Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Cuddly Hyrax and the Two-Headed Rhino


Following taking Torah-in-Motion's 2019 African Adventure group to Zimbabwe and Botswana, where we saw astonishing elephants, hippos and monster crocodiles, we went down to Capetown in South Africa. There, we took the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain. This is one of my favorite places, because it is pretty much the only place outside of Israel where you will see an important Biblical creature: the hyrax. I posted the following photo to Facebook:



Now to my mind this looks like I bought a cuddly toy hyrax and put it on the mountain for a photo. Which is indeed exactly what I did; the real hyraxes were (unlike in other years) too far away to get a good picture of them. But, much to my surprise, a number of people on Facebook thought that it was a photo of a real hyrax!

Okay, I guess most people are not as intimately familiar with hyraxes as I am. But then yesterday, I was able to post a truly extraordinary photo:


As I wrote on Facebook, this is "Possibly the most extraordinary wildlife photo that I have ever taken. A two-headed rhino!"

This photo got an enormous amount of attention! Many people were marveling at the incredible phenomenon of a two-headed rhinoceros. But others were wondering: could such a thing really exist?

The answer is that it's certainly possible for such a creature to exist. The phenomenon of a creature possessing two heads (or perhaps it should be phrased as twins possessing a single body) has been documented with numerous species. Two-headed snakes appear to be particularly common; there was one exhibited for many years at a reptile zoo near Eilat. I've also seen two-headed turtles. And at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we have the skull of a two-faced cow.

Most remarkable of all are Abigail and Brittany Hensel. They are adult twins who possess a single body, with Abigail controlling the arm and leg on one side, and Brittany controlling the arm and leg on the other side. The Hensel twins are fully functional, and can even drive!

What about a two-headed rhinoceros? In fact, there is a webpage, titled "Five Bizarre (Yet Real) Two-Headed Animals," which features photos not only of a two-headed snake, turtle, kitten and piglet, but also of a two-headed rhino!

Yet at the same time, one should ask oneself: What is more likely? Is it more likely that I saw a two-headed rhino, or is it more likely that there is some other trickery involved? For example, it's possible that the photo was digitally manipulated on Photoshop. Or that there were two rhinos which were standing with their legs perfectly lined up, giving the impression that there was a single four-legged body - which would still make for a fabulous photo, albeit not quite as fabulous as a two-headed rhino!

(For the record, I hereby attest that I did not alter my photo in any way! But as for the photo of the two-headed rhino on the aforementioned webpage of "Five Bizarre (Yet Real) Two-Headed Animals," shown here, I am convinced that it is digitally manipulated.)

Many people focus on what is theoretically possible, rather than on what is likely. This is something that I encounter quite often in arguing various topics surrounding Rationalist Judaism. To give but one example: Is it theoretically possible that when the Gemara said that the atalef lays eggs, that it was not referring to a bat, but rather to a duck-billed platypus from Australia, and just happened to describe it with the exact name that everyone has always understood to refer to the bat, which is a creature that is birdlike and often mistakenly thought to lay eggs? Yes, it's theoretically possible. But is it likely? Not in the slightest!

When evaluating claims, it's always important to think about what is most likely and reasonable, not what is theoretically possible. And to be aware of all the different possibilities to exist - and their probabilities. Of course, different people will have different ways of weighing up various probabilities. But the first step is to at least be aware that that is what should be done.

40 comments:

  1. There you go again with your atalef point. You are neglecting to mention the essential position of the R' Meiselman camp: The belief that Chazal cannot make an error when stating a definitive claim about the natural world. That eliminates the "more likely and reasonable" possibilities.
    For example, if I am talking to my friend and tell him that I saw someone who looks exactly like Rabbi Dr. Slifkin in the merkaz in RBS yesterday, who was followed by a group of hares and hyrazes, it is more reasonable to say that it was in fact you than to say that you have a previously unknown identical-twin brother who also takes interest in these animals. But if we were then to find out that you were in fact in Africa yesterday, the possibility that it was you is eliminated, so its likelihood is now zero.
    To be clear, that says nothing of the correctness of their belief about Chazal, but it does change the "ratings" for what is more reasonable.

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    1. "When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." - Sherlock Holmes

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    2. That essential position is stupid and obviously wrong.

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  2. In your last 2 paragraphs, I take it you are also referring to the theory of evolution?

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  3. Bad move for you and your reputation to publish ANY deceptive photo at any time for any reason.

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  4. Say it like Sherlock. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

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  5. Purely hallucination to think the hyrax is a biblical creature as it doesn't chew it's cud.

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    1. It engages in merycism, occasional regurgitation and remastication of already swallowed food. An even bigger problem is neither the hare or rabbit do any kind of regurgitation, not even merycism (they can't even vomit according to R. Slifkin's Camel, Hare, and Hyrax). You could say eating of the poop could be considered maaleh gerah, but once you allow that possibility, you can definitely include merycism.

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  6. In Lubavitch, being called a four headed snake, or in Yiddish א פיר קאפיגע שלאנג, is a great slur.

    FWIW, I would love to see the yardstick of 'likelihood' that you use. How do things become more or less likely? How often do these things come up?
    I posit that you are measuring Chazal with your trousers, using your own experiences to judge attitudes of people far away from you, in location, time, and mindset

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    1. First, I love the "measuring with your own trousers." Secondly, while your critique might be correct, how exactly is it supposed to deal with the actual issue Rabbi Slifkin raises? The undeniably real fact that Chazal were giants of the intellect and spirit doesn't really suffice to have magically transported them to Australia.

      As a moshol, imagine if a very great rabbi passed away. And say some teachings of his or of his predecessors gave the sense that he or his generation was destined to bring or even be the Moshiach. But then - he dies! Sure, you can say that he's not dead, or that his spirit is still alive, or that he'll come back. But isn't it more likely to just say he's dead?

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  7. So just to confirm....that first pic of the 2 headed rhino is an actual 2 headed rhino? That's seriously amazing if so!! Would you mind posting any other pictures you have of this animal?

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    1. Rabbi Slifkin all but stated what happened: "Or that there were two rhinos which were standing with their legs perfectly lined up, giving the impression that there was a single four-legged body - which would still make for a fabulous photo, albeit not quite as fabulous as a two-headed rhino!"

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    2. I apologise, that does seem to be the case. I thought that since he used the phrase "it's possible" right before saying that, that he was just giving examples of what else the picture might actually be. Still amazing I guess that he got such a pic without Photoshop. Can't see any additional legs, at all.

      Thanks for clarifying

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  8. But the two-headed rhino actually could be used to prove the opposite -- that just because something seems far-fetched doesn't mean it isn't true. I can easily see a medieval rationalist dismissing an ancient account of a two-headed animal. And yet, it exists!

    Sometimes I think we need to be humble and utilize the principles governing dan l'kaf zechus -- that the utterly improbable is sometimes true. I'm not arguing that one shouldn't go with the more likely explanation. I'm simply saying that, in general, people should be more humble about their conclusions.

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    1. "Dan l'kaf zechus" does not apply to questions that are purely factual, such as "Is my pillowcase beige or blue?" It requires that there be a "good" and a "bad" answer to the question, such as "Am I lying when I say it is beige?"

      You seem to assume that the dispute between the rationalists and the infallibilists is like the latter question: that it is "good" to conclude that Chazal's statements about nature were prophetic and infallible, and "bad" to conclude that they were based on the state of contemporary science and knowledge of local conditions, and thus frequently incorrect.

      Your valuation would doubtless be correct if Hazal had explicitly claimed to be infallible about non-halachic matters; moreover, there would be cause for concern that proving them wrong about a non-halachic question of fact could call their general credibility into question.

      But they said no such thing, and the question didn't really become a problem until the dawn of the scientific age.

      Of course, rationalists take truth where they find it; and the veracity of a claim about nature can have no stronger confirmation or refutation than the actual state of nature.

      But even the infallibilists use cherry-picked instances of Hazal's nature statements being confirmed by modern science, and invent far-fetched explanations for some--but not all--instances where Chazal's statements about nature were wrong.

      And if nature is evidence, then pointing out the far-fetchedness of an explanation of nature casts doubt not upon the "goodness" of Hazal or anyone else, but on the credibility of the evidence used to support the claim that they are infallible.

      In short, this is an epistemological question, not a moral one.

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    2. "Your valuation would doubtless be correct if Hazal had explicitly claimed to be infallible about non-halachic matters;"

      Ah, but they did... in some specific instances. See comment thread here:
      http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2019/06/when-people-lose-their-minds_17.html

      "...moreover, there would be cause for concern that proving them wrong about a non-halachic question of fact could call their general credibility into question."

      Bingo. On the head.

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    3. David, I'll save you some time - there is nothing in that thread which shows Chazal claiming to be infallible. On the other hand, there are, of course, innumerable statements of Chazal which make it clear that they did not consider themselves infallible.

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    4. "...moreover, there would be cause for concern that proving them wrong about a non-halachic question of fact could call their general credibility into question." Bingo etc.

      Old mistake, that empirical accuracy is needed for Halachah

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    5. R' Slifkin,

      "On the other hand, there are, of course, innumerable statements of Chazal which make it clear that they did not consider themselves infallible."

      The issue is not whether Chazal were infallible. The issue is whether something included in the Talmud can be wrong.

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    6. " there is nothing in that thread which shows Chazal claiming to be infallible."
      בבא בתרא עה
      כי הא דיתיב רבי יוחנן וקא דריש עתיד הקב"ה להביא אבנים טובות ומרגליות שהם שלשים על שלשים וחוקק בהן עשר על עשרים ומעמידן בשערי ירושלים לגלג עליו אותו תלמיד השתא כביעתא דציצלא לא משכחינן כולי האי משכחינן לימים הפליגה ספינתו בים חזא מלאכי השרת דיתבי וקא מינסרי אבנים טובות ומרגליות שהם ל' על ל' וחקוק בהן עשר ברום עשרים אמר להו הני למאן אמרו ליה שעתיד הקב"ה להעמידן בשערי ירושלים אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן אמר ליה דרוש רבי לך נאה לדרוש כאשר אמרת כן ראיתי אמר לו ריקא אלמלא (לא) ראית לא האמנת מלגלג על דברי חכמים אתה נתן עיניו בו ונעשה גל של עצמות

      יבמות לד
      כי אתא רבין א"ר יוחנן כל ששהתה אחר בעלה עשר שנים ונשאת שוב אינה יולדת אמר רב נחמן לא שנו אלא שאין דעתה להנשא אבל דעתה להנשא מתעברת אמר ליה רבא לבת רב חסדא קא מרנני רבנן אבתריך אמרה ליה אנא דעתאי עלך הואי ההיא דאתיא לקמיה דרב יוסף אמרה לו ר' אנא שהיתי אחר בעלי עשר שנים וילדתי א"ל בתי אל תוציאי לעז על דברי חכמים אמרה ליה לנכרי נבעלתי

      בכורות ח
      א"ל קיסר לרבי יהושע בן חנניה נחש לכמה מיעבר ומוליד א"ל לשב שני והא סבי דבי אתונא ארבעינהו ואוליד לתלת הנהו מיעברי הוו מעיקרא ד' [שנין] והא קמשמשי שמושי אינהו נמי משמשי כאדם והא חכימי אינהו אנן חכימינן מינייהו

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    7. None of these sources show them claiming to be infallible. See, for example, http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%206%20Slifkin.pdf

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    8. *sigh*
      ALL of these sources show them claiming to be unquestionably correct about a non-halachic matter and a question of fact.

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    9. The issue is whether something included in the Talmud can be wrong. (LY)

      That's a bit vague. Do you want to come again?

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    10. Chaim,

      I think two distinct issues get conflated sometimes. Let's use Rabban Gamliel as an example. One issue is whether or not Rabban Gamliel was ever mistaken about anything he ever said in his life. The second issue is whether statements of Rabban Gamliel that were recorded in the Talmud could be mistaken.

      The Talmud was accepted by Klal Yisroel to be the word of G-d and the absolute truth (i.e. we believe it was compiled with a certain Siyata Dishmaya or Ruach Hakodesh). Something recorded in the Talmud cannot be a mistake (unless the Talmud itself says something is a mistake). Something recorded in the Talmud in the name of Rabban Gamliel cannot be a mistake. However, Rabban Gamliel said many things in his life that were not recorded in the Talmud. Those things are not necessarily infallible.

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    11. I think he meant to say *concluded*, which makes a lot of sense and is solidly supported by the evidence.

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    12. "The Talmud was accepted by Klal Yisroel to be the word of G-d and the absolute truth."

      That's a spectacular claim, and demonstrably false.

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    13. R' Natan,

      "That's a spectacular claim, and demonstrably false."

      Actually it's basic emunas yisroel.

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    14. So there is no renowned Torah scholar who says that something in the Talmud could be incorrect?

      Have you had your head in the ground for the last fifteen years?

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  9. I guess some people are not too familiar with Occam's razor.

    Also, and perhaps more perplexingly, it seems people are not familiar with the phenomenon of conjoined (or "Siamese") twins. If it happens in humans (who bear only one offspring at a time, and bear relatively few over a lifetime), kal vachomer the phenomenon will be observed in the animal kingdom.

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    1. On the other hand, there are six billion humans and only 5000 rhinos.

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    2. How many humans alive today are Siamese twins, one (or two) in six billion?

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    3. Fighting "gotcha!" with "gotcha!"July 15, 2019 at 9:26 PM

      @RNS: "six billion humans". Off by over 1.5 billion! even Chazal have never been so wrong!

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    4. Reading this post more closely (after just skimming over it the first time), it seems that--with all my discussion of conjoined twinning--I may have missed the thrust of the post entirely. My point about Occam's razor still stands though!

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    5. @Fighting: RNS used the count that came as a result of including a citizenship question. There was a slight undercount.

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  10. And at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we have [a replica of] the skull of a two-faced cow.

    --
    Any video of the rhino(s)?

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    1. Chasurei mechsera? Your query has nothing to do with your italicised quote.

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    2. BHB, thanks for asking. Look more closely at the italicized quote. The non-italicized words in brackets are a correction.

      --
      The question beneath the 2 hyphens is independent of the previous paragraph.

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  11. R' Slifkin,

    I suppose I wasn't thinking of rhinos in particular (which, as large mammals, also only bear 1 offspring at a time and have a notably long period of gestation limiting their ability to reproduce quickly), but rather of animals like reptiles and amphibians that bear many offspring at once. I think most farmers can attest to the existence (if not prevalence) of 2-headed livestock as well.

    Incidentally, the more I thought about, the more I realized that perhaps people simply don't realize that what we perceive as a single animal with 2 heads is not some kind of magical occurrence wherein one organism happens to be born with 2 heads growing from its body, but rather is just an incidence of conjoined twinning where both twins happen to share all body structures from the neck down.

    (Funnily enough, this may be the reason that, as you noted, "Two-headed snakes appear particularly common": whereas other vertebrates might be conjoined anywhere along their morphogenetic axis resulting in duplication of any number of structures/limbs, just about the only thing to duplicate in snake--externally, at least--is the head!)

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  12. Has anyone tried the Midrash'es test, of pouring hot water on one head to see if the other head cries out?

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