Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Great Dinosaur Mistake

There's a common mistake that religious Jews make about dinosaurs. I'm not talking about whether they did or did not live millions of years ago. I'm talking about a mistake made regarding people who do accept that fact.

When considering the rationalist/non-rationalist divide, there are two types of people. (It's actually a spectrum, but we can broadly talk about the two poles.)

One type of person, the rationalist, follows Rambam's principles that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes, and that we should never cast aside reason and follow views simply because they are traditional, because "our eyes are set in front, never in back." (Note: this is referring to beliefs, not halachic practice, which have independent reasons for allegiance.) Accordingly, such a person accepts that science has satisfactorily proved various things, and is ready to adopt a non-traditional interpretation of Torah in order to reconcile it. If such a person is confronted with something that appears scientifically proven but does not appear possible to reconcile with Torah, then he will honestly admit that he does not have a solution that is compatible with the two.

The second type of person, the non-Maimonidean rationalist, attributes veracity to claims largely based on the religious authority of the one who utters them. They have little regard for the scientific enterprise, if it presents something uncomfortable. And if confronted with something that is claimed to be scientifically proven but does not appear reconcilable with their understanding of Torah, they will insist that the scientific claim is wrong (and they will sometimes turn aggressive against the person issuing that claim, decrying them as a heretic, non-Orthodox, etc.)

Now, it is popularly believed that people who accept that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago fall into the first category.

This is a mistake.

They might fall into the first category. And it is true that everyone in the first category does accept that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. But it is not true that everyone who accepts that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago falls into the first category.

For example, it is popularly assumed that because the general public of Modern Orthodox Jews accepts that there was an age of dinosaurs, this means that they are ipso facto more rationalist than charedim. But this is not necessarily the case at all. It's just that in that world, the existence of an age of dinosaurs is a given, both scientifically and religiously. It's not considered to be significantly controversial from either a scientific or religious standpoint. It is true that the rationalist viewpoint is vastly more acceptable in Centrist/Modern Orthodoxy than in Charedi Orthodoxy, but any given Centrist/Modern Orthodox person's belief in an age of dinosaurs does not tell you much about whether he is a rationalist.

Likewise, it is often assumed that if a rabbi accepts that the universe is millions of years old, then he is a rationalist, following in the footsteps of Rambam. Not at all! It could well be that he was simply educated in an environment in which the antiquity of the universe was acknowledged to have been endorsed by figures such as Rav Yisrael Lipshitz, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and Rav Aryeh Kaplan (admittedly based on a misunderstanding of R. Yitzchak of Acco). But when confronted with a different or new challenge, such as evolution, or evidence that Chazal's understanding of zoology or physiology was deficient, this person might be entirely non-rationalist - rejecting that which is scientifically well established, creating unreasonable readings of Chazal, and even aggressively delegitimizing those who adopt a rationalist approach.

One of the most valuable effects of the controversial controversy over my books was that many people suddenly became aware that those people that they had thought were their religious leaders were not actually operating with the same epistemology, and they looked for more suitable religious leaders instead. But when looking for religious guidance, one must be careful; belief that dinosaurs once roamed the earth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

16 comments:

  1. I think your definition of "rationalist" could use some tightening. I think you are exchanging "empiricist" or "materialist" for "rationalist."

    Furthermore, Rambam, as is clear in the second edition of the Sefer HaMitzvoth Shilot Ed., when dealing with Aristotle's understanding of eternity of the world is actually a non-rationalist by your (and probably most) definitions.

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    1. I'm using the word rationalist as defined in this post: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/09/rationalist-vs-mystical-judaism.html

      Not sure what you mean about Rambam.

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  2. "But when looking for religious guidance, one must be careful; belief that dinosaurs once roamed the earth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition."

    Why in the world is it necessary for a religious leader to believe in dinosaurs to be qualified as a religious leader?

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    1. Sorry, perhaps I wasn't clear. In the context of this post, I was referring to people who want religious leaders that are also going to be operating in the same epistemological framework with regard to issues such as this.

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    2. What is required, if not belief in science? Must a rabbi accept that babies don't come from storks? Must rabbis accept that potassium-argon dating is valid? What if they deny that potassium-argon dating is valid, but it's clear that they don't even know what potassium or argon are, other than being able to identify them as "science words."

      To head you off at the pass, you may presume that I was being sarcastic above - let me assure you that I was not. No scientist in 2018 accepts that babies come from storks, just like no scientists deny the validity of potassium-argon dating.

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    3. Every RY knows potassium argon is used in between glass panes of energy efficient windows, and after a few years, it deteriorates and becomes dated.
      Of course they believe in dating.
      (humor)

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  3. Common sense. There are open minded and narrow minded people in every community, almost by definition. The MO community is as narrow minded in their own own way as is the chareidi in theirs, and others in theirs. The common man in each community are generally simply frozen into their own orthodoxies, whatever they happen to be. That’s how groups and communities work by nature. Thoughtfulness, critical thinking, openness, self-critique, intellectual honesty, etc. are the province of the individual, each in their own way.

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    1. Correct. It's so simple, really, and yet so often people fail to see it. As the sages said, a man cannot see his own negah. All of us* are at times broad and narrow and hypocritical, all in our own ways.

      (*Except me.)

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  4. The argument could be made that not believing in dinosaurs is actually a disqualification for leadership. If you have some kind of mental gymnastics to make dinosaurs jive with the Seder HaDoros, that's cool. But denying their existence, that's a paddlin'.

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  5. "If such a person is confronted with something that appears scientifically proven but does not appear possible to reconcile with Torah, then he will honestly admit that he does not have a solution that is compatible with the two."

    Where does the Rambam admit this - other than in the famous case of free will in הל' תשובה? Seems he always tries to put science and religion together.
    Maybe there are more cases - please enlighten us. Thanks.

    -- dan kern
    Efrat

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    1. According to the Rambam (Guide 2:25) only Plato's view (that the universe was created from timeless matter) could theoretically be brought in line with Torah. Rambam admits that the verses of the Torah could also be theoretically reinterpreted according to Aristotle (who maintains that the universe always existed in its present form), but he says that such an accommodation would be impossible, due to the fundamental theological incompatibility of Judaism with the Aristotelian worldview. But he says that fortunately, Aristotle did not prove his opinion. He does not say what he would have done if he felt that Aristotle would have proved his opinion.

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  6. such as evolution, or evidence that Chazal's understanding of zoology or physiology was deficient, this person might be entirely non-rationalist - rejecting that which is scientifically well established, - Is Evolution actually well established as fact by ALL scientists?

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    1. There are two aspects to evolution - common ancestry and evolutionary mechanisms. The former is accepted as well-established fact by all scientists in the relevant fields (aside perhaps from some fundamentalist Christians). The evolutionary mechanisms of random mutation & natural selection are accepted by most, though not all, as being the primary mechanism.

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  7. I can't help but notice that the people who loudly proclaim that they are more rationalist than thou will almost invariably respond with angry name-calling, or change-the-subject-hand-waving if you point out trivially obvious corollaries of the theory of evolution pertaining to observed differences among human populations.

    It looks suspiciously like evolution is a useful tool for undermining other people's dearly-held religious opinions to be discarded whenever it challenges their (entirely non-Jewish in origin) fundamental beliefs. Kind of sick really.

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    1. Well, given that the science claiming to show such differences (the ones you mean with this dogwhistle, anyway) is full of holes, and given the large influence of epigenetic and environmental effects on said purported differences, these claims are anything but trivially obvious corollaries.

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    2. ID proponents might be regarded as adopting a God-of-the-Gaps argument. ID mostly focuses on those biological or chemical facts lying behind evolution that scientists have not yet adequately explained, and trumpets that lack of resolution or understanding as “proof” that only an intelligent designer might have brought about such a phenomenon. Likewise, liberals who insist that there is no scientific evidence of genetic differences between races in IQ seek out aspects of the scientific case for such differences which are not fully understood, and insert their belief in equality in those gaps. Their view can, I think, aptly be named “Equality of the Gaps”. Under this approach, if studies show that black children adopted into families register IQs far more similar to the average of blacks in the larger population than to the IQs of white children adopted into the same families, then the explanation must lie elsewhere than genetics. It must be that black children suffer in all cases from a “caste mentality” brought about their very identification as black, or that they, as blacks, are punished by peers for “acting white” when they seek to excel at school. If white matter in the brain appears to play a crucial role in IQ, then either the relevant differences in size and quality are in all cases brought about entirely by environment, or the differences between races on this score are so engendered. And if science is not yet fully clear as to which sets of genes differentiates between races, and in what manner they do so, then race is a mere social construct, not a category grounded in biology.

      Each individual response may possess some kind of plausibility (or not). In aggregate, however, it’s impossible not to notice the pattern. These moves are quite completely predictable. They appear to be driven by beliefs that have absolutely nothing to do with science or the truth, but rather spring from a fragile and ill-conceived moral system — one far too rigid to accommodate important facts of human nature.

      Where does this leave the ongoing argument over IQ and race?

      Over time, as science has closed in on the underlying truths, the gaps in explanation have narrowed dramatically; they continue to do so. Yet those gaps never entirely disappear. For the Equality-of-the-Gaps people, that is all they require: they live on to fight another day, and another day after that. For the rest of us, we can only wait it out until they dwindle into irrelevance.


      https://liberalbiorealism.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/the-vice-tightens/

      On the whole, I tend to think the objections to feminism that derive from evolutionary psychology are even more telling and if they aren't trivially obvious I don't really know what is.



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