough.
    Also, now that you say it's included,

    ">• KNOWLEDGE - Considering it as legitimately obtained ourselves via our own reasoning and senses, and considering that it should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims."

    So the rationalist only prefers knowledge based on evidence/reason but it is not the exclusive source.

    So you are saying that
    faith = a legitimate source of knowledge for the rationalist?
    That's saying a lot.

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  4. I look forward to a development of this theme.
    If I may submit some gray areas in each of your three categories:

    KNOWLEDGE and NATURE: "... should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims....Valuing a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events"

    Some far-fetched claims might be faith-based no matter how rational we may think we are, and which position we take. The first example that comes to mind is how life sprung from non-life. Each side could accuse the other of being irrational (or non-rational) when they say "God did it" or "time and luck and selection" did it.

    NATURE - "... and perceiving a consistent natural order over history, past and future."

    A rationalist should indeed prefer this consistent natural order, but must be open to exceptions. Take the case of Harlan Bretz: "Bretz argued for the catastrophic creation of the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington by means of a giant flood. His story is told by a NOVA program called Mystery of the Megaflood. PBS says this program reveals that this is a story as much about the nature of science as about a geological event. It recalls how Bretz had trouble getting his fellow geologists to “see” data that contradicted their uniformitarian paradigm. Since Bretz’s interpretation required phenomena for which there was no present example, such as powerful underwater vortices (kolks) capable of ripping racetrack-size potholes out of solid rock, they ridiculed his ideas for decades. Bretz defied the uniformitarian consensus and was eventually vindicated." (I suppose you'd like to define exactly what you mean, and what you don't mean, by "consistent natural order.")

    THE SERVICE OF GOD: "role of mitzvos...furthering intellectual/moral goals for the individual and society ..."

    Frankly, to me, the intellectual and moral goals attributed by rationalists to some of the chukim are GOOD but they sometimes feel like "vorts" more than what God really, fully, had in mind (as if I knew). So, it almost seems rational to me to do them believing my acts (also) have some mystical effect -- and I'm relatively comfortable with that contradiction.

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  5. "I subsumed it within the first category."

    Pardon me if I'm skeptical but while you have made indications that you believe their are philisophical reasons to have emunah, this does not seem to be commonally accepted by those who are most supportive of your works and are more inclined toward materialistic interpretations.

    Do you disagree that for the most part those most sympathetic to "rationalism" today tend not to have run into a philosphical justification for faith which they like?

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  6. So you are saying that
    faith = a legitimate source of knowledge for the rationalist?
    It's very hard to draw up a definition that is the right degree of inclusive/exclusiveness.
    I am also trying to draw up a definition which, while primarily applying to the Rishonim, can also be used to define rationalists today.
    Also, it is not clear to me what the rationalist Rishonim thought of faith in a position where it is not supported by logical/empirical proof. Did they conceive of such cases existing?

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  7. The first example that comes to mind is how life sprung from non-life.The rational and honest answer to that is that our knowledge of science is simply inadequate to assess whether this is viable to happen naturalistically or not.

    A rationalist should indeed prefer this consistent natural order, but must be open to exceptions. Take the case of Harlan Bretz...He is not talking about the laws of nature being broken.

    Yirmiyahu - I couldn't follow what you were saying.

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  8. >"Also, it is not clear to me what the rationalist Rishonim thought of faith in a position where it is not supported by logical/empirical proof. Did they conceive of such cases existing?"

    Rabbi Slifkin! I'm surprised that you do not realize that a large section of the Guide grapples with just such case: Creation ex nihilo!

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  9. I was thinking of that. But Rambam doesn't see there as being anything at all against it, IIRC. I thought that the question here was about faith where it is against evidence.

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  10. Me: "(I suppose you'd like to define exactly what you mean, and what you don't mean, by "consistent natural order.")"

    NS: "He is not talking about the laws of nature being broken."

    That was a helpful step, thanks.

    NS: "The rational and honest answer to that is that our knowledge of science is simply inadequate to assess whether this (life springing up from non-life) is viable to happen naturalistically or not."

    I agree. I get the feeling that most atheists would add, at least in their minds, "but it MUST have happened naturally, even if those laws of nature were different from what we know now." There are a few exceptions, though. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the words of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book "The View from Nowhere." He seems to have this openness that you endorse, even if some could accuse him of being a fence-sitter: "Why not take the development of the human intellect as a probable counterexample to the law that natural selection explains everything, instead of forcing it under the law with improbable speculations unsupported by evidence?...What, I will be asked, is my alternative? Creationism? The answer is I don't have one, and I don't need one in order to reject all existing proposals as improbable. One should not assume that the truth about this matter has already been conceived of -- or hold onto a view just because no one can come up with a better alternative. Belief isn't like action. One doesn't have to believe anything, and to believe nothing is not to believe something" (pp. 80-81).

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  11. "Yirmiyahu - I couldn't follow what you were saying."

    How could you when I cannot even type my type-o's correctly?

    Do you disagree with my assesment that in contrast to the opinion of the Rishonim (and indications which you have made) most contemporary (religious) "rationalists" are dismissive of the idea that there is logical evidence which points to the existence of God and Revelation?

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  12. Rabbi Slifkin:
    >"I thought that the question here was about faith where it is against evidence."

    That is already step two.
    Step one is asserting that a rationalist can have knowledge based on faith in the absence of any evidence--for or against.

    Can faith-based knowledge be considered rational if there is no evidence for or against?

    So for step one, the belief in Creation ex-nihilo seems to be an appropriate example. The question remains: Why did a rationalist like Maimonides accept it without evidence?

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  13. "Do you disagree that for the most part those most sympathetic to "rationalism" today tend not to have run into a philosphical justification for faith which they like?"

    Perhaps we need to keep philosophy and history separate. The Rambam, in general, dealt with philosophy, although the Kuzari does apply to to the Mesorah(history).

    Quoted below, is R Schwab zt'l, who made such a distinction concerning chronology:

    "History" is either true or false. There is no middle ground. The events described in a history book have either happened or they haven't. The most ingenious theories which may have their place in philosophy or as a working thesis in the exact sciences have no meaning in the pursuit of historical evidence, which is a search for facts and which accepts no conjectures. A chronological time table is the backbone of any book on history which expects to be accepted by intellectually honest students.

    I'm not taking a position on these matters(I myself try to rely on "emunah peshuta" if I get stuck), just noting that philosophy and history are different disciplines, IMO.

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  14. Related to defining rationalism, is the term one that was imbraced by those whom it describes, or is it later?

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  15. Do you disagree with my assesment...This sentence would be a lot easier to follow without so many negatives in it!

    Related to defining rationalism, is the term one that was imbraced by those whom it describes, or is it later?1. Embraced, not imbraced.
    2. It is an English word that did not exist in 12th century Spain.

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  16. In your opinion are approaches such as the argument from design (which you dealt with rather nicely although side-stepping Hume a bit)considered persuasive by the contemporary rationalist types? In my observations they have been generally dismissive of any evidence based appeal.

    1.I went to public school.
    2. Strictly speaking Philosophy is an English word which didn't exist in 12th Century Spain, that doesn't mean that their wasn't a word that directly coresponded (or even linguisticly related).

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  17. Your definition leaves several issues ambiguous and I would like to provide some clarifications.
    First, regarding knowledge, the issue is not whether we would prefer empirical or rational knowledge, but whether how we respond to indications that what appears to be taught by Judaism may be contradicted by what we drive from experience or deduction. The medieval rationalists, notably the Rambam, were confident enough to interpret the Torah and Chazal allegorically, rather than give up what they learned from other sources. They were also confident enough to say that Chazal had an imperfect knowledge of the sciences, such as with regard to the movement of the sun at night (see Guide III:14). The first approach is difficult to take because very few people have the imagination to originate allegorical explanations. Therefore, we are limited to the second approach.
    With regard to naturalism, we can favor naturalistic explanations of events, but we must understand that the medieval rationalists operated in a scientific environment where they were able to interpret prophecy and the survival of the soul after death as scientific phenomena, while we cannot.
    With regard to service of god (I prefer to use the term taamei hamitzvos), I don’t believe that there can be any real disagreement on this point. The Torah itself describes itself as “your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations” (Dvarim 4:6). The Rambam elaborates on this (Guide III:26), but there really is no disagreement on this point. The Ramban, a Kabbalist, disagreed with the Rambam on certain points, but gave rational explanation for mitzvos. We don’t consider the author of the Sefer Hachinuch a rationalist merely because he gave rational explanations for mitzvos.
    I have developed an argument, based on the Rambam’s discussion that Kabbalah cannot tell us anything about taamei hamitzvos (regardless of whether Kabbalah is true or not).
    (On a personal note, I have written, but not published, two pieces that relate to these issues. If you are interested, please email me, and I can send them to you. I would appreciate your comments.)

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  18. Your definition leaves several issues ambiguous and I would like to provide some clarification.
    First, regarding knowledge, the issue is not whether we would prefer empirical or rational knowledge, but whether how we respond to indications that what appears to be taught by Judaism may be contradicted by what we drive from experience or deduction. The medieval rationalists, notably the Rambam, were confident enough to interpret the Torah and Chazal allegorically, rather than give up what they learned from other sources. They were also confident enough to say that Chazal had an imperfect knowledge of the sciences, such as with regard to the movement of the sun at night (see Guide III:14). The first approach is difficult to take because very few people have the imagination to originate allegorical explanations. Therefore, we are limited to the second approach.
    With regard to naturalism, we can favor naturalistic explanations of events, but we must understand that the medieval rationalists operated in a scientific environment where they were able to interpret prophecy and the survival of the soul after death as scientific phenomena, while we cannot.
    With regard to service of god (I prefer to use the term taamei hamitzvos), I don’t believe that there can be any real disagreement on this point. The Torah itself describes itself as “your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations” (Dvarim 4:6). The Rambam elaborates on this (Guide III:26), but there really is no disagreement on this point. The Ramban, a Kabbalist, disagreed with the Rambam on certain points, but gave rational explanation for mitzvos. We don’t consider the author of the Sefer Hachinuch a rationalist merely because he gave rational explanations for mitzvos. I have developed an argument, based on the Rambam’s discussion that Kabbalah cannot tell us anything about taamei hamitzvos (regardless of whether Kabbalah is true or not).
    On a personal note, I have written, but not published two pieces that relate to these issues. If you are interested, please email me and I can send them to you. I would appreciate your comments.

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  19. Interesting. I wait more informative articles like this.

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  20. Who would you consider to be the most important "Rationalist" Jewish philosopher in the last 200 years?

    Shimon for Hashmonaim

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  21. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Do you believe it is inherently irrational to believe in, let's say, palm readers?

    If your answer is yes, what do you say to a person like me who is inclined to reject such phenomena but have read contemporary accounts (usually in first-person baal teshuvah type stories) of palm readers who made uncanny predictions?

    Believe me, I would love to reject demons, witches, ghosts, palm readers etc. etc. etc. (and in my own mind I basically do, 90 percent of the way), but musn't a rationalist also take the evidence into account? And if there's a ton of evidence that strange phenomena seem to occur all over the place, isn't it wrong for the rationalist to apriori say no, it's not possible?

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  22. Yehudah, a rationalist is willing to accept even phenomena that he cannot explain, if the evidence proves it. However, the evidence does not prove such things as palm-readings. You have to know how to critically read accounts of these things. Or, as a brilliant person once said - "I'm smart enough to know that I can be fooled."

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  23. "• NATURE - Valuing a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceiving a consistent natural order over history, past and future."

    Doesn't the Ramban in Shmos say all natural events are supernatural? Isn't the supernatural just as relevant (if not more)?

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  24. Doesn't the Ramban in Shmos say all natural events are supernatural?

    No.

    See David Berger's article on Ramban and providence.

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  25. See Rav Dessler on Nature and Miracles. See Tatz's book Worldmask.

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  26. I disagree with David Berger's interpretation of Ramban. Although Ramban says that the world usually operates in accordance with natural laws, he says that these laws operate merely because it is God's will that they operate at that time. This is clearly an occasionalist view. Rambam describes this view in the Guide as nature being a habit of God and disagrees with this view. A more accurate view is given by Henoch in his book on Ramban, whom Berger cites but disagrees with.

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