Sunday, January 9, 2011

Scientific, Halachic, and Scientific-Halachic Issues

There are different types of issues that confront Orthodox Jews. In this post, I would like to launch a discussion of three categories of such issues.

1. Scientific Issues

...by which I mean issues concerning physical reality. An example would be the topic of the age of the universe. The question of how to treat someone who believes that the universe is billions of years old may be a halachic issue. But the question of the age of the universe itself is clearly, and solely, a scientific issue. An anti-rationalist might insist that the universe is 5771 years old, but he is not denying that it is a scientific issue; rather, he believes that a literal reading of the Torah is a more reliable and authoritative source of information than modern science.

2. Halachic Issues

These are issues which do not involved any determinations about the physical world. An example would be the laws of lashon hara.

3. Scientific-Halachic Issues

These are halachic issues in which the halachic discussion is built upon certain determinations about the physical world. And this is the category that I want to discuss in detail.

One example would be the issue of killing creatures on Shabbos. It's not solely a scientific issue, because the scientific division of life from non-life is not relevant from a halachic standpoint; bacteria are alive from a scientific standpoint, but not from a halachic standpoint. On the other hand, it's not solely a halachic issue, since Chazal made the prohibition contingent on sexual reproduction, and science is used to determine which species reproduce sexually.

Now, here are the two crucial points:

1. It is important to correctly determine whether an issue is a halachic issue, a scientific issue, or a scientific-halachic issue. And the reason for this is as follows:

2. To the extent that a statement utilized in resolving a scientific-halachic issue is based upon a relevant misunderstanding of the physical reality, this undermines the innate validity of the halachic conclusions. This does not necessarily mean that the halachah should be changed; in my book Sacred Monsters, I explained Rav Herzog's view of why there are other reasons to uphold Chazal's ruling about lice, despite it being based upon mistaken science. But, absent such reasons, the halachic conclusions are invalid.

For example, the issue of using electricity on Shabbos or Yom Tov is a scientific-halachic issue. If someone were to make a ruling on this topic based upon a misunderstanding of what electricity is, this would undermine the ruling (to the extent that the misunderstanding is relevant).

Coming up next: A very important application of these principles.

22 comments:

  1. Concerning the third, "scientific-halakhic" category, I see a distinction between the cases you quoted.

    In the case of the lice, the real question is whether spontaneous generation is possible or not; after it is determined to be false, the halakha is (or rather, should be) fairly simple to determine. Our problem arises when past halakhists applied a "simple" halakha to incorrect scientific conclusions.

    In the electricity case, even after science provides data that explains what electricity really "is," the ensuing halakhic is complicated as well. Into which halakhic category does this creation fall? Aish? Boneh?

    To give another example, while contemporary medicine can tell us that the brain has irreversibly stopped functioning when conditions x, y, and z are filled, it is up to the poskim to determine what halakhically constitutes death. (Similar to the beginning of life - we know when insemination occurs, and when nerves form, etc, but when "life" actually begins is a purely philosophical/value/hashkafic call.)

    If a man goes into cardiac arrest, the doctor will say, "Look, he's not breathing and his heart has stopped pumping. It will not restart on its own." One would reasonably assume that the man is dead at this point (using heart cessation as a crude indicator of death here). But if they restart his heart, was he really dead at that point? Would you say he was he never dead? This query is a "Torah-only" question of halakhic categories.

    Science provides us with data. What to do with that data is sometimes obvious and sometimes complicated.

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  2. "These are issues which do not involved any determinations..."

    Just thought I'd point out the typo, R' Slifkin.

    "An anti-rationalist might insist that the universe is 5771 years old"

    I wonder what percentage believes the universe is 5771 years old and what percentage believes the universe is 5771 years plus six "eons" long.

    "I explained Rav Herzog's view of why there are other reasons to uphold Chazal's ruling about lice, despite it being based upon mistaken science. But, absent such reasons, the halachic conclusions are invalid."

    Reasons given by whom?

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  3. Concerning the third, "scientific-halakhic" category, imho the basic issue revolves a much broader debate - what did Moshe know and when? To the extent there was a mesorah (according to some) that the halacha in a certain case is X, and Rabbis later backfilled svara or a drasha, then the scientific basis they might have given is interesting but not prescriptive. To the extent the ? came up and they "answered" based on science, logically it would matter. How much of each is in the process and how do we know where?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  4. "An anti-rationalist might insist that the universe is 5771 years old, but he is not denying that it is a scientific issue; rather, he believes that a literal reading of the Torah is a more reliable and authoritative source of information than modern science."

    And such a person has as much to say about science as a Reform rabbi who denies Torah She Bal Peh has to say about halachah. Both have voluntarily placed themselves outside of the discussion.

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  5. There is anothet category that plays a crucial role in this debate: hashkafa. I think that most Orthodox Jews view the science-halacha interface as being purely a question of hashkafa. I have found that most people i have encountered who have grappeled with this problem, even those who are open to science do not necessarily see science as the quest to understand the physical reality but rather, mistakenly, as a philosophy of sorts. As such hsshkafa plays a pivitol role in how an individual relates science to halacha. Just as some people are open to non-jewish philosophies, so too are they open to studying science while others assur it since they are aposed to foreign thought.

    Obviously this is not true with science since science is not a theoretical philosophy but rather an empirical study if physical reality. Nevertheless there is a high correlation between people who reject science and people with a certain hashkafa.

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  6. Obviously this is not true with science since science is not a theoretical philosophy but rather an empirical study of physical reality.

    Um, reality check:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all

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  7. Although I´ve been (sort of) following the blog for quite a long time, that would be my first post.

    First of all, sorry for my bad English. It is not my mother language.

    I would like to comment in what exactly can we consider as a scientific statement. Whenever we say that something is scientific, we assume that it is fallible (as we can infer in the Physics of Aristotle or as more recently exposed by Popper), testible and reproductible by the peers. In the present times it is done by sending the paper for publications.

    There´s two problems:
    1 - Every test has some error margin. (like the basic standarts that is considered as the maximum error level for bioquimistry, physiology and psychology that have respectively p=0.01, p=0.05 and p=0.1) This error is the some of all errors that we may calculate and some other erros that we may not calculate but must infer.

    2 - Every conclusion needs at least some degree of inference, be it in the interpretation of data be it in the apropriation of some model. (that in and itself is an inference).

    And it is in this point that the discussion sometimes seems to get lost. Yes, all who knows the basic of methodology of research knows these two points and a scientific study tries at its most to lower the margin of errors of all kinds, to apply the better models and to scrutinize to see if everything is holding water.

    Still, I must ask the question that is: How can we have an universally accepted idea of what is scientific? And, I also must ask the consequence of this question that is: Supose I have an answer, how can I validade my proof?

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  8. After this introduction, I would like to point one problem that arises in the debates between the ones the rationalists x the non-rationalists (personally I have some disagreements between the use of the terms racionalists x non-rationalists...but that´s another story and for the sake of brevity I will stick with these terms)

    The rationalists have a tendency to aknowledge something scientific in the cases that its peers (or the scientists) as a whole would also aknowledge something as scientific. Even in some cases (and they exist...see for example Rethorics of Science) when the judgement of the peers is not so "correct" it would also hold the status of scientific until proven wrong. The rationalists will aknowledge the possibilities of all of this errors/problems and will reply: That´s the best we´ve got so far and we will struggle to correct any issue that comes up.

    The non-rationalists will tend to discredit science engaging in some sort of "epistemological scape". They will say that if we have some possibility of error (all sciences but Math and Logic) or the necessity of some outside parameters (Math) we cannot hold it as true. Therefore, we can have other ideas that are possibly valid but it is not possible to prove or disprove and, of course will not take into account Ockam´s razor. You could argue that even if your proof is not 100% errorsafe, you have very solid grounds and he will counter-argue that his theory-he-cannot-prove-or-refute is Divinely Inspired and, thus, superior.

    In other words,

    R: Shows tests, arguments and solid evidence
    NR: Claims it is not errorsafe so it is not a proven truth.
    NR: Proposes another idea based in some premises that he believes to be truth (like it came from Rabbi X who had the highest level of Ruach Hakodesh)
    R: Replies that NR´s idea cannot be proven or disproven as truth

    (AND, NOW WE HAVE THE BIG ISSUE)
    NR: Replies that R´s theory is also 100% true and he PREFERS to stay with his own "Divine Inspired" idea.
    R: Replies that he PREFERS to stick with the solid evidence and all the data.

    So, in the end, this whole issue is not one of reasoning or logic, is one of ethics. This topic of some ethic guiding the non-rationalist or the rationalist perception and rethoric could be expanded another time.

    The problem is that in most discussions people don´t have a clue of what science is. So, many times two people are using science with different meanings. And, back to the first rule of debate that Aristotle says: Before starting the debate, make sure that you and your oponent agree in the semantics of whatever you are discussing.

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  9. In other words,

    R: Shows tests, arguments and solid evidence
    NR: Claims it is not errorsafe so it is not a proven truth.
    NR: Proposes another idea based in some premises that he believes to be truth (like it came from Rabbi X who had the highest level of Ruach Hakodesh)
    R: Replies that NR´s idea cannot be proven or disproven as truth

    (AND, NOW WE HAVE THE BIG ISSUE)
    NR: Replies that R´s theory is also 100% true and he PREFERS to stay with his own "Divine Inspired" idea.
    R: Replies that he PREFERS to stick with the solid evidence and all the data.

    So, in the end, this whole issue is not one of reasoning or logic, is one of ethics. This topic of some ethic guiding the non-rationalist or the rationalist perception and rethoric could be expanded another time.

    The problem is that in most discussions people don´t have a clue of what science is. So, many times two people are using science with different meanings. And, back to the first rule of debate that Aristotle says: Before starting the debate, make sure that you and your oponent agree in the semantics of whatever you are discussing.

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  10. Meir wrote: "Nevertheless there is a high correlation between people who reject science and people with a certain hashkafa."

    Too general. No one rejects all of science, and everyone rejects, or at least seriously questions, parts of science.

    On another note:

    The article at Joe's link is excellent. It doesn't even matter to me whether he reads the New Yorker or Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb's blog, where that article is also pasted.

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  11. Obviously this is not true with science since science is not a theoretical philosophy but rather an empirical study of physical reality.

    That's what it's supposed to be, but allot of the time it's not. Science is often subjugated to ideology and politics. Just look at the Eugenics movement and the Nazis or at the Nuclear Winter or Global Warming cultists. The list of ways in which science and "scientific" conclusion are used to justify ideological, philosophical or political conclusions goes on and on.

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  12. Halacha is not always interested in the exact scientific detail of how things work. If a Sheretz (bug) appears to spontaneously reproduce - whether that is so in reality or not - as long as it appears to be such an entity, Halacha assigns certain rules to it in Hilchot Shabbat and in Hilchot Ma'achalot assurot (perek 2)
    If one goes through the teshuvot of R. Shlomo Zalman Z"L on electricity - after spending many tshuvot showing that it is difficult to pinpoint the issur of it based on how it really works - he maintains that it is still assur because of meta- halachik reasons. The question whether these types of issurim are De'orayta or derabannan is also a matter for discussion. In the case of the bugs - they would be de'orayta as far as eating them but I am not sure how they would be seen in hilchot shabbat.

    I believe this addresses Ricardo's very thoughtful comments above and also puts a proper perspective on the discussion. Getting into scientific details when it comes to halacha is important to a point but has to be viewed from a halacha/practice perspective rather than one based purely on scientific facts.

    There is one more important aspect and that is Sanhedrin. Rabbis at times based their psak on the scientific knowledge of their time. The last extant beit din which was Rav Ashi and Ravina are the last such beit din that had authority to impose its rule on all klal israel. Until a new one of the same authority arises we are bound to their decision even as change occurs in the scientific thinking. Again there are nuances and this does not mean that just because science has shown things to be different the practical halacha will be changed by a new Beit din - but I am getting into too much detail....

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  13. If a Sheretz (bug) appears to spontaneously reproduce - whether that is so in reality or not - as long as it appears to be such an entity, Halacha assigns certain rules to it

    Says who? That's what some say, but others, quite reasonably, say differently. If Chazal made their rulings contingent on their believing an insect to spontaneously generate, how can you be sure that they would have said the same if they would have known that it does not?

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  14. >If Chazal made their rulings contingent on their believing an insect to spontaneously generate,

    You are assuming that to be the case. Maybe they made it contingent on it seeming to be such? In fact I understand Rambam in Ma'achalot assurot 2:23 which is based on sefer Hamitzvot L"T 179 to say exactly that but unfortunately it would be too technical and lengthy to discuss it here.

    The problem I have with your approach is that you assume that the Rabbis were ignoramuses and based their psak on erroneous science only. You do not take into account that their job is to interpret what we observe from a halachik point of view and not ALWAYS and ONLY - (emphasis on always and only)- of how the exact workings of the subject .

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  15. You are assuming that to be the case. Maybe they made it contingent on it seeming to be such?

    No. You are assuming that it is definitely NOT the case. How can you be sure? Certainly the language of the Gemara seems to say that they made it contingent on spont. gen., and that is certainly how the Rishonim understood it.

    The problem I have with your approach is that you assume that the Rabbis were ignoramuses and based their psak on erroneous science only.

    I don't assume that they were "ignoramuses." I know that they believed in spontaneous generation. And when they say that one can kill lice because they spontaneously generate, I want to see very, very good evidence that this means something different instead, before I accept such a speculation as actually being a likely interpretation.

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  16. Nassan, how do you feel about the gemara Pessachim pereq tet(ט) where they discuss weasels and chametz and the need to search if you see a weasel with some but can assume pigs and weasels will eat aborted fetuses which may make a house tamei?

    It seemed a very odd assumption on their part....even though Rabbah does make a statement that meat disappears quicker than bread.

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  17. Just some typo I made that I want to correct

    (AND, NOW WE HAVE THE BIG ISSUE)
    NR: Replies that R´s theory is also [b] NOT [/b] 100% [b] proven [/b] true and he PREFERS to stay with his own "Divine Inspired" idea.

    R: Replies that he PREFERS to stick with the solid evidence and all the data.

    In my opinion this is the core of the rationalists x non-rationalists debate.

    To say, as I hold that the diferences are ethical and not logical means that the bottomline is that each one have a different set of PREFERENCES and they stick to it. So, any real discussion between the two approaches must attack the issue of why they prefer this or that approach.

    As the rationalists answer tends to revolve around "because it is logic, I can provide data, evidence and so on" they also tend to focus in the logic and the scrutinization of the data.

    It also explains why the non-rationalists recurr so much to eristic arguments (false arguments or strategies that have the impression to be truthful and are presented with the intention that they are believed as such) like [i] metabasis alloi gennos [/i], i.e. to change the gender of one object to another, [i] inductive leap [/i], i.e. A and B agree in some particular case and A assumes that it is also established as a general truth, [i] false proclamation of victory [/i], i.e. to proclaim victory without presenting arguments...there are dozens of this arguments and to study their practical aplications makes possible to identify it in the debates.

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  18. But, why the anti-rationalists use a lot of this [false] arguments? Because they don´t hold the arguments itself and the data and the logic as their highest premisses. So, in the end, it really doesn´t matter on how it is presented. They ARE NOT starting a debate with the possibility that they would concede to the other if logically proven wrong. So, it is not debate at all! That´s why Rav Slifkin was not willing to have a debate with Dr. Betech unless he admitted this point. You don´t get to really argue with this mentality as you don´t exactly argue with a preferency. The only thing you can do is expose their arguments and their ethics.

    We can also see this type of behaviour in the bans and letters against Rav Slifkin. There was almost no real argumentation. They want to force some idea and the arguments are way secondary. To battle this you must not only reply the pseudo-arguments but to fully expose their falacies.

    With this being said, there are also some [fake] rationalists who use the same tatics. They also want to impose their beliefs no matter what...

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  19. Ricardo Gancz said:
    They ARE NOT starting a debate with the possibility that they would concede to the other if logically proven wrong. So, it is not debate at all! That?´s why Rav Slifkin was not willing to have a debate with Dr. Betech unless he admitted this point.

    IB:
    How do you know that I did not admit this point?
    Please provide a source.

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  20. [i]How do you know that I did not admit this point?
    Please provide a source. [/i]

    I find this question very, very interesting because it reflects either a HUGE lack of attention or the usage of an eristic argument. Tertium non datur.

    Being whatever it is, I'm addressing the second case that may or may not be applied to you and, frankly, it does not matter. As so many people use these kind of arguments I feel worthwhile discuss them. Again, if you just erred, that's ok...don't take the answer personally. With that being said...
    Whoever read what I wrote above will remember that I said that whenever we face confrontations as this we must first expose the discourse. That's what I will endevour to do.

    [b] The points I raised [/b]
    In my posts I've presented:

    1 - The idea that the rationalists x non-rationalists debate is actually ethically centered and not logically centered. Both of them hold basic premisses that are contradictory.

    2 - Gave some insights on how the non-rationalists tend to affirm their preferences, sometimes, with false arguments that have the impression of logical arguments. (or quasi-logical, depending the taxonomy you accept).

    3 - Stated that a real debate between these 2 groups must be focus exactly in their ethical diferences (in other words: The "whys" of what's theirs preferibles)

    4 - Added that if both of them are not willing to accept the possibility of prove AND be proven wrong, there is not debate.

    5 - Said that Rav Slifkin was not willing to debate with Dr. Betech unless he accepted this point.

    As this last point is the point in discussion, I will quote it.
    [i]
    They ARE NOT starting a debate with the possibility that they would concede to the other if logically proven wrong. So, it is not debate at all! That´s why Rav Slifkin was not willing to have a debate with Dr. Betech unless he admitted this point. You don´t get to really argue with this mentality as you don´t exactly argue with a preferency. The only thing you can do is expose their arguments and their ethics. [/i]

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  21. Now, let's turn to Dr. Betech and his demands.

    [i]How do you know that I did not admit this point?
    Please provide a source.[/i]

    Clearly, he is implying that I hold (I know!) he did not admitted to this point. And, he is demanding proof of this knowledge.

    First of all: Where did I held this knowledge? In my post I clearly stated that Rav Slifkin WOULDN'T debate if Dr. Betech UNLESS he conceded this point. Nowhere I suggest Dr. Betech's position, if he conceded or not. It was irrelevant.

    So, as anyone (but Dr. Betech) can read my statement was about the willingness of Rav Slifkin to engage or not engage in a debate and NOT about the positions that Dr. Betech holds.

    Anyway, one could inquiry about this willingness of Rav Slifkin.

    So, let's recall what he said some time ago.

    [i]So before debating evolution, Dr. Betech must declare that he is not Torah- prohibited from accepting evidence for evolution - i.e., he must declare that there is nothing theologically critically problematic about evolution, and that the Gedolim who declared otherwise are mistaken.[/i]

    When Rav Slifking asks him to admit that it is not theologically critically problematic about evolution is because if Dr. Betech holds that there is, there's no debate at all. (Or, in the most optimist scenario the debate would be a completely diferent one). As they were willing to debate evolution, they MUST have a common ground: Evolution is possible (and, of course if they all had the same common ground of what is evolution). If anyone holds that it is theologically unaceptable to admit that evolution is possible, simply there's no debate. See, that if Rav Slifkin would hold that it is theologically critically problematic to say that evolution is impossible also would invalidate the possibility of a debate.

    But, I could care less about Dr Betech's admitance or not on the points because they were IRRELEVANT TO MY ARGUMENTS!

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  22. I just find it extremely weird the way Dr. Betech replied me, because I stated that:

    1 - It is worthless to engage on a debate with people that don't want to debate based on logic and that just want to impose his personals idea at any cost.

    2 - Rabbi Slifkin had to ask for Dr. Betech acceptance of the points because he needed to be sure that Dr. Betech was not from this group of people but was himself an honest and worthy debater.

    And now, out of the blue...

    Dr. Betech implies that I have put him in the non-honest debater group as we can see:

    [i]How do you know that I did not admit this point?
    Please provide a source. [/i]

    Why such a rush to paint yourself as a dishonest debater in the minds of others?

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