Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Which Orthodoxies Should One Be Wary Of?

There is a very strange article by Rabbi Avi Shafran in Ami magazine and Cross-Currents, which returns to a theme that he has written about on several previous occasions. It is entitled "Beware of Orthodoxy!" However, the "Orthodoxy" to which he refers is not Orthodox Judaism, but rather orthodox thinking in other disciplines, especially science. Rabbi Shafran criticizes the "idolatry" of "unyielding reverence for currently regnant scientific dogmas" such as evolution. (Strangely, he also mentions the existence of extraterrestrial life - which is in fact far from universally accepted amongst scientists.) He interjects that there is no religious problem with these notions. And he concludes by urging people to remember that "skepticism of accepted notions is the very core of the scientific method."

I have four questions on his article.

First, while there certainly is a problem of too much rigidity in science, why did Rabbi Shafran paint a picture which is so black? Rabbi Shafran does not consider the possibility that the evolution of life from a single cell has been accepted due to the abundance of evidence for it and the absence of evidence against it! Indeed, even Rabbi Shafran himself writes that "it is always worthwhile to remember that scientific orthodoxies have been toppled by new discoveries." Since that is the case, clearly scientists are not all that closed to orthodoxies being toppled!

Second, what is an article about scientific methodology doing in a magazine about Judaism? According to Rabbi Shafran, there are no religious issues involved in these aspects of science. So why is it relevant to Judaism? (I have my own answer to this question, which will hopefully appear in the next post.)

Third: Rabbi Shafran criticizes "-isms" - such as atheism, communism, nationalism - for being objects of unquestioned veneration. Now, I am no atheist or communist, but it seems to me that those who align themselves to those systems do so because they consider them to be true, meaningful, or beneficial. Couldn't the same be said for another "-ism": Judaism? Surely the worth of a system should be judged by its innate value, and not by whether it is an object of unquestioned veneration - otherwise, couldn't Judaism be subject to the same critique?

Fourth, the irony of a spokesman for the Charedi community criticizing those who have "unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas" is enough to make one choke. Is he not aware that this criticism applies a hundredfold to those in the Charedi community? Or does he believe that scientists should not have unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas in science, but religious people should have unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas in religion? And if so, why?

(See too this post.)

55 comments:

  1. From R' Shafran's article:

    "... the endeavor of science progresses by replacing theories with better ones—in turn, subject to future revision. To realize, in other words, that skepticism of accepted notions is the very core of the scientific method."

    What he's missing here IMO is that the skepticism has to be well-founded. It takes more than just minor concerns to topple good theories about how the natural world works. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", as they say.

    I would also comment that the acceptance of evolution and common descent in the scientific community was itself an act of "toppling orthodoxies".

    As for your last comment R' Natan -- encouraging people to challenge scientific "orthodoxies" while holding that they "should have unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas in religion" is a very easy thing to do when you believe that those regnant dogmas, a priori, are unquestionably emes.

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  2. ...a very easy thing to do when you believe that those regnant dogmas, a priori, are unquestionably emes.

    I would just like to clarify that in the charedi world, it's not just the 13 ikkarim, or divrei Chazal, or divrei Rishonim that are not to be questioned; it's also anything said by a great rabbi, including those living today.

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  3. While I agree that your questions are good ones, I still see R. Shafran's article as a HUGE concession. After all, belief in common descent is no longer traif. If the science is good then it's okay to believe in it.

    Comming publicly from an Agudah big shot, this is a very, very, very big deal.

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  4. I find it almost pathetically sad when Rabbi Shafran delves into these topics. It's like watching a train wreck; you really don't want to look, but somehow you're just drawn in.

    Why should skepticism be limited to science? We are taught, falsely, that in Judaism, as opposed to other religions, we are free to question. Of course, if this were really true then R. Shafran would have to apply his critique to our religion as well.

    In the following sentence of R. Shafran's I just changed one word:

    "But it is always worthwhile to remember that religious orthodoxies have been toppled by new discoveries..."

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  5. Natan,

    Had I read Avi Shafran's article without your bringing it to my attention, I wouldn't have paid it any attention. He's not saying anything; just talking for talking's sake. Now that you've brought it to my attention, I reiterate: He's not saying anything; just talking for talking's sake.

    I'm not being derogatory, because obviously he's saying something, but it's not something that one picks an argument with. It's just banal.

    That he says: “And it is undeniable that science, in its pure, objective form, is a revelation of Divine wisdom, a most valuable means for understanding, appreciating, and exploiting nature.” means that his mind is not closed to science and the scientific community.

    His emphasis, or, if you prefer, criticism, that I hear, can equally be heard as common complaint against our limited abilities of comprehending and understanding, and, particularly, against the limitations we set for ourselves of going beyond who we are. And this doesn't matter who we are or in which endeavors we apply ourselves. There is a 'Daniel Eliezer' I can be and there is a 'Daniel Eliezer' whom I permit myself to be. What is that Rebbe Reb Zussia said when at the end of days they'll ask him, “Why weren't you Zusha?” He collapsed in dread.

    But I wander.

    Avi Shafran wants more out of the scientific community in terms of 'integrity and responsibility', and he wants less dogmatism and rigidity. Who doesn't?...unless your paycheck depends on stretching out the government grant or pleasing the powers that be. If Avi applies his values and thinking to all areas of life, it can only be a blessing. If he doesn't, so he's another Jew and human being with all his strengths and weaknesses.

    Having said all this, my sole comment to and about Avi Safran is that he should be more rigorous and disciplined in his thinking and speaking. Breezy...and he calls himself a rabbi, nach?! Must've learned in a different school of Torah than I did.

    Daniel Eliezer

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  6. Scientists do indeed have prejudices that make them stifle debate. Orthodoxies have been toppled but that's not a contradiction showing scientists serenely accepting the overthrow of all ideas.

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  7. Beware of Rabbi Shafran's questioning of "Orthodoxies.". Recall that he was the person who wrote the infamous article challenging "conventional wisdom "by claiming that from a "torah perspective" Chelsey Sullenburg who saved 113 people wasn't so great because he acted on instinct, while Madoff was a great person because he did teshuva sincerely.

    This was too much even for his Rabbis.

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  8. If Orthodoxy copied just one small feature of the scientific method, everything would take a turn for the better. If Orthodoxy created standards, objective exams for yeshivah bocherim, criticism of all new seforim in peer reviewed journals, objective tests for new dayanim, pulpit rabbis and rosh yeshivot the system would become more honest. No longer would children of Rosh Yeshivas automatically be appointed to be the new rosh yeshiva, no longer will we have 5000 guys in the Mir all being one of the the very best bocherim, no longer will pilpulim be accepted simply because the author is "famous."
    If one looks at the productivity of US university professors at the top 100 schools and compare it to the productivity of the 100-500 biggest gedolim, the difference is striking. Most rabbis, rosh yeshivas, dayanim today have published nothing of any value. They were appointed mostly because of nepotism and behind closed doors. Imagine mathematics departments being run in a similar fashion... we'd still be counting with our fingers.

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  9. When reading Rabbi Shafran one must remember the position he writes from.

    He is the equivalent of the second generation conservative Iranian who defends the Islamic Revolution against all criticism despite the Revolution's obvious failings.

    He is a true believer who will use any mixture of apology, fallacious argument, attack, ridicule etc.. to defend his cause, even to the point of paradoxically adopting the mantel of "independent thought."

    He is the modern-day equivalent of the intellectually dishonest Kalam thinkers that Rambam skewered in the *Guide.*

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  10. Agreed partially with Evanston Yid. There is certainly gross hypocrisy in the college system. And no one in America has to think too hard before thinking of a college professor who got his job only because of his skin color, and not because of his merit. and of course, the curriculum is often beyond a joke, and has been so for a long time already.

    Havind said that, there is a lot yeshivas can learn from colleges, most of which evanston just said. Now having said THAT, there is a lot colleges can learn from yeshivas. Not to stifle the students with unnecessary "codes of conduct", "honor boards", etc. The esprit d'corps that comes from all-male camraderie. The promotion of marriage and family. Etc.

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  11. "According to Rabbi Shafran, there are no religious issues involved in these aspects of science. So why is it relevant to Judaism? (I have my own answer to this question, which will hopefully appear in the next post.)"

    I strongly suspect that Shafran, consciously or unconsciously, knows that there are problems. Even if we do take him at his word, no doubt there are other problems he does not discuss, and if he can convince himself that science is often wrong, he makes himself feel better.

    The answer to your third and fourth questions is simple. Haredim actually believe that, in contrast to other -isms, their beliefs are both rational and immutable.

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  12. In your defense of evolution you claim "that the evolution of life from a single cell has been accepted due to the abundance of evidence for it and the absence of evidence against it". This is correct. Scientists, however, use the term "evolution" more broadly. This is evident from the fact that they claim that it stands in opposition to the theory of intelligent design and obviates the need to posit the existence of a higher intelligence. To make this claim, it is necessary to assert not only that complex organisms evolved from simpler ones, but also that this occurred by purely by natural selection without any positive force moving them in the direction of higher organization. This theory has many difficulties the most serious being the apparent existence of irreducibly complex structures.

    A more serious objection is this: We all agree that there was a time when there was no life of any kind on this planet. To get from non-life to life scientists posit the notion of formation in the "primordial pools". This is no more than a wild conjecture with no scientific basis at all. Without this conjecture the theory of evolution is not at all opposed to intelligent design as it only answers the relatively easy question of how life moved from simpler to complex structures, and not the hard problem of how life emerged from completely inert objects. Scientists therefore disengenuously package their fairy tale of primordial pools under the heading of evolution. Given their broad definition of evolution, the statement "Evolution is not science" is obviously true.

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  13. In your defense of evolution you claim "that the evolution of life from a single cell has been accepted due to the abundance of evidence for it and the absence of evidence against it". This is correct. Scientists, however, use the term "evolution" more broadly. This is evident from the fact that they claim that it stands in opposition to the theory of intelligent design and obviates the need to posit the existence of a higher intelligence. To make this claim, it is necessary to assert not only that complex organisms evolved from simpler ones, but also that this occurred by purely by natural selection without any positive force moving them in the direction of higher organization. This theory has many difficulties the most serious being the apparent existence of irreducibly complex structures.

    A more serious objection is this: We all agree that there was a time when there was no life of any kind on this planet. To get from non-life to life scientists posit the notion of formation in the "primordial pools". This is no more than a wild conjecture with no scientific basis at all. Without this conjecture the theory of evolution is not at all opposed to intelligent design as it only answers the relatively easy question of how life moved from simpler to complex structures, and not the hard problem of how life emerged from completely inert objects. Scientists therefore disingenuously package their fairy tale of primordial pools under the heading of evolution. Given their broad definition of evolution, the statement "Evolution is not science" is obviously true.

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  14. Scientists, however, use the term "evolution" more broadly.

    That is true - however they freely admit that the other meanings are less well established. Furthermore, Rabbi Shafran specified that he was talking about “the evolution of all species from a single ancestor” i.e. not the other aspects you mentioned.

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  15. How ironic indeed. Your fourth point is so true.

    Everyone has biases and truth is hard to find, no matter who you are. All said and done, scientists are probably more objective than Charedim (especially when it comes to science). Charedim and many other Jews are prevented from being objective by "v'lo taturu". I think this is a sad state of affairs we find ourselves in - large portions of the orthodox community being afraid of the truth, myself included.

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  16. R' Shafran has not written anything new here. Instead, he's provided a warmed over rehash of the notion that science is unreliable since scientists occasionally change their theories.

    Here's what R' Chaim Zimmerman wrote on this:
    "[I]f all the possible facts of nature were available, a scientific theory could be constructed that would be absolutely true. In the presence of only a fraction of the facts, any scientific theory must remain a matter of probability. It will have the confidence level of less than one-hundred percent.
    However, this should in no way be seen as support for those who keep declaiming that "science is unreliable, that what is [presumed] fact today is fiction tomorrow..." Most science is exact, and scientific facts are unchangeable realities. And those who doubt it should exhibit their sincerity by placing themselves at the test site when the next nuclear device is detonated." (Torah and Reason, page 4)

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  17. "First, while there certainly is a problem of too much rigidity in science, why did Rabbi Shafran paint a picture which is so black?"

    There is a legitimate fear that, due to their prestige and dealing with matters that laypeople often have little understanding/background in, the conclusions of scientists will be accepted unquestioningly, even on matters that touch upon fundamentals of religious belief.

    If a very smart, celebrated scientist Y claims that incomprehensible theory X is true, and furthermore that it effectively proves that there is no God, well-meaning, educated people who ascribe value to the opinions of scientific "experts," may be inclined to accept their conclusions at face value, since they are in no position to scrutinize the details of theory X themselves to falsify it.

    Even if he won't throw away the prayer book, his faith may suffer. Because if big name scientist Y believes, based on "science" (which for many is synonymous with "reason") that there is no God, then his faith must be, by definition, devoid of reason, or irrational.

    A person who values rational thinking can only live with this contradiction for so long, if they accept the premise that "science (i.e. reason) has disproven God."

    Of course the tragedy with all of this, is that this conclusion, grounded in "reason" by our hypothetical layperson, is based on the fallacy of appealing to an authority (something which chareidim do all the time, I know). But what are the reasonable alternatives, if you can't scrutinize theory X yourself, and reveal its flaws? It seems the only other alternative is willful dismissal of the authority of the scientist, not based on understanding of the science, but based on a kind of methodological skepticism, which is what Shafran appears to be advocating. This type of skepticism needn't be irrational ("Cartesian skepticism" is a flavor of this), but most people who can't analyze the issue themselves, will tend to default to their own perspectives, chareidi or otherwise, and may come off as simply ignorant and foolish.

    With regards to evolution, many prominent biologists conflate evidence for evolution, with evidence for atheism. As Richard Dawkins stated: evolution made it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist." How belief in evolution automatically translates into a logically unassailable conclusion that there is no God is often glossed over, but laypeople may assume that since these scientists are so smart, they must be right about the non-existence of a deity too, since apparently science has proven it!

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  18. "This theory has many difficulties the most serious being the apparent existence of irreducibly complex structures."

    I used to hang my hat on this too. Problem is "irreducible complexity" is just another "God of the gaps" example. As time marches on science is finding answers to these riddles. The evolution of the eye, for example, is no longer considered irreducible. There are very sound theories for the eye's development and various creatures exist with eyes at those various stages of development.

    Intelligent design depends solely on "ignorance". As science gains greater understanding of things that were previously unknown, ID must, by definition, retreat. The last thing we want to do is hitch our belief in God to ID or ID-like thinking.

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  19. Nor do I think that this concern is mere chareidi paranoia. By all sources I've looked at, a clear majority of the members of the National Academy of the Sciences in America are atheists. Biologists were the most likely to be atheistic. Source: E.J. Larson and L. Witham, “Leading scientists still reject God”, Nature 394(6691):313, 23 July 1998.

    ***Third: Rabbi Shafran criticizes "-isms" - such as atheism, communism, nationalism - for being objects of unquestioned veneration. Now, I am no atheist or communist, but it seems to me that those who align themselves to those systems do so because they consider them to be true, meaningful, or beneficial.***

    I understand (and agree with) your skepticism of the chareidi elite, but I think you would do well to direct some of that skepticism towards the academic elite as well. If the above belief in the non-existence of a Deity is assumed a priori, by most prominent scientists, without being grounded in any sort of proof, we are dealing with a body of individuals who operate under the influence of ideology. With regards to the teaching of evolution that means that for them, evolution by definition, is completely undirected, and hence purposeless. The only conclusion one can draw with regards to the emergence of mankind, if one assumes this view, is that it arose completely out of blind chance, and that there is nothing inherently purposeful to the existence of humanity.

    This is a heavy thing for my children to be indoctrinated with, but this is essentially the scientific party line with regards to a theory that is often touted as one of the most (if not the most) important theory to arise in science in the past two hundred years.

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  20. > Or does he believe that scientists should not have unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas in science, but religious people should have unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas in religion?

    Yes.

    > And if so, why?

    Because he’s the spokesman for a religious organization.

    More seriously, as others have said, it’s likely that he really believes that he has The Truth. Science, as we all know, is the product of an evil cabal bent on undermining religion, and so all science should be viewed skeptically. Judaism, on the other hand, was handed down by Hashem on Har Sinai and has come down to us through the generations in a perfect mesorah.

    shmully said...
    > Scientists therefore disengenuously package their fairy tale of primordial pools under the heading of evolution.

    No, that’s abiogenesis, something that, as you pointed out, is different from evolution.

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  21. This is all an attempt to strengthen people's emunah by defining science as something unreliable and undermining the credibility of the scientific community.

    It makes people feel good and justified about what they have been programmed to believe.

    I grew very tired of these kind of articles that not only offer nothing new but are trying to make people feel fuzzy about their Truth at the expense of the truth.

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  22. The idea that Science is unreliable because it changes while Religion is reliable because it ostensibly does not is one of the greatest divides between the two. And it is one of those which makes me believe that revealed religion - any revealed religion - is fundamentally incompatible with science or even honest free inquiry.

    A decent scientist does not believe in infallibility. The answers he or she gets are always steps towards a better understanding. Nothing in the world of investigation survives forever. Everything is subsumed, tweaked, overturned, generalized or otherwise altered.

    This is a strength, not a weakness. It means that even though people may hold to theories after they should be abandoned eventually the weight of evidence sways people. It took quite a while for circulation of the blood, continental drift, Newtonian mechanics and the Germ theory of disease to be accepted. Eventually they were.

    One of Science's great advantages is that the evidence is external, observable, reproducible - depending on the field; we can't create supernovae or ancient civilizations in the lab on demand - and independent of the person making the discovery. The half-life of polonium and the essential amino acids are the same for everyone.

    Revealed religion does not have this advantage. It rests on revelations which must be accepted axiomatically. The proofs are either through argument or intensely personal, unverifiable, unfalsifiable personal experience. At a deeper level true doctrine and false are determined by authority.

    Catholics have their papal authority. Mormons have their council of apostles. Jews have Torah and various levels of rabbinical authority from chazal to the Skverer Rebbe. Hindus have the Vedas. Muslims have Quran, sunnah, hadith and schools of jurisprudence. It all comes down to what one must assume as a matter of faith and what cannot be questioned as a matter of authority.

    In all these cases the original revelation is perfect althought it may be interpreted imperfectly. One cannot improve through revolutionary paradigm shifts or incremental "Lay one brick in the bright Temple of Knowledge". (Love that line by the late Dr. Gould)

    That's why the sneering comment "So, do you think you're wiser than Chazal?" has some punch for the Orthodox Jew. Tradition has it that they were wiser and had means of knowing the truth which we do not. To someone with a scientific bent of mind the response would be "Maybe. Maybe not. Let's see if what he says is true."

    Or we can go with Tim Minchin. The pious may want to avert their eyes. He is a kofer's kofer. Bawdy. Irreverent. A 200 proof, raw gum, brass-plated atheist.

    Storm to her credit despite my derision
    Keeps firing off clichés with startling precision
    Like a sniper using b*****ks for ammunition

    “You’re so sure of your position
    But you’re just closed-minded
    I think you’ll find
    Your faith in Science and Tests
    Is just as blind
    As the faith of any fundamentalist”

    “Hm that’s a good point, let me think for a bit
    Oh wait, my mistake, it’s absolute b******t.
    Science adjusts it’s beliefs based on what’s observed
    Faith is the denial of observation so that Belief can be preserved.

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  23. I find it interesting that the examples Shafran cites are all "controversial". He would never ask us to approach modern medicine with the same level of skepticism and knows deep in his heart that bloodletting will never again be considered good science.

    (I have always believed that the Rationalists would be best off focusing on Medicine in the Gemara as even the most chareidi will choose modern medicine over the "science" of the Talmud)

    What I cant understand is why he chose to use scare quotes around man-made global warming. Does climate change pose such a threat to the chareidi worldview? It seems as if Chareidim are quickly morphing into radical Republicans.

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  24. Todd, 2 + 2 = 4 lasted forever and always will.

    And religion does change. I guess you are unfamiliar with the the concept of chiddush?

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  25. "Blogger Menachem Lipkin said...

    "This theory has many difficulties the most serious being the apparent existence of irreducibly complex structures."

    I used to hang my hat on this too. Problem is "irreducible complexity" is just another "God of the gaps" example. As time marches on science is finding answers to these riddles. The evolution of the eye, for example, is no longer considered irreducible. There are very sound theories for the eye's development and various creatures exist with eyes at those various stages of development."

    But all eyes are made of parts.

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  26. Menachem writes: "There are very sound theories for the eye's development and various creatures exist with eyes at those various stages of development."

    Are you just repeating what you heard, or did you really study those theories? I've seen some video explanations of such eye development and I thought they were awfully weak. Almost comical, actually.

    Todd writes: "Everything is subsumed, tweaked, overturned, generalized or otherwise altered."

    Wishful thinking. Lewontin said it best: "Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

    MO: your comparison of R' Shafran to defenders of the Islamic revolution was pretty ugly.

    YA writes: "Scientists do indeed have prejudices that make them stifle debate. Orthodoxies have been toppled but that's not a contradiction showing scientists serenely accepting the overthrow of all ideas." -- My first intention in posting today was to comment on this exact weakness in R' Slifkin's otherwise fine post.

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  27. I have a hard time understanding why any thinking person would waste his or her time reading anything R' Shafran has to say, or worse, to waste one's energy responding to his comments. His remarks about the heroism of Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger were the last straw for me. He is sui generis.

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  28. @Ephraim

    I always perk up when R. Chaim Zimmerman is quoted. Further on in the book (p. 49) he states: "by definition there is no contradiction between science and Torah, and furthermore... the more scientific data is created the more we understand the truths of Torah."

    I agree that we should have nothing to fear - on the contrary only a sense of much to gain - from scientific data. I used to think like R. Chaim that the reason not to fear is that Torah also contains the laws of the briya and therefore must ultimately square with science.

    But I have since become wary of such expectations of Torah. Instead, I've found that the best thing is to entirely disconnect Torah from science. Let Torah be Torah and let science be science. Let them co-exist without having to comment on/critique one another.

    How? By framing Torah in a way that makes no claims about existence. Let science concern itself with examining the existence per se, and let Torah do what it does best - i.e. concern itself with how we conduct ourselves, with creating a more kadosh individual and society.

    By doing so, you can have scientific knowledge and Torah knowledge where both are experienced as a joy and neither as a threat or a burden on the mind.

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  29. Todd said...
    > The idea that Science is unreliable because it changes while Religion is reliable because it ostensibly does not…

    Yeah, refusing to admit when you’re wrong is not the same thing as being right. (Religion, that is.)

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  30. R' Aryeh Kaplan said the following about science (see http://jewishworker.blogspot.com/2005/07/r-aryeh-kaplan-on-science-and-torah.html):
    Another approach is that which many Chassidim have. They say, “What do scientists know? Do they know what’s happening? Do they know what’s going on? They’re a bunch of phonies, a bunch of bluffers, a bunch of stupidniks! Do they really have a way of finding out the truth? They find a bone and they think it’s from a monkey.” But, I think to somebody who knows what science is, this is a very unsatisfactory approach. We have some idea of what is involved in paleontology. We have some idea what is involved in geology and in radioactive dating. We have some idea of what is involved in astronomy. We can casually speak about a star being a million light years away, and we do not stop to think, “Well, that’s a bit too much!” So I would say that if someone feels that science is ignorant and false, all well and good. Many people refer not to accept science as a worthy challenge. But I think that for many of us here, such an approach would be totally unsatisfying.

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  31. Student V

    2+2=4 lasted forever and always will

    First, math is not science. Science uses math, but the two are quite different.

    Second remember what I said about generalized, subsumed etc. Crack a Number Theory and an Abstract Algebra (not high school algebra) textbook someday. The enormous mathematical machinery behind something as simple the as the integers and the operations on them is astounding.

    And religion does change. I guess you are unfamiliar with the the concept of chiddush?
    That's why I said "ostensibly" and why I'm confining myself to some core set of essentials. Chiddush or not - and I'm well aware of the concept - there are non-negotiable articles of faith.

    Sorry, bro, you're not going to be able to pat yourself on the back about how you were able to demolish the whole thing with a quick obvious example. The important issues here don't go away

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  32. The post's title should be "Of Which Orthodoxies Should One Be Wary?" Or is that a grammar orthodoxy? ;-)

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  33. James: "What I cant understand is why he chose to use scare quotes around man-made global warming. Does climate change pose such a threat to the chareidi worldview? It seems as if Chareidim are quickly morphing into radical Republicans."

    The thing that is amazing is that it is an explicit midrash (Koheles Rabbah 7:13):

    ראה את מעשה האלהים כי מי יוכל לתקן את אשר עותו, בשעה שברא הקב"ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך

    Sure, this has been noticed by environmentalists (just see), and is a quotable favorite. But so what? Like you said, what the heck, are Chareideim morphing into Republicans? Read the Yated sometime. It's like Fox News is dogma.

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  34. David Meir, you have just re-discovered Stephen Gould's (ztl) Non-Overlapping Magisteria. It is the nicest and most humane attempt to date to get the two world views to play nice and not break each other's toys. As such it is praiseworthy.

    The problem is that those boundaries cannot be fixed. Every time you try a new discovery will change the shape.

    Consider heliocentrism and the amount of repression it took to keep Earth at the center of the universe with the Sun orbiting around it and the seven - ONLY SEVEN - perfect planets orbiting in their cycles and epicycles. All of that had profound religious and philosophical significance. Let Science have navigation and chart the positions and courses of the heavenly bodies because that's its proper, non-overlapping role.

    Except that Science kept butting up against the wall and eventually smashed through it. Then came Galileo's telescope, Jupiter's moons, Kepler and Newton. Four centuries later and the cosmologists are making the universes, plural, weirder than the non-specialist can imagine. Oh and incidentally not excluding a Creator but doing away with the necessity even in principle.

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  35. Pliny wrote:

    "MO: your comparison of R' Shafran to defenders of the Islamic revolution was pretty ugly."

    Agreed. But the reality here is pretty ugly. While there are significant differences between the Haredi Revolution and the Islamic Revolution, there are also disturbing similariites.

    Both are romantic religious movements that preach that returning to strict religious observance will solve every societal problem.

    Both see true religion as determined by blind obedience to supreme religious leaders who are mouthpieces of God

    Both therefore reject any criticism of these leaders and use very means to defend them and their idealized system, thereby minimizing and ignoring problems.

    Both are highly threatened by any supposed "Western Influence" on their religious doctrines or practices and and have a tendency to demonize science in cases where they see science as being at odds with their sacred texts.

    I could go on and on...

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  36. @Todd

    Thanks for introducing me to the "NOMA" concept.

    I actually agree with Dawkins' criticism that "it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values".

    It's true that religions (Judaism included) often make claims about existence - cosmology & history, miracles & metaphysics - and any such claim is in theory amenable to scientific investigation, and vulnerable to disproof.

    However, "claim-making" is only one orientation toward Torah. The other is "meaning-making", which deals completely with subjective experience. It's a choice about how we wish to view things, how we prefer to shape our inner reality and conduct our lives. It makes no "existence claims" per se and as such is NOT amenable to scientific inquiry. (Although it is certainly open to other types of discussion, inquiry, criticism, refinement, etc.)

    I am suggesting that we place Torah in a meaning-frame (conceptual/experiential). In a meaning-frame, the sun DOES go around the Earth - not in "fact" but by virtue of it reflecting our experience, our perspective. And in no way does it negate the "fact" that the Earth orbits the sun.

    Halacha works in this frame - e.g. mi'ikar hadin the only "bugs" one has to be worried about in food are ones visible to the naked eye. A bug can be a "bug" for purposes of existence and a "nothing" for purposes of halacha, practical experience. And there is no stira, because they ARE two "magesteria" - two entirely distinct orientations.

    Some people will balk at the idea, saying that a Torah that is based on meaning and not on fact has no objective authority. But everyone has to decide what problems they can live with. Personally, I prefer to live with a Torah that is observed out of choice (knowing the risks involved therein) over a Torah which requires me to falsify reality (or apologize for it) in order to maintain religious integrity.

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  37. James asked: "What I cant understand is why he chose to use scare quotes around man-made global warming. "

    When I read that sentence, I did not see the quotes as scare quotes. I saw them as breaking up the three examples into easily recognizable units. Someone should ask R' Shafran about this.

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  38. **I used to hang my hat on this too. Problem is "irreducible complexity" is just another "God of the gaps" example.**

    I'm in agreement with this to some degree, but I think some ID claims can be made positively, based on observation, as opposed to merely "appealing to ignorance" (which incidentally, vestigial organ arguments in favor of evolution also suffer from).

    A positive case can be made that since complex, specified information is seen, under repeat observation, to universally emerge from an intelligent agent, the appearance of the genetic code (as well as the molecular machinery to translate that code into functional proteins), from non-living matter, most plausibly resulted from intelligent design.

    Of course the principle of natural selection provides a plausible mechanism for already pre-existing biological systems to develop features that have the mere appearance of design, but we cannot infer from this that such a principle can be realistically applied to non-living matter, in such a way as to overcome the extreme odds against the development of a singled cell organism.

    One can posit that the apparent genius of natural selection is in fact fueled by the organized complexity of a pre-existing organism that could only have come about through an intelligent agent. If there is no DNA to mutate, and no reproductive cycle in existence, hereditary variation, and subsequent natural selection can't even get off the ground.

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  39. elie wrote: "Charedim and many other Jews are prevented from being objective by "v'lo taturu"."

    Not only that, but the whole concept of "yeridat ha-dorot" / "they could say it, but we cannot" / etc. which seems, by definition, to suggest that the ability to be objective (or even open-minded) decreases with each succeeding generation. This attitude is not a good match for a scientific world-view.

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  40. R' Natan phrased his reaction to the R' Shafran's article well. It is surely inconsistent to be skeptical of some accepted scientific conclusions while steadfastly insisting that your "gedolim" have a unique insight into truth - if not, infallibility.

    I note that he considers the common origin of life aspect of evolutionary theory to be "scientism". Actually, the idea of the common descent of all life forms has much supporting evidence. From my perspective, the main evidence is the fact that all life forms from bacteria to man feature amino acid (and, therefore, protein) synthesis based on the same base pair coding scheme (the sequence of adenine-thymine and guanine-cytosine pairings). In some virii, DNA is replaced with RNA (a very similar biopolymer based on ribose vs. deoxyribose in DNA), and thymine is replaced with uracil (thymine minus a methyl group). Moreover, all life forms feature proteins having their constituent amino acids with an L configuration in space, while all saccharides are based on sugar constituents having D configurations (D and L configurations of the same molecule are mirror images). In principle, viable proteins could be made from D amino acids, and saccharides from L sugars, but this is, apparently, never found in nature.

    While there will always be some consensus views in science that will not withstand the test of time, the approach to science that tends to be taught to the would-be practitioner is to be familiar with but wary of accepted paradigms. Thus, some of the basic concepts behind one of the 2 leading theories in 20th century physics - quantum mechanics, is still being debated among the experts. People like R' Shafran appear unwilling to accept the idea that a similar situation holds true for Judaism.

    Actually, people like R' Shafran are the ones who treat Judaism as if it were merely another 'ism' which requires buying into the whole package and leaving critical thought behind. While any belief system requires more than a purely rational justification, one would hope that minimizing such non-rational aspects would appeal to a rational person.

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  41. by definition, to suggest that the ability to be objective (or even open-minded) decreases with each succeeding generation. This attitude is not a good match for a scientific world-view.

    But it is a good match for a world-view which feels increasingly threatened by change and incursions into what it considers the proper order of things.

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  42. David Meir, your stated predilection for making torah into a moral guidance text divorced from events is a radical departure from a traditional understanding. Do you really believe that the stories of the patriarchs, the enslavement and exodus from Egypt, the theophany at Mt. Sinai, and the reality of an individual who received instruction from the deity in a rather direct manner are irrelevant? If you question the reality of events that the torah treats as historical (excluding, for the moment, stories dealing with 'prehistory', i.e. before Abraham), why accept the teachings of the torah if they appear to be inconsistent with accepted values?

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  43. "Actually, the idea of the common descent of all life forms has much supporting evidence."

    Let's not neglect the life forms living thousands of feet below the ocean floors, or the arsenic based creatures of California.

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  44. I wonder why CC closed the comment section on a post that discusses openness to new ideas?

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  45. Ameteur, the arsenic-metabolizing organisms were studied, published and very quickly debunked. As for the deep sea creatures from tube-worms living at hot water vents to echinoderms on the abyssal plain they all fit taxonomically and all show common descent.

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  46. Y. Aharon,

    Do you really believe that the stories... are irrelevant?

    Not in the least. They're an integral part of Am Yisrael's collective consciousness.

    why accept the teachings of the torah if they appear to be inconsistent with accepted values?

    On the whole the Torah is NOT deemed by traditional/religious Jews to be inconsistent or hopelessly irreconcilable with contemporary values. In places where it is, it gives us an opportunity to consider/discuss those values. And where it becomes clear that a given Torah teaching/value/law so disturbs the individual or society that they cannot hold by it in good conscience, we find ways to de-emphasize it and/or get around it.

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  47. "Sure, this has been noticed by environmentalists (just see), and is a quotable favorite. But so what? Like you said, what the heck, are Chareideim morphing into Republicans? Read the Yated sometime. It's like Fox News is dogma."

    Not true. Fox News is actually centrist. It only appears right wing because you view it in contrast to CNN or the legacy news sites, which are reflexively left wing. And the Yated is right wing only and to the extent the Jewish Week is left wing. And of course the overwhelming amount of religious Jews (not just charedim, thank you very much) are Republicans - how could you possibly expect otherwise?

    Irwin

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  48. "Scientists do indeed have prejudices that make them stifle debate."

    True. As a scientist I will try to stifle debate when anyone claims that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV does not cause AIDS.

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  49. "This is evident from the fact that they claim that it stands in opposition to the theory of intelligent design"

    It doesn't really stand in opposition to the theory of intelligent design because the theory of intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It is not falsifiable even in theory, and it makes no testable predictions. Its proponents have gone beyond what is science. Arguing on intelligent design is like arguing on documentary hypothesis with a secular academic. Just as those secular academics have rejected the accepted procedures for biblical analysis, the ID proponents have rejected the accepted procedures for scientific investigation. That is why we scientists are so angry about ID. Would Rabbi Shafran or any of the other rabbis at AI allow a secular academic proponent of the documentary hypothesis to teach in their yeshiva?

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  50. Ephraim quoted Chaim Zimmerman: "Most science is exact, and scientific facts are unchangeable realities. And those who doubt it should exhibit their sincerity by placing themselves at the test site when the next nuclear device is detonated."

    Reminds me of Richard Feynman who was the only observer of the first atomic bomb to NOT wear protective goggles. He was confident in his research and concluded that there was negligible risk to his vision!

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  51. David Meir, I now see that you have modified or conditioned your original, seemingly radical, view of the torah. Now, you emphasize meaning over the narrative portions of the torah rather than, apparently, disregarding it. While that aspect is consistent with the approach to the torah that emphasizes the inner meaning (penimiyut), it still seems to me to be a weak rationale for revering the torah as a divine document. Loyalty to the traditional culture and practices of one's people can be laudable. Yet, disbelief in the truth of their tenets will tend to make adherence to their culture to be a shallow mimicking.

    An alternative approach is to treat the 'prehistory' of the world related in Gen. 1-11 in a non-literal fashion, while maintaining the literal truth of the later, 'historical' narratives. There is much physical evidence against a literal understanding of Gen. 1-11, while there has been no such direct contradiction for the subsequent events. Even there, effort should be made to interpret the later narratives in a way which is most consistent with what we know of the workings of the world and nature.

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  52. I believe the same thing can and should be said about religion, in fact I believe that the same thing is said about religion. The scientific world seems to have a dual approach, one of reverence for the theories and scholars of the past but also a push towards the future. Depending on the age and stage of the scientist it can be either or both. In the charedi world there is a diversity as to which yeshiva a person learns in with regard to their appreciation of chiddushim. I am not talking at the equivilant of the undergraduate level, I am talking at in the stage past that, PhD or similar.

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  53. Y. Aharon

    disbelief in the truth of their tenets will tend to make adherence to their culture to be a shallow mimicking

    I would argue that the "truth of their tenets" that really counts for most people is not to be found in questions of Torah/science or Torah/history but in the CONTENT of Torah itself.

    The real "truth" of Torah is how it plays out day-to-day - in practice and in learning. If Torah learning/observance is found to be personally relevant, meaningful, a source of life/joy/hope/idealism/strength/continuity, then Torah is "emet" (true, faithful, reliable) and Am Yisrael will continue with it. If not, not (regardless of any "proofs" you want to throw at them). I concur that disagreement on this level of truth (not finding the content of Torah to be truthful) will produce a shallow mimicking - at best.

    So despite the fact that scientific/historical corroboration has been deemed the "foundation" of Torah by many, some (such as myself) have discovered that by dissolving the very need for such corroboration, and allowing the content of Torah to serve as its OWN foundation... not only does Torah NOT come crashing down, but it feels like moving out of a house of cards - and into a castle!

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  54. "Charlie Hall said...

    "Scientists do indeed have prejudices that make them stifle debate."

    True. As a scientist I will try to stifle debate when anyone claims that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV does not cause AIDS."

    As a scientist that is precisely what you should not be doing. Second it is not just practical issues which cause silencing.

    Charlie Hall said...

    ""This is evident from the fact that they claim that it stands in opposition to the theory of intelligent design"

    It doesn't really stand in opposition to the theory of intelligent design because the theory of intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It is not falsifiable even in theory, and it makes no testable predictions."

    So you are saying that whether something is irreducibly complex is not testable? That destroys Evolution. Then you need horror of horrors to modify the theory.

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  55. "A decent scientist does not believe in infallibility. The answers he or she gets are always steps towards a better understanding. Nothing in the world of investigation survives forever. Everything is subsumed, tweaked, overturned, generalized or otherwise altered."


    One of my favorite quotes regarding Science is in the book "From the Earth to the Moon" by Andrew Chaikin. In the section of the book describing the Apollo 16 mission where many preconveived notions of the area of exploration were proven wrong. The geologists were expecting volcanic rocks and ended up with breccia samples. One of the geologists is quoted as saying that "science advances most when its predictions are proven wrong".
    Somehow, I don't think you'd ever find a Chareidi Rabbi or layperson making that same prediciton about their version or perception of Torah.

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