Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My New Favorite Word

I have a pretty good vocabulary, but I don't like to use difficult words unnecessarily. I prefer that whatever I am saying or writing should be easily comprehensible; for example, I would rather say that a certain book needs to be written rather than to describe it as a scholarly desiderata. And books which use words like "ontological" do not appeal to me.

However, sometimes there is such a word for which there is no adequate simpler alternative. And I have decided that the word "epistemology" perfectly encapsulates the difference between rationalists and non-rationalists.

Epistemology refers to the concept of how knowledge is acquired. There are fundamental differences in how people reach their opinions about things, and this comes into sharp contrast with the topics of my books. How do we decide if Chazal erred in science? Do we evaluate their statements in light of science? Do we evaluate science in light of their statements? Do we look at what the Rishonim say? Do we follow what the Gedolim say? And if so, which Gedolim?

I recently noticed a long-defunct and short-lived blog, "Banned In Bnei Brak: The Natan Slifkin Controversy." It's worth taking a look at, especially the comments. The author of the blog is open about his belief that there isn't even an issue to debate with regard to who is right:

..."controversy" implies that there are two sides arguing - perhaps not of equal strength but each with it's own merits. And to pit one man against practically every Gadol - including some who initially supported him, as we shall see - is perhaps not best described as a "controversy."

It's all about epistemology.

(Hat tip - the person who shares a ride with me in the morning on Tuesdays.)


  1. I confess that I do not know the difference between "ontology" and "epistemology", never having heard of either terms before I started using the internet.

    I am reminded of a lecture I attended, given by a prominent student of RYBS zt'l.

    He mentioned "teleology", and he saw that some of the audience, having either avoided or slept through Philosophy 101, did not understand him. So he said jokingly, "I don't understand the term either, but the Rav used to use it, so I do too in my shiurim". :)

    My "epistemology" for what it's worth, is to never "turn off my mind", but to try to constantly think about information as I learn about new things. Some may consider never-ending questioning as irreconcilable with emunah, but I think the latter attitude (if it exists) is unfortunate.

    Rabbi Slifkin wrote that "I am relying on the fact that this website is intended for people of a particular mindset, who consider beliefs such as the universe being 5768 years old and spontaneous generation as peculiar".

    Now for the record, I think that there are appraoches in yeshivish circles that chazal didn't believe in spontaneous generation, and find a way to explain the gemerah of lice(I don't know about salamanders, though). However, rationalists would question, from another angle how the "proofs" in Science/Chazal are presented.

    I once saw a frum magazine present all the sources regarding what chazal new of modern science, for purposes of "chizuk". They didn't present, however, the other type of sources(and provide answers), nor mention the opinions Shvus Yaakov, etc.

    While magazines and people have the right to do this and are certainly well-intended, I don't think such a presentation would satisfy "rationalists"(not that there aren't better presentations).

    What attracts me to this website is not necessarily Rabbi Slifkin's opinions and answers per se, but rather the thought- process of questioning and openness to reason and intellectual exploration. Granted, there is a world of Haskalah beyond Science and Torah which needs to be dealt with adequately and in depth, but my own individual and personal approach is to fully acknowledge the severity of issues as I learn and become aware of them and use "emunah peshutah" if necessary.

  2. You've hit the nail on the head with this one.

    The systems of science and natural philosophy can inform each other in the area of observing the natural world and increasing levels of subsequent awe. But there is very little point in much else. Science works very well on its own terms and is proving to be the best way, to date, of making predictions in the natural world. It has the effect of inspiring awe from the complexity of the natural world.

    Natural philosophy tends to run on the "as above so below" ideal. It may or may not have value in making predictions in the natural world. It has the effect eliminating complex details and focusing the imagination on culturally determined supernal, unifying prototypes. And it inspires awe in the single Source from which Torah texts tell us the diversity of nature springs.

    I think over-generalization of either natural philosophy or science causes a lot of anger. It's usually because people who specialize in one don't care for the other. Then, lots of things are said and done that are regrettable.

    Indeed, different epistemologies.

  3. 1)Epistemology is MY favorite word:"Nevertheless, a little epistemological humility when confronting Divine Testimony about the process of Creation might not be such a bad thing) and http://machzikeihadas.blogspot.com/search?q=epistemology

    2) Does that mean that fortuitous is no longer your favorite word, cause ya kinda beat that one to death.

  4. Personally, I prefer not to let it be publicly known that I get my knowledge of science predominantly from academia but my knowledge of Torah predominantly not from academia.

  5. On a more serious note, I would like to suggest that the issue of epistemology is not merely a polite way of dismissing how Chareidim reach conclusions at variance with how people (including Chareidim) reach day to day conclusions.

    As I understand it, one of the most significant questions in epistemology is the question of how to define knowledge. The classical definition, first offered by Plato if I recall correctly, is the set of beliefs which are True AND Justified. The problem (again as I recall, this is like a pop quiz and I feel like looking up the details would be cheating.) is that objectively determining the status of a fact as either true or false can seriously undermine such a definition. There is a thought experiment proposed by Geiger which illustrates this, which I would adapt as follows: I have long argued that our State Capital doesn't really exist. No one really lives there; nothing really happens there, I think it is roughly a series of facades along the Interstate comparable to an old western movie set. Now someone driving along the Interstate sees a city, and is perfectly justified in believing such a city exists, with people and businesses etc. But obviously he is not able to access this faux-city to ever discover that it is an imitation (what you think they're going to put off-ramps in accessible locations, and who wants to go to dullsville anyway?)

    O.K. maybe that's not the best presentation, but I hear that the theme of the Matrix is very much like Geiger's thought experiment. The humans discover that their reality is actually a computer generated virtual reality, but they are unable to detect this (at least until the plot requires them to figure it out). In the mean time their perception of reality is universally considered true, and they are completely justified in believing it to be so.

    Possible yes, useful not so much under normal circumstances. The lazy professor isn't going to risk his tenure by staying in bed and skipping class because he has no true knowledge that his world exists or that his behavior will have detrimental outcomes.

    But...precisely when we contemplate issues of the supernatural interacting with the natural does the question of "knowledge" become relevant. It is for this reason that I believe that the philosophy of science question is an issue.

    Understood simply, the Genesis account represents Divine Testimony. If we take it as a premiss that there is solid basis to believe that Genesis IS Divine Testimony such an account is a more certain one that scientific inference.

    Of course this raises the issue of whether this account should be understood non-literally. I'm sure that Rabbi Slifkin would agree that this isn't the best forum to fully discuss Challenge of Creation, but I believe that the chapter on non-literal interpretation is the least balanced section, and I believe it makes a factually incorrect claim(s I need to review the precise language and double check some sources). Certainly, there is ample basis to "hold by" the peshat.

    But even according to the more liberal positions the standard is generally a high one, even if those authorities aren't so bothered with doing so once that standard is met. I would argue that most of the time, most of the authorities would essentially require demonstrative, or nearly demonstrative, proof.

    But with the epistemological dilemma in modern philosophy being what it is "such a proof does not exist in nature."

    I think that Rabbi Slifkin could agree that IF the standard has not been met for non-literal interpretation (what ever that standard may be) then any difficulties are only relevant when they surpass the strength of or reason to believe that the Torah is Divine, at which point we would be "forced to other opinions" c'v.

  6. Yirmiahu:
    >"I think that Rabbi Slifkin could agree that IF the standard has not been met for non-literal interpretation (what ever that standard may be) then any difficulties are only relevant when they surpass the strength of or reason to believe that the Torah is Divine, at which point we would be "forced to other opinions" c'v."

    While we're already reading Rabbi Slifkin's mind, I would say its just the reverse:
    It is the "convincing" (a term loaded with epistemological baggage itself) quality of the physical evidence of science which motivates this segment of Orthodoxy to lower the standard for accepting non-literal interpretation in the first place. If the Maimonides or Gersonides didn't allow it, we would have to do it ourselves!

    I assume Rabbi Slifkin would label anyone who is not "convinced" by the evidence simply ON THE BASIS of the dogma of literal interpretation of the Bible (and not on the basis of weakness of the evidence itself) as to be operating with a vastly differing epistemology.

    No-one is claiming mathematical deductive proof in either direction. SO it comes down to this:
    Is it that evidence trumps dogma? or dogma trumps evidence?

  7. Just to be fair to the other side, it should be pointed out that traditionalists can cite precedent in the rationalist sources in Judaism that dogma does trump evidence.

  8. "No-one is claiming mathematical deductive proof in either direction. SO it comes down to this:
    Is it that evidence trumps dogma? or dogma trumps evidence?"

    I disagree with the implication that there is inherently no evidence which can support dogma.

  9. Einstein must've liked the word too. The following is from him:

    "Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is —insofar as it is thinkable at all —primitive and muddled."

  10. Looking at the last couple of posts I now can see that this blog has the potential to be a mover and shaker blog.

  11. "Looking at the last couple of posts I now can see that this blog has the potential to be a mover and shaker blog."

    I agree that the internet can have a powerful potential, for good or for better ("l'tav u'lemutav", as they say).

    I would add(I direct this at myself, also ), that there is a need for balance in this endeavor. Balance in rationalism, of course; after all, the Rambam in Hilchos Meilah talks about humility before divrei Torah, and perhaps there could be focus on those types of sources also.

    Also, as I've seen from experience, precisely because of strongly held feelings, there is a need to consciously relate to one's ideological opponents with dignity and the utmost kavod habriyos. In my thinking, this extends to rabbonim as well, as it is sometimes easier to focus simply on the kavod habriyos aspect than on the other elements requiring respect for rabbonim/gedolim.

    Further, because there are people no doubt looking to find fault, it is important to be "purer than Caesar's wife"(I forget the Latin), so as not to give anyone excuses to condemn the endeavor of furthering open, rationalistic discussion.

    Besides the above Mussar Moment which is meant to help perpetuate this blog, I'd like to extend my wishes to all participants and to R. Slifkin for a good Yom Tov (whether one agree with my ideas or not :) ).

  12. Using language that only the intellectual selvage of society commonly employs can be quite parlous.

  13. I know this is not in any way relevant to the present discussion (except incidentally), but I figured that Rabbi Slifkin would be a good person to ask this. How do we reconcile the fact that the Torah's understanding of the way the earth is structured seems to reflect the standard ancient conception of the Earth as a flat disk with the sky as a dome surrounding it etc? I once saw you reference a 'pshat' from Reb Shlomo Fisher which argues that the neviim used scientifically inaccurate analogies in order that people at the time would understand their message. Is it reasonable to say the same for the Chumash? And isn't this pshat a bit harder to say when it comes to 'halachic' pesukim such as:
    לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל, וְכָל-תְּמוּנָה, אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת--וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם, מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ. (Shemos 20:3)
    This seems to be a clear reference to
    a conception of the world in which the Earth rests upon a great body of water, and in which we could imagine there being things within that 'water underneath the Earth' which are worthy of veneration. Can we extend Reb Shlomo Fisher's understanding to such a Passuk?

  14. Cyrus, I deal with this in The Challenge Of Creation, see especially p. 222 in the second edition.

    By the way, why didn't you simply email me?

  15. Cyrus: "seems to reflect the standard ancient conception of the Earth as a flat disk "

    How standard is standard, and how ancient is ancient? I posted a comment in the Chazal and Science post:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth -- "After the fifth century BCE, no Greek writer of repute thought the world was anything but round"

  16. Alex, this is exactly the point of discussion in Pesachim:

    The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b)

  17. I'll make a new post of this, so that the comments can continue there.


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