Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Limits of Science

This is going to be a bizarre post. I find myself in the unusual position of arguing that science does not conclusively prove something, while my ideological opponents on the Right act as if it does indeed conclusively prove something!

"Spontaneous generation" is the ancient belief that various insects, as well as certain creatures such as mice, arise from inanimate matter rather than from parents. It is sometimes said that science has "disproved" spontaneous generation. But this is an error. Science cannot "disprove" spontaneous generation. It can say that we do not observe it to happen. But it cannot prove that it never happens.

It is therefore odd, and hypocritical, that Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in his book Torah, Chazal and Science, argues that spontaneous generation has been disproved, and therefore insists that Chazal never referred to such a phenomenon, and that all the Rishonim and Acharonim misinterpreted Chazal (see pp. 319-320). True, on pp. 598-9, when discussing spontaneous generation in the context of challenging evolution, Rabbi Meiselman admits in a footnote that "proving a negative is virtually impossible." But this only highlights even more strongly the inconsistency of his approach. When justifying his novel approach to Chazal regarding lice, on p. 305, Rabbi Meiselman claims that this is justified due to the presence of "observable facts," rather than mere "theories." But there are no "observable facts" that lice in the era of Chazal did not spontaneously generate!

Why are many of us absolutely confident that animals never spontaneously generated, even in Chazal's time? It is based on a combination of three factors:

1) We never observe spontaneous generation to take place;
2) There is no mechanism to explain such a phenomenon, i.e. it goes against everything that we know about biology;
3) The testimony in favor of spontaneous generation lacks credibility.

While I have all these factors present to enable me to reject spontaneous generation (but not to deny that Chazal believed in it), these factors do not all exist for Rabbi Meiselman. Rabbi Meiselman can agree with the first factor, that we never observe spontaneous generation to take place. But to reject it on the grounds that it goes against biological theory would run counter to his entire approach. After all, he freely discounts science regarding everything that it says about the universe before 5773 years ago. He is of the view that scientists have no idea what they are talking about when they speak of stars being millions of light-years away. He is of the view that nishtaneh hateva can be freely applied, and thus the Gemara is completely accurate in saying that the wolf, lion, bear and monkey have a gestation period of three years, even though biologists would dismiss such a notion out of hand. Most significantly, he also appears to accept that salamanders are generated from fire, about which I shall write more on another occasion. When he so freely says that scientists have no idea what they are talking about, even with regard to the impossibility of salamanders coming from fire, on what grounds does he suddenly accept their approach in this area?

With regard to the third factor, that the testimony in favor of spontaneous generation lacks credibility, Rabbi Meiselman would also have to disagree. After all, in the prologue to his book, Rabbi Meiselman writes about how the Rishonim were on a much higher level of understanding than us, that they were "incalculably wiser and more attuned to the sources," etc. If they said that Chazal were referring to spontaneous generation, and they further claimed that spontaneous generation occurs, then surely, following Rabbi Meiselman's declarations, that is of tremendous authority.

Indeed, Rav Yehudah Briel, when asked by Rav Yitzchok Lampronti about the position of scientists that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation, simply rejects science out of hand. It should be noted that Rabbi Meiselman himself cites Rav Briel earlier in his book, when he wants to speak in broad terms about the proper methodological approach to these issues. So why does he ignore Rav Briel when it comes to the chapter discussing the topic that Rav Briel was actually speaking about? Let us paraphrase Rabbi Meiselman's disciple Dovid Korneich in a statement originally made about the antiquity of the universe: "The scientific evidence that spontaneous generation does not occur in lice is only "strong" when you accept the assumptions of science regarding lice reproduction. From the perspective of our Jewish tradition, those assumptions are simply nullified by what is written in the Gemara and Rishonim and are left without basis."

On the basis of his own methodology, Rabbi Meiselman does not have license to discard the plain meaning of Chazal's words and the universal mesorah from the Rishonim and Acharonim. When making strong statements about his methodology, Rabbi Meiselman is emphatic: "With respect to all teachings that are part of our Mesorah we do not engage in reinterpretation to accommodate new theories, but only observable facts" (p. 263). And further: "It seems clear that even strong scientific argumentation - whether based upon theoretical considerations, or observation and experimentation - would not be sufficient" (p. 264).

But, contrary to Rabbi Meiselman's claim that there are "observable facts" in the case of spontaneous generation, there are no observable facts that lice did not spontaneously generate in Chazal's day. There are only theoretical considerations, to which Rabbi Meiselman assigns little credibility. Conversely, there are the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim, to which Rabbi Meiselman attaches great authority. He should therefore be consistent and follow the approach of the charedi world, which is to say that Chazal were referring to a type of louse that did indeed spontaneously generate, but which is now extinct (or nishtaneh hateva). Rabbi Meiselman is not only going against the universal mesorah and taking an approach which Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel has declared to be heretical. He is also being hypocritical.

106 comments:

  1. You forget that it can be proven - if there is a positive test resulting from the hypothesis. Funny how Mr. rationalist forgets the scientific method

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  2. Strictly speaking, nothing can ever be proven definitively to the extent that some ridiuclous explanation cannot be givento justify an a priori (often religious) belief. Practically speaking,spontanous generation is as disproven as just about anything. Basically, there's not much difference between spontaneous generation and anything else. That being said, your argument isn't wrong, it's just that it pretty much applies to anything at all.

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  3. מטהר את השרץ and Ari, you gentlemen are missing the point. R'Skifkin said that "...there are no "observable facts" that lice in the era of Chazal did not spontaneously generate." Of course, if we could do "time travel" and go back to witness, with all the scientific tools of empirical observation, that all mice the Chazal had observed came to this world in the usual manner... e.g. after a good dinner and a magnum of Champagne...then and only then can we declare with certainty that the Chazal never witnessed a spontaneous generation. Based on current observations, biological knowledge and realted theories we can of course assign a likelihood of 9.9999...ad infinitum...probability that lice never spontaneously generate, not now and not in the time of the Chazal, but we cannot declare with scientific certainty that they did not do so at the time of Chazal because we know this through observation.

    As for absolute certainties, well yes, if we dig too deep into the nature of hat constitutes empirical evidence or go far enough with the philosophies of what-ifs, we can never be certain of anything...including the existence of the universe or even our own personhood. Currently, there are entertaining hypotheses piggy-back riding on the splash quantum mechanics has been making and Matrix-inspired ideas of a holographic universe, which postulate that since everything that exists is ultimately based on perceptions, there is no need for a material existence and that everything may be a stream of binary data which creates the illusionary perception of such. Great mind-boggling stuff to amaze or frighten one's friends late at night around the camp fire, but of little use otherwise.

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  4. Several things strike me when reading these posts and subsequent comments:
    1. Where are the voices of the learned "MO" Rabbanim, Ramim, and Roshei Yeshiva whose predecessors Temujin is wont to quote? Where is the voice of YU, Gush, KBY, Shaalvim, etc.?
    2. I think much of this mess would be cleared up if HaRav Meiselman would dirty his hands with the "dam nida" of the internet rather than working through proxy. Although his devoted students are undoubtedly quite faithful to his views, some things get lost in translation.
    3. I'm starting to wish there were "two mouths" on these comment threads to differentiate those with substance from those which artfully partake in ridicule and scorn.
    4. Where is the discussion of Rabbi Meiselmans sources? An entire chapter on one Ramban, lengthy discussion of the Rashba, an ostensibly academic analysis of the legitimacy of a linchpin in your (and R' Herzog's) views. I understand they are forthcoming but any discussion without a response to those points is lacking.
    5. Those who haven't read the book should really take a backseat in the discussion. For all the cries about intellectual honesty...
    6. R' Slifkin, I wish you would cut down on the rhetoric. Your readers are far too intelligent to be swayed with one-sided arguments and incendiary adjectives.

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  5. "The scientific evidence that spontaneous generation does not occur in lice is only "strong" when you accept the assumptions of science regarding lice reproduction. From the perspective of our Jewish tradition, those assumptions are simply nullified by what is written in the Gemara and Rishonim and are left without basis."

    Stirctly speaking this statement is valid. Science does have some axioms upon which all it's claims rest. The principle axiom is

    that the obervable world, i.e. that which we can detect with either our senses or are tools of measurments, is a true reflection of reality.

    It then goes with out saying that if we deny the reliability of our senses (or our tools of measurements) than the universe can truely be 5773 years old.

    Although, I must admit Richard Dawkins raises a good question here, why would G-d have greated light for stars that appear to have traveled several million years (or longer) to reach earth?

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  6. Some of us (at least me) who don't have the book and have little interest in obtaining it would still appreciate reading about how R' Meiselman deals with such issues as the permissibility to kill body lice on shabbat or how R' Yochanan in Eruvin 76a and the gemara in Succah 8b did not make serious mathematical errors on halachic matters.

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    1. My point was not that reading the book is a prerequisite to reading or asking. But the rampant speculation about what might have been said dilutes the bikush ha'emes on which we all claim to journey.

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  7. Couldn't one argue that we know that spontaneous generation does indeed occur, because how else did life first begin on earth?

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  8. I have not combed the entire literature and blogosphere, so I'm not sure if this source has been referenced. I think it informs the discussion quite substantially.
    The Chazon Ish in Yoreh Deah 5/3 says that the Rambam holds that although medical experts of (even) his time were indeed correct in labeling which treifos do/do not lead to swift death (leading to conflict with halacha), the halacha was given to a generation without that knowledge. Thus the expectation was for the Sages Z"l to follow the science of the time and once halacha has been decided, the discoveries won't change the halacha. The new scientific claims are, however, accurate descriptions of reality, not faulty information limited by the weakness of mere human observation and deduction.
    Please check to see if you interpret his explanation as I did - the Chazon Ish is notoriously cryptic.
    Now, he does say this as an interpretation of the Rambam, and this does not mitigate the view of the Rashba as discussed in HaRav Meiselman's book. But if the Chazon Ish felt this was not only unheretical but even compelling, the Charedi and Yeshivish establishments should probably think twice about denigrating an idea accepted by someone they generally regard, along with the Brisker Rav, as their guiding light.

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  9. @Warrior: Several things strike me when reading these posts and subsequent comments...

    And only one thing strikes Temujin when reading Warrior's post: R'Slifkin is obviously bang-on with his critique. There is clearly nothing of substance or relevance that Warrior, the author of Torah, Chazal and Science, nor his acolytes can think of in reply to the detailed demolition work that's been going on here for nearly a month. So, it's back to the usual silliness of protecting dignities, appealing to authorities past and present, to irrelevant suggestions, to new hoops to jump through and of course, to the inevitable insults.

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    1. I have a few responses to your rhetorically masterful prose:
      1. There is no doubt that Rav Slifkin and the various educated followers have indeed raised some critical and important contradictions and questions on the book. I'm not entirely sure what you saw in my previous post that implies I am not absolutely thrilled with the fine-tooth examination of this book.
      Protecting dignities, especially in the soulless world of anonymous keyboards, is very important. Of course, its fun to lose sight of the difference between a denigrating a person and demolishing his opinions. Chata'im v'lo chot'im!
      If appealing to authorities doesn't appeal to you, I doubt this whole Judaism enterprise is going to be too satisfying. This whole debate is about what the authorities mean and what they would say nowadays. Otherwise, the books and articles could forego the sources.
      Inevitable insults? We may not agree with Rav Soloveitchik's rigid definition of baalei mesora, but I think we can all lay claim to being baalei bechira.

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  10. R. Slifkin, please can you address the following claim by Kornreich:

    We see lice reproducing today by laying eggs. This alone provides ample justification for believing lice always laid eggs and didn't spontaneously generate.

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  11. 1. This is countered by the plain meaning of the Gemara, explicitly expounded by ALL the Rishonim and Acharonim, that lice spontaneously generate. By Rabbi Meiselman's claims about the Rishonim, this should greatly outweigh an extrapolation into the past based on an unproven assumption that animals always reproduced in the same way as they do today.

    2. We see today that the wolf, lion, bear and monkey have a gestation period of much less than three years. Nevertheless, Rabbi Meiselman insists that nishtaneh hateva.

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  12. It might be odd, inconsistent, fallacious, and suspiciously convenient that R. Meiselman uses contradictory approaches - but I'm not sure how it evinces hypocrisy.

    In any case, this piecemeal approach to the book has, in my opinion, become ungainly and tedious. I would suggest writing one summary critique and one lengthy critique and shoin.

    Finally, I'm sure others have pointed this out, but from the perspective of the history of science your use of "rationalist" is pum fakert its usual meaning contra empiricist.

    All the best.

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  13. R. Slifkin, please can you address the following claim by Kornreich:

    We see lice reproducing today by laying eggs. This alone provides ample justification for believing lice always laid eggs and didn't spontaneously generate.


    Not hard to counter. The principle of "Nishtaneh Hateva" means "nature has changed since the time of the gemara such that our observations (limited as they are to zman hazeh) are not a relevant metric for determining what nature looked like at the time chazal made their statements."

    Once you deploy that principal to answer any contradiction between observation and Divrei Chazal, you can no longer use observation to claim the Rishonim were "wrong" to interpret Chazal literally about lice based on the evidence of observation; after all, if "Nishtaneh Hateva" applies to, say, snake gestation, why does it not also apply to lice generation?

    It's an inherent contradiction.

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  14. My guess is that the term "nishtaneh haTevah", when employed by rishonim such as Tosfos, was meant as a diplomatic phrase to mean that the gemara is wrong about the facts. After all, why would the rishonim suppose that the natural world changed radically in the short time from the passing of the Amoraim?

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  15. Yossi said... "Although, I must admit Richard Dawkins raises a good question here, why would G-d have greated light for stars that appear to have traveled several million years (or longer) to reach earth?"

    The vastness of the universe gives us insight into the greatness of Hashem. We can't see distant stars born now or 5773 years ago, so if Hashem wants to avail us of that insight, he must, as it were, create stars with their light already reaching towards us.

    Otherwise we would be limited to perceiving a universe only 5773 light years in size.

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  16. Nay, Warrior, the master of the "rhetorically masterful prose" is you, for deftly using a fairly standard academic critique of a book and a rather polite blog discussion, as such things go, to issue a meta-critique on attitudes, a Mussar shmuess on respectful debate and, goodness, even your humble critic's suitability for "the whole Judaism enterprise." One marvels.

    All truly interesting and with plenty of morsels for further discussion and thought, Warrior, but to run the proverbial reality check on all of this, let it be remembered that it is R'Meiselman who issued a bombastic challenge before sympathetic, if not fawning, interviewers and publicly laid claim to superior expertise in both science and Torah learning. Explicitly and implicitly he let it be known that he relies on the authority of his current position and superior scientific accomplishments, while rather crudely and childishly denigrating those who would differ with his views.

    So, while there are many issues under discussion here and one is glad you found your own to focus on, for Temujin the most interesting one is about the various strategies employed in limiting and controlling the debate. A pecking order has clearly been violated, for in the course of these reviews it has been suggested that one should not challenge a Rosh Yeshiva, that Rabbi Slifkin is unaware of the "deeper meanings" behind what appears like poor logic and sloppy scholarship; that if a debate is to take place, it should take place behind closed doors, away from the koffers and scoffers; that pointing out failures in logic and scholarship in someone with the stature of R'Meiselman is a denigration of all traditional authority. And now, you chastise us over "rhetoric" and "one-sided arguments and incendiary adjectives." One can only continue to patiently wait for someone to come out and clearly define, explain and defend the rules of the game.

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  17. One could make a weak argument that with spontaneous generation it is harder to claim nishtaneh hateva than with a change in gestation.

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  18. The Chazon Ish in Yoreh Deah 5/3 says that the Rambam holds that although medical experts of (even) his time were indeed correct in labeling which treifos do/do not lead to swift death (leading to conflict with halacha), the halacha was given to a generation without that knowledge. Thus the expectation was for the Sages Z"l to follow the science of the time and once halacha has been decided, the discoveries won't change the halacha. The new scientific claims are, however, accurate descriptions of reality, not faulty information limited by the weakness of mere human observation and deduction.
    Please check to see if you interpret his explanation as I did - the Chazon Ish is notoriously cryptic.
    Now, he does say this as an interpretation of the Rambam, and this does not mitigate the view of the Rashba as discussed in HaRav Meiselman's book. But if the Chazon Ish felt this was not only unheretical but even compelling, the Charedi and Yeshivish establishments should probably think twice about denigrating an idea accepted by someone they generally regard, along with the Brisker Rav, as their guiding light.


    R. Meiselman actually brings that source on page 180 footnote 23 and does give that as one interpretation of the Rambam (although he emphasizes the possibility that the Chazon Ish mentions of Nishtanu Hativim.) I don't yet understand how he fits that into his overall theory.

    The approach would seem to be an examplar, and explain in general, how Chazal can be accepted as authoritative in Halacha, but not science, but R. Meiselman seems to want to go down another path. I haven't read far enough yet to know he reconciles.

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    1. I was likewise directed to that footnote. As you stated, the point still remains, whether or not the book happens to quote it.
      The Chazon Ish claims nishtana hateva on some cases of organ descriptions in Yevamos which could easily be verified by any guy out there. Its hard to believe any other explanation for that Gemara.
      In an 800 page book, it is definitely easy to lose track of one source.

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  19. I began listening to a shiur from YUTorah about "Interpreting Torah Allegorically." It was from R' Avishai David- YU graduate, Bet Shemesh beit knesset, heads the yeshiva located in YU's Jerusalem building. Fairly normal. About ten or fifteen minutes in, he says he's getting to the main part of his shiur, which is based almost entirely on the new book by...R' Meiselman. I decided I'd had enough and turned it off. Sad.

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  20. I thought perhaps you would discuss how Man's relationship to God is not always reducible to visual scientific phenomena . . .

    (I say this as a sympathetic quasi-rationalist!)

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  21. Oy, Temujin, I'm not sure where this has gone. My point was not to dispense ethical guidelines or to protect the honor of a Rosh Yeshiva. The simple truth is that an academic book review is structured, carries little (ideally) personal material, and allows the reader a chance to decide on his own. That is not for mussar's sake, but to allow for even-handed dealing with the differennt sides for an intellectually honest outcome. Unfortunately, on both sides, that has not completely happened. Instead, as R' Kornreich pointed out, readers are merely left with a vague bad taste in their mouths about the book. If the debate is to be letovas hak'lall and anyone expects constructive results, perhaps it could be done in a more systematic and objective way. That's all I'm saying. And I presume you would agree with that.

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  22. Not hard to counter. The principle of "Nishtaneh Hateva" means "nature has changed since the time of the gemara such that our observations (limited as they are to zman hazeh) are not a relevant metric for determining what nature looked like at the time chazal made their statements."


    The problem is that this does not work. For if nature had in some way changed then that change would have visible effects. If spontaneous generation could happen 2000 years ago and not today then there must be some explanation for why that would be the case.

    Furthermore one would be able to figure out some way to test for that change, maybe looking for lice in old tombs, or by testing the DNA of lice. (I think that the lice Genome has been sequenced)

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  23. The vastness of the universe gives us insight into the greatness of Hashem. We can't see distant stars born now or 5773 years ago, so if Hashem wants to avail us of that insight, he must, as it were, create stars with their light already reaching towards us.

    Reject you make my point for me: Once you reject the validity of what you see in front of you, and replace it with MAGICAL THINKING, any statement about the universe is true.

    The obvious question is why would HaShem place such a stumbling block infront of us, by providing evidence of an ancient universe when we are supposed to believe in a young one.

    As Akiva has pointed out “Once you deploy that [Nishtaneh Hateva] principal to answer any contradiction between observation and Divrei Chazal, you can no longer use observation to claim the Rishonim were "wrong"…”

    There is no sensible response to nonsense.

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  24. Mistabra said...
    Couldn't one argue that we know that spontaneous generation does indeed occur, because how else did life first begin on earth?

    Life didn't emerge spontaneously from nothing. It evolved through a mechanical (chemical) like process to the point where self replicating chemical reactions occurred, and the catalyst, and means to construct these catalyst,could be passed from one generation to another. It tool time.

    Besides, life (on earth) evolved precisely once!

    Go on ask me how I know.

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  25. Oy, Temujin, I'm not sure where this has gone.

    Oy, Warrior, one thought that you know that this is where it's always been at since the start: Attempts to stop, derail or blunt Rabbi Slifkin's critiques with a slew of vague accusations and complaints of debating improperly or unfairly.

    And so, Temujin still waits in vain for specifics from you or anyone. He re-read R'Slifkin's post once more and failed to find offending words, personal attacks or even a glaring lack of evenhandedness. What ideal structure are you looking for in a book critique on a blog and how has Rabbi Slifkin departed from it? How is he not being "systematic" or "objective"? From what this man sees, he is deconstructing R'Meisleman's thesis, point by point, quite objectively and very systematically at that; chop-chop-splat. Is this where the problem lies?

    Hearing about Rabbi Kornreich's pleas for cessation of hostilities on "both sides" is truly precious, though. And what does he say? More of the same fluff. That "readers are merely left with a vague bad taste in their mouths about the [Meiselman] book," to quote your report.

    Letovat haklal is a noble aspiration, Warrior; everyone would agree. Perhaps the message needs to be heard by "everyone."

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    1. Didn't you think that perhaps I am airing my wishes here because I had a hava amina of being heeded. I'm not looking for the critique to stop; rather, I'd like an organized response so that someone simple-minded like myself can clearly understand the issues at hand.
      I am not the only asking for the organized discussion on this comment list- I don't see it as unreasonable.

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  26. Zach,

    That's an excellent reason to reject Nishtaneh HaTeva as a viable solution generally.

    But if you are someone who relies on Nishtaneh HaTeva at all (as I understand R' Meiselman and R' Kornreich do), then there is no justification for reinterpreting Chazal based on observation of the current operation of nature.

    In other words, "Nishtaneh HaTeva" is not a part-time explanation, one you can rely on where it suits and ignore when you want to. Relying on it at all inherently forecloses any arguments based on the current operation of nature - which is the response to DB's question.

    In other words: I can certainly say that our observation of lice generation today provides evidence for lice generation b'zman Chazal - because I've never asserted that nature changed between those two time points. R' Kornreich, having made just that assertion, cannot do so (or at least, cannot do so consistent with his prior assertion)

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  27. In other words, "Nishtaneh HaTeva" is not a part-time explanation, one you can rely on where it suits and ignore when you want to. Relying on it at all inherently forecloses any arguments based on the current operation of nature - which is the response to DB's question.

    I think that this is taking it a step too far. There is no law of the universe that says that laws that work here and now work everywhere and for all time. As a simple example, things don't work the same way on the moon as they do on earth in a variety of ways. Another example would be the early universe before atoms had formed.

    The fact that there seems to be certain fundamental laws that are more or less fixed over time and space is not an fundamental assumption, but something that itself has been discovered through experiment. Certainly most of the everyday chemistry that we depend on for our "normal" daily life will only work in special circumstances as we have here on Earth at this time (or possibly other planets in similar settings).

    So if the "laws" that we are talking about relate to, for example, the virulence of certain micro-organisms, then certainly we would say that it is possible that "nature" has changed. Similarly for the size and characteristics of eggs of some animals bred for various purposes.

    R. Slifkin's argument is a good one, but not precisely because admitting of any possible change "inherently forecloses any arguments based on the current operation of nature". Rather, the issue is that we have no more reason to believe that the gestation period of the animals mentioned have changed than that the "law" against spontaneous generation did not apply to lice. And certainly, we have no more reason to disbelieve evidence that the earth is old, than to think the rotting meat once produced maggots spontaneously.

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  28. @Yossi. I understood from your words:

    "It then goes with out saying that if we deny the reliability of our senses (or our tools of measurements) than the universe can truely be 5773 years old.

    "Although, I must admit Richard Dawkins raises a good question here, why would G-d have greated light for stars that appear to have traveled several million years (or longer) to reach earth?"

    -- that Dawkins' objection is valid even if we allow magical thinking. I disagreed with *that*.

    But if you don't allow for magic, then [rather than 'than'] i have no response indeed.

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  29. Am I wrong to believe that the claims of nishtane hateva are made by Rishonim before the advent of genetic sequencing or other scientific developments. Wouldn't any modern scientific Orthodox Jew reject that concept out-of-hand presuming it is based on an unenlightened worldview uninformed with scientific methods and historical awareness? Basically, does Rav Slifkin reject the concept of nishtana hateva. Its not like its in Chazal or anything, so I'm sure HaRav Meiselman would be just as comfortable rejecting it if ample evidence came forth. He just needs it to cover for Chazal as is his religious imperative, so I don't foresee an alteration in the near future.
    HaRav Meiselmans example of early onset of puberty pales in comparison to entire reproductive changes, like spontaneous generation.
    As for treifos, if we could correctly quantify such things as psychosomatic remedies and the placebo effect, I would be more comfortable claiming modern science has a handle on treatments.
    I think this whole argument is based on (at least) one basic methodological difference. Rav Slifkin believes that if any of the Rishonim or Acharonim were aware of the validity of scientific evidence nowadays, they would wholeheartedly agree that Chazal were wrong. Chosamo shel HKBH emes. The strong pronouncements by the Rashba and Rivash were only because they did not have sufficient proof. Rav moshe mentions something like this. HaRav Meiselman implies that prior authorities didn't agree with him because of the brashness of his claim- I think its merely the effect of the modern historicist trend which did not exist for early commentaries.
    I think Harav Meiselman believes these to be dogmatic statements rather than tentative explanations, thus modern science cannot combat them. When it comes down to it, if all scientific evidence went against all of Chazal's statements, HaRav Meiselman would still claim that our observations are off. I think that view is...unempowering and disheartening. To say the least.

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  30. @David Ohsie
    I agree with your implication that HaRav Meiselman is abandoning the approach the Chazon Ish ascribes to the Rambam in other parts of the book. The implication of the first part of the Chazon Ish (before the climate and physical change idea) is that it is possible for areas of Halacha to not correspond to current science. This is because at certain generations treatments were newly revealed, and old ones forgotten. This explanation firmly cements their medical knowledge as having less revealed treatments, just that its irrelevant for halacha. I think HaRav Meiselman would argue with that.

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  31. Rav Slifkin-
    How would you respond to Rabbi Kornreich's claim that Rav Hirsch's views are irrelevant because they were based on the "Torah of the times", namely the unenlightened times pre-revelation of the Rav Avraham ben HaRambam forgery? I presume you are preparing a rebuttal of that piece of scholarship. According to Rabbi Kornreich, I guess they are addressed by proxy with the dismissal of Rav Herzog's view.
    (I'm only posting this here b/c the appropriate post seems to have been dead for 9 days)

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  32. David Ohsie said...As a simple example, things don't work the same way on the moon as they do on earth in a variety of ways. Another example would be the early universe before atoms had formed.
    I stopped reading your words here!
    The laws of physics work in precisely the same way on the moon as they do in my office, and indeed your office. What is different between “earth” and the “moon” is the mass of the two objects. (I am no physicist, so please excuse any error in explanation.) Since the mass of the moon is small relative to earth, gravity relative to earth is also smaller (see http://news.nationalgeographic.com.au/news/2004/07/0714_040714_moonfacts.html) The point, of course is that the laws of physics are, in fact, universally applicable, which is why NASA has been able to navigate satellites to the moon, mars and beyond the solar system, and why we can predict lunar orbits, and visits by Haley’s commet.
    The laws of physics have been universal since about 10^-32 post the big bang

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  33. David Ohsie said...As a simple example, things don't work the same way on the moon as they do on earth in a variety of ways. Another example would be the early universe before atoms had formed.
    I stopped reading your words here!
    The laws of physics work in precisely the same way on the moon as they do in my office, and indeed your office. What is different between “earth” and the “moon” is the mass of the two objects. (I am no physicist, so please excuse any error in explanation.) Since the mass of the moon is small relative to earth, gravity relative to earth is also smaller (see http://news.nationalgeographic.com.au/news/2004/07/0714_040714_moonfacts.html) The point, of course is that the laws of physics are, in fact, universally applicable, which is why NASA has been able to navigate satellites to the moon, mars and beyond the solar system, and why we can predict lunar orbits, and visits by Haley’s commet.
    The laws of physics have been universal since about 10^-32 post the big bang

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  34. But if you don't allow for magic, then [rather than 'than'] i have no response indeed.

    Dear Reject,

    Please allow me to introduce the name of this blog. Rationalist Judaism. Without intending to put words into the blog owner's mouth (and our host), the idea of rationalism is to (at the very least) minimize the necesity to believe in magic.

    While being no expert on RAMBAM, it is my understanding of RAMBAM that that was the central axiom of Moreh NeVuchim - to accept an naturalistic answer rather than a mystical or miraculous explanation for events.

    This site (as I understand it) allows adult to come and understand Judaism as inteligent adults, rather than via childish fairy tales.

    It astounds me why people would visit a site that is upfront about its purpose (Rationalist Judaism) when they reject the premise. If you want to believe in fairy tales visit sutiable sites!

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  35. Warrior, I don't understand. If you do not like Rav Slifkin's review and analysis of this book, don't visit the blog. There is no compulsion to do so. I come here because it is what I want to read.

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  36. Wouldn't any modern scientific Orthodox Jew reject that concept out-of-hand presuming it is based on an unenlightened worldview uninformed with scientific methods and historical awareness? (Warrior)

    Speaking for myself, as both a Shomer Mitzvot/Halacha Jew and a scientist, YES

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  37. Anonymous Warrior said,
    Didn't you think that perhaps I am airing my wishes here because I had a hava amina of being heeded. I'm not looking for the critique to stop; rather, I'd like an organized response so that someone simple-minded like myself can clearly understand the issues at hand.....I am not the only asking for the organized discussion on this comment list- I don't see it as unreasonable.


    Hooo-boy. An "organized discussion," Warrior? Perhaps a disputatio capped with a book burning and an auto-da-fé? With whom? Apparently R'Meiselman won't debate anywhere but at his bet medresh behind closed doors and no one with any caliber from his camp has ventured out here. All we get from the other side is a few trolls and punks trying to flaunt their presumed brilliance to their kollel chums, or that "Slifkin-Challenge" blog fellow, whatshisname, nattering to himself like a man obsessed. And you're hardly simple-minded. One thinks that you're a rather clever chappie indeed.

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    1. The best I could hope for is a likut of the criticisms by page number after this is all said and done. Otherwise, some of us will unfortunately only have that aforementioned bad taste and nothing concrete but our feelings that HaRav Meiselmans views reek of mustiness, antiquity, and the Catholic Church. We will walk away from this forum with nothing real to take with us.

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  38. Dave,
    I think that this is taking it a step too far. There is no law of the universe that says that laws that work here and now work everywhere and for all time. As a simple example, things don't work the same way on the moon as they do on earth in a variety of ways. Another example would be the early universe before atoms had formed.

    The fact that there seems to be certain fundamental laws that are more or less fixed over time and space is not an fundamental assumption, but something that itself has been discovered through experiment. Certainly most of the everyday chemistry that we depend on for our "normal" daily life will only work in special circumstances as we have here on Earth at this time (or possibly other planets in similar settings).


    First of all, LOOONG time no see. How've you been? (If I remember correctly from Yeshiva, you're a Titans fan, right?)

    Second, I think you're confusing "changed conditions" with "changed nature". The laws of nature are constant; their results may vary with conditions (i.e. in the lighter or heavier gravity or different atmosphere of various planets, or at the subatomic level below Planck's constant), but there's no change in the laws of nature themselves.

    The problem with "Nishtaneh HaTeva" isn't that it argues "nature may have worked differently because of changed conditions" - it's that it argues that nature must have worked differently because the current operation of nature contradicts the descriptions of Chazal. That's what makes it a "use once, own it forever" argument; once you've deployed it on no greater basis than "there is a contradiction between our observations and Chazal's descriptions," you have no principled basis not to do so in every instance of such a contradiction - and therefore no rational license to "reinterpret" Chazal to conform to our current observations.

    That's also the problem with R' Kornreich's latest argument from R' Saadia Gaon's response about the absurdity of challenging Nissim with questions from nature: (1) R' Saadia never (to my knowledge) relies on Nishtaneh Hateva; and (2) Nissim are not Teva in the first instance (setting aside the Rambam's distinction between Nissim that operate through nature and those that operate outside of it)

    Akiva (Cohen)

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  39. As a simple example, things don't work the same way on the moon as they do on earth in a variety of ways. Another example would be the early universe before atoms had formed.
    I stopped reading your words here!

    I afraid that I won't respond to someone that stopped reading what I wrote halfway through. I hope that you understand that policy :).

    If you want to pursue this, then please read the whole thing and find something that I wrote that conflicts your claims. The sentences that I wrote are 100% true in conventional scientific terms.

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  40. I think you're confusing "changed conditions" with "changed nature".

    I'm not confusing anything, but we can use that terminology if you like. By your terminology, "Nishtanu Hativim", as used by the Rishonim, means "changed conditions". All of biology is highly dependent on conditions and is many, many levels removed from what turn out to be universally applicable laws (as best we can tell). None of it will work on the moon, as a simple example. Step back two billion years, and biology was a lot different. I'm not arguing here that the Rishonim were right or wrong in their use of this explanation, but you can't just ignore it on principle.

    The problem with "Nishtaneh HaTeva" isn't that it argues "nature may have worked differently because of changed conditions" - it's that it argues that nature must have worked differently because the current operation of nature contradicts the descriptions of Chazal.

    Nothing inherently wrong with that. For example, changing climate patterns are sometimes detected via historical testimony. Do you doubt it is possible that the relation between average fingers size and egg size might have changed over time? Do you doubt that the fauna of Israel is different today from the testimony of Tanach due to population changes impacting habitats? At the current rate of change, the Dead Sea won't be around for a much longer.

    That's what makes it a "use once, own it forever" argument; once you've deployed it on no greater basis than "there is a contradiction between our observations and Chazal's descriptions," you have no principled basis not to do so in every instance of such a contradiction - and therefore no rational license to "reinterpret" Chazal to conform to our current observations.

    This is untrue as a principle. I can use it when it seems to be a good explanation, and not when appears not to be, as you would undoubtedly do if confronted by a fact from history that doesn't match up with today's reality. IIRC, I don't think that Ramban is against using Nishtanu Hativim, but he is reluctant to apply it to the rainbow.

    The bottom line is that you have to do some hard work to figure out what rules, patterns or laws apply where. Somethings what we think of as "laws" really do change. R. Slifkin is right, but you have to do some analysis to show that spontaneous generation is no less likely than a young earth. You can't just say "if you said A can change, the you must maintain that anything can change".

    Greetings and Salutations. I am from Houston and I was in Yeshiva way before they moved to Tennessee. My brother may have been a Titans fan. You might be confusing us :).

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  41. @AJM:

    In any case, this piecemeal approach to the book has, in my opinion, become ungainly and tedious. I would suggest writing one summary critique and one lengthy critique and shoin.

    To each his own, but IMO, the book is not particularly well organized around its theses. Rather it is a set of somewhat disjoint essays on different topics with references forward and backward to other topics when they seem to be necessary to make a point. As such, reviewing it is a challenge.

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  42. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  43. You have to remember that it's not as though R. Meiselman has a methodology as to when nishtaneh hateva is viable and when it isn't. This is because it's the only approach open to him when Chazal make a definite statement that is contradicted by modern science. So, since he has no method by which to say "nishtaneh hatevea is not viable," there's no reason why he shouldn't use it with lice, rather than to say all the Rishonim (that he proclaims to be the greatest experts in understanding Chazal) did not understand Chazal.

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  44. Warrior boo-hooed, "The best I could hope for is a likut of the criticisms by page number after this is all said and done. Otherwise, some of us will unfortunately only have that aforementioned bad taste and nothing concrete but our feelings that HaRav Meiselmans views reek of mustiness, antiquity, and the Catholic Church. We will walk away from this forum with nothing real to take with us."

    Warrior, if poor service and bad smells is what your complaint is, speak to one's good friend David Ohsie (1-800-IMA-PEST). He does Customer Relations and Air Quality when he's in the mood; Temujin specializes in Troll Control (1-800-IMA-TROLL).

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    1. Other than provide my children with free comedy, I'm not sure what your purpose was in responding to a perfectly reasonable request with infantile drivel.

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  45. Warrior said...

    Rav Slifkin-
    How would you respond to Rabbi Kornreich's claim that Rav Hirsch's views are irrelevant because they were based on the "Torah of the times", namely the unenlightened times pre-revelation of the Rav Avraham ben HaRambam forgery? I presume you are preparing a rebuttal of that piece of scholarship. According to Rabbi Kornreich, I guess they are addressed by proxy with the dismissal of Rav Herzog's view.


    Number one, there is no indication that Rav Hirsch based himself on R. Avraham b. HaRambam.

    Two, there is nothing particularly unique about R. Avraham, contrary to what R. Meiselman would have you believe.

    Three, R. Meiselman claims that there is hashgachah over the mesorah, such that poskim cannot make mistakes. Accordingly, there was hashgacha that the treatise of R. Avraham b. HaRambam was accepted as authentic.

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  46. (All this is without even getting into the issue of whether R. Meiselman is correct that the treatise is not authentic - which is, of course, a deeply suspect theory, in light of the fact that according to R. Meiselman's view, it is kefirah.)

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  47. I never did understand that...the Maharik says if we find a Geonic source that we can safely assume would compel another early authority to capitulate, we should go with it and there is no Halacha k'basrai.
    I'm not sure why you dismiss the claim that its based on Rav Avraham. I would certainly hope he had sources for his views!

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  48. Maybe Rav Hirsch based his view on:

    A) Common sense
    B) Pesachim 94b and the Rishonim ad loc.

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  49. David, I must agree with your disputants about the constancy of basic laws in the physical universe. It is an assumption, even if subject to possible emendation based on new evidence. Now, theoreticians like to speculate about many things including possible changes in certain laws of physics over eons of time. However, no such speculations have elicited any evidence to support them. Conditions, of course, change, but not the physical laws behind them. Life on earth is a prime example of change with conditions, but the laws of chemistry and physics that underly life were valid from before the time that life first appeared on earth. One could argue that the laws preceded actual creation in that they can be viewed as a product of the divine 'mind' and will. the evolution of creation from its earliest beginning can then be seen as the unfolding of the divine plan as expressed in laws that we can apprehend.

    Of course, finding evidence of such constancy before available, reliable records is more difficult than waiting for new experimental evidence to support previous assumptions. Still, there is indirect evidence for such constancy.

    The fact that some things such as the onset of puberty in girls or the age when a cow can give birth is, indeed, a function of conditions such as diet (or breeding in the case of cows). That is irrelevant to beliefs in major changes to anatomic structure in men and women or the spontaneous generation of some species. Those can be ruled out by virtue of contrary evidence and a much deeper understanding of nature. To assume that the sages (and Rishonim) must be correct, despite everything is akin to believing the statement that one of R' Natan's critics offered at an Agudah convention speech, "Who are you going to believe, your lying eyes or Chazal?".

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  50. Y. Aharon, please see my comment above about how it's not as though R. Meiselman has a methodology as to when nishtaneh hateva is viable and when it isn't.

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  51. David . . . come to think of it, it might have been Steve Ohsie that I'm remembering . . .

    Anyway, to the point - I think R' Slifkin has said exactly what I've been trying to: that without a methodology beyond "there's a contradiction" for when to apply "Nishtaneh HaTeva", there is no consistent basis to avoid deploying it in every instance of contradiction.

    In other words, you're proposing that it may be consistent if the rule for invoking Nishtaneh HaTeva is "contradiction" plus "some external reason to believe nature in fact did change (or might have changed) in the particular way." The difficulty for R' Meiselman is he invokes Nishtaneh Hateva based solely on "contradiction," full stop.

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  52. Exactly. It's not as though if there is no fulfillment of a certain criterion to believe nature changed, then R. Meiselman will abandon nishtaneh hateva and say that Chazal were wrong. That's not an option for him.

    Or, to put it another way: There's absolutely no independent reason to believe that nature changed with regard to the gestation period of a lion. Yet R. Meiselman would say that it did, simply because Chazal said that the lion has a three-year gestation. Well, Chazal also said - according to those who R. Meiselman considers to be the greatest experts in Chazal - that creatures spontaneously generate.

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  53. If you want to pursue this, then please read the whole thing and find something that I wrote that conflicts your claims. The sentences that I wrote are 100% true in conventional scientific terms.

    Perhaps you are not expressing what you are intending to say, but what you have written is 100% fantasy.

    Certainly most of the everyday chemistry that we depend on for our "normal" daily life will only work in special circumstances as we have here on Earth at this time (or possibly other planets in similar settings).

    No... Chemistry, like physics, is universal. We can modify the environment where chemical reactions are taking place, but that does not mean the fundamentals of chemistry themselves have changed. It is hard to understand how you can assert that this, like your statement about the moon, is 100% scientifically accurate. It's not!

    So if the "laws" that we are talking about relate to, for example, the virulence of certain micro-organisms, then certainly we would say that it is possible that "nature" has changed.

    Nature has changed (in this instance) only to the extent that over time micororganism mutate to be less virulent or we develop immunity to those organisms. But the mechanism of how these organisms live, eat and reproduce is unaltered, even as their behaviours change.

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  54. None of it [universal laws] will work on the moon,...

    Oh David, Oh David, if only you had read my comment to you more fully, then you wouldn't ....

    Y. Aron, if only I had your gift of prose.

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  55. Can somebody please let me in on the RAB HaRambam forgery? I was under the impression that the forgery theory was debunked...

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  56. Yossi, thanks for the compliment. I also fully appreciate both your comments and the way they are expressed. Haven't we exchanged greetings some years ago on another blog?

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  57. oj said...
    Can somebody please let me in on the RAB HaRambam forgery? I was under the impression that the forgery theory was debunked..


    No real evidence of forgery. Just some indication that the supposedly "controversial" parts probably come from a single source translation, and that part is not found in some Arabic fragments in the Cairo Genizah. So hypothetically, we are relying on a single translator of unknown intention and qualifications (or maybe an interpolation by that translator).

    Add to that supposed contradiction (from the books PoV) between the views of the piece and the Rambam himself and you get some form of doubt, according to the book.

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  58. Certainly most of the everyday chemistry that we depend on for our "normal" daily life will only work in special circumstances as we have here on Earth at this time (or possibly other planets in similar settings).

    No... Chemistry, like physics, is universal.

    So you think that the chemistry that we rely on for everyday life will work on the moon. Interesting. How about going up there and pouring yourself a glass of water? I'm certainly no expert in chemistry, but does STP ring a bell?

    We can modify the environment where chemical reactions are taking place, but that does not mean the fundamentals of chemistry themselves have changed.

    No true Scotsman. You have to provide a definition of the "fundamental of Chemistry". And you aren't allowed to use "the parts that don't change over time and space" or else your sentence is a tautology with no content. Then check how much of the chemistry textbook fits that definition.

    So if the "laws" that we are talking about relate to, for example, the virulence of certain micro-organisms, then certainly we would say that it is possible that "nature" has changed.

    Nature has changed (in this instance) only to the extent that over time micororganism mutate to be less virulent or we develop immunity to those organisms.

    Precisely. This is characteristic of many (most?) of the models that we have of reality that we use all the time. We believe almost none of the laws of nature that we actually use to be "universal".

    But the mechanism of how these organisms live, eat and reproduce is unaltered, even as their behaviours change.

    But these qualities of organisms have also changed over time (unless you are an anti-evolutionist, which I gather you are not).

    Let me try to make this simpler. In the a first year physics course, you learn about F = ma. Very fundamental, once thought to be universal, and yet not universal.

    Let me make this even simpler:

    1) There is no fundamental axiom of science that scientific law is universal. The laws are as universal as we find them to be (when we are not making mistakes). Nature is what is it, not what we want it to be.

    2) Many (most? almost all?) of the "laws" that we find in the basic textbooks of physics, chemistry and biology apply only in a range of circumstances.

    3) We believe now that there are some few laws that appear to be most fundamental and unchanging and that we can in principle, (but not in practice) derive the others from them. We have thought that before, and it turned out that we were slightly off and some more basic "more universal" laws were needed, leaving our previously thought "unchanging" laws to be true only in some circumstances (think Newtonian physics). We believe this to the degree that we have evidence for it, based on an assumption that it must be true.

    Since the kinds of observations and reasoning done by 99.99% of humanity (and 100% of humanity over 100 years ago) does not fit into this kind of fundamental law category, they "could" change over time and space. That any given principle doesn't change is something that you have to test for and is not a given.

    So again, R. Slifkin is right (I believe) not because of some fundamental principle of "non-change", but that is because we have evidence that the specific rules around our measurement methods for the age of the Earth are at the same level of strength as the evidence against spontaneous generation in the times and places where Chazal seem to assume that it is true.

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  59. None of it [universal laws] will work on the moon,...

    You can falsify any sentence with a pronoun it in by inserting something for that pronoun that will falsify the sentence.

    Oh David, Oh David, if only you had read my comment to you more fully, then you wouldn't ....

    I'm sure that this remark is funny on some level, but it's flying over my head :).

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  60. Anyway, to the point - I think R' Slifkin has said exactly what I've been trying to: that without a methodology beyond "there's a contradiction" for when to apply "Nishtaneh HaTeva", there is no consistent basis to avoid deploying it in every instance of contradiction.

    In other words, you're proposing that it may be consistent if the rule for invoking Nishtaneh HaTeva is "contradiction" plus "some external reason to believe nature in fact did change (or might have changed) in the particular way." The difficulty for R' Meiselman is he invokes Nishtaneh Hateva based solely on "contradiction," full stop.


    But you have to prove that is true; you can't assume it. To simplify, if you read the testimony of an an ancient historian about the weather in Rome that differed from what it is today, then you might believe him. If he told you about the existence of a given animal in a given location where it doesn't exist today, you might believe him. If you told you about a fire-breathing animal, you wouldn't.

    Does that make you hypocritical or unprincipled? No it means that you have a model of what things could have changed and what things could not have. To prove you wrong, I can't just say "you say here that things changed, and there things did not change". You have to show that it is foolish to do so.

    In this case, the relative probabilities of "Seven Year" serpents and "Young Earth" against Spontaneous Generation have to be weighed. For some reason, it appears that R. Meiselman believes that the latter is a priori improbable while the former two are more probable a priori based on his model of the universe.

    I believe 100% that he is wrong about that, and I believe that scientific evidence demonstrates that he is wrong about that, but that is what you have to show in order mount an argument. Merely saying "of course scientific laws doesn't change" or "if you say this law changes, then all changes are possible" are not good arguments, since neither of them are true.

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  61. Akiva said...
    David . . . come to think of it, it might have been Steve Ohsie that I'm remembering . . .


    As an older brother, such confusion bothers me not one bit. I can't say what younger brothers feel in similar circumstances :).

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  62. The point, of course is that the laws of physics are, in fact, universally applicable, which is why NASA has been able to navigate satellites to the moon, mars and beyond the solar system, and why we can predict lunar orbits, and visits by Haley’s commet.

    This is actually a really good example of how subtle this issue is, and how it has led some people here into error. In fact, I believe, that NASA uses the Newtonian model for navigation. But the Newtonian model is not universal! It just works well enough under the circumstances needed in order to put satellites in orbit or put a man on the moon. The Newtonian model is universal "enough" for our practical purposes, but is actually not universal.

    Ignore all my other comments and ponder this one first, then go back to the others.

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  63. Beating a dead horse (or in the opinions of others, an imaginary horse or maybe a Unicorn.:)

    "Philosophers, incidentally, say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong. For example, some philosopher or other said it is fundamental to the scientific effort that if an experiment is performed in, say, Stockholm, and then the same experiment is done in, say, Quito, the same results must occur. That is quite false. It is not necessary that science do that; it may be a fact of experience, but it is not necessary. For example, if one of the experiments is to look out at the sky and see the aurora borealis in Stockholm, you do not see it in Quito; that is a different phenomenon. “But,” you say, “that is something that has to do with the outside; can you close yourself up in a box in Stockholm and pull down the shade and get any difference?” Surely. If we take a pendulum on a universal joint, and pull it out and let go, then the pendulum will swing almost in a plane, but not quite. Slowly the plane keeps changing in Stockholm, but not in Quito. The blinds are down, too. The fact that this happened does not bring on the destruction of science. What is the fundamental hypothesis of science, the fundamental philosophy? We stated it in the first chapter: the sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment. If it turns out that most experiments work out the same in Quito as they do in Stockholm, then those “most experiments” will be used to formulate some general law, and those experiments which do not come out the same we will say were a result of the environment near Stockholm. We will invent some way to summarize the results of the experiment, and we do not have to be told ahead of time what this way will look like. If we are told that the same experiment will always produce the same result, that is all very well, but if when we try it, it does not, then it does not. We just have to take what we see, and then formulate all the rest of our ideas in terms of our actual experience."

    http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/I_02.html

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  64. David Ohsie said.
    None of it [universal laws] will work on the moon,...

    You can falsify any sentence with a pronoun it in by inserting something for that pronoun that will falsify the sentence.
    November 27, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    “All of biology is highly dependent on conditions and is many, many levels removed from what turn out to be universally applicable laws (as best we can tell). None of it will work on the moon, as a simple example.”
    November 26, 2013 at 7:20 PM
    Just our of curiosity what does it (in the second sentence) refer to if not unversially applicable laws in this sentence. Surely you don’t mean to imply that the rules which govern biology on earth will not apply on the moon. They will. Remove oxygen and atmospheric pressure, organisms will just as surely die and explode on the moon as much as they will on earth.

    The outcome under the same atmospheric conditions will be exactly the same on earth as they are on the moon.

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  65. "Philosophers, incidentally, say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong. ...If we are told that the same experiment will always produce the same result, that is all very well, but if when we try it, it does not, then it does not. We just have to take what we see, and then formulate all the rest of our ideas in terms of our actual experience."

    Dear David,

    I am uncertain what point you are trying to make with this quote. Based on the drivel that you have been writing in this comments section, I strongly suspect that you do not understand correctly the point that is being made. Hopefully my abridgment will help.

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  66. Y. Aharon said...
    David, I must agree with your disputants about the constancy of basic laws in the physical universe. It is an assumption, even if subject to possible emendation based on new evidence.


    1) If it is an assumption subject to emendation, then it is a theory like any other that might be true or untrue. There is no assumption in science other than that (in Feynman's words) "the sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment".

    2) Let's say we believe (as I think that all of us in this discussion do) that there exist certain universal laws to the best of our understanding today. Then those particular laws are universal. But Chazal don't talk about things like, say, the gravitational constant. They, for the most part, talk about laws that are decidedly not "universal". Lice are not universal :). Try taking one to the Moon!

    Now, theoreticians like to speculate about many things including possible changes in certain laws of physics over eons of time. However, no such speculations have elicited any evidence to support them.

    You are thinking of specific fundamental constants that have been investigated such as G and c. But what about this universal: If I am on a train going at speed T and I throw a ball forward going at speed B, then an observer on the ground will measure the speed of the ball as T + B. Seems fundamental and universal and was assumed to be so for hundreds of years. But it turns out that as T and B approach c (the speed of light), the rule fails. So we have to find a new rule. There was a theoretician named Einstein who solved that conundrum. There are many more examples.

    Conditions, of course, change, but not the physical laws behind them. Life on earth is a prime example of change with conditions, but the laws of chemistry and physics that underlie life were valid from before the time that life first appeared on earth.

    I think we can say that the following is true: if you strike a match, it will start a fire. Therefore, keep matches away from children. But if you struck a match on the early earth, before life freed up molecular oxygen and put it into the atmosphere.

    You will answer: "Yes that rule is not universal over the history of the earth, but we can find others that are." Which is precisely my point. You don't simply assume that things were the same at time A and time B; you have to provide evidence for the particular thing or rule that you are talking about. And the types of statements that Chazal make are much closer to "striking a match produces fire" than they are to E = mc^2.

    BTW, "fundamental laws of chemistry" keep coming up in the discussion. I'm not an expert in chemistry or even intermediate, but my understanding is that all the chemistry you'll find in the textbooks is valid under a certain set of conditions, (e.g. Standard Temperature and Pressure). Certainly lots organic chemistry needed for biology is restricted to a certain set of conditions found on the earth, but not lots of other places (e.g. the presence of liquid water). The true "fundamentals" of Chemistry lie in Physics.

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  67. One could argue that the laws preceded actual creation in that they can be viewed as a product of the divine 'mind' and will. the evolution of creation from its earliest beginning can then be seen as the unfolding of the divine plan as expressed in laws that we can apprehend.

    Of course, finding evidence of such constancy before available, reliable records is more difficult than waiting for new experimental evidence to support previous assumptions. Still, there is indirect evidence for such constancy.

    The fact that some things such as the onset of puberty in girls or the age when a cow can give birth is, indeed, a function of conditions such as diet (or breeding in the case of cows). That is irrelevant to beliefs in major changes to anatomic structure in men and women or the spontaneous generation of some species. Those can be ruled out by virtue of contrary evidence and a much deeper understanding of nature.


    Yes, this is the right argument, not "Nishtanu Hativim is never true and if you say it is true, then it must always be true."

    To assume that the sages (and Rishonim) must be correct, despite everything is akin to believing the statement that one of R' Natan's critics offered at an Agudah convention speech, "Who are you going to believe, your lying eyes or Chazal?".

    No argument here.

    This branch of the comment thread started when I took issue with the following statement:

    "In other words, 'Nishtaneh HaTeva' is not a part-time explanation, one you can rely on where it suits and ignore when you want to. Relying on it at all inherently forecloses any arguments based on the current operation of nature - which is the response to DB's question."

    That "all-or-nothing" "nature either changed or didn't change" argument is the one that I'm taking issue with.

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  68. Dear David,

    I am uncertain what point you are trying to make with this quote.


    That the universality of some of our models of the universe is a result based on evidence that applies where we have the evidence. Where it doesn't apply, it doesn't. To repeat, most of the models that we work with every day are decidedly not "universal". Even the Newtonian model used to launch satellites and space ships is not.

    Since I'm in the comment section already, I'll give another simple example. When you go to get a drink of water, can you simply grab the water? Can you carry it on your head without a container. I know that I can't. I need a cup or some other container.

    But when you scale down to very small animals, suddenly surface tension becomes a dominant factor. So tiny insects can do that. Here are some pictures:

    http://www.tert.am/en/news/2013/05/27/amazing-photos-of-insects/


    Based on the drivel that you have been writing in this comments section, I strongly suspect that you do not understand correctly the point that is being made. Hopefully my abridgment will help.

    This is not an argument, so I can't respond.

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  69. David Ohsie said.
    None of it [universal laws] will work on the moon,...

    You can falsify any sentence with a pronoun it in by inserting something for that pronoun that will falsify the sentence.
    November 27, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    “All of biology is highly dependent on conditions and is many, many levels removed from what turn out to be universally applicable laws (as best we can tell). None of it will work on the moon, as a simple example.”
    November 26, 2013 at 7:20 PM
    Just our of curiosity what does it (in the second sentence) refer to if not unversially applicable laws in this sentence.


    "It" refers to the rules of biology that are many, many levels removed from what turn out to be universally applicable laws (as best we can tell).

    Surely you don’t mean to imply that the rules which govern biology on earth will not apply on the moon.

    You've subtly switched from "rules of biology" to "rules which govern biology". Yes, if you go down many levels, we have *evidence* that the rules at the "bottom" are fairly universal (not a bald assumption, but evidence). But unfortunately, you can't derive the rules of biology itself in practice just by looking at Schrödinger's equation. In fact, I think that you can't even derive the behavior of large atoms from that equation.

    Again, it's best to work with an example, so let's try something simpler. We have rules for healthy living for people. They can't be derived from universal laws of physics (at least today). But we have some general laws about doing so much exercise, etc. People are actively studying these things and trying to find the best possible advice here.

    Now if you take those rules or laws and apply them to people living in the international space station, then they fail. If you do the same amount of exercise on the space station that you do on earth, your bones and muscles will waste away. The laws of healthy living on the space station are different!

    Another simple example. Take any biology textbook that we have. Now go to another planet where life exists (assuming there is one). The textbook would no longer apply for the most part. The textbook describes how life on earth works, not how life universally works. And to write that new textbook, we would have to spend some time on that planet to figure it out. We could not just go back to first "universal" principles and derive the rules for this different planet.

    In fact, we have already had this experience on our own planet. We assumed, based on the known laws of biology, that life could only exist withing certain tolerances of temperature and pressure. Then we studied life near deep ocean vents (and hard to live in locations) and discovered that our assumptions were wrong. So now we have the biology of "extremophiles".

    Yet biology is as surely a science as physics is. The laws of biology are laws. But the laws of biology apply where they apply and not where they don't.

    They will. Remove oxygen and atmospheric pressure, organisms will just as surely die and explode on the moon as much as they will on earth.

    The outcome under the same atmospheric conditions will be exactly the same on earth as they are on the moon.


    What you are saying here is that the laws of biology are invariant with respect to translation, rotation and velocity. I agree that if you had the exact same conditions except changing the "location", then the laws remain the same. Otherwise we are in trouble because the earth is moving all the time!

    But the laws of biology are not invariant to lots of other difference between the moon and the earth. So the laws of biology are not "universal" in that sense.

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  70. There is no need for a heated debate about the universality of certain laws of physics and chemistry. Largely it seems to be more a debate about semantics than about fact. Yes, the basic laws of physics and chemistry appear to be the same whether on earth or beyond. Yes, the conditions in space are much different than here on earth, and that must lead to differences in the behavior of substances.

    For example, the rate of chemical reactions (chemical kinetics)is strongly dependent on temperature. Whether or not some chemicals can spontaneously react at any given temperature is, however, independent of the actual conditions and can be predicted from the fundamental properties of those chemicals (thermodynamics). Biology, as far as we know, is something native to earth and may not exist elsewhere. Hence, it is not universal in that limited sense. It is universal on earth in the sense that all life forms that we know are based on a consistent triplet base code for proteins that are carried on DNA (or analogous RNA - with a slight code modification) polymers.

    While the sciences are experimentally (or observation) based, that pertains to the means of verification or falsification of our notions about physical phenomena. Science as a methodology, however, is equally based on inductive reasoning wherein what we have consistently observed in the past can be extrapolated to the future (or to the distant past). In other words, the assumption made is that things that have consistently worked one way in our experience have always done so and will so continue. If we find some exceptions then those exceptions have to be fitted into a coherent framework, i.e., rationales are found for the exceptions or a new theory that can account for all the observations is advanced. One simply doesn't proclaim that nature has changed and leave it at that. This strategy may work with those ignorant of the workings of science, it will make no impression on those who have such familiarity.

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  71. While the sciences are experimentally (or observation) based, that pertains to the means of verification or falsification of our notions about physical phenomena. Science as a methodology, however, is equally based on inductive reasoning wherein what we have consistently observed in the past can be extrapolated to the future (or to the distant past).

    I don't have the time right this second to comment fully on this, but in the end science actually tells us that everything we have consistently observed in the past did not occur in the distant past if you go back far enough (close to the big bang) and will not occur in the distant future if you go far enough forward (as entropy increases beyond the point where you can mine any more energy from the fading embers of the universe). Aristotle did assume that what we have today existed more or less unchanged into an infinite past, but he turned out to be wrong. To say that science is based on what is turns out to be false is problematic. Furthermore, this is often how the anti-science crowd attacks science: they claim that it is based on an arbitrary axiom or belief of the constancy of nature which itself has no basis.

    Rather we should say: science presents a set of models that explain and predict observations that we can make down to the quantitative details of those observations. Some elements of those models are invariant with respect to time, space and many other conditions. If you have a better model, present it and we'll make the test.

    I'm not including why we ignore Cartesian and/or Humean doubt, since if you allow for those, you don't bother to get out of bed in the morning.

    I have more to say, but it's past my bedtime and I'm not sure anyone cares about this topic...

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  72. David, why are we debating this subject when we basically agree on the phenomena, but differ essentially on the semantics involving the operations and laws of nature? I have not claimed that the laws under which physical things operate are necessarily time invariant, just that this is the logical expectation in science. It is for those who would argue the contrary to advance quantitative models and actual evidence to support their contention. Arguing from the earliest moment in creation to some expected end is, however, inadequate since we simply don't know enough to be able to make credible statements about such end points. For example, current cosmological models posit that over 70% of the energy of the universe is in some mysterious form dubbed 'dark energy', while some 20% of matter-energy is in an equally mysterious form dubbed 'dark matter'. Without a proper understanding of such concepts, if proven real, the speculation about end points is just that - speculation. Besides, the existence of laws preceding and independent of the actual behavior of physical things is a logical expectation that is fully consistent with both Platonic concepts and the belief in an Intelligent Creator. Othewise you have a chaotic situation with no way of evolving order - unless you confer intelligence to all physical things.

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  73. David, why are we debating this subject when we basically agree on the phenomena, but differ essentially on the semantics involving the operations and laws of nature?

    1) Because incorrect formulations of the reasoning can leave us in a state where we are susceptible to the following argument: you are relying on some assumptions before you get started. Judaism denies those assumptions so your reasons are not compelling.

    2) Incorrect lead to shortcut arguments about inconsistency and hypocrisy which don't hold water.

    3) We are Jewish.

    I have not claimed that the laws under which physical things operate are necessarily time invariant, just that this is the logical expectation in science. It is for those who would argue the contrary to advance quantitative models and actual evidence to support their contention.

    This is open to a number of objections from your hypothetical interlocuter:

    1) You are making an assumption based on logical expectations in science. I don't share those assumptions. They sound logical to you but not to me. You are trying to shift the burden of proof to me to provide evidence, but I don't accept it. You provide your evidence first.

    2) I never said anything about the fundamental nature of physical laws. You are over-literally translating "Nishtanu HaTivim". All I'm asserting is that I have reliable testimony that some, in my opinion, reliable observation happened in the past which doesn't fit your model. Therefore, there is something wrong with your model, at least as applied to the circumstances that existed at the time that observation was made. You agree that if you made such reliable observations today, then you would need to revise your model, right?

    3) In general, your assertion of constancy of natural laws is without foundation. Perhaps you can prove that some laws seem to be invariant to many conditions, but as a general principle, this it completely false. Chazal never mentioned fundamental laws; they mentioned macro events relying on laws, such as that of medicine, that are highly dependent on conditions, such as those that pertain to today's Earth. While the circumstances of Chazal were not like those of Mars, your argument on general principles of constancy fail.

    I have no doubt at all that some or all of Chazal believed in spontaneous generation of lice and that even though this did not occur in their times. I have no doubt at all that gestation periods for snakes was not 7 years at the time of Chazal (and the other gestation periods mentioned were incorrect). But the proper argument for this relies on the evidence we have about the reliability of their testimony, the general beliefs of the time, and the evidence that we have about the causes of the gestation periods and our evidence about how animals change over time, not some general principle of constancy.

    I also agree that one of the great discoveries of science is that if you dig deep enough, you can explain lots of very different phenomena, appearing at the macro level to obey very different laws, to actually be different aspects of the underlying similar principle. So it turns out that we are made of stardust and no special substance is needed to explain the heavens; they are made of the same stuff we are. And it turns out that biology is just very complicated chemistry. This is all based on evidence; you don't need to assume it in advance, although the ones that did assume it were better guessers (and thus better scientists) than the ones that didn't.

    Since I'm on a Feynman kick, I'll link this video, which mentions the importance of guessing in science right at the beginning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYPapE-3FRw

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  74. Arguing from the earliest moment in creation to some expected end is, however, inadequate since we simply don't know enough to be able to make credible statements about such end points. For example, current cosmological models posit that over 70% of the energy of the universe is in some mysterious form dubbed 'dark energy', while some 20% of matter-energy is in an equally mysterious form dubbed 'dark matter'. Without a proper understanding of such concepts, if proven real, the speculation about end points is just that - speculation.

    I might be misunderstanding your point, but I don't think that this is true. While we don't know the nature of dark energy, we have no reason to think that it violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. So the entropy continues to increase until there is no more usable energy and everything dies out (unless God intervenes).

    Besides, the existence of laws preceding and independent of the actual behavior of physical things is a logical expectation that is fully consistent with both Platonic concepts and the belief in an Intelligent Creator. Othewise you have a chaotic situation with no way of evolving order - unless you confer intelligence to all physical things.

    I don't fully understand your argument, or why it is important here, but as soon as you start with Platonic concepts, you are going outside of science. Also, once you start arguing about what a belief in God entails, then you can go anywhere with that, including beliefs that God is testing us, etc. I am hesitant to argue the point, since I may be missing your point.

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  75. David, while I agree with your statement that changes have occurred in nature - certainly in the biological realm, I and others object to your minimization of the universality of some quantitative relationships uncovered by science. The basic laws in chemistry have to do with the nature and types of bonding of atoms (including their corresponding charged entities - ions). These do not change with change in environmental conditions until you get to extremely high temperatures. At such temperatures only individual atoms, ions, and electrons are left (i.e., the plasma state). The fact that there exist some conditions such as in stars, where the bonding rules of chemistry are irrelevant detracts little from their applicability everywhere else. If you wish, change statements about universality to 'near-universality'. The bonding laws, however, are the same on the moon as on earth. What does change are the physical states of matter (i.e. your invocation of standard temperature and pressure - STP). Thus liquids such as water are not stable under moon conditions due to flash evaporation in the ultra-vacuum of the moon (nor could humans survive without a space suit).

    Of course, the concept of 'nishtaneh hatevah' as applied to biological entities can't be declared, ipso facto erroneous since marked change has been well documented in geological strata. The fact that such changes have not been noted in the historical time-frame, however, argues that such notions as spontaneous generation or the alleged 7 year transformation cycles of some animals are mere folklore. It is strange that the traditionalists who so readily attack the notion of biological evolution appear to swallow such talmudic statements without blinking.

    In any case, you and your scientific disputants appear to be in agreement that R' Natan is correct in his analysis of what is or isn't claimed by the scientific process. My argument is that science gives us a valid basis for expecting certain behavior in known things. The more quantifiable such expected behavior is, the better known it is assumed to be. Those who argue that such expectations are misleading and unreliable should not get into a car or plane, and rise gingerly out of bed in the morning.

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  76. Of course, the concept of 'nishtaneh hatevah' as applied to biological entities can't be declared,
    Y.Aharon Dec 2, 3:04AM.

    Hi Y. Aharon (is the Prof. Aharon?).
    It is probably that we have exchanged greetings previously, as I do visit a number of sites you comment on, and generally find your comments insightful. All-in-all I believe that you are to charitable to David Ohise. I think that he (David) is trying the pass the camel through the eye of a needle arguing the validity of nishtaneh hatevah by deliberately confusing “changed environment” for scientific unreliability. You make the point yourself vis-à-vis chemistry, and I have made it with regard to gravity.
    Regarding Biology: If I understand your statement above correctly, you are suggesting that nishtaneh hatevah may apply to biology since evolution is transient. Again, I think you are being too charitable here. Evolution (the central theory of Biology) is a mechanistic process, that is governed by certain sets of rules that can be empirically tested. Firstly, it is important to remember that Biology is subject to all the same “near”-universal laws of physics and chemistry that the rest of reality is subject to. Nishtaneh hatevah could never be a valid argument to support spontaneous generation since all life as we know it emerges from some form of DNA replication. Change in DNA does occur over time, but the likelihood of those changes remains governed by chemical principles. Further those changes in DNA are likely only to change either the function of the protein they encode for or the regulation of its expression. Evolution and nishtaneh hatevah are not synonyms since evolution is first-and-foremost materialistic in its explanatory powers. The fundamental assumption is that the “way of the world” has not changed over time. What has changed over time are subtle alterations in gene sequence that bring about more or less protein, or slightly different proteins. As I understand nishtaneh hatevah is used to say that what was true then is no longer true now. Reality (the laws of physics) has changed. This is untenable in any scientific discipline.

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  77. David, while I agree with your statement that changes have occurred in nature - certainly in the biological realm, I and others object to your minimization of the universality of some quantitative relationships uncovered by science.

    So let me clarify. I'm not making any claims about the universality of this or that scientific law as I have never done any original science research to base any such claims on. I was only saying that such universality (or invariant properties) is a discovered feature of nature based on evidence and not a premise of science. So the argument always needs to proceed from the evidence. And I agree that the evidence says that gestation periods are unlikely to have changed. That is the correct argument to make.

    The basic laws in chemistry have to do with the nature and types of bonding of atoms (including their corresponding charged entities - ions). These do not change with change in environmental conditions until you get to extremely high temperatures.

    I am not expert at all on chemistry, so I claim no authority to dispute you. But certainly, when you get to more complicated molecules the range of conditions gets narrower. The chemistry that your body depends on can only occur in a very narrow range of temperatures, humidity, etc.

    At such temperatures only individual atoms, ions, and electrons are left (i.e., the plasma state). The fact that there exist some conditions such as in stars, where the bonding rules of chemistry are irrelevant detracts little from their applicability everywhere else. If you wish, change statements about universality to 'near-universality'.

    I "near-universality" depends on your PoV :) This website claims that "The visible universe is 99.999% plasma. So quite simply, if you don't know how cosmic plasmas behave, you don't know the Universe. And astrophysical plasmas may behave differently to terrestrial plasmas.". http://www.plasma-universe.com/99.999%25_plasma

    The bonding laws, however, are the same on the moon as on earth.

    Again, I'm not arguing that Chemistry is not invariant to translation; I'm sure it is. Just that if try out your chemistry experiments on the Moon, I think that many or most simply won't work. There are lots of conditions needed.

    This isn't just theoretical, as far as I understand. For example, if you want to understand the chemistry that actually goes on in a the atmosphere of Gas Giant, you have to look at the relative abundances of the various elements; what physical state each chemical will be in given the temperature at various layers, etc. You end up with a completely different set of rules for such "reducing atmospheres" than for the "oxidizing atmospheres" of the terrestrial planets; you have to do a separate set of derivations and empirical studies to figure out what is happening there.

    What does change are the physical states of matter (i.e. your invocation of standard temperature and pressure - STP). Thus liquids such as water are not stable under moon conditions due to flash evaporation in the ultra-vacuum of the moon (nor could humans survive without a space suit).

    That may be the reason, but the result is that chemistry that depends on, for example, liquid water isn't going to happen.

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  78. Of course, the concept of 'nishtaneh hatevah' as applied to biological entities can't be declared, ipso facto erroneous since marked change has been well documented in geological strata. The fact that such changes have not been noted in the historical time-frame, however, argues that such notions as spontaneous generation or the alleged 7 year transformation cycles of some animals are mere folklore. It is strange that the traditionalists who so readily attack the notion of biological evolution appear to swallow such talmudic statements without blinking.

    I agree 100%.

    In any case, you and your scientific disputants appear to be in agreement that R' Natan is correct in his analysis of what is or isn't claimed by the scientific process.

    Agree 100%.

    My argument is that science gives us a valid basis for expecting certain behavior in known things. The more quantifiable such expected behavior is, the better known it is assumed to be. Those who argue that such expectations are misleading and unreliable should not get into a car or plane, and rise gingerly out of bed in the morning.

    Agree 100%, just based on evidence and not based on platonic forms.

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  79. It is probably that we have exchanged greetings previously, as I do visit a number of sites you comment on, and generally find your comments insightful. All-in-all I believe that you are to charitable to David Ohise. I think that he (David) is trying the pass the camel through the eye of a needle arguing the validity of nishtaneh hatevah by deliberately confusing “changed environment” for scientific unreliability. You make the point yourself vis-à-vis chemistry, and I have made it with regard to gravity.

    I know that it is too much to expect that things written on the internet will be read carefully (but then again, why read carefully when you can just say "drivel"; it's much faster :), but I never argued for the validity of Nishtanu Hativim in any particular case in this thread. I argued that the proper counter-argument is evidence, and not an a priori principle of "all the laws of science are universal".

    Again, the case of gravity proves my point. We didn't just assume that the law of gravity was universal. We tested it by observing binary stars to see that they move in ellipses just as we expect. And we looked at the statistical spread of the distance of stars from the center of globular clusters and saw that they are also consistent with gravity. So we provided evidence, we did not rely on a principle of universality.

    And then we looked at the orbit of Mercury and saw that "uh oh", the law as stated has an exception. So the law needed to be restated to become "universal". The law was correct for the range of circumstances that we looked at, but not in some other area.

    And then we looked at physics at a very small scale and again "uh oh", it doesn't work there. Which is where we are today, I believe.

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  80. Yossi, it is not prof. Aharon. I have, however, spent a longish career as a research chemist (Ph.D.) in both industry and government (my long-standing and current employer). In fact, Aharon is a bit of a pseudonym, being my middle name (ahem, akin to Jon Stewart Lieberman who goes by Jon Stewart on TV).
    More substantially, I agree that the basic laws of biology, that life comes from life and that there is one genetic code for all living things appears to be universal. Further, all amino acids in living things have an L configuration, while all sugar moeities have the corresponding D configuration. These regularities have not changed over the eons despite radical changes in the forms of the organisms based on these elements. My agreement with David on the issue of 'nishtena hateva' was only to the extent that it applied to external features of living things, and then only to changes over eons - not the historical time-frame.

    David, I know that we agree on many things in the issue of science v. talmudic sentiments, and I was pleased that you acknowledged such agreement. However, there is still an element of contention. I don't know why you insist on pushing the matter. The stars may constitute 99% of the visible matter in the universe since their temperature and consequent radiation makes them visible. Their actual mass is a far smaller fraction of the total known mass of the universe - not even counting the 'dark matter' believed currently to exist but not directly detected. The plasma in stars differs from those produced on earth by virtue of their far higher temperatures which allow fusion reactions, and their far, far greater mass and gravity. All of these differences are presumably accounted for in the models and laws used for their description in astrophysics and cosmology.

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  81. And then we looked at the orbit of Mercury and saw that "uh oh", the law as stated has an exception. So the law needed to be restated to become "universal". The law was correct for the range of circumstances that we looked at, but not in some other area.

    And then we looked at physics at a very small scale and again "uh oh", it doesn't work there. Which is where we are today, I believe.

    David your fundamental error here is to confuse “model” with “fundamental, and universally applicable laws.” The difference is that our models are a description of the fundamental laws. They change as the accuracy of our understanding improve, not because the laws themselves have changed.
    The models are simply an explanation of our data.

    That was Feynman’s point, which you seem to have so comprehensively misunderstood. In science we do not hold onto our dogmas in the face of conflicting evidence. Rather we alter our models to explain as best as possible all the available evidence. To incorporate that evidence.

    The reason that I react so aggressively to your position is because what you are saying is that this is the crux of modern formulations of the nishtaneh hatevah, which is that since scientific theories are constantly changing, that is science admits as one of its central tenants that our understanding are incomplete and subject to change based on better evidence, that science and scientific explanation is unreliable.

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  82. And then we looked at the orbit of Mercury and saw that "uh oh", the law as stated has an exception. So the law needed to be restated to become "universal". The law was correct for the range of circumstances that we looked at, but not in some other area.

    And then we looked at physics at a very small scale and again "uh oh", it doesn't work there. Which is where we are today, I believe.


    David your fundamental error here is to confuse “model” with “fundamental, and universally applicable laws.”

    Lets be clear with our definitions so we don't argue semantics. F=Gmm'/r^2, E=mc^2, F=dp/dt, F=kx, etc are all examples of what I'll call "laws of physics" (I don't want get into the question of whether F=dp/dt is a law or definition. If you don't like it, then throw it out). I think that this is fairly conventional use of the word "law". These are the sort of laws that are the output of a scientist's work and the stuff that you find in papers and textbooks.

    It also happens to be that they are the models of the universe out of which predictions are made. Thus there is no difference between a law of physics (as used conventionally) and a model. They laws of physics are models. The same applies to other disciplines.

    If you believe I am wrong, please state a scientific law which is not a model.

    Now you bring up the concept of "fundamental, and universally applicable laws". Since you distinguish these from models, and laws (as I've defined them) are all models, you can't be talking about any of the laws of physics or any other discipline that you'll find in the textbooks.

    You could possibly be referring to "the underlying reality which the models try to approximate" as intuitively understood. I don't want to stray into philosophy here, so I'll just say that while we perhaps tacitly assume that there is such a thing, science is always talking in models, so any dealing with a proposed contradiction between "science" and a statement found in Talmud, (or between "science" and any purported observation), we are always actually dealing with a proposed contradiction between one or more of our current models (or laws) and some purported observation. This can't have anything to do with "fundamental and universally applicable laws" as you've defined them, since you've said that these are not models, and we are always using models.

    The difference is that our models are a description of the fundamental laws. They change as the accuracy of our understanding improve, not because the laws themselves have changed.
    The models are simply an explanation of our data.


    Which is to say that there is no fundamental premise or axiom that our laws/models are "universal". Rather they are as universal as we can show them to be, and then when we find an area where they aren't we just put those limits into our law/model (e.g. the spring law up to the point where you distort the spring), or we update the model.

    I'm not even quite sure what it means to say that the "fundamental law" by your definition doesn't change. Suppose for example that G does change over time, perhaps even in an non-differentiable or discontinuous manner. I say that this is possible, but we have evidence it is constant. Are you saying it is impossible that G changes and we don't even have to test and somehow know via some inspiration or principle that it doesn't change? If so, that is not science, but a personal hunch.

    Or are you saying that if G did change, then that change would be part of the underlying "fundamental law". If so, your statement about the "underlying fundamental law" not changing is just a tautology. I would have no way of discovering if your statement is true or not and it is not falsifiable.

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  83. That was Feynman’s point, which you seem to have so comprehensively misunderstood. In science we do not hold onto our dogmas in the face of conflicting evidence. Rather we alter our models to explain as best as possible all the available evidence. To incorporate that evidence.

    Yes, and the corollary that he mentions explicitly is that no axioms of symmetry or invariance are required a priori. They are rather discovered only through evidence. And if someone, whether they lived in the middle ages or in modern times says "hey wait, I see it working differently", then you have to undermine or confirm the claim of variance of the known "law/model" with evidence, not with a wave of the "science doesn't change" wand. And to establish the universality of any model requires evidence.

    The reason that I react so aggressively to your position is because what you are saying is that this is the crux of modern formulations of the nishtaneh hatevah, which is that since scientific theories are constantly changing, that is science admits as one of its central tenants that our understanding are incomplete and subject to change based on better evidence, that science and scientific explanation is unreliable.

    Not at all. Nishtaneh Hatevah (or Hativim) is not very precise. However, it means more or less, stated in a somewhat more precise language, that while our current formulation of some law L predicts A, there is testimony T from the Talmud of "not A" based on observation O; and the solution "O was unreliable testimony" is not correct; and therefore, somehow the law L and "not A" are both correct, so something unexpected is going on and L fails in some circumstance. Which is to say that the model implied by L needs fixing and is somehow inapplicable to testimony T. (I'm stating this not because I believe that this is explanation is correct where people try to apply it, but because in order to disprove an argument, I want to disprove it in its more generous interpretation).

    Here is an example that might be instructive. I say that radiocarbon dating indicates that some artifact is X years old. But we have testimony from some other historical source that it is Y years old (outside the error bars of X). And it the Y date is really quite reliable. So we should consider that perhaps something changed and the model is not precise. This is definitely possible, cannot be excluded by "nature didn't change" because something like it actually happened (taken from Wikipedia):

    In the early years of using the technique, it was not assumed that the atmospheric 14C/12C ratio had been the same over the preceding few thousand years. To verify the accuracy of the method, several artefacts that were datable by other techniques were tested; the results of the testing were in reasonable agreement with the true ages of the objects. However, over the next few years significant discrepancies were found, in particular with the chronology of the early Egyptian dynasties: artefact ages derived from radiocarbon testing were several centuries younger than what were thought to be the true ages. The discrepancy was resolved by the study of tree-rings. Comparison of overlapping series of tree-rings allowed the construction of a continuous sequence of tree-ring data that spanned 8,000 years. Carbon-dating the wood from the tree-rings themselves provided the check needed on the atmospheric 14
    C/12C ratio: with a sample of known date, and a measurement of the value of N (the number of atoms of 14C remaining in the sample), the carbon-dating equation allows the calculation of N0 (the number of atoms of 14C in the original sample), and hence the original ratio.[24] Armed with the results of carbon-dating the tree rings it became possible to construct calibration curves designed to correct the errors caused by the variation over time in the 14
    C/12C ratio.


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  84. So getting back to where we started, the reason to disbelieve that there was once a 7 year gestation snake is because our best evidence says that there wasn't and because the observations reported seem too unreliable to establish the existence of such a thing. It is not because "nature doesn't change".

    Taking this one step further, consider the claim that no radiometric dating past 6000 years old is valid, because creation/flood physics was completely different and many of the laws that apply today did not apply then. One could just say "nature doesn't change", but that is replacing one unprovable axiom for another.

    One could leave it as, well we don't have a reason to believe that such a change occurred.

    But of course we can do much better. We can say that if that was true, then stars withing 6000 or so light years of earth should not have the same history and should not fit in to the same classification scheme as the stars outside of 6000 or so light-years radius. There should be lots of quantitative differences and discontinuities, but there aren't.

    Also, we should see all kinds of discrepancies in the uranium-lead dating given the fact that you get two measurements from the U-235 and U-238. But we don't see that.

    Obviously there are 1e6 other implications of a young universe that don't pan out, but my point is that the evidence points the way.

    So evidence is a better answer than "nature doesn't change".

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  85. David, let me highlight the important part of what you wrote

    ..he mentions explicitly is that no axioms of symmetry or invariance are required a priori. They are rather discovered only through evidence.

    Discovrered implies that they are always in existence waiting for a smart person to come along and observe them.

    Science doesn't change. Science is a methodological tool for understanding and explaining reality.

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  86. F=Gmm'/r^2, E=mc^2, F=dp/dt, F=kx, etc are all examples of what I'll call "laws of physics"

    No these are mathematical descriptions that explain the observable phenomena within a certain degree of accuracy. They are formulas that describe a theory of the universal law. They are a mathematical idealization, with certain built in assumptions, that describe certain observations and which can be used to make predictions which can then be tested, via experimentation and observation.

    This isn't a semantic point. This is the difference between saying "Nature has changed" (which it hasn't) and saying that we change our models of nature to fit the observations that we make.

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  87. So evidence is a better answer than "nature doesn't change".

    Yes I agree with that.

    However, the conclusion that are drawn from the evidence that is collected today is that "Nature does not change." What we observe today would have been what we observed yesterday and will be what we observe tomorrow... if we look properly.

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  88. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  89. F=Gmm'/r^2, E=mc^2, F=dp/dt, F=kx, etc are all examples of what I'll call "laws of physics"

    No these are mathematical descriptions that explain the observable phenomena within a certain degree of accuracy.

    There is no point in arguing whether Hooke's law or the Newton's laws should be called a "laws". It's a linguistic choice already made by others. For our discussion, we'll call them "models" and call what you are talking about "universal law" as you do.

    Using this terminology, result of science are models only. All the textbooks contain models and never contain "universal law".

    They are formulas that describe a theory of the universal law. They are a mathematical idealization, with certain built in assumptions, that describe certain observations and which can be used to make predictions which can then be tested, via experimentation and observation.

    As I said above, we'll call those models. They are the output of science.

    This isn't a semantic point. This is the difference between saying "Nature has changed" (which it hasn't) and saying that we change our models of nature to fit the observations that we make.

    I don't mean to go all positivist on you, but your implied statement "nature doesn't change" appears to be tautological and content-less and therefore unrelated to the issue at hand. Even if we found out that, in fact, snake gestation period have changed drastically in recent history (untrue, but logically possible), you would say "nature has not changed". Since R. Meiselman's example of the invocation of "Nishtanu HaTivim" is that snake gestation periods have changed drastically in a short time, and your principle says nothing about that, it may be intuitively appealing, but it is irrelevant to the discussion.

    If you think that it is relevant, please state the set of observations that would be impossible under your theory of "unchanging nature" or "unchanging universal law". Under what condition condition could your theory be falsified?

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  90. David, let me highlight the important part of what you wrote

    ..he mentions explicitly is that no axioms of symmetry or invariance are required a priori. They are rather discovered only through evidence.


    Discovrered implies that they are always in existence waiting for a smart person to come along and observe them.

    Or observe that the proposed symmetry is violated and false. But what you trying to prove from that?

    Science doesn't change. Science is a methodological tool for understanding and explaining reality.

    Not sure what this has to do with the topic, but by your definition, of course, science has changed. Our methodologies have improved over time; as an example, the comparatively recent development of statistics being a very important methodological improvement.

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  91. So evidence is a better answer than "nature doesn't change".

    Yes I agree with that.

    However, the conclusion that are drawn from the evidence that is collected today is that "Nature does not change."


    Please answer the questions above about what evidence would falsify your statement. I think that the statement "Nature does not change" is tautological.

    What we observe today would have been what we observed yesterday and will be what we observe tomorrow... if we look properly.

    1) This last sentence is just completely false. I observe things changing all the time an so does everyone else. I do need glasses though, so perhaps I'm not looking properly ;).

    2) Can you connect the dots back to the subject? "What we observe today would have been observed yesterday", so therefore what? Snake gestation periods have remained exactly constant over an infinite interval of time? Back to the beginning of the universe? Could change over time, but only because we don't observe properly? You are demonstrating why these shortcut arguments are not useful.

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  92. David, I know that we agree on many things in the issue of science v. talmudic sentiments, and I was pleased that you acknowledged such agreement. However, there is still an element of contention.

    It would be interesting to know what you think that area is. I say that snake gestation periods have not changed drastically in recent times, because our evidence says otherwise, not because there is a all-encompassing principle of "nature doesn't change". That principle is either tautological (and therefore irrelevant) or not universally true and requires evidence to show what has changed and what has not changed which leaves you back where you started: look at the evidence.

    I don't know why you insist on pushing the matter.

    We are both pushing in some way; you explain first :).

    The stars may constitute 99% of the visible matter in the universe since their temperature and consequent radiation makes them visible. Their actual mass is a far smaller fraction of the total known mass of the universe - not even counting the 'dark matter' believed currently to exist but not directly detected. The plasma in stars differs from those produced on earth by virtue of their far higher temperatures which allow fusion reactions, and their far, far greater mass and gravity. All of these differences are presumably accounted for in the models and laws used for their description in astrophysics and cosmology.

    Sorry, I put a smiley on that. It doesn't make a difference if plasma is 1% of the universe or 99%. The point is that you have indicated that the ordinary laws of chemistry don't apply to plasma (yes there are some more basic laws that will, in principle predict properties of matter in plasma and non-plasma based on conditions). And there are gobs of textbooks that detail the complicated mechanism of the human body which are relevant to only a small place in the universe for the relative blink of an eye. The principle is the same. You go with evidence not with Parmenides.

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  93. David, for the Nth time, I agree that verified empirical evidence trumps ideology - whether religious or scientific. The objection to 'nishtaneh hatevah' is that it is not based on any evidence, but has the character of a 'face-saving' retort. Why should there be reliance on such statements when there is ample reason to suspect that the sages relied on invented derashot for such matters or folklore? The book on biology by Aristotle is more credible than counter descriptions by the sages since it is based on observation.

    On the other hand, the scientific models used to describe nature are capable of generalization and are meant to be generalized. Such generalization is an integral part of the scientific quest. Of course, the test of such generalization is evidence. If evidence is found that, say, Newton's universal law of gravitation (that's what it has always been called) is found to not always quantitatively describe the orbits of planets (the perihelion of Mercury), then a different model is invoked that predicts such orbits (Einstein's General Relativity theory). [Newton's equation is not discarded, however, since it works perfectly well for most astronomical calculations of orbital paths and is far easier to apply.] The laws of chemical bonding that I alluded to earlier are not 'abrogated' in a high temperature plasma. They are merely irrelevant when there are only individual atoms, ions, electrons, and neutrons due to the extremely high kinetic energies (far higher than any bond energy) of the plasma constituents. In other words, the bonding laws of chemistry also predict the conditions wherein the laws no longer pertain.

    The point is that our observations and experiments lead to quantitative models of how things work, and yield expectations of deduced behavior that has not yet been observed. Those expectations have a greater credibility than an invented derasha or hearsay. The expectation is made that much stronger if it fits into a general picture of reality that has been developed and extensively tested. One such expectation is that life must come from other life. Of course, the first primitive life form(s), i.e. primitive cells, must have arisen from non-living precursors. Yet, there have never been verified instances where life arose abiogenetically after the initiating event(s).

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  94. Y. Aharon,

    Precisely

    Of course, the first primitive life form(s), i.e. primitive cells, must have arisen from non-living precursors.

    I would add that the emergence of life was still subject to the laws of physics/chemistry. Life, in its most reductionist form, is simply a series of chemical reactions, governed and regulated by self replicating molecules.

    Pure mechanistic materialism is devoid of any meaning or spirituality.

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  95. For the record, I thought David Ohsie's original comment on November 26 was straightforward enough. If you want to claim that anything under the sun was the same in the past as it is today, you need to give specific evidence-based reasons.

    But then his point was confused as questioning the reliability of science, and many thousands of words have been posted trying to sort it out.

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  96. He is of the view that scientists have no idea what they are talking about when they speak of stars being millions of light-years away.

    I'm curious what Rabbi Meiselman has to say about this. Does he think that nothing in the sky is more than 6000 light-years away? That would be quite an embarrassment.

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  97. David, for the Nth time, I agree that verified empirical evidence trumps ideology - whether religious or scientific.

    I apologize for frustrating you. I'm also frustrated because that has been my point the whole time. Nothing here contradicts my original post or any subsequent one (I stand corrected on whether the fundamental theorems of Chemistry are described as Chemistry or Physics).

    Our brains are great pattern matchers, in fact too good, and we find patterns were none exist, as is well known from psychology research, e.g. belief in the hot hand in basketball. I seem to have hit the pattern matcher in some people's brains as "anti-science religious zealot". I think that "Sue's" summary is apt.

    At this point, if someone has a specific issue with something I wrote and wants to quote it and dispute it I'm happy to do engage. Otherwise, we'll need to agree to disagree because I still don't know where the disagreement lies, (if there is any) and I'll just end up repeating myself (and if it is drivel, I'll be repeating drivel :).

    Thank you for your effort in responding. I know that it takes time and effort to so in a thoughtful way.

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  98. Sue said...
    He is of the view that scientists have no idea what they are talking about when they speak of stars being millions of light-years away.

    I'm curious what Rabbi Meiselman has to say about this. Does he think that nothing in the sky is more than 6000 light-years away? That would be quite an embarrassment.


    R. Meiselman uses what might be termed as the FUD theory. Since we don't know what "laws" were in place during the Mabul, all conclusions before that time are invalid. He also has some theories about the nature of time that he claims helps, but I don't understand what he is getting at yet. He mentions that the age of the universe has gone through several revisions, perhaps with the implication that it might change back to 6000 years. He doesn't address specific evidence like light from stars or radiometric dating in any detail. He mentions the evidence from layering in ice cores in a footnote, but then claims that it is disputed in some way (I need to read that part again).

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  99. David, no problem it's just that we were almost monopolizing the comment section with our ostensible debate. Your last comment, however, about RMM's attitude towards the Mabul leads me to the following observation:
    It's one thing to draw a line across the creation 'week', and to maintain that nature and time behaved differently (I disagree, of course). It's quite another to attempt to draw the line after the deluge. No one claims that time behaved differently in the antediluvian period despite the near-millenial lifespan of the listed figures. According to the text, people begot children and died, like humanity since. Moreover, why draw the line at the deluge and not later in time? After all, how did 70 in Ya'akov's family become 603,550 adult males by the time of the exodus, and how did the multitude of several million survive in the desert for 40 years? Why not draw the line after the conquest of Canaan by Joshua who is said to have stopped the sun and moon in their courses? The answer is that there is no physical evidence that directly contradicts the post-diluvian narratives in question. So, the allusions to nature behaving differently is just a device to maintain the evident (simple) understanding of the biblical narrative when it is directly contradicted by established facts. Such arguments have no intrinsic merit except to give some comfort to those who do not wish to confront such conundrums.

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