Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
The Regularity of Nature
One aspect of the rationalist approach is its approach to the natural order. The rationalist approach perceives nature as a superior way for God to run the world than using miracles. Related to this is the rationalist approach of seeing the natural order as being pervasive.
…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle. (Rambam, Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead)
When God wishes to perform miracles, He does so via causes that are the most appropriate according to natural laws…. This is because the natural order of existence was set by God in the most perfect way possible, and when necessity, due to providence, requires a change from this order, it is appropriate that God should divert from this as little as possible. Therefore God does not perform these miracles except via causes that divert very little from nature. (Ralbag, Commentary to Genesis, 6-9, HaTo’eles HaShevi’i)
For the rationalist Rishonim, the reason for believing the natural order to be pervasive was the value that they ascribed to it. For rationalists today, there is a more powerful reason - empirical confirmation. We see that the natural order is able to account for all kinds of phenomena, and we see that it has been in place for billions of years.
A perfect example of the anti-rationalist approach is presented by my former colleague Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb, in this lecture on the Torah Anytime website.
(It should be noted that contrary to how Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb is sometimes described by his colleagues, he does not possess a PhD in physics. Rather, his doctorate is in mathematical logic, which has nothing to do with the natural sciences. On a related note, my father z"l, who was a distinguished physicist with two doctorates, used to point out to me that mathematics has little to do with real-world phenomena, which is why when you find an someone branded as a scientist who insists that the world is several thousand years old or has some other such peculiar belief, you can be sure that he is a mathematician. I would add: or Chabad.)
Rabbi Gottlieb divides scientific pronouncements into different categories to which he attributes different levels of credibility. His main point is that science cannot make any definitive statements when it is extrapolating. He refers to extrapolations that are based on the physical constants of the universe always having been the same as being utterly baseless. Of course, the unspoken subtext to all this is that science cannot proclaim the universe to be billions of years old, and we are therefore justified in insisting it to be less than 6000 years old. However, Rabbi Gottlieb, in his categorization of scientific claims, and his discussion of the weakness of claims that are based on extrapolation, makes two egregious errors.
The first is that he sets up the discussion as one relating to physics and to the origins of the universe. He quotes Steven Weinberg as saying that "all conclusions about the universe depend on the assumption that our point is non-typical." He derides this as being a gigantic extrapolation, with no evidence, and he goes on about how "everything rests on it" (sic) and about how it is related to an atheist idea that we are not special.
But this is all utterly misleading. The issue at stake is not the Big Bang theory; it is not whether the world is 13.8 billion years old; it is not physics at all. Rather, the issue at stake is whether the universe is 5768 years old, or if it is much more than that. And for this, one does not need to engage in any complex physics regarding the origins and development of the universe, which is what Steven Weinberg was discussing. There are much more straightforward and down-to-earth lines of evidence, from geology, paleontology, archeology and so on. Christian geologists of a hundred years ago knew the world to be much more than 6000 years old long before there were any assessments of how many billions of years old it is. You can be sure that when Weinberg referred to "all conclusions about the universe," he was not talking about whether the universe is more than 5769 years old!
(Regrettably, Rabbi Dr. Leo Levi commits the same error in his book Torah & Science, describing the evidence for the age of the world as being based on carbon-dating and suchlike. But the point is not the precise age of the world; it is the antiquity of the world.)
Once you consider such down-to-earth techniques, it becomes more difficult to challenge the extrapolations. Let us consider varves as an example. These are annual layers of sediment laid down on the base of lakes. In the spring and summer, melting snow causes streams to flow with greater volume and speed, enabling them to carry coarse sediment such as sand which settles on the base of the lake. In the winter, when there is less run-off from the mountains, the streams only carry finer sediment. This is a process that can easily be observed in freshwater lakes today. Each varve therefore consists of a thin layer of light (coarse) sediment and an even thinner layer of finer dark sediment. In the Green River formation of Wyoming, there are places with twenty million such layers of sediment. Now, Rabbi Gottlieb will argue that there is no basis for extrapolating that this means that it was formed over millions of years. He would claim that the rate of run-off fluctuated much more rapidly back then. But to be produced within the time span that he wants, the rate would have had to fluctuate every few minutes. But how would this have managed to produce distinct layers?!
Even more basically, the simplest evidence that the earth is far more than a few thousand years old can be detected by the naked eye and without any special scientific skills. At thousands of locations in the world, one can find remains of extinct creatures. Such remains may include fossilized skeletons, eggs, and footprints. But in every one of these places, distinct groupings of creatures are found, depending upon which layer of rock they are found in. This shows that there were many eras of different types of animal life on the planet, which in turn shows that the world is much more than 5769 years old.
The second severe error committed by Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb is that he completely omits two vital and related methods of corroboration that are available for processes of extrapolation.
The first is cross-checking. Extrapolations can be confirmed by independent verification. For example, using ice-layers as a measure of years can be corroborated by dating deposits of ash with known volcanic eruptions. (Of course the die-hard anti-rationalist will claim that this does not have any bearing on the validity of counting ice-layers before the volcanic eruption, especially during the period of creation when the laws of nature were allegedly different. Still, it should have been mentioned.)
The second is the convergence of techniques which results in a coherent system that makes testable predictions. As I explained in my book, there are all kinds of techniques which demonstrate the antiquity of the earth - dendrochronology, varve analysis, ice-cores, paleontology, and so on. Positing that the natural world was different such that one cannot assume that ice-layers were deposited at the same rate back then, would mean that the natural world was massively different. It would mean that dendrochronology would be thrown off, varve analysis - everything. It would mean nothing less than a totally chaotic order, absolutely incomprehensible to us.
But we can see that this is not what happened. Because science works. The different methods of dating corroborate each other. They enable us to make predictions. This is how geologists earn a living! They are employed by mineral companies precisely because geology works, and it enables us to accurately predict where different deposits will be found. Paleontologists can predict which types of fossils will be found depending on what type of rock they are investigating. Instead of finding chaos, we find a very neat arrangement of fossils and sedimentary layers, with clearly distinct eras of animal life. This is why the early Christian geologists, who had formerly assumed that the deluge could account for their findings, were forced to reject this belief.
But what if everything was changed and speeded up in synchronization? Well, if all physical phenomena as we know them were sped up, then the speeding up is irrelevant. Imagine if one were to posit that the fifteenth century only lasted five minutes, as all physical processes occurred much more quickly than usual. Would this be meaningful in any way? If virtually everything is being sped up, then effectively nothing is being sped up.
There is much, much more that can be said about this topic, but I'll leave it at this for now, aside from some final observations on the latter part of the lecture.
Making a similar error to that which he committed with regard to the age of the universe, Rabbi Gottlieb claims that evolution is all (sic) about extrapolating from micro-evolution to macro-evolution. No, it isn't! He has neglected the fossil record, the nested hierarchical pattern of classification, vestigial limbs, and so on. And of course, in his claim that macro-evolution is scientifically baseless, he does not let on that he believes in spontaneous generation (as per Chazal), which is much more radical than macro-evolution.
It is tragically ironic that Rabbi Gottlieb laments that "if only scientists were a little open-minded." He, of course, is not open-mindedly evaluating the evidence, since he a priori considers it heretical to believe that the world is billions of years old or that evolution occurred. Kol haposel bemumo posel. But perhaps the greatest irony in Rabbi Gottlieb's protest against extrapolations is that his most famous presentation about the basis of emunah - the testimony from Sinai - rests on the premise that you can extrapolate from the mesorah, thought-processes and critical skills of people today to people who lived 3000 years ago!
The lecture involves a maximum of scientific jargon, which doubtless impresses the audience; it is unclear if they are expected to understand it. But overall, the lecture is inaccurate and misleading. Some people praise it as the Complete Chareidi Idiots' Guide to Torah and Science. That's an interesting way of putting it...