Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Magnetism and Miracles

Following is a brief address that I delivered today at the dedication of the Lee and Anne Samson Interventional Neuro-Radiology Unit at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital.
 

Mayor Barkat, Professor HaLevy, my dear father-in-law, HaRav Drori, HaRav Stav, Rav Karlinsky, Former Minister Livnat, distinguished guests - and my kids,

It's very special to be at this event, the dedication of the Lee and Anne Samson Interventional Neuro-Radiology Unit, for four reasons.

First, because it is dedicated by, and in honor of, my wonderful father-in-law and my beloved late mother-in-law.

Second, because this is a unit that will be improving and saving lives, and you don't get much more important causes than that.

Third, because this is a tremendous achievement for Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world.

But it's the fourth reason that I would like to focus upon, because it occurred to me that it might be overlooked. And that is the religious significance of Interventional Neuro-Radiology.

Interventional Neuro-Radiology uses highly sophisticated imaging techniques - a combination of magnetic fields, electric field gradients, and radio waves - to enable surgical procedures to be performed through small incisions in the skin, directly inside the affected blood vessels.

Eight hundred years ago, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, perhaps better known by the acronym Rashba, wrote a heated critique of Rambam. One of his critiques was related to Rambam's dismissal of all magic as being superstitious nonsense. Rashba argues that there is clear evidence against Rambam's position. He says that there are phenomena that undeniably exist, and yet for which there can be no scientific explanation. The example that he brings is the magnet, and its use in a compass. These things operate neither in the realm of the miraculous, nor in the realm of the natural; instead, they operate in the realm of segulah, which is probably best translated as "occult properties." Rashba notes that "the wisest of scholars in the sciences can never grasp the nature" of such things.

Eight hundred years later, nobody would argue that magnets, and other forces of a non-tangible nature, are not in the realm of the natural. We understand a tremendous amount about magnetism and radiation and all kinds of energy fields, and we realize that even though you can't see magnetism or radiation, they are nevertheless natural properties of the physical universe. The people who design and use the equipment in the Interventional Neuro-Radiology unit are scientists and technicians, not wizards.

But this does not mean that these machines are not miraculous! The fact that the universe exists with invisible and yet real and regular forces, which man has been able to use his mind to discover, and which he has even learned how to generate and to manipulate, to see inside his very own body - is this not a miracle? It surely is. It's a tremendous expression of the wonder of the universe that God has created. So, as we stand here today, grateful for this medical marvel, we should also marvel at the wonder of God's universe, that made it possible. Thank you.

22 comments:

  1. when you say it is occult properties. do you mean forbidden magic.?

    why not translate it is as unconventional science eg. homeotpathy

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    1. That is the term that is used for that idea. It has nothing to do with Jewish law. For example: Leibniz eventually accused Newton of regarding gravity as a kind of “occult quality”, that is, as a quality of bodies that is somehow hidden within them and beyond the philosopher's understanding.

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    2. Is that not so?

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  2. "Rambam's dismissal of all magic as being superstitious nonsense." Exactly so.

    "But this does not mean that these machines... he has even learned how to generate and to manipulate, to see inside his very own body - is this not a miracle?" Depends what you mean by miracle. I also marvel at nature and human accomplishments, but I do not think any of it requires supernatural explanation.

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    1. The idea of miracle here refers to the idea that all of nature is G-d's handy work. In my opinion it is far easier to explain the vast complexity of nature, especially life, as the work of a master designer since myriad design elements are so apparent. How can you not even "think" that "perhaps" it requires a supernatural explanation.

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  3. and we realize that even though you can't see magnetism or radiation

    Quite the opposite: radiation is the only thing you can see.

    But this does not mean that these machines are not miraculous!

    Yes it does. You're just playing word games, redefining "miracle" to suit your argument.

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    1. Most radiation is invisible.

      miracle | ˈmɪrək(ə)l |
      noun
      an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency: the miracle of rising from the grave.
      • a remarkable event or development that brings very welcome consequences: it was a miracle that more people hadn't been killed | industries at the heart of the economic miracle.
      • an exceptional product or achievement, or an outstanding example of something: a machine which was a miracle of design | [as modifier] : a miracle drug.

      Not every definition of miracle refers to a supernatural event.

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    2. Furthermore, the Hebrew "nes" can (and some will say usually) refers to miracles that occur within nature. Many of our sages go to great lengths to explain how God's miracles are accomplished using the laws of nature, not by violating them.

      So when we humans also accomplish incredible feats using (not violating) the laws of nature, why should that not also be considered miraculous?

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  4. P.S Congrats for joining illustrious company:

    Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

    I see miracles all around me
    Stop and look around, it's all astounding
    Water, fire, air and dirt
    F***ing magnets, how do they work?

    Bonus SNL spoof.

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    Replies
    1. @SQ They are quite talented and they brought a smile to my face. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. Nice talk.

    The Rambam says magic is sheker - false. I don't think he means to say it doesn't exist, rather that it is a false i.e. negative thing, as in sheker hachen. Chen exists, its just a negative quality in the context of the posuk.

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    1. He says the opposite quite explicitly.

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    2. The Gra thinks the Rambam denies the existence of magic. I'm sure you're fake skepticism extends to the Gra as well. You're being a clown - as usual.

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    3. Ch"v I should be skeptical about the Gr"a. But I can sit in the shadow of those who are not of his school and suggest an alternative perspective.
      My skepticism is not fake. It comes from a lot of experience and research

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  6. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
    - Artie Clarke, SF writer.

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    1. I believe that he meant sufficiently advanced beyond the technology known to that society.

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    2. One can argue this to be the case for a lot of modern technology. Most people have only a vague idea (if that much) of how modern marvels like computers and mobile communication devices work, but they use them every day.

      I have recently learned quite a bit about the underlying tech that makes 3G, 4G and (soon) 5G mobile phones work and it's really difficult to understand. I would go so far as to argue that one can't completely understand it without a PhD in physics. For people like me, it's a lot of hand-waving and oversimplifications, and for the average person (without any background in science or engineering), it might as well be magic to them.

      Getting back to Rabbi Slifkin's article, go take a look at modern medicine. Devices like MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, neuro-radiology and all the associated technologies are well beyond most people's abilities to understand. There are probably only a few hundred (if that many) people who completely understand the underlying science, and probably a few thousand who understand it well enough to design and build the machines. But tens of thousands (maybe a lot more) of doctors who can use it, despite not understanding why it works. And hundreds of millions of people who can benefit from it without knowing anything at all and for whom it effectively is magic.

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  7. You didn't actually say "former" minister livnat?

    Unless Israel is different, the title stays forever.

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  8. There are, according to both Rambam and Rashba, phenomena with clear physical explanations that operate according to the laws of nature. There is also God, and His actions, which are metaphysical, but more importantly, are not constrained by any laws, natural or otherwise.

    Where they disagree is whether there exists a third category--phenomena that are not subject to natural law, but operate in a determinate way. This question is not incidental: it is the very basis of the distinction between rationalists and kabbalists.

    Kabbalists claim that the distinction between God and the created universe is incremental. Between the two, there exists a mechanical metaphysical universe, separate from both God and the material world, but operating in a fixed manner like the created universe. The purpose of religion is to manipulate the levers of this mechanical metaphysical world.

    Rashba's example shows that he is referring to this intermediary realm. Only the forces driving magnets were unknown; it was widely known and understood that they behaved according to consistent and predictable rules. There was no question of magnets being "magic"; they required no rituals or hidden knowledge and were usable by anyone.

    For rationalists, the distinction between God and the created universe is absolute. There is only the natural world, which operates according to fixed rules in order to create free will (or the illusion thereof), and God, who is unconstrained by any mechanical rules. The purpose of religion is intellectual development.

    The specific example used by Rashba, and its disproof by modern science, is not all that significant. Certainly magnetism was inexplicable by the science of Rashba's day, and fairly easily explicable by current standards; but no scientifically aware person would claim that there do not remain unanswered questions.

    The question is how we approach unanswered questions. The medieval approach was to explain the inexplicable as metaphysical. The modern approach is to assume that there is a physical explanation, we just don't know it ... yet. The only miracle here is that humanity (well, most of it) was able to move past the medieval mindset; this is why fields like neuroradiology exist today.

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  9. "But it's the fourth reason that I would like to focus upon, because it occurred to me that it might be overlooked. And that is the religious significance of Interventional Neuro-Radiology...."


    "So, as we stand here today, grateful for this medical marvel, we should also marvel at the wonder of God's universe, that made it possible. Thank *you."


    Better yet: "... Thank *You(!)"

    ReplyDelete

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