Monday, May 25, 2009

The Regularity of Nature

One aspect of the rationalist approach is its approach to the natural order. The rationalist approach perceives nature as a superior way for God to run the world than using miracles. Related to this is the rationalist approach of seeing the natural order as being pervasive.

…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle. (Rambam, Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead)

When God wishes to perform miracles, He does so via causes that are the most appropriate according to natural laws…. This is because the natural order of existence was set by God in the most perfect way possible, and when necessity, due to providence, requires a change from this order, it is appropriate that God should divert from this as little as possible. Therefore God does not perform these miracles except via causes that divert very little from nature. (Ralbag, Commentary to Genesis, 6-9, HaTo’eles HaShevi’i)


For the rationalist Rishonim, the reason for believing the natural order to be pervasive was the value that they ascribed to it. For rationalists today, there is a more powerful reason - empirical confirmation. We see that the natural order is able to account for all kinds of phenomena, and we see that it has been in place for billions of years.

A perfect example of the anti-rationalist approach is presented by my former colleague Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb, in this lecture on the Torah Anytime website.

(It should be noted that contrary to how Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb is sometimes described by his colleagues, he does not possess a PhD in physics. Rather, his doctorate is in mathematical logic, which has nothing to do with the natural sciences. On a related note, my father z"l, who was a distinguished physicist with two doctorates, used to point out to me that mathematics has little to do with real-world phenomena, which is why when you find an someone branded as a scientist who insists that the world is several thousand years old or has some other such peculiar belief, you can be sure that he is a mathematician. I would add: or Chabad.)

Rabbi Gottlieb divides scientific pronouncements into different categories to which he attributes different levels of credibility. His main point is that science cannot make any definitive statements when it is extrapolating. He refers to extrapolations that are based on the physical constants of the universe always having been the same as being utterly baseless. Of course, the unspoken subtext to all this is that science cannot proclaim the universe to be billions of years old, and we are therefore justified in insisting it to be less than 6000 years old. However, Rabbi Gottlieb, in his categorization of scientific claims, and his discussion of the weakness of claims that are based on extrapolation, makes two egregious errors.

The first is that he sets up the discussion as one relating to physics and to the origins of the universe. He quotes Steven Weinberg as saying that "all conclusions about the universe depend on the assumption that our point is non-typical." He derides this as being a gigantic extrapolation, with no evidence, and he goes on about how "everything rests on it" (sic) and about how it is related to an atheist idea that we are not special.

But this is all utterly misleading. The issue at stake is not the Big Bang theory; it is not whether the world is 13.8 billion years old; it is not physics at all. Rather, the issue at stake is whether the universe is 5768 years old, or if it is much more than that. And for this, one does not need to engage in any complex physics regarding the origins and development of the universe, which is what Steven Weinberg was discussing. There are much more straightforward and down-to-earth lines of evidence, from geology, paleontology, archeology and so on. Christian geologists of a hundred years ago knew the world to be much more than 6000 years old long before there were any assessments of how many billions of years old it is. You can be sure that when Weinberg referred to "all conclusions about the universe," he was not talking about whether the universe is more than 5769 years old!

(Regrettably, Rabbi Dr. Leo Levi commits the same error in his book Torah & Science, describing the evidence for the age of the world as being based on carbon-dating and suchlike. But the point is not the precise age of the world; it is the antiquity of the world.)

Once you consider such down-to-earth techniques, it becomes more difficult to challenge the extrapolations. Let us consider varves as an example. These are annual layers of sediment laid down on the base of lakes. In the spring and summer, melting snow causes streams to flow with greater volume and speed, enabling them to carry coarse sediment such as sand which settles on the base of the lake. In the winter, when there is less run-off from the mountains, the streams only carry finer sediment. This is a process that can easily be observed in freshwater lakes today. Each varve therefore consists of a thin layer of light (coarse) sediment and an even thinner layer of finer dark sediment. In the Green River formation of Wyoming, there are places with twenty million such layers of sediment. Now, Rabbi Gottlieb will argue that there is no basis for extrapolating that this means that it was formed over millions of years. He would claim that the rate of run-off fluctuated much more rapidly back then. But to be produced within the time span that he wants, the rate would have had to fluctuate every few minutes. But how would this have managed to produce distinct layers?!

Even more basically, the simplest evidence that the earth is far more than a few thousand years old can be detected by the naked eye and without any special scientific skills. At thousands of locations in the world, one can find remains of extinct creatures. Such remains may include fossilized skeletons, eggs, and footprints. But in every one of these places, distinct groupings of creatures are found, depending upon which layer of rock they are found in. This shows that there were many eras of different types of animal life on the planet, which in turn shows that the world is much more than 5769 years old.

The second severe error committed by Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb is that he completely omits two vital and related methods of corroboration that are available for processes of extrapolation.

The first is cross-checking. Extrapolations can be confirmed by independent verification. For example, using ice-layers as a measure of years can be corroborated by dating deposits of ash with known volcanic eruptions. (Of course the die-hard anti-rationalist will claim that this does not have any bearing on the validity of counting ice-layers before the volcanic eruption, especially during the period of creation when the laws of nature were allegedly different. Still, it should have been mentioned.)

The second is the convergence of techniques which results in a coherent system that makes testable predictions. As I explained in my book, there are all kinds of techniques which demonstrate the antiquity of the earth - dendrochronology, varve analysis, ice-cores, paleontology, and so on. Positing that the natural world was different such that one cannot assume that ice-layers were deposited at the same rate back then, would mean that the natural world was massively different. It would mean that dendrochronology would be thrown off, varve analysis - everything. It would mean nothing less than a totally chaotic order, absolutely incomprehensible to us.

But we can see that this is not what happened. Because science works. The different methods of dating corroborate each other. They enable us to make predictions. This is how geologists earn a living! They are employed by mineral companies precisely because geology works, and it enables us to accurately predict where different deposits will be found. Paleontologists can predict which types of fossils will be found depending on what type of rock they are investigating. Instead of finding chaos, we find a very neat arrangement of fossils and sedimentary layers, with clearly distinct eras of animal life. This is why the early Christian geologists, who had formerly assumed that the deluge could account for their findings, were forced to reject this belief.

But what if everything was changed and speeded up in synchronization? Well, if all physical phenomena as we know them were sped up, then the speeding up is irrelevant. Imagine if one were to posit that the fifteenth century only lasted five minutes, as all physical processes occurred much more quickly than usual. Would this be meaningful in any way? If virtually everything is being sped up, then effectively nothing is being sped up.

There is much, much more that can be said about this topic, but I'll leave it at this for now, aside from some final observations on the latter part of the lecture.

Making a similar error to that which he committed with regard to the age of the universe, Rabbi Gottlieb claims that evolution is all (sic) about extrapolating from micro-evolution to macro-evolution. No, it isn't! He has neglected the fossil record, the nested hierarchical pattern of classification, vestigial limbs, and so on. And of course, in his claim that macro-evolution is scientifically baseless, he does not let on that he believes in spontaneous generation (as per Chazal), which is much more radical than macro-evolution.

It is tragically ironic that Rabbi Gottlieb laments that "if only scientists were a little open-minded." He, of course, is not open-mindedly evaluating the evidence, since he a priori considers it heretical to believe that the world is billions of years old or that evolution occurred. Kol haposel bemumo posel. But perhaps the greatest irony in Rabbi Gottlieb's protest against extrapolations is that his most famous presentation about the basis of emunah - the testimony from Sinai - rests on the premise that you can extrapolate from the mesorah, thought-processes and critical skills of people today to people who lived 3000 years ago!

The lecture involves a maximum of scientific jargon, which doubtless impresses the audience; it is unclear if they are expected to understand it. But overall, the lecture is inaccurate and misleading. Some people praise it as the Complete Chareidi Idiots' Guide to Torah and Science. That's an interesting way of putting it...

57 comments:

  1. >"Of course, the unspoken subtext to all this is that science cannot proclaim the universe to be billions of years old, and we are therefore justified in insisting it to be less than 6000 years old.
    However, Rabbi Gottlieb, in his categorization of scientific claims, and his discussion of the weakness of claims that are based on extrapolation, makes two egregious errors...

    ...But this is all utterly misleading. The issue at stake is not the Big Bang theory; it is not whether the world is 13.8 billion years old; it is not physics at all.
    Rather, the issue at stake is whether the universe is 5768 years old, or if it is much more than that. And for this, one does not need to engage in any complex physics regarding the origins and development of the universe, which is what Steven Weinberg was discussing."


    I listened to this lecture and did not pick up on this sub-text in the slightest. It seemed to be more of a general overview/introduction regarding the reliability of scientific statements.
    The subject at hand was indeed physics and not the age of the universe.
    I imagine that in a series as long as this one, the age of the universe would be treated separately.
    It would do well to take that one apart instead.

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  2. That is most definitely the subtext. It was a shiur delivered in a yeshivah. Do people give shiurim on charge-transfer interactions of biomolecules? He spoke about the topic because of its ramifications for Torah i.e. the age of the universe. See his blog, http://dovidgottlieb.blogspot.com, where he invokes the same ideas to justify belief in a young universe.

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  3. I could be mistaken, but it appears to be a broad introduction to an extended series on science to perhaps a secular, educated audience. Not a typical yeshiva context.

    I don't think you can justify calling this lecture "misleading" if there is no trace of this subtext within the lecture itself.

    If you are directing your critique at his website, then by all means cite the website. Citing this lecture makes it appear like you are looking to make an issue.
    (With all due respect Rabbi Slifkin, you seem to be uncharacteristically cynical and bitter in this post.)

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  4. "We see that the natural order is able to account for all kinds of phenomena, and we see that it has been in place for billions of years."

    You don't see, i.e. observe, you infer. Is it a strong inference, yes, strong enough that under normal circumstances most people would have no problem making the leap. Nevertheless, a little epistemological humility when confronting Divine Testimony about the process of Creation might not be such a bad thing.

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  5. It was a shiur given at Ohr Somayach. True, not a regular yeshivah, but nevertheless a shiur given in a Torah context, not part of a philosophy of science course. And I think that the subtext is clear, especially in light of his blog.

    Sorry if I sound cynical and bitter; but I find this kind of thing irritating.

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  6. I have not listened to Rabbi Gottlieb's lecture, and so I will pass no judgments on it. I am also not sufficiently well-versed in the study of the age of the earth to express any opinions in that area. I have, however, read Rabbi Gottlieb's Living Up to the Truth many times, and would like to make a couple of remarks about the principles he employs and seemingly advocates in that work, and how those principles might apply to this discussion.

    Rabbi Gottlieb assumes that the principles of the scientific method are the tools that lead one to truth. Unlike many other rabbis, Rabbi Gottlieb considers their validity to be unconditional and hence axiomatic. He does not allow for, or at least does not entertain, competing and perhaps overriding methods of truth-finding (such as faith, for example). Since Rabbi Gottlieb and modern science share the same epistemology, it follows that whatever science can prove convincingly using its axioms, Rabbi Gottlieb must accept. (Similarly, whatever Rabbi Gottlieb can prove convincingly using his axioms, science must accept.) In the event that Rabbi Gottlieb and science draw conflicting conclusions, whichever side makes the more compelling case wins. Rabbi Gottlieb believes in the Torah based on his application of his epistemological axioms. Thus if science can disprove the truth of the Torah more convincingly than Rabbi Gottlieb can prove it, then Rabbi Gottlieb must accept that the Torah is false. Thus he must always reconcile the Torah with well-supported science in order to maintain that the Torah is true. Other people, by contrast, feel comfortable asserting that Torah is true axiomatically, and that if science conflicts with it, science is necessarily wrong. Again, Rabbi Gottlieb will not do this.

    Rabbi Gottlieb also emphasizes that the acknowledged centrepiece of his argument in favour of the veracity of the Torah, the so-called "Kuzari" proof (Chap. 6 of Living Up to the Truth, as I recall), is fundamentally not a mind experiment but an empirical argument, based on the conduct of mankind throughout human history. (It is an application of the scientific method.) He ought, therefore, to be most sympathetic to the empirical proofs of which Rabbi Slifkin speaks, if they are indeed bona fide proofs according to a genuine application of the scientific method.

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  7. I did a short post about Rabbi Gottlieb here: http://frumheretic.blogspot.com/2008/11/god-is-mafia-boss.html

    I personally don't care what personal opinion a person holds vis a vis the age of the universe, evolution, daat torah, etc. But I do find it appalling that Rabbi Gottlieb uses some very skewed logic to support his young earth beliefs and then attempts to convince others that his is the only Torah-true approach.

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  8. I must second the notion that you seem to be uncharacteristically cynical and bitter in this post.

    I'm extremely disappointed in the tone of this post especially where you write:

    It should be noted that contrary to how Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb is sometimes described by his colleagues, he does not possess a PhD in physics. Rather, his doctorate is in mathematical logic, which has nothing to do with the natural sciences. On a related note, my father z"l, who was a distinguished physicist with two doctorates, used to point out to me that mathematics has little to do with real-world phenomena, which is why when you find an someone branded as a scientist who insists that the world is several thousand years old or has some other such peculiar belief, you can be sure that he is a mathematician. I would add: or Chabad.)

    What is the need for this ad hominem attack on Rabbi Gottleib? Especially as it could be turned around on you- Perhaps it is physicists who are so caught up in groupthink who can not objectively analyze the data while a logician who studied the philosophy of science can?

    There's no way of proving which way is correct, but it is just as plausible as your father's z'l (who has a bias towards physicists)take.

    Who gets to decide what is a "peculiar belief"? I assure you many of your father's beliefs are considered peculiar by the secular world, notwithstanding that he was a distinguished physicist.

    (Arguing from authority is another logical fallacy as you are well aware.)

    Rabbi Gottleib may be wrong, but he is most certainly an highly intelligent man who is deserving of more respect than you give him here.

    Are you a physicist? Does this disqualify you from having an informed opinion? A writer of popular books has less credibility in my mind on these subjects than does a PHD in logic, IMO. But you have a right to be treated with respect and for your arguments to be evaluated on their merits and so does he.

    WADR, Who are you trying to reach here? If you are content with preaching to the choir, fine, go right ahead.

    But if you are honestly trying to have a dialog with those who may be open to hearing your point of view, I can't imagine that your tone will win you many admirers or convince many people.

    It only gives unnecessary ammunition to those who (wrongly) suspect you of having a flippant attitude, reminiscent of people who mock our traditions.

    It would behoove you to heed the words of our sages "Chachomim Hizahru bdivreichem!"

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  9. I shall attempt to state what I think should be Rabbi Gottlieb's position. Note that I am not attempting to address all of Rabbi Slifkin's objections to Rabbi Gottlieb's lecture. I would be interested in precise feedback as to where the significant flaws in this argument lie, if there are any.

    Preliminarily, I assume all will agree that all of the evidence Rabbi Slifkin presents for the antiquity of earth can be explained away if one allows sufficient tinkering with the laws of nature. If necessary, overt miracles can account for everything within the 5769-year time frame.

    Now this is how I would formulate my position, if I were Rabbi Gottlieb:

    1. There is considerable evidence that the Torah is true (as per Living Up to the Truth).

    2. The Torah states that the earth is currently 5769 years old. (Note that this is an assumption, but as it appears to be Rabbi Gottlieb's assumption, I am stating it as fact.)

    3. Assuming constancy in the laws of nature, there is considerable evidence that the earth is more than 5769 years old (as per Rabbi Slifkin).

    4. (2) and (3) require reconciliation. Either (a) the Torah is wrong, or (b) constancy in the laws of nature ought not to be assumed, or (c) the evidence that the earth is more than 5769 years old is misleading. (There is also of course possibility (d) -- that the Torah does not in fact state that the earth is 5769 years old; but Rabbi Gottlieb seems to believe that that is not a tenable position.)

    5. Of choices (a), (b) and (c), (b) is the most attractive. (a) and (c) both require the contradiction of evidence. (b) merely requires the discarding of a seemingly gratuitous, if convenient, assumption. There is no obvious reason why constancy in the laws of nature should be taken as axiomatic. Furthermore, there are various indications in the Torah that the laws of nature changed at various points within the last 5769 years.

    P.S. Note that this is not my position. I do not have a firm position on this matter at this time, though the topic does interest me.

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  10. Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Allow me to explain where this is coming from.

    The particular problem in this case is that Rabbi Gottlieb does not merely teach his views on this topic; he teaches them on a training program for kiruv workers going out in the field. The damage is incalculable.

    Furthermore, you have to understand how things work in these circles. Rabbi Gottlieb's arguments are not evaluated on their content, but rather on the basis of authority - "he's a PhD!"

    I do not view it as an ad hominem attack to say that he has no qualifications or authority in this field, just as I do not view it as an ad hominem attack for someone to say that I have no qualifications or skill at playing the piano.

    It's not that I want to argue from authority. It's that it bothers me that people use Rabbi Gottlieb to argue from authority, even though he isn't one.

    When you say that "a writer of popular books has less credibility in my mind on these subjects than does a PHD in logic," 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 I refer to "peculiar beliefs," 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.

    I hope this sheds light on my post. But your point about my tone, and the need for me to take into account who I am trying to reach, is well taken.

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  11. "When you say that "a writer of popular books has less credibility in my mind on these subjects than does a PHD in logic," 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."

    Perhaps, but while I'm not quite through with Challenge of Creation, you do seem to take sides (although not dogmatically) on internal disputes in the scientific world, and you seem to lean towards the position which is more materialistic. Just a gut reaction, do you feel it is an unfair assessment?

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  12. This blog is getting exciting!

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  13. Yirmiyah, can you give me an example of an internal dispute in the scientific world where one position is more materialistic?

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  14. :P, I should of known I was going to get a pass on formulating the distinction I was trying to make.

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  15. "Should have," not "should of." ;-)

    I have found that 95% of criticisms of my writing can be neutralized by simply asking for specific examples!

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  16. Neutralized or evaded? Or am I just stalling....

    I'll probably have to think it over in the morning, but yasher koach on "The Danger of Sympathetic Darwinian Evolutionists".

    Chapter one was actually nice too, but rather frustrating because my policy (perhaps not a smart one but..)is to not read/avoid contemporary presentations of arguments which I tend to agree with. I like to stay independent and as a wannabe writer (is wannabe ok?) minimizes the possibility of mimicking someone else's style. Thanks for blowing that one for me...as a matter of fact your whole outline clearly plagerized the one in my head. Back to the drawing board.

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  17. "Plagiarized," not "plagerized"!

    ;-)

    (Free tip for wannabe writers: learn to spell or use a spell-checker!)

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  18. "(Free tip for wannabe writers: learn to spell or use a spell-checker!)"

    I DID! My comment was still in Word below my browser when I went to double check! The deck is stacked!

    (You should hear me try to pronounce words I know but have never met anyone who actually uses them in conversation.... o.k. lets not)

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  19. Rabbi Slifkin, may I ask if you have studied much philosophy of science? Surly what you are saying is not necessarily the case according to the instrumentalist and anti-realist view?

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  20. I find that invoking such concepts from the philosophy of science is irrelevant to these topics. When discussing basic, broad issues which relate to historical realities, such as the antiquity of the world, or the non-existence of spontaneous generation, there is no need to discuss such things as instrumentalism, just as there is no need or value to raising such concepts when discussing whether there was a Roman Empire.

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  21. I think billions of years and the Roman Empire are quite different. If we accept the Instrumentalist view, then science cannot tell us deep truths. Science is simply science, and empirically, it works. That's all we can say about it. It can no more tell us how old the world "really" is, than if quarks or mu-mesons "really" exist.

    My point being that I don't think believing in a 6000 old earth is irrational. It's simply based on a philosophical view-point, one that no amount of rational persuasion can disprove, for the simply reason that it makes no testable claims.

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  22. I think that billions of years and the Roman Empire are exactly the same in this regard.

    With regard to your statement that the belief in a 6000 year old universe makes no testable claims - it depends on what is being proposed. If the claim is that the world was created looking old, then indeed there are no testable claims. (Yet it is still irrational, for other reasons.) On the other hand, if the claim is that it developed from nothingness over that period, then there are indeed testable claims. But I agree that no amount of rational persuasion will work with someone who subscribes to this view!

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  23. "If the claim is that the world was created looking old, then indeed there are no testable claims. (Yet it is still irrational, for other reasons.)"

    Why is it irrational? Let do a thought experiment: Imagine the world REALLY was created 6000 years ago from nothing. How would it appear? What would be the results of scientific investigation of this world?

    Surely a case can be made that it would look exactly the same as it does now? Within the laws of nature as they are, surely the 6000 year old world would have to exhibit a completely natural history, following normal geological, chemical and psychical processes?

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  24. Does anybody have any comments on whether my formulation of what could be Rabbi Gottlieb's position makes sense? I wasn't trying to defend him; I was genuinely exploring the topic.

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  25. " The rationalist approach perceives nature as a superior way for God to run the world than using miracles. Related to this is the rationalist approach of seeing the natural order as being pervasive."

    I just wish that the rationalist approached worked better all the time. When I see the semi-laughable efforts by filmmakers like Jacobovici trying to explain the ten plagues via 100% natural means, I just get frustrated.

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  26. "When I refer to "peculiar beliefs," 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."

    Spontaneous generation might be peculiar, but on the other hand, I'm reminded of something George Wald once wrote:

    "It is no easy matter to deal with so deeply ingrained and common-sense a belief as that in spontaneous generation. One can ask for nothing better in such a pass than a noisy and stubborn opponent, and this Pasteur had in the naturalist Felix Pouchet, whose arguments before the French Academy of Sciences drove Pasteur to more and more rigorous experiments. When he had finished, nothing remained of the belief in spontaneous generation. We tell this story to beginning students of biology as though it represents a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact it is very nearly the opposite. The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a "philosophical necessity." It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this necessity is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing." (Wald, George [Harvard biochemist, Nobel Prizewinner, 1967], "The origin of life," Scientific American, Vol. 191, No. 2, August 1954, pp.45-53, pp.45-46)"

    (PS: I see that you carefully wrote, in one spot, "spontaneous generation (/per chazal/)" to differentiate the different understandings of the term.)

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  27. "A perfect example of the anti-rationalist approach is presented by my former colleague"

    "If the claim is that the world was created looking old, then indeed there are no testable claims. (Yet it is still irrational, for other reasons.)"

    Since one of the goals of this website is to define rationalist Judaism, it is also important to define the opposite. Are we going with "anti-rational," "irrational," or perhaps a different term that doesn't have a negative or even derogatory connotation.

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  28. Talmid - please see chapter 11 of The Challenge Of Creation for an extensive list of reasons as to why that view is irrational.

    Phil - you raise an important point. Definitely not "irrational" - while some non-rationalist positions are irrational, that does not mean that non-rationalism equates to irrational. I plan to devote a post to this question.

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  29. I don't have access to the book, do you have a link you can gibe me

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  30. Talmid:
    http://www.yasharbooks.com/Challenge.html

    If you're not able to purchase and are in the USA, find a local OCLC library and request an interlibrary loan for
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/71144370/editions?editionsView=true

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  31. "Talmid - please see chapter 11 of The Challenge Of Creation for an extensive list of reasons as to why that view is irrational."

    I did, and it wasn't convincing, especially in light of how you were able with some of the same issues with respect to your position. It contained a more extensive presentation of what Gosse actually held than I have seen and correctly noted that those who propose it often do not follow it to its logical conclusion (i.e. maintain skepticism about evolution), but I'm not certain it added anything new and or compelling by way of objections.

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  32. ="able to deal with"

    I'm going home now...

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  33. Rabbi Slifkin:
    The lecture you really ought to have discussed and linked to was the very next one in the series:
    http://torahanytime.com/download.php?f=media/Rabbi/Dovid_Gottlieb/2008-12-07/_Recorded_in_Israel_Science_Matters_For_Non_Scientist_Part_3/Rabbi__Dovid_Gottlieb___Recorded_in_Israel_Science_Matters_For_Non_Scientist_Part_3__2008-12-07.mp3

    Starting at approx: min. 27 he applies his categories to the age of the universe conflict as a direct continuation of his earlier theme.
    (I really wish you would retract your accusation that the earlier lecture was misleading.
    It appears to be slanderous to those like myself who have heard both lectures.)


    Of concern to you should be that he quotes Maimonides in the Guide in confirming your prediction:
    >"(Of course the die-hard anti-rationalist will claim that this does not have any bearing on the validity of counting ice-layers before the volcanic eruption, especially during the period of creation when the laws of nature were allegedly different. Still, it should have been mentioned.)"

    Rabbi Gottleib doesn't mention ice-layers specifically, but he does address the overall problem with this solution of Maimonides stating explicitly that the laws of nature that we see today were not all in effect during the six days of creation.

    If Maimonides used this argument to ward off the evidence for an uncreated universe (which Gottleib reminds us was the uncontested understanding of the universe until 1965), it does not seem "anti-rational" for Rabbi Gottleib to do so as well. The application appears logically consistent.

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  34. I am filled with grief when I think about these discussions between rationalists and non-rationalists. Mainly because both sides always seem to call the other side names. Honestly, I hear where you are coming from Rabbi Slifkin. However, I think that both sides are very valid ways to follow Judaism. True, you follow the Rambam/Ralbag approach which makes a lot of sense based on scinece and the natural world. However, there is the Maharal type of approach that follows a mystical type of Judaism. This is also very valid. I mean, if we as Jews believe in a creator that can do anything than why is the non-rational approach so hard to believe? I mean, G-D can do anything so no matter what science says, that can be inaccurate. No matter what.

    What bothers me, as I stated before is how the non-rationalists treat the Rambam/Ralbag followers. To call people that subscribe to this approach kofers and idiots is to be closed minded. To invoke my previous statement, G-D is all powerful He can do anything. So why couldn't have G-D created the world in such a manner? I mean there are plenty of rishonim that would agree that the world is not necessarily less than 6000 years old.

    However, the rationalists have also called the mystics fools as well. So in the end of the day the discourse seems completely pointless.

    I do think it is important to point out why both approaches are possible, but to point out the flaws of the other approach is pointless, in my opinion.

    What needs to be focused on is when one side says the other side is not part f Judaism, that must be answered. However, I think the tone in this post does betray your frustration, which will just turn people off.

    I am still unsure of how this rationalist approach could cause people to go off the derech. If anyone had a brain they would realize that G-D is all powerful and can do anything. So why should the big bang or evolution cause them to lose faith?

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  35. DES:
    >"Does anybody have any comments on whether my formulation of what could be Rabbi Gottlieb's position makes sense? I wasn't trying to defend him; I was genuinely exploring the topic."

    I believe the next lecture I linked to makes a similar argument made by you in your second comment.

    And no, it does not make sense because (b) and (c) as you have described them are really synonymous. So (c) is not spared when you opt for (b)

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  36. Isaac, I am not sure when I will have time to listen to the other lecture. Does he NOT use this principle to account for the age of the universe? If so, then I will gladly retract, but I doubt that is the case.

    The idea that the laws of nature were different does not help with the second point that I mentioned in the post.

    (Incidentally, this is not Rambam's true pshat, just his exoteric misleading one.)

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  37. Thanks for responding. Let me address your points one at a time:

    The particular problem in this case is that Rabbi Gottlieb does not merely teach his views on this topic; he teaches them on a training program for kiruv workers going out in the field. The damage is incalculable.

    Furthermore, you have to understand how things work in these circles. Rabbi Gottlieb's arguments are not evaluated on their content, but rather on the basis of authority - "he's a PhD!"
    This is another ad hominem attack, only now you are accusing the entire "circle" as you put it of blind acceptance and gullibility! I realize that you were (and to some extent still are?) involved in the kiruv world and therefore are quite familiar with it, but you do realize that you are disparaging the whole community in an ad hominem way, don't you?

    BTW- You have changed your position here. Your original critique was that he was being cited as a Phd in Physics, and since he is in fact a Phd in mathematical logic, his opinion was to be discounted as he is one who is apt to hold "peculiar beliefs". As an ad hominem attack as it comes.

    Never having worked in kiruv, I can't claim that I have the same degree of familiarity with this world as you do, but from what I know, this is a caricature.

    I will endevor to explain below why his expertise does in fact qualify him to discuss the topics at hand.


    I do not view it as an ad hominem attack to say that he has no qualifications or authority in this field, just as I do not view it as an ad hominem attack for someone to say that I have no qualifications or skill at playing the piano. Come now, Rabbi Slifkin- you didn't just claim that he had no authority, you said that his very credentials would lead one to believe that he is unqualified to come to a correct conclusion on this topic, if your father z'l's opinion is to be believed!

    (Continued)

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  38. (Continued)

    It's not that I want to argue from authority. It's that it bothers me that people use Rabbi Gottlieb to argue from authority, even though he isn't one.
    When you say that "a writer of popular books has less credibility in my mind on these subjects than does a PHD in logic," 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.
    Au contraire, I didn't overlook this fact at all! (BTW- saying that you share the "same view on these topics as the entire scientific community", is another appeal to authority. But I digress.)

    You missed the whole point. The question here is how to evaluate the opinions of the scientific conclusions. We know that you share the conclusions of the the scientific community. That's not the point. The question which Rabbi Gottlieb is discussing is: What are the basis for those conclusions, and how strong are they? (In light of the position of the mesorah as he understands it.)

    To evaluate this question, expertise in Mathematical logic is in fact a very relevant skill. In fact, as I said above, a case could be made that it might be a more relevant skill than being a physicist, due to the fact that one who is outside the profession might be able to evaluate the evidence with out being subject to the bias of the consensus opinion. I'm not saying that this is definitive, but it is certainly plausible.

    When I refer to "peculiar beliefs," 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. Really? The mesorah as it was understood (I'm talking about 5768, not SG) for thousands of years is peculiar? My problem is not that you feel that in light of current science it needs to be interpreted differently, but to dismiss it as peculiar seems to suggest that you think that very little weight need be given to our tradition.

    (This is the impression given if not your actual intent- Chachomim Hizaru applies here as well.
    It is quite a disparaging term and should be avoided.)

    Of course Rabbi Gottlieb takes his position in light of his understanding of our mesorah, and looks to interpret the evidence based on it, don't you do the same? Did I not see you once quote the Rambam who says that there are some red lines in terms of belief which can not be crossed? The only difference between you and Rabbi Gottlieb is where the line is drawn. One man's "peculiar belief" is another man's Ikkar emunah. And I think that one needs to follow the guidance of Torah experts to determine where the line is. He has his, and you have yours.

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  39. Loius, allow me to accept your points in turn.

    I am not sure that referring to an entire group of people as being prone to accepting matters based on authority rather than evaluating the arguments qualifies as an "ad hominem" attack. In any case, having spent several years in those circles, I assure you that, in general terms, it is true. Of course, it is not true of every person, but it is most certainly true in general. Why on earth do you think that Rabbi Gottlieb is constantly advertised with his credentials?

    I did not say that because he has a PhD in mathemetical logic, this means that there is something wrong with his opinions. What I said (or meant to say) was that it does not give him expertise in these matters, and I further pointed to a pattern that I see with people of such training. I am not saying that mathematicians are inclined to peculiar beliefs; I am saying that academics with peculiar beliefs are often mathematicians.

    I will have to disagree with your suggestion that mathematical logic is superior than physics in assessing the basis of scientific conclusions regarding the antiquity of the universe.

    I did not mean to refer to the mesorah as peculiar. What I was referring to was the idea that, from a scientific perspective, the world is and must be 5769 years old, with no possibility of reinterpreting Bereishis. That, in 2009, is a belief that I consider peculiar, especially when held by someone with exposure to modern science and a variety of hashkafos.
    Look, many Rishonim held that God was corporeal, and with considerable reason. But if someone were to believe that today, I would consider it peculiar.

    When I was at Ohr Somayach, Rav Bulman z"l was there. He would be turning in his grave to hear that OS workers are now being taught to teach that the world is 5769 years old and that it is kefirah to disagree.

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  40. >"What I was referring to was the idea that, from a scientific perspective, the world is and must be 5769 years old,"

    Rabbi Gottleib promotes no such idea. On the contrary. He asserts that from a strictly scientific perspective one simply cannot draw definitive conclusions based on methods involving extrapolation.

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  41. Fine, so it's easy to rephrase:

    What I was referring to was the idea that, from a scientific perspective, it is legitimate to conclude that the world is 5769 years old, and that from a religious perspective, it must be so, with no possibility of reinterpreting Bereishis.

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  42. "Yirmiyah, can you give me an example of an internal dispute in the scientific world where one position is more materialistic?"

    Let me split it into two, starting with:
    Do you agree that when you present differing opinions in the realm of science that you have a preference and that preference is indicated but not presented as the conclusion in Challenge of Creation?

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  43. How strange that so many obviously learned people would believe the popular myth that Rosh Hashana celebrates the origin of the cosmos. Based on this myth, one must either dismiss the entire Torah as fable, because it claims that only 5,769.7 years have passed since the first Rosh Hashana; or radically to reinterpret Genesis.

    In fact, Jewish tradition states categorically that our 5,769-year-old calendar begins not with the cosmos but with primordial "Adam" and “Eve”.

    Now, according to Judaism, who were Adam and Eve? Nowhere does the Torah say that they were the first homo sapiens. All that we know from the Torah is that they were the last creatures created. Moreover, according to at least one Medieval rabbinic source (claiming in general to be transmitting ancient tradition), upon the advent of Adam and Eve there were other human-like creatures running around.

    Thus, it is entirely consistent with Jewish tradition to understand Adam and Eve not as the first people, but the first people with a certain kind of awareness or mental capacity – we might call it “Divine” or “transcendental” awareness: that is, an ability to conceptualize and relate to an Infinite Creator.

    To reiterate: Rosh Hashana commemorates the advent of God-conscious humans some 5,769 years ago. (And there is plenty of evidence that the correct reading of the "days" of creation is as not equivalent to our "days".

    It’s interesting that that number coincides with the approximate advent of civilization in the Middle East. That coincidence is enough food for thought next Rosh Hashana. But there’s more.

    The New York Times reported a remarkable discovery. It seems that there is new scientific evidence that a human genetic change occurred in the middle-East about 5,800 years ago which enhanced higher brain functions (”Researchers say human brain is still evolving,” September 9, 2005). Interesting coincidence.

    What makes the dating coincidence even more interesting is recent research upholding the veracity of oral traditions in oral cultures. It's easy for a modern literate society to dismiss such legends as mythological, but it seems that ancient minds were far more adept than we at retaining information accurately via oral transmission. If so, then it should not at all surprise us that the descendants of the genetically enhanced humans would have retained an accurate tradition about the historicity of their genetic line.

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  44. I'm surprised no one has mentioned R. Gottlieb's complete teretz to R. Slifkin's strong kasheh.

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  45. Anonymous, that link does not remotely address this topic. And the proposal that it contains is one that I raise a number of critical objections against in my book.

    Also, please use a name/pseudonym in future, I don't usually allow anonymous comments.

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  46. Anonymous wrote:
    The New York Times reported a remarkable discovery. It seems that there is new scientific evidence that a human genetic change occurred in the middle-East about 5,800 years ago which enhanced higher brain functions

    FTA:
    With the other gene, ASPM, a new allele emerged some time between 14,100 and 500 years ago, the researchers favoring a mid-way date of 5,800 years. The allele has attained a frequency of about 50 percent in populations of the Middle East and Europe, is less common in East Asia, and found at low frequency in some sub-Saharan Africa peoples.

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  47. I hope that you had a good Yomtov.

    A few brief comments:

    >Why on earth do you think that Rabbi Gottlieb is constantly advertised with his credentials?

    For the same reason Richard Dawkins or any other evolutionist's credentials are cited when they discuss scientific topics. (As you are no doubt aware Dawkins often opines on subjects which are not those he has his degrees in. Does this bother you as well?). Yes, Rabbi Gottlieb's credentials are cited in order to bolster his credibility. So what?

    > I am not saying that mathematicians are inclined to peculiar beliefs; I am saying that academics with peculiar beliefs are often mathematicians.

    This is a meaningless statement. (As well as being an unsupported assertion.) There are plenty of physicists who believe in peculiar things. (Gerald Schroder is a MIT trained physisist if I am not mistaken, do you not think that he hold peculiar beliefs?)

    And there are plenty of Mathematitions who don't. This does nothing to help settle the issue at hand (whether or not he holds a 'peculiar' belief) and only serves as an ad hominem attack. But let's get off this topic, it is a distraction.

    >I did not mean to refer to the mesorah as peculiar. What I was referring to was the idea that, from a scientific perspective, the world is and must be 5769 years old, with no possibility of reinterpreting Bereishis. That, in 2009, is a belief that I consider peculiar, especially when held by someone with exposure to modern science and a variety of hashkafos.

    Ah, the crux of the matter. When you say "from a scientific perspective", what does this mean?? That this is the conclusion that the scientists have come to? Yes, but so what? The question should not be whether something has the imprimatur of being 'scientific' (which is just as an assertion of authority as anything a charedi does), the question is- is it true? He're's where a training in logic would be helpful to the conversation. Rabbi Gottlieb may be wrong, but he is attempting to challenge the accepted scientific conclusion based on his understanding of the evidence and the theories used by scientists, as well as the understanding of the mesorah as understood by his rebbiem.

    You talk about 'no possibility of reinterpreting Bereishis' - Who is to decide this kind of question? I would think that it would be authorities in Torah, no? As I said, he has his authorities, and you have yours. For you to declare one intrepetation of the mesorah as 'peculiar' is in itself peculiar. Since most of your defense of your positions revolved around justifying yourself by citing Torah authorities (RSRH, etc.), I presume that you think that for a position in Torah to be ruled in or out is to be decided by competent Torah authorities. Are you saying that he has no Torah basis for his beliefs?

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  48. Yes, Rabbi Gottlieb's credentials are cited in order to bolster his credibility. So what?

    I have no problem with people's credibility being boosted by their credentials being cited. But only in a case where the credentials genuinely serve to boost their credibility! Yes, it bothers me intensely when Dawkins is cited as an authority on issues of philosophy.

    I am not attacking R. Gottlieb for being a mathematician/philosopher. I am attacking his positions! And I am making observations about a trend amongst mathematicians. I honestly do not see how that qualifies as an ad hominem.

    Dr. Schroeder does not have peculiar beliefs in physics (his field), but I do consider that he has peculiar beliefs with regard to Biblical interpretation.

    When you say "from a scientific perspective", what does this mean?..

    Obviously, if what he says were to be true, then what I say would be irrelevant. By your logic, nobody could ever describe anyone else's beliefs in negative terms, since from the other person's perspective, they are right!
    My description of his approach as peculiar was twofold in basis. First of all, from MY perspective, such an approach is false, and someone educated in the modern secular world ought to recognize that. Second, in the social/ intellectual circles of rabbonim who work in kiruv and are college-educated, it is unusual (alas, increasingly less so) to find someone insisting that the world is 5769 years old. With regard to deciding how to interpret Torah - obviously there are communities that insist on literalism. But in the circles in which R. Gottlieb operates, it is - or was - normative to say that six days need not be six literal days. I am not saying that his beliefs are peculiar in an absolute sense (although I believe them to be incorrect) - I am saying that they are peculiar given his context.

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  49. Anonymous does have a point, although he didn't flush it out. In the Gottlieb article he cites, Rabbi Gottlieb seems to contradict himself. He seems there to concede the reliability of science within its own framework, but his thesis is that a critical, rational person can rationally believe in a young universe given the evidence that Jewish tradition provides.

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  50. >By your logic, nobody could ever describe anyone else's beliefs in negative terms, since from the other person's perspective, they are right!

    No I am not saying this. What I am saying (putting aside the 'peculiar' topic for a moment) is that you seem to be judging him by standards that seem to ignore the point of his entire enterprise. Your question based upon corollary data is a fair point, but to judge him based on his views that are not 'scientific' and that "someone educated in the modern secular world ought to recognize" that he is wrong- is missing the point. He (I assume as a given)is aware that his views do not comport with the views of the scientific community. But his whole point is to challenge their conclusions in light of how he understands the mesorah. If you want to take him on on his terms, you have to show how the evidence can not be read as being compatible with the world being 5769, not that 'science' has concluded otherwise!

    To put it another way, if you can show that even if G-d would openly reveal himself to the world and say that the world/universe is 5769, that it would still be impossible to reevaluate the evidence in light of this- then you would be speaking on his terms. (Impossible may be strong- highly unlikely might be enough here.)

    Again, I think that your point about the convergence of many fields being indicative of extremely strong proof of an old universe is a very valid one, and one I'd like to see him answer, but presumably it would be the underlying theories and assumptions that are used to determine the conclusions that he would have to analyze and not just the conclusions themselfs.

    In a way you are talking past each other here.

    My point about Schroder was to bring one(I'm sure there are many) physicist who says peculiar things.

    Again, you know very well that the reason why Rabbi Gottlieb makes the claims that he does is not because he is a mathematition, but rather due to his understanding of the mesorah- which is very strong data in the light of which one needs to examine the evidence. (He is quite open about this.)Data that scientists do not use in their assessments for understandible reasons.

    You yourself do this (evaluate evidence in light of how you understand the mesorah), do you not? Nothing peculiar about that.

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  51. The bottom line is this: there is the Maharal approach and the Rambam/Ralbag approach to how old the earth is.

    The Maharal would say, scientifically the world might appear to be old, but we know based on mesorah that G-D does miracles so any scientific facts don't show reality, but just what G-D did.

    The Rambam and Ralbag would say that G-D keeps nature constant and consistent, therefore, anything that science can show empirically is the truth.

    Both of these approaches have to be acceptable in Judaism, because G-D can do anything. If a person says either is false they are denying G-D's ability of being all powerful, NO?

    Check out my post where I talk about this: http://markset565.blogspot.com/2009/05/different-ways-to-believe-in-orthodox.html and http://markset565.blogspot.com/2009/06/mahral-different-ways-to-have-faith-in.html

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  52. "We see that the natural order is able to account for all kinds of phenomena, and we see that it has been in place for billions of years."

    You don't see, i.e. observe, you infer. Is it a strong inference, yes, strong enough that under normal circumstances most people would have no problem making the leap. Nevertheless, a little epistemological humility when confronting Divine Testimony about the process of Creation might not be such a bad thing.


    Whoops, missed this comment.
    I would describe it as much, much more than a strong inference. In the same way as I would say that we see that the Holocaust happened, I would say that we see that world is billions of years old. We don't literally observe the Holocaust, but we do have an overwhelming convergence of multiple lines of evidence. This is an adequate empirical basis to refer to it as "seeing."

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  53. but to judge him based on his views that are not 'scientific' and that "someone educated in the modern secular world ought to recognize" that he is wrong- is missing the point

    I am not judging him based on that. I am judging him based on the fact that he is wrong. These are merely additional observations of how things have changed so much that a person like that, teaching in Ohr Somayach, takes such an approach. Rav Bulman must be turning in his grave.

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  54. "Complete Guide to Torah and Science for Chareidi Idiots"

    Actually, the post is entitled, "The Complete Chareidi Idiot's Guide to Torah and Science", which is a play on the "Idiot's Guide" series of books. Your use of "Charedi Idiots" comes across as condescending and hateful. Freudian slip?

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  55. No, an attempt at humor that didn't come across as intended. I changed it.

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  56. "Varves," the reason why I didn't post your comment is that debates over scientific proofs for an ancient universe are endless. Anyone who is interested can easily find plenty of resources on the internet for both sides. This is not the forum for it.

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  57. the premise that you can extrapolate from the mesorah, thought-processes and critical skills of people today to people who lived 3000 years ago

    This is an interesting kasheh. It seems to me that, absent a mesorah, we could not make such an extrapolation, and the Mishna and Gamara were written in a style intended to force us to learn with a rabbi. And the rabbis 2000 years ago were aware of this problem of yeridas hadoros (Avos 1:1), so, to paraphrase, tread carefully.

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