Monday, January 31, 2011

Philosophy, Torah or Science?

As mentioned last week, I want to explore classical views on what human life actually is - a topic with ramifications for both evolution and determining the time of death. As a starting point for this discussion, we will begin with Ramban's commentary on the creation of man. The problem with Ramban's comments is that they are so richly packed with ideas that it's difficult to explore them in a blog format. So what I want to do is to isolate different aspects of Ramban's comments and dedicate a separate post to each aspect.

In Ramban's commentary to Bereishis 2:7, we find the following remarkable paragraph:

Know that of those who investigate philosophical inquiries regarding the components of man, some of them say that man is composed of three souls: a vegetative soul with the power of growth... an (animalistic) soul with the power of motion... and the third is the soul of the rational intellect. And others say that all these three forces are found in the soul that is contained in man from the Mouth of the High One.


In the version of Rambam's commentary that I have on my DBS Torah database, there are parenthetical comments indicating that the first view was held by Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Avraham b. Chiyya, and the latter view was held by Rambam. But these were not who Ramban was referring to. In fact, he was referring to an ancient dispute between Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s view was that the human soul is a single indivisible entity, comprised of a vegetative-like power of growth, an animalistic life-force, and a rational intellect. Aristotle, on the other hand, took the position that these three components are distinct; in other words, a human being contains the growth-nature of a plant, the animate life of an animal, with a rational intellect superimposed on top of that.

Ramban proceeds to note that while the simple reading of the pesukim would indicate that Plato's view is correct, Onkelos and Chazal side with the other view, of three souls mixed together (for fascinating reasons that we shall discuss in future posts), and this is the view that Ramban seems to favor.

The aspect that I would like to focus on today is the very nature of the question regarding whether the human soul is tripartite or indivisible. It is a question which affects our reading of the Chumash, and which Rishonim had differing views on. Yet Ramban also notes that this is an ancient dispute in natural philosophy - which would indicate that it can theoretically be resolved via natural philosophy. Note that this is not the only time where Ramban says that natural philosophy can alter our understanding of Chumash; Ramban also relies upon Greek science to reject traditional understandings of the rainbow (see Bereishis 9:12) and Chazal’s understanding of human conception (Vayikra 12:2).

So, the question of whether the human soul is divisible is not only a Torah question, but also a question of natural philosophy. Now, science is certainly a far more powerful method for attaining facts than natural philosophy. It would thus seem that according to Ramban, science would theoretically be able to resolve this question and tell us how to understand the Torah.

To be continued...

23 comments:

  1. I'm not sure that RAMBAN related to it as a dispute btwn Aristo and Plato, even though that's the source

    But it was filtered down

    He may have viewed it as a dispute btwn Jewish sages

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  2. Here's the arguments that Ramban was indeed referring to Plato and Aristotle:

    1) He wouldn't have described Ibn Ezra, Avraham bar Chiyya and Rambam as המתחכמים במחקר חלקו באדם

    2) He speaks about how Onkelos' opinion is like those who say etc. - i.e. that he is following an earlier view.

    3) He was very learned, and surely heard about Plato's and Aristotle's views on the subject.

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  3. Historically speaking, natural philosophy was the forerunner of modern science. As such, it makes perfect sense to turn to scientific investigation in these matters.

    The question of a tripartate soul or otherwise is only the beginning. The properties of the soul mentioned here have been found by modern science to be physical properties, whether they be biological, sensory-motor or cognitive. So is the soul we are referring to the same as the soul that is eternal?

    The nefesh may be a specifically physical aspect of the human soul tied to the physical functioning of the body and something expires with the body. The ruach on the other hand, the other term most commonly used for soul in the Tanach, may be the aspect that is eternal and non-physical.

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  4. "Here's the arguments that Ramban was indeed referring to Plato and Aristotle:"

    Those are very weak arguments.

    I can just see the Chabad rabbi stating that these are disputes between the arguments of the Yeshivot of Shem and Aver using the exact same arguments.

    And then based on this premise you say it must be a question of natural philosophy. How do you know he wasn't referencing Christian theologians, and thus it is a question that can only be answered with Theology?

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  5. You state:

    "The question of whether the human soul is divisible is not only a Torah question, but also a question of natural philosophy. Now, science is certainly a far more powerful method for attaining facts than natural philosophy. It would thus seem that according to Ramban, science would theoretically be able to resolve this question and tell us how to understand the Torah."

    I think that this is an untenable step. I could argue to the contrary. I might say as follows:

    "Natural philosophy" mixed together what we would call "philosophy," "religion" and "science.".

    "Science" deals specifically with physical, natural phenomena. It has taken itself out of the realm of religion and philosophy. Therefore, it is axiomatic that science is less competent to address spiritual questions than is "natural philosophy."

    There may well be other differences between "natural philosophy" that contradict your idea that if natural philosophy is a tool to solve a question, then science is an even better tool.

    You are entitled to make such a connection.

    But inferring that Ramban would have such an approach to modern science is purely speculative and insubstantial.

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  6. In Chapter 1 of the Eight Chapters, Maimonides lists and explains his feeling that there are 5 parts of the soul. Using the translation of Charles Butterworth and Raymond Weiss, these 5 parts are called, "nutritive", "sentient", "imaginative", "appetitive", and "rational". In Chapter 1, the Rambam goes on to explain them as well as their relevance to mitzvot, practical thinking, and theoretical thinking.

    Gary Goldwater

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  7. '"Natural philosophy" mixed together what we would call "philosophy," "religion" and "science." ... "Science" deals specifically with physical, natural phenomena. It has taken itself out of the realm of religion and philosophy. Therefore, it is axiomatic that science is less competent to address spiritual questions than is "natural philosophy."'

    Seems to me that, once we are dealing with Plato and Aristotle, we have removed "religion" from the picture, at least as far as Torah mi-Sinai is concerned. So we're left with philosophy and science.

    Certainly the ethics debate in the greater world over time-of-death issues is indicative of the fact that philosophy and science do indeed come together in the extra-Torah world in this area. So then, perhaps we can share those ideas in our coming to a bnei-Torah understanding of these areas. But can we use them in a halachic context?

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  8. When dealing with Plato and Aristotle, we may have removed religion from the mix but have not introduced experiment and observation as more authoritative than is an authority such as Plato or Aristotle.
    For that reason, I would tend to question whether Rabbi Slifkin, when he writes It would thus seem that according to Ramban, science would theoretically be able to resolve this question and tell us how to understand the Torah is anachronistically assuming that Ramban would have said "well, since I use natural philosophy of course I will use science, too."
    Authority still had a prominent structural position in natural philosophy; it has none in science: a footnote in a scientific paper is not a formal claim of the support of an authority, but a reliance on the honesty of the system, and taking advantage of specialization to avoid redundant effort.
    Perhaps Ramban would have seen science's dethroning of authority in natural philosophy as a threat to the authority of the Torah and balked at that point.
    It would have been much more interesting if instead of referring to the Greeks on the rainbow, Ramban had referred to Alhazen's experiments in optics. Even so, didn't the refraction of white light have to wait for Newton?

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  9. Except that the soul is not a scientific concept or else there is no such thing according to science.

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  10. Well, that depends how you define "soul." And even if it is a spiritual concept, it certainly might be possible to isolate which bodily organs/ functions it is linked to.

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  11. Natural Philosophy and Science are the same thing. Newton "invented" Science by saying there should be a qualitative difference in the methodology of natural philosophy and the other philosophies (Beauty, Metaphysics, etc.). That one of the demarcations of philosophy is metaphysics implies that religious philosophy is distinct from natural philosophy . Hence, Ramban would probably view the conclusions of Science as analogous to the discussions of Aristotle and Plato in this field.

    From what I see here the three-part soul discussion may be an attempt to explain the observations about physical Man (How is it he grows, moves, and thinks?). Is this the nature of the argument? Does the Ramban view it this way?

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  12. Rabbi slifkin, with all due respect, the only ones who will agree with you that there is a scientific concept known as a soul are the Chabad "scientists". - the same ones who argue there was never evolution and the world is geocentric.

    Look in any biology or other science textbook and there is not one mention of soul because science has not established that any such thing exists. That may be uncomfortable, but that is the fact.

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  13. As I said, it depends how you define "soul." Some Rishonim defined it as "mind" or "consciousness." And even if it is a spiritual concept, it certainly might be possible to isolate which bodily organs/ functions it is linked to, as Dr. Stadlan has demonstrated.

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  14. And the "vegetative" and "animal" soul described by Ramban are surely not spiritual concepts. Rather, they are medieval ways of describing physical processes.

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  15. Natural philosophy and science are not identical, and when we say "natural philosophy was the forerunner to science it's important to understand what that means."

    Aristotle may have differed with Plato in giving weight to empirical observation but even had he himself (which he didn't) given sole weight to empirical testing as per modern science, Aristotle was viewed as an Authority in the classical sense by subsequent generations, including, I think, Rambam: in his condemnation of astrology, didn't he say that we should rely either on rational proof or on reliable authority? It goes without saying that Rambam knew of no possible authority more reliable than the Torah. So, really we're no further here.

    While we're speculating about Ramban and Aristotle, while Ramban was an educated man and may well have known Aristotle's writings, Ramban was a staunch supporter of Authority in opposition to Greek philosophy.

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  16. By the way, I noticed that even the ArtScroll Ramban says that the authorities to whom he refers are Plato and Aristotle.

    Then again, the ArtScroll Ramban (at least in the first printing) also approvingly refers to Mysterious Creatures, so people might not consider it reliably frum!

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  17. We need to pay attention to the intellectual toolkit available at different historical times and places. Time isn't the same everywhere: while the Scientific Revolution was coming to a boil in 1800 and the four elements were beginning to circle the drain as an explanation for anything in science, that was in Western Europe. Both the Gra and the Ba'al haTanya relied on the four elements in their thinking.)

    The real questions:

    •Are there any intrinsic limits on the utility of empirical observation, (ironically, whether we hold yea or nay on this is, IIUC, still a matter for faith and belief) or is any such limitation purely arbitrary, and just an agreement about rules that has no intrinsic validity, sort of like agreeing to accept the rules when you play baseball, and not calling something baseball which doesn't follow those rules even if you're playing it with a bat and ball.

    And, critical to Rabbi Slifkin's enterprise:

    •Are there any traditional authorities who, viewed using their own intellectual toolkit set limits on what the Torah applies to? For example, did they consider the Torah totally authoritative when speaking of phenomena in the natural world?

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  18. "As I said, it depends how you define "soul." Some Rishonim defined it as "mind" or "consciousness." And even if it is a spiritual concept, it certainly might be possible to isolate which bodily organs/ functions it is linked to, as Dr. Stadlan has demonstrated."

    There are a few inaccuracies here and in the rest of the discussion as well.

    First, where do the Rishonim define 'soul as 'mind' or 'consciousness'? These are modern terms that were not used in the time of the Rishonim as far as I know. What are the Hebrew terms behind these?

    Second, I am unfamiliar with Dr. Stadlan's writings (I would like a link or reference) but I know of no scientific method which could provide us definitive information of this nature, nor can think of a testable hypothesis for this. I am open to something new.

    Third, it is inaccurate to say that the Rishonim, whether it be Rambam or Ramban or most of the others were familiar with the writings of Aristotle or Plato. They were familiar with the translations and interpretations of the medieval Arabic philosophers like Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Al Ghazali, among others. This is an important distinction because their interpretations of concepts like the 'soul' were colored to some degree by their own Islamic religious beliefs. And if we're already looking into influences on the Ramban, a Kabbalist of the highest regard, one should take into consideration neoplatonic influences.

    When addressing such a complex and abstract concept as the soul it doesn't help to obscure the discussion with guess work and inaccuracies.

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  19. OK, I went and did a search in your blog for Dr. Stadlan and found him quoted in the post 'The Critical Ramifications of Correctly Identifying a Scientific-Halachic Issue' and also read his extensive comments in the discussion. Very accurate and well stated opinions to which I agree entirely. However, he is careful not to use the term soul as far as I could find and instead discusses the topic of time of death in the context of when does the person cease to be. Personhood does not equal soul. Dr. Stadlan does not 'demonstrate' which bodily organs it may be linked to. Instead he discusses whether the person is still present without his limbs. Which person has died when take the head off one and attach it to another. Personhood also requires accurate definition and one cannot make free associations between concepts.

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  20. > science would theoretically be able to resolve this question and tell us how to understand the Torah.

    If we go according to Chazal's description of the soul and its various elements, it would seem that science cannot resolve the question. The nefesh is, as the Maharal points out in his writings over and over, nivdal from the chomer of the guf. Science, being materialistic, can measure bodily things but not that which is separate from it.

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  21. Please do not conflate Maharal with Chazal.

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  22. Lawrence Kaplan:

    The Rambam was very familar with the writings of Aristotle in Arabic translation . For the extent of his familiarity, see Herbert Davidson's biography.

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  23. I hear what you are saying now, Rabbi Slifkin. I will think about it.

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