Friday, July 21, 2006

Evolution on the Jewish Press

I had written the following and sent it to the Jewish Press as a letter to the editor in response to the discussion on evolution initiated by the article written by Rabbi Maryles from June 21st. They didn't print it though, I suppose because they wanted to move onto newer (or less redundant) issues.

In the July 12th issue of the Jewish Press, a series of letters to the editor regarding the theory of evolution was printed with the introduction: "Evolution: The Never-Ending Debate." This title is at one time as curious as it is apt.

Why is it that this ‘debate’ never ends? What about it is so intractable that the two sides are forever opposed with no means of understanding the other? Please, allow me to explain. It is all a matter of methodology.

For those on the Creationist side of the debate, the point of origin is that the Torah is the word of God and hence unimpeachable. They believe that the Torah says, and numerous Rabbinic commentators have agreed, that the whole universe and each species was specially created in six days just a few thousand years ago. This truth comes from on high and is bedrock truth no matter what the minds of men can conjure up in the forms of alternative explanations for our origins.

For those on the side for evolution, it is the physical evidence and rational methodology of science that have proven themselves reliable (since we benefit from them every day) and to which they have no choice but to accept if they wish to have a rational understanding of the world and our origins. These people accept the theory of evolution based on the merits of the science and the evidence at hand. They do not believe that man was placed on Earth with a large brain and rational mind in order to disallow their use.

When a Creationist comes upon the same evidence which so convinced the Evolutionist he has no choice but to try and tear it apart. By virtue of his preconceived bias, the evidence simply cannot be valid since it conflicts with what he believes is God’s own narrative of creation. No matter how convincing the evidence may be from an objective perspective, he ‘knows’ it is false because he believes God said otherwise. This is why the Evolutionist and Creationist can only talk past each other.

The Evolutionist posits evidence as his currency for knowledge. He speaks in terms of fossils and genetics; strata and homology. He builds up his understanding of nature from the ground up. The evidence is X which means that the theory is Y. Yet this is all worthless for the Creationst to whom the truth comes from God above. He favors a top-down approach to knowledge. Truth lies in what only can be derived from the verses of the Torah. The Torah says X, period. With such wildly different methodologies for ascertaining truth, is it any surprise that they cannot find common ground?

My only hope is that those holders of emunah peshutah realize that simple faith is for simpletons. A literal understanding of Bereishit is hardly a comprehensive understanding of our origins. While we do have the Torah, we also another text, the open book of nature with which we need to contend.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Rambam and the Need for Natural Science

I found a great quote the other day from the Rambam that just fits so well to throw in the face of those anti-science, anti-intellectual dogmaticists who exist in the Orthodox community. It's found in his introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed.

"Do you not see the following fact, that God, may His mention be exalted, wished us to be perfected and the state of our societies to be improved by His laws regarding actions. Now this can come about only after the adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension, may He be exalted, according to our capacity. This, in its turn, cannot come about except through metaphysics (his term: maaseh merkavah), and this metaphysics cannot become actual except after a study of natural science (maaseh bereishit)."

[And for those who doubt the correctness of using the terms 'natural science' and 'metaphysics' in place of Rambam's specific terms, I refer you to see just a couple of pages before where the quote above was given. There he says that the terms used that way specifically are correct and he refers the reader to pages in his Mishneh Torah (Mishneh torah, I. ii. 12, and iv. 10) where he explains it.]

It may be ironic that the Rambam, arguably the founder of a series of dogmas (his 13 ikkarim) is apparently the one here stating that scientific knowledge of the world (which's accurate understanding we now understand cannot proceed via dogmatism) is foundational before correct religious beliefs. Naturally, this apparent irony can be made sense of once we understand that the Aristotelian theories on the natural world (on which the Rambam's whole major philosophy depends) were not based on current scientific methodologies, but on simple empiricism and 'proofs' with often unfounded axioms. It was the logical and dialectical method of Aristotle that made the Rambam believe that when Aristotle's logic was sound, it was absolutely true and was the way the world works.

Hence, since Aristotle's theories were based on logic and sound deductive arguments there was no way for it to be overturned. Reason stands eternal and natural science is therefore on as solid a philosophical ground as metaphysics and the Rambam's own understanding of God and Judaism. To the Rambam, it was all logic, and all logic, if sound, is equally correct.

The only problem with Aristotle, as mentioned above, was that his chosen axioms for a given argument were not always based on good empirical facts. For example, in regards to the speeds of falling objects, he said that heavier things fall faster. Clearly, if you drop a brick and a paper in your living room, the brick will fall much faster. But of course we now know that to be a misleading experiment. It's not the weight of the objects that are being well tested, it is the difference in air resistance. Aristotle's method was poor on experimental empiricism - which is why the modern scientific method and its fruits has replaced nearly all of Aristotle's favored reasonings. The experiments don't lie.

Would the logophilic Rambam find favor in the modern scientific method? That is impossible to know. It's problematic because no truth in modern science is conclusive. We have no means to be sure that our scientific reasonings is the way it really is. All we can do is see that no evidence contradicts our theories and ensure parsimony and things of that nature. This is a far cry from the logical, certain world of Maimonides.

Without that sureness, it makes it devilish to try to build a philosophy or theology based on our knowledge of natural science. Nothing is certain and so the ground is always shifting. It makes our constructions far too liable to topple. We live in a transitional age with progress in our understanding coming in spurts and stops. It is paradoxical, but while progress in our knowledge is surely a good thing, the unstable nature of the process through which we get there often leads to depressing existentialism. If we cannot be certain about the nature of our external world, either in terms of physical science or metaphysics, we find that we can only rely on the knowledge of our own existence and how we individually perceive our reality for our philosophical well being. Our expanding knowledge of particulars makes our constructed understanding of the general impossible to maintain.

In the end, we find that we cannot disagree with the basic argument offered by the Rambam. We need to understand natural science before we can rightly begin speculation on metaphysics. Yet we find that life is short and we cannot wait until we get the all clear from those in the science camp. We must resign ourselves to the fact that, in all likelihood, we will not know the secrets of the universe in our lifetimes. So we must proceed even on such shaky terrain!

Although our science is limited, even with all of its limitations, it is far better to engage it than to pretend it does not exist. It is true that it is probably wrong in many places, but it is doubtlessly more correct that it contains more truth than the deep ignorance promoted by those still following wholly irrational ways of thinking. To reiterate: we must proceed!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Question on Kashruth and Batel B'shishim

I've got a question regarding kashrut. I know this kind of question isn't in my normal category of discussions on this blog since I'm more concerned with theory and philosophy, etc., rather than the technical carrying-out of the Halachic system. My usual approach to Halacha being 'Don't sweat the small stuff."

I've been doing some studying lately and I've got something interesting that I wonder if actually works out in the wider system of kashrut. It seems to work out in what I've looked at so far, but maybe there's a diferent perspective that I'm missing from it.

Anyway, my point is that it appears to me that the Halachic idea of batel b'rov and it's further rabbinic structure of batel b'shishim is largely ignored when encountering questions of kashruth. Take, for example, the ideas of reicha and zeiah, the "aroma" and steam that arise from food via cooking. The idea is that if you cook meat in an oven the "meatiness" rises from the food and can then get absorbed into the walls of the oven hence making the oven itself fleishig. That means that you can no longer cook uncovered milk dishes in the same oven because while cooking, the "meatiness" in the oven's walls will be released and will settle on the milchik food, thereby traifing the food because of mixing meat and milk. This principle applies similarly to cooking in a oven once used to cook traif meat.

My question is why doesn't batel b'shishim relieve us of any concern regarding this mixture of "meatiness" and our milk dish? At worst we can only be talking about a few droplets of "meaty" particles that will land in the milk dish. We can't see any meatiness, it doesn't taste any different. The meat particles are far less than 1/60th of the total dish - why cannot we just consider it as cancelled out?

This further reminded my of using unkosher silverware or otherwise utensils on the wrong side of the milk/meat divide. Whatever the amount of unkosher stuff that gets added via the utensils, it can't hardly be enough to overcome the amount of kosher food actually being prepared. It can't even be a sixtieth of the amount.

Now, granted, there are generally accepted Halachic strictures with regard to food that is kosher through batel b'shishim. For example, that one person may not eat all the food so prepared or that one should not eat it all at one time since in doing so then you know that you've had to have eaten some non-kosher food. The strictest of these rules is that one should leave over an amount of food equal to the non-kosher stuff added. But even with the strictest approach, since the amount of non-kosher stuff can only be as much as a few droplets at most, as long as you don't lick your cooking pot clean, the actual eating of food would be no different.

We can go even further and discuss commercial foodstuffs. They need to list their ingredients on the packaging. As long as there are no questionable items in the ingredients wouldn't the food be kosher even if the machines or other non-ingredients that were used in its manufacture were not kosher? (This wouldn't work for renin in cheese and other stuff that operate by different rules, though.)

I also know that one cannot intentionally add non-kosher food with the intention of using batel b'shishim as a loophole. But in all of these examples, we are not intentionally adding traif to what was kosher, we are just not being very careful to ensure that traif doesn't get added. Yet with such an attitude the food is still kosher! Being 'careless' is not the same as being intentional.

And even for examples where non-kosher food was added intentionally, the fact is that the food is deemed unkosher only for the person who made it with such an attitude. It is still considered kosher generally and can be eaten by another Jew. The only stricture here is that the maker cannot derive benefit from it. So the maker cannot eat it, nor his family, and he cannot sell it as if it were a kosher product, with the inherent inflated cost. So for that commercial food - which is already sold as non-kosher food - and is probably even produced by a goy, it would be permissible to eat.

And naturally I recognize that this isn't mehadrin. But the point is whether or not it is indeed kosher, not whether it follows the strictest rules.

Of course all of this is speculative so don't take my word for it. But I'm really curious as to what a Halachic expert would say. Go, ask your rabbis and get back to me.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Ramchal: Don't Be Selfless, Be a Saint

On the mention of one of my friends who said that the book, Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, an ethical text by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a.k.a. the Ramchal, would be helpful in my thinking about Judaism, I decided to go look it up. So, once I found the book, what did I do? I started reading it of course. ;-)

The internet is a great fun and the whole book in translation can be found here.

Anyway, as I was reading I found a fascinating argument offered by R' Luzzatto found in chapter 4:

There are some fools who seek only to lighten their burden. They say, "Why weary ourselves with so much Saintliness and Separation? Is it not enough for us that we will not be numbered among the wicked who are judged in Gehinnom? We will not force ourselves to enter all the way into Paradise. If we do not have a large portion, we will have a small one. It will be enough for us. We will not add to our burdens for the sake of greater acquisitions."

There is one question that we will ask these people - could they so easily, in this transitory world, tolerate the sight of one of their friends being honored, and elevated above them, and coming to rule over them- or, more so, one of their servants or one of the paupers who are shameful and lowly in their eyes? Could they tolerate this without suffering and without their blood boiling in them? Is there any question that they could not?...

This tolerance, then, that they adopt in order to lighten their burden is nothing but a deceitful persuasion of their evil inclination, with no basis whatsoever in truth.

So, the argument given is that some people are ok with a little piece of Olam Haba real estate and therefore figure that they shouldn't have to go over the top on their personal perfection. As long as they end being pretty good, then they get to Heaven anyway. They don't need a palace in a sky. A small loft on the Upper Westside would be just fine.

R' Luzzatto counters with a claim that they're just big liars who cannot stand anyone getting ahead of them in this world, why does it make sense for them to be ok with people getting ahead of them in the next world?

Ok, so his argument makes sense for those truly on the lower end of the ethical spectrum who cannot stand other's success above their own. But is that the ideal person for whom R' Luzzatto wants to be directing his manifesto? Doesn't it seem wrong that R' Luzzatto's idea for a good force to improve one's character and get into Olam Haba is self-betterment over one's friends? What kind of ethic is he pushing? You don't want to look stupid in your little rinky dink heavenly westside apartment when your butler has a castle, do you? Better go learn some Torah.

It's very strange how R' Luzzatto promotes this false selflessness of personal perfection by using man's selfish desires of bettering above his fellow man. Keeping up with the Steins is the literal way of getting into Heaven.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Orthodox Students' Denial of Science - A Study

Recently on the Frum Skeptics Group, Mis-nagid sent out a link from Skeptic magazine which had an article regarding a study done to investigate the rates of disbelief of modern mainstream scientific ideas in college-going Orthodox Jews.

Suffice it to say, the results were far from encouraging. As the abstract of the article explains, "The sample of 176 Orthodox Jewish students surveyed showed almost complete denial of evolution and other central tenets of modern science (such as the age of the universe); the survey also revealed that these students received their scientific beliefs not from their college science courses, but from rabbinical authorities, or from Orthodox Jewish scientists, who in turn propagate the anti-science views of rabbinical authorities. Perhaps the most surprising result of the survey was that the Orthodox Jewish students who were science majors were even less accepting of mainstream science than those who were not science majors."

The survey was done so that the participants would give a true or false response to the series of statements offered.

For the statement “Evolution correctly explains the origin of life,” 14 responded true, while 156 responded false. To the statement “Human beings evolved from apes,” 11 said true while 163 answered false. Only 45 of 168 respondents answered that “The age of the universe is about 15 billion years old, as opposed to about 7,000 years" and 159 answered true to the statement “Current land animals descend from those on Noah’s ark,” while only 16 answered false.

To see further questions and their responses, do refer to the article.

Now, while the results themselves are interesting in their own merits, what is particularly interesting to me is that I took part in this little experiment. No joke. The article says that "Students who sat at the kosher area of a New York City public college cafeteria were surveyed about their attitudes on evolution and other scientific issues...Only the answers of participants listing themselves as Orthodox Jews in the survey were retained in the results below."

This was in Brooklyn College and I was one of the students polled! I even had to do some thinking about how to classify myself, but I stuck with Orthodox because it really did describe me best, from my own perspective (and no doubt from most others' perspectives as well), even if I had some issues with the title. I don't remember exactly what the date was, but it had to be from two or three years ago. This was before I had started to blog.

I was sitting in the cafeteria with a couple of my friends and this guy comes over and asks us to take part in a little experiment and fill out this survey. We all said sure. It wasn't as if we were doing anything important and the survey was short. But I didn't realize until after it was already in my hand on what kind of survey it was.

So I got a little scared at first. Not frightened really, but wary of my friends' reactions to what they might consider heretical thoughts. I really had no desire to get into a big debate. So I filled my form out quickly while listening to my friends discuss when the Tower of Babel occurred and whether Hebrew was universally spoken 4,000 years ago.

As I was getting up to return my form (not giving my friends a chance to get a good look at it) one of my friends asks to see my responses. He was curious of my thoughts. I do have some reputation of an interesting thinker among my friends. But I responded curtly, "Nope. It's private," and I went off and delivered it to the surveyor. My friends never gave it a second thought (or in any case, they never mentioned it again) and that was the end of that.

This article though is bringing it all back and what I find particularly funny about the results is that they also broke it down between science and non-science majors. Here's one prime example:

"[F]or the statement “Human beings evolved from apes.” For non-science majors the results were 10 true and 111 false, while for science majors it was 1 true and 49 false. Thus while only 8% of non-science majors answered true, for science majors it dropped to 2% answering true."

I was a science major (I am now a bearer of a science degree) and I wrote true for that statement. That means that I am that one and only true response for science majors to this question. I am the lonely two percent representing all Orthodox Jewish science majors who actually know what they're talking about. It boggles the mind.

And I actually feel just a little bit more lonely knowing this.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

An Example of Public Revelation - in the Iliad

Here's an argument offered by Rabbi Simmons on AISH (among others who I've been recently in communication):

"There is a very powerful verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:32-33):

"You might inquire about times long past, from the day that G-d created man on earth, [exploring] one end of heaven to the other. Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything like it been heard? Has a people ever heard the voice of G-d speaking from the midst of the fires as you have heard, and survived?"

The Torah goes out on a limb and declares that nobody else will ever even attempt such a claim of national revelation! How could the author know such a thing?!

...Understand what we are saying here. The Author of the Torah would need foreknowledge of all of world history in order to make the claim that none of the other 15,000 religions would ever claim national revelation.

How could the Author know that? Because you can't formulate a lie based on someone else's experience. And that's why no other nation will ever make the claim of National Revelation.

...The answer is that they knew that if national revelation can never be fabricated; so too, it's validity can therefore never be denied."

What he's saying is that a proof for the veracity of the Torah lies in the fact that the Torah says nobody else makes a similar claim and in fact no other such claim has been found.

Now, the argument for one has unfair advantages. How far does the idea of "national revelation" extend? For most people, religion is not the same thing as a nation and so the method of national revelation to prove a religion's claims is nonsensical. Second, how similar must the alternative claim be to be seen as similar to the Torah's claim to count as a disproof of the Torah's assurance that nobody will make the same claim? There are a million details that can be used to disqualify the newfound claim as different, but this leads to a meaninglessness of the test.

I suspect that the Torah is NOT making the claim that nobody has or ever will make such a claim but that it simply, as a historical fact, has never happened before and will not happen again. I'm actually not arguing here with the Torah, but with overactive apologists who read more into the text to serve their own agendas.

I think that to satisfy Rabbi Simmons test all that is needed is a non-Sinaitic example of a claim wherein a god reveals himself to a large multitude.

So, now let's take a look at what I found recently.

Book XI of the Iliad begins with:

"AND now as Dawn rose from her couch beside Tithonus, harbinger of light alike to mortals and immortals, Jove sent fierce Discord with the ensign of war in her hands to the ships of the Achaeans. She took her stand by the huge black hull of Ulysses' ship which was middlemost of all, so that her voice might carry farthest on either side, on the one hand towards the tents of Ajax son of Telamon, and on the other towards those of Achilles - for these two heroes, well-assured of their own strength, had valorously drawn up their ships at the two ends of the line. There she took her stand, and raised a cry both loud and shrill that filled the Achaeans with courage, giving them heart to fight resolutely and with all their might, so that they had rather stay there and do battle than go home in their ships."

Now, according to the Iliad in various implications, the Achaean force must have been many thousands of soldiers strong. The phrase "tens of thousands" is used to describe footmen alone. Based on the number of ships that went on the attack, outlined in Book II, an approximation of 100,000 men is hardly out of line.

As written here, Discord, the goddess of, well, discord, on command from Zeus (Jove) raises her voice before the presence of many thousands of Greek soldiers to encourage them in their fight. Does this prove the existence of the goddess Discord via the Kuzari argument? Or at the very least does it satisfy Rabbi Simmons requirements? I think it might.