Trends in Resolving Torah and Science

This is the nearest I plan to get to discussing L’affaire Slifkin on this blog. I’m not going to discuss issues dealt with by R’ Gil Student in his Hirhurim blog, or in any of the other Jewish blogs. My opinion is already better represented on line already than what I could produce. When I read R’ Shternbuch’s article I noticed a subtext. Once I stripped away all the points about which I disagree, this unwritten given that I saw as a subtext still rung true.I see two basic and opposing trends in how segments of the frum world approach the question of apparent conflicts between Torah and science. An action, and a reaction. I find both worrisome. And, while R’ Shternbuch’s essay represents an example of the reactionary trend, I share his concern about the action.

R’ JB Soloveitchik, in The Lonely Man of Faith, contrasts Adam as described in Bereishis 1, with that of ch. 2. Adam I is described as the last step in creation, the pinacle, who should “be fruitful and multiple, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky…” Master of all he surveys, through his science and technology. Adam II is a partner with G-d as he names the animals. His marriage isn’t about procreating, but “and they shall be one flesh”, having a relationship with another. In the ideal, one finds a balance of these archtypes; using halakhah, we can navigate this dialectic. However, in contemporary society, where “progress” is identified with technological progress, man overly identifies with Adam I.

So, one can phrase the current encounter as a dilemma between how to balance Adam I and Adam II when our perceptions of science and of Torah contradict. I write “our perceptions” because in reality, of course, they can’t contradict. The same Author wrote both nature and the Torah. However, our understandings can be inaccurate, incomplete, or simply limited by our being merely human trying to understand something with the complexity of a masterpiece by an Infinite Author.

While many scientists do realize that saying “The apple fell because of gravity” and “G-d made the apple fall” do not contradict, many do. There is an entire culture of Scientism which believes that religion stems entirely from an ignorance they’re working to eliminate. For example, I found a HS bio book that said (roughly, from memory):

Using evolution, we can explain how life as we know it emerged. We see how complex organisms can arise without there being any preexisting design.

If not exactly that, it’s pretty close to it. Or less subtly, people like Dawkins or the “Skeptic” column in Scientific American wouldn’t be complaining about Intelligent Design. ID is the idea that all of current theory about our origins is as right as any other theory, but that it shows there is a Designer who got us to this point. These people and numerous other scientists labeled “Creationism in sheep’s clothing”.

In “Scientism” the pursuit of science is confused with the pursuit of knowledge. There is an old saying that science is like climbing a cliff. When the scientist finally scales to the top of the cliff, he’ll find himself where the religious have been all along. However, the person who turns science into his “Ism” will mistake the religious man for just more cliff, and keep on climbing! (And sure enough, he’ll reach the top of the man’s head and not find anything when he looks around…) It is an egotistical cry of Adam I, proclaiming himself master of all and denying the existance and reality of anything beyond his mastery.

When frum Jews seek natural explanations, what motivates us? Why isn’t “G-d performed a miracle for His unfathomable reasons” sufficient? How many of us are doing so because deep down we’ve bought into Scientism’s premises, and we only do invoke G-d for things we can’t otherwise explain. The notion of finding physical explanation is sound, defending by the Rambam, his son R’ Avraham, the Ralbag, and others.

I’m speaking about our motivation for choosing this path: Is it hashkafic?

Nor is a lack of creationism the only objection under discussion. It’s also, a question of the mabul and Bavel, which many Orthodox Jews question the historicity of, or question whether they were global, neither idea have the same masoretic foundation to build from as a non-literal creation. And a general question of when Chazal’s pronouncements are to be questioned. The role of changes of scientific theory in pesaq. Are maamarei Chazal placed “on the run” fleeing from the advancing tide of science? Or do we better anchor them, and try our hardest to find their own logic, unchanging in the face of changes in theory?

In theory, these could be very different hashkafic questions. So why are so many people reaching the parallel conclusions in each? Regardless of the existence of a reason or justification for each step taken, there is an emergent pattern in much of contemporary O thought that is disconcerting. Why does one seek those reasons that so consistently justify retreat? Is this not typical of western man, of this over-focus on Adam I, maximizing the role of human comprehension and minimizing the need to invoke G-d?

I think that’s what R’ Shternbuch was writing about when he says, “Nevertheless their concern is to make even this miraculous event as close to nature as possible. In other words, they much prefer to make the world as natural as possible and to minimize the miraculous.” He’s not talking about nature vs. miracle, but whether we elect to invoke G-d, or elect to keep the universe a place we can comprehend or master. And if it’s not R’ Shternbuch’s concern, it’s still mine.

But I’m no less concerned by this reaction to the shock of modernity, common in a large segment of the population. The proper response to rampant Adam I-ism is not an exclusive focus on Adam II. Man was not designed to be a passive recipient of G-d’s beneficience, but a covenental partner. We can not forgo our own ability to think and create, or to leave that responsibility to a select few.

Someone emailed me about the current “antisophical” trend in world view. He described it as a reaction to the birth of Reform. I also described this phenomenon way back at the start of the creationism discussion, when I wrote that I believe that more people insist on literalism now than did before there was a scientific challenge. It’s why so many insist on taking every medrash literally (a position not supported by rishonim or the vast majority acharonim). It’s also why even amongst the words of chazal, we gravitate toward the fantastic. For example, there are two Rashis about the age of Racheil when she married Yitzchaq. Children are taught the opinion that she was 3, not necessarily the one where she was 15.

This trend I see as more damaging even than another reaction to Reform — the neglect of Nakh and diqduq.

There is no word “antisophical”. The tendency to prefer black-and-white solutions is described from a word related to the Sophists, though: it’s “unsophisticated”. Preference should be given precision, not simplicity.

So how do I expect these conflicts to be resolved? Each one, case by case. No easy answers, no trends should emerge. It’s a dialectic tension, a point over which life isn’t supposed to be easy. And many questions will not yield an answer to us. It still is the problem of the finite man trying to understand the work of an Infinite Creator.

A mashal:

We currently have two very successful physical theories: quantum mechanics (QM) which was born in the head of Heisenberg y”sh and developed by numerous other people — most of them Jews. Including Einstein. There is also relativity (which has two parts: special and general), which was pretty much entirely Einstein’s. QM works well in the domain of the very small, relativity works well with the very large. (In between, Newton’s old system is a good enough approximation and people don’t bother with such things.) But they are based on contradictory assumptions. Figuring out quantum gravity — a theory of gravity that fits both QM and relativity, is a challenge. Filling this challenge are things like string and membrane theories, the Higgs Boson (the subject of the book “The God Particle”, and others. For now, there is no real resolution.

But even though the two theories are built on contradictory assumptions, scientists place trust (bitachon) in them. They each work so well in their chosen domains, making more successful predictions than any other theories in science. For example, in a GPS device, a chip that was designed using QM adjusts for the effects of gravity on the signal from the positioning satellite, in accordance with general relativity. The scientist and engineer have faith (emunah) that each will have to be tweaked only minorly to get them to fit, not a major overhaul.

As you can tell from my use of language, I think this is a fitting metaphor. There are times when you simply have to use science for its target domain, understanding how the physical universe behaves, and Torah for its target domain — understanding how I ought to behave, and my place in life. And simply have emunah that some resolution exists.

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