A Further Response to Dan

Further to my previous post, Dan wrote a fairly lengthy response. Below are his comments, and my responses to them: 

Dan: 

 “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. 

My response: 

Since chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes deals precisely with the points raised above, I do not intend to reply in detail. 

The key point in this context is that most scientific findings are not an either/or proposition – completely reliable or totally speculative. Rather, they span a continuous spectrum. On one extreme are findings that are limited to phenomena that are repeatable, observable and limited; where predictions can be made and tested and theories can be confirmed or refuted. On the other extreme are claims about events that are forever shrouded in the mists of time or space, inaccessible to direct observation and measurement, not corroborated by experiment and never to be repeated. In between these two extremes are found all other findings of science, constituting the vast majority. This is a basic point of departure for all history and philosophy of science textbooks, and it is for this reason that historians of science differentiate between historical sciences and experimental sciences. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, writes that “In complex historical sciences like geology, few situations can be as well controlled as ideal laboratory experiments.” [Stephen Jay Gould, Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, Norton, 1993, page 174.] Gould contrasts the “complex, unrepeatable, and unpredictable events of history” associated with historical sciences with the “quantification, experimentation, and replication” of experimental sciences. [Ibid. page 77.] Needless to say, Gould did not think that this is a subjective point that needs to be debated for years. It is common sense, and is amply corroborated by history. It is unlikely that the medicinal properties of aspirin will ever be denied, but that has precious little to do with ultimate theories in physics or cosmology. As the astronomer and science-historian Timothy Ferris wrote:

“Such optimism [about specific physical theories] may, of course, prove to have been misplaced. The history of twentieth-century physics is strewn with the bleached bones of theories that were once thought to approach an ultimate answer. [Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris, pages 332-333.]” 

In short, I certainly disagree with Dan when he equates the treatment of stomach-ache with cosmology. Notwithstanding Dan’s claim, there is a vast gulf of credibility between the two. This is how I put it in Genesis and Genes

“One essential ingredient of critical thinking is the ability to discriminate. Discrimination – an unfortunately much-maligned word – is the application of different standards, as and when appropriate. As we have seen in this chapter [i.e. chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes], scientific results slot into a continuous spectrum of credibility. We accept the nutritional-value advice on a packet of pasta because the science behind it is repeatable, observable and limited. The chemical analysis that identifies the carbohydrates, proteins and sugars in foods conforms to all the requirements of credible science and therefore justifies our trust. But this does not justify unlimited withdrawals from our credibility account when scientists speak about the origins of life, or the behaviour of physical laws a moment after the creation of the universe. It is appropriate to apply greater scepticism at this end of the spectrum of scientific claims.” 

I do not know what Dan means when he says, “You might feel that there is more power control when it comes to cosmology then [sic] medicine.” But I demonstrate in Genesis and Genes that intellectual disciplines fall on a spectrum which I call the continuum of proof. Different standards of proof apply in different disciplines such as physics, archaeology, geology, pharmacology, economics, psychology, and history, and an informed consumer of science needs to be able to distinguish between the levels of credibility that can be assigned to claims emanating from such diverse fields. At no point do I say that it is irrational to believe in current cosmological theories, as Dan seems to imply in his second sentence; I merely point out that one should be judicious when considering the credibility of various results in science. 

***

Dan: 

“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.

 My response: 

I am flattered that anyone would deem Genesis and Genes worthy of being read by the oppressed masses and capable of instigating revolution and liberty. My objectives, alas, are more modest. How should an informed layman react to the spectrum of claims made on behalf of science? Is there strong evidence for biological evolution, in the sense of common descent through Natural Selection acting on genetic mutations? And what do traditional Torah sources say about all of this? If readers of Genesis and Genes will find it easier to answer these questions, I will be satisfied.

 ***

Dan: 

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. 

My response: 

I wrote in Genesis and Genes

“Of course, I am not saying that conditioning is a problem only for scientists. We are all products of our lives and experiences, and these experiences make us all vulnerable to bias. When [the physicist Sir John] Polkinghorne says that scientists wear theoretical spectacles behind the eyes, his point is that conditioning is a problem for scientists also. They are not immune to having preconceptions.” 

It isn’t necessary to spell out for readers that prejudice and conditioning are part-and-parcel of the intellectual scene, especially when religion is involved. Nothing is easier than dismissing someone’s argument just because he is religious. But it’s different when it comes to science. The day-to-day activities of researchers are so removed from those of the general population that they are, to all intents and purposes, alien. Professor Polkinghorne again: 

“Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that.” 

This is why it is necessary to tell the public that science is a human endeavour, bedeviled by all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of human beings. 

***

Dan:

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. 

My response: 

I suggest that you approach a competent Torah authority to acquaint you with relevant sources. Here is one such source: 

דרשות הר”ן, הדרוש החמישי, נוסח ב: כן נצטוינו לכל מה שאמרו לנו על צד הקבלה מהדעות ומדרשי הפסוקים, יהיה המאמר ההוא מצווה או לא יהיה, ישראל הנוטה מדבריהם אפילו במה שאינו מביאורי המצות, הוא אפיקורוס ואין לו חלק לעולם הבא, וזה מפורש בסנהדרין בפרק חלק אמר יתיב רבי ירמיה קמיה דרבי זירא ויתיב וקאמר, עתיד הקב”ה להוציא נחל מבית קדשי הקדשים ועליו כל מיני מגדים, שנאמר [יחזקאל מז, יב] וְעַל הַנַּחַל יַעֲלֶה עַל שְׂפָתוֹ מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל לֹא יִבּוֹל עָלֵהוּ וְלֹא יִתֹּם פִּרְיוֹ לָחֳדָשָׁיו יְבַכֵּר כִּי מֵימָיו מִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הֵמָּה יוֹצְאִים וְהָיָה פִרְיוֹ לְמַאֲכָל וְעָלֵהוּ לִתְרוּפָה. אמר ליה ההוא סבא יישר, וכן אמר רבי יוחנן יישר, אמר ליה כי האי גוונא מי מחזי כאפקרותא, והא סיועי מסייע, אלא אי שמיע לך הכי שמיע לך, כי הא דרבי יוחנן הוה יתיב ודריש עתיד הקב”ה להוציא אבנים טובות ומרגליות שלשים על שלשים, וחוקק בהם עשרה על עשרה, ומעמידן בשערי ירושלים, שנאמר [ישעיה נד, יב] וְשַׂמְתִּי כַּדְכֹד שִׁמְשֹׁתַיִךְ וגו’, לגלג עליו אותו תלמיד, השתא כביעתא דצולצילתא לא משכחין, כולי האי מי משכחין, לימים הפליגה ספינתו בים, חזנהו להנהו מלאכי השרת דקא מנסרי אבנים טובות ומרגליות, אמר להם הני למאי, אמרי ליה עתיד הקב”ה להעמידן בשערי ירושלים, כי הדר אשכחיה לרבי יוחנן דקא יתיב ודריש, אמר ליה רבי דרוש ולך נאה לדרוש כשם שאמרת כך ראיתי, אמר ליה כי הא אם לא ראית לא האמנת, מלעיג על דברי חכמים אתה נתן עיניו בו ועשהו גל של עצמות. והרי מה שאמר כאן רבי יוחנן אינו דין וחוק מחוקי התורה, ואף על פי כן העלו כאן שהוא מדברי אפיקורסות, שהוא בוזה דבר השם יתברך, שאינו מאמין למי שהוא מצווה להאמין. 

***

Dan: 

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. 

My response: 

Once again, since much of this is discussed in detail in Genesis and Genes, I decline the opportunity to respond at length. 

  1. As always, definitions are important. I, too, am a believer in evolution, if evolution means limited changes within species, as indicated, for example, by slight changes in the beak size and shape of finches on the Galapagos Islands. Pointing out that so-and-so believes in evolution is of little value unless one defines evolution carefully. 
  2. To a Jewish audience (and, especially, a Torah-observant readership), what is of crucial importance is not so much whether contemporary writers support a particular notion, but whether it can be said that traditional Torah sources do. That is why writers like Dr. Gerald Schroeder and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, for example, strive to demonstrate that it was Chazal or the Rambam etc. who wrote of hominids and such like. If true, such claims would carry immeasurably more weight than the esteemed Lord Sacks, regardless of his popularity at Sinai Indaba. 
  3. There is nothing subjective about certain aspects of this debate. One can look at passages in the Rambam that are alleged to be discussions of hominids and determine, objectively, whether the claim is adequately substantiated. Some expertise is required to appreciate the Rambam’s context, and to translate his words correctly. But it is doable, and one cannot forever hide behind the claim that all important questions are subjective. I find it curious that when it comes to other contentious issues (gun control, legalization of cannabis, affirmative action) lots of people manage, despite the vociferous debate, to sift through the arguments and reach a conclusion that they deem to be rational and fact-based (while still acknowledging that others disagree). Yet, when it comes to contentious issues that impinge on fundamental theological points, the same people are content to perpetually abstain from taking a position.

 

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