Credulity and Scepticism – a response to Dan

In response to my previous post (an excerpt from chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes), Dan wrote: 

What principled distinction is there between scientific authority and theological authority, surely your point that we should be open minded and skeptical about scientific papers, pronouncements, etc, should also apply to religion. We should also be open minded and not simply accept everything that religious authorities pronounce. Do you agree with this? If not I would appreciate it if you could explain the difference.

My response:

Broadly speaking, I agree with Dan. Would any rational person disagree? We place our trust in people or institutions on the basis of evidence. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch points out that the famous Jewish proclivity for scepticism begins at the dawn of our history. Hirsch writes: 

“They [the Israelites] began to have doubts concerning the mission of Moses. In view of their situation, it is easy to account for their misgivings. How could they have assumed so unquestioningly that God would lead them to their goal in such an extraordinary manner, unprecedented in history, in a manner running counter to all natural assumptions? As Judah HaLevi points out in his Kuzari, these persistent doubts in fact constituted an important documentation for the authenticity of Moses’ mission. Moses was dealing with a people whose minds were clear and lucid, not befogged by fanciful notions, a nation that was not easily taken in…” [The Pentateuch T’rumath Tzvi, (Hirsch Chumash) page 263. Emphasis added]. 

At the other end of history, contemporary Jewish outreach (kiruv) typically involves, as a major component, the presentation of rational arguments. You may agree or disagree with the argument, but you won’t be asked to chomp on mushrooms and hum Ohmm for hours on end. 

On a personal level, I consider myself a sceptic twice over: by temperament and by training. I grew up in a thoroughly secular home, with no Jewish education to speak of. My journey to observance involved endless questioning and doubt. Furthermore, I have been a Talmudic scholar for seventeen years, and there is no more sceptical document in human history than the Talmud, in which the most common refrain is, “How do you know that?” 

Having said all of this, I should point out that scepticism is often an excuse for inaction; it functions as a mask for laziness. Anyone who wishes to avoid the cognitive dissonance that follows from a refusal to live by one’s convictions can claim that his inaction stems from scepticism. 

More to the point – as far as Dan’s comment goes – is the fact that scepticism does not mean that we never take things on authority. On the contrary; part of being rational means trusting those who have proven their expertise. I may not understand precisely why a doctor prescribes medicine A as opposed to medicine B, or why my mechanic thinks that the tappets need replacing, but if he has proven himself competent in the past, I would most likely trust his expertise in this case. 

I don’t know what Dan means by religious authorities. I do know that my commitment to Torah Judaism came about through a long and thorough exploration of the relevant issues. I also know that the Torah tradition has proved itself to be the most trustworthy, reliable, rationally-defensible ideology in history. On the basis of experience and evidence, I have no reason to doubt it, even if I do not pretend to know every nook and cranny of this enormous intellectual edifice.


2 Responses to “Credulity and Scepticism – a response to Dan”

  1. Dan Says:

    “part of being rational means trusting those who have proven their expertise”

    I agree, that is why people are justified in trusting science when it comes to basic ideas in cosmology. They are not being irrational, just as you trust modern medicine when your doctor prescribes you medicine for your stomachache, in spite of the fact that there are examples where medicine has been very wrong, and even stubborn in its views, as you write about in the Robin Warren case. You might feel that there is more power control when it comes to cosmology then medicine, or you, for whatever other reason might follow medicine but not modern cosmology, and that is fine, you are entitled to make that decision, but it is a purely subjective opinion. It is not like the objective truth of mathematics. You will most probably argue that cosmology is not a “repeatable, observable, limited phenomena” that you write about in your book, but there are millions of intelligent people that will argue otherwise, and we could spend years debating the point. (a quick idea to think about, the main issue is that the universe seems to be older then 6000 years old, not that it is 13.75 billion years old, this important point is often overlooked) More importantly there are issues in medicine which are still unobservable and debatable, but it is still rational for one to follow his doctor if he has a proven track record.

    “I don’t know what Dan means by religious authorities…”

    I meant religious authorities of any creed, more to the point- it is very important to point out that there is not a community in the world that is immune to the abuse of power that you so brilliantly write about in your book. In fact I think your book would be beneficial for people of oppressed countries, they will learn to be skeptical of their dictator and not simple believe the information that is selectively fed to them.

    You write in your book “But scientists are human beings, subject to all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of other human beings. In our context, it is essential to recognise that scientists are subject to conditioning. They are the product of all previous life experiences, including a lengthy training period in which the reigning paradigm is impressed indelibly on their minds” I believe that we could include the entire human race in “scientist” thus Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders are all human.

    And I am sure you will agree with me that the more power and the less accountability leaders have, the more skeptical we should be of their pronouncements.
    I am also sure that if hypothetically people would be given the death penalty for going against the leaders of medicine e.g. Robin Warren , we would have all the more reason to be extremely skeptical regarding medical pronouncements, because people will be too scared to challenge them, and we would all be having a lot of stomach problems!

    That is why when you write (I might be misunderstanding you here so I apologize in advance if that is the case) at the end of your article about prof Shapiro and Rabbi blue, that מלגלג על דברי חכמים carries the penalty of losing one’s share in the world to come, which is, I think, worse than the death penalty, I become very skeptical indeed.

    Finally with regard to the debate regarding evolution there are plenty Jewish leaders that accept evolution as being compatible with Torah, for example the Chief Rabbi of England who is regarded as a great leader. Last year at the Sinai indaba he was a highlight of the evening when he gave his message to the entire Johannesburg Jewish community. I read his new book it was very interesting.
    I am not saying that people should not follow Torah leaders that appose evolution if they choose to, all I am saying is that we have Jewish experts for and against evolution, and it is vital that on is given the freedom to choose. One can argue that the leaders on one side of the fence are less wise, or whatever then the other side but that is very subjective, on the opposite extreme of mathematics.
    Looking forward to your response.

  2. Jason Says:

    Sorry for the long comment, but I think it’s all fairly relevant.

    Can you please explain why, on one hand you cite an article that expresses great distrust in medical authority and yet on the other, you say a doctor knows best in matters of his/her own specialty? If it’s that you were initially referring to speculative and not established science then why shouldn’t we trust the core principle of evolution (common descent) which has been accepted by the great majority of generations of biologists? While science is fallible, shouldn’t we leave the decision of what deserves to be deemed true to the experts who best understand the complexities and subtleties of the matter?

    To quote Rabbi Hirsch on the issue of evolution:
    “Even if this notion (evolution) were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (presumably Charles Darwin), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” (Darwinian evolution) in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures.”
    (The Educational Value of Judaism, in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264) (source:

    It would appear to me that since the cliche (but nevertheless true) statement that there is no longer any serious debate among biologists of /if/ evolution occurred and not /how/ it occurred, the /occurrence/ of evolution has indeed met Hirsch’s criterion of “gain[ing] complete acceptance by the scientific world”. Aren’t we therefore justified to trust the idea of common descent in the same way as we would trust a doctor whose methods are the culmination of at least a century of scientific inquiry? Why can’t we, as Hirsch put it, accept that evolution can, not only exist in harmony with the teachings of the Torah, but enhance it as well?


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