Friday, June 19, 2009

The Dangers of (Anti/) Rationalism

R' Chaim B. of DivreiChaim was recently pointing to several dangers of rationalism:

Taking it too far - Some people take rationalist methodology too far and end up denying ikkarei emunah.
Too much independence - The rationalist push towards people making their own analyses and drawing their own conclusions means that sometimes, even those who are not qualified to do so make their own (faulty) conclusions.
Weakening respect for Torah sages - By showing that they could have erred scientifically, the rationalist approach risks undermining our respect for Torah sages.

I completely agree with R' Chaim's concerns. They are absolutely valid and I have pointed them out in my books. In fact, it is precisely for these reasons that I do not try to make non-rationalists into rationalists. (I see my mission as showing closet rationalists that there is a place for them in Judaism.)

However, for the sake of balance, I think that it is important to show the other side of the picture - the dangers of anti-rationalism.

Taking it too far - Some people take mystical methodology too far and end up denying ikkarei emunah, e.g. by effectively attributing independent power to different mystical forces, or making God into discrete parts. Behind all the flowery terminology, it's polytheism. Alternately/ additionally, some people end up denying obvious scientific facts, e.g. the shape of the world, the number of teeth that non-Jews have, spontaneous generation, which can drive people away from Judaism.
Too little independence - The non-rationalist push towards people placing their trust in others means that sometimes, they end up placing their trust in those who make faulty conclusions and there is no way of their being corrected.
Weakening respect for Torah sages - By claiming that they were scientifically omniscient, the non-rationalist approach risks fundamentally undermining people's respect for them when they find out that this simply isn't true; they have been led to believe that being scientifically infallible is an integral part of their greatness, and if they are proved scientifically fallible, it means that they were not great.

8 comments:

  1. I'm assuming this post was written in jest/cynicism.

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  2. >>"Some people take mystical methodology too far and end up denying ikkarei emunah, e.g. by effectively attributing independent power to different mystical forces, or making God into discrete parts. Behind all the flowery terminology, it's polytheism."


    Request for clarification:
    What do you/they mean by "independent power? Do these people actually believe these powers can defy God's explicit will to the contrary?
    Is it any different than thinking gravity is an "independent" power as long as God does not wish to interfere with it directly?

    In other words:
    Do you have concrete examples about what you are describing?

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  3. Rav Slifkin-
    Although this is not directly related to this thread, I would be interested to know whether you are familiar with the "Shitat HaBehinot" approach to study of the Hamishei Humshei Torah (Five Books of Moses) of Rav Mordechai Breuer? If you are, I will pursue this further because it bears directly on many of the matters you raise about knowledge, science and reason in studying the Torah.

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  4. A possible answer to a question I am about to ask:
    Perhaps I'm confusing the terminology between "reason" and "rationalism" and in case i am please correct me and show me what you mean.
    To get to the question;
    From this post "Taking it too far - Some people take rationalist methodology too far and end up denying ikkarei emunah." This cannot be denied; Spinoza rings a bell. But the impression I get is that if you 'reason'(here comes the terminology) that certain ikkarei emunah are incorrect, this is too far and cannot be accepted. How can that be? Since when is reason predefined by what it can and cannot indicate to be the truth? Our minds are the tools we use to investigate the world for elusive truth how can we deny their validity because it doesn’t match up with previously held notions?
    I'm trying to understand the approach that you use.
    a few posts ago you said "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"
    What does that mean? This seems to imply to me that we already know, in advance, what it is we’re trying to prove and then is real true reason doesn’t support which is ‘preferable’ then we can rely on faith .
    In short: is reason something we apply to torah after accepting certain truths, (be it divine revelation/god/exodus from Egypt), in order that we can almost apologetically make up for some rather weird ideas (Giants, god being described as physical, whether Job is a literal event) or is reason something we use from the start and see where that takes us? Certainly the dangers listed are still there: we can simply conclude wrongly, we can be led by our biases, we can put too much faith in authority figures to do our reasoning for us in certain areas (eg. Physics). There are dangers no matter what.
    Is Torah rational from the start without having to just accept something based on faith?

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  5. "The rationalist push towards people making their own analyses and drawing their own conclusions means that sometimes, even those who are not qualified to do so make their own (faulty) conclusions."

    Question regarding the parenthetical implication. Is it a din in the cheftza or the gavra? Should one be concerned only about faulty conclusions, or even about particpation of the non-qualified because it takes discussion out of the domain of rabbonim and/or because the possibility of them making mistakes?

    Related: what about "kabeil hemes m'mi shomro"; is this another nafka mina between rationalists and non-rationalists? Also, is there a difference between accepting and seeking out the truth from non-Jewish sources(I quoted sources from R. Jonathan Sacks previously in this regard), versus giving them public credit for it which might confuse the multitudes?

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  6. >Taking it too far - Some people take rationalist methodology too far and end up denying ikkarei emunah.

    So we are only allowed to intelligently examine information other than ikkarei emunah? Anyway, what is one supposed to do if rational inquiry leads him to conclude that an ikkar isn’t true? Say that its silly, but I’ll pretend it’s true anyway? Unless he is saying that one should never examine anything he is told, because then he might come to the point where he has no choice but to conclude that one or more of the ikkurim aren’t true. In that case, I have a bridge to sell him.

    > Do these people actually believe these powers can defy God's explicit will to the contrary?
    There’s a medrash in Berieshis that says the trees were supposed to taste like fruit, but the malachim disobeyed Hashem and so now wood is inedible.

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  7. I think that the danger of rationalism, which I believe have been manifest, is implausible (i.e. irrational) interpretation of traditional texts to conform with a priori notions of what is possible or likely. I think that [at times] it does damage to reason and it does damage to tradition.

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