Monday, January 02, 2006

Thank You David Fass

David Fass had a letter to the editor in this week's Jewish Press. In it, he expressed dismay at how the average frum person with a high school diploma can think that they know more about science than people who have studied the scientific disciplines at the graduate level and devoted their careers to it. In truth, however, most people who try to use science to disprove evolution, in thinking that they are brighter than the professionals, probably don't even understand the issue at all and simply read a sentence or two in a book such as Rejoice O Youth or the like, without really understanding the scientific principles behind what they are reading.

In reality, however, I think that perhaps Mr. Fass is a bit off on his reasoning. He states in his letter:

However, it's not the errors in Rabbi Eidensohn's letter that I find most troubling. What disturbs me more is the smug belief, evidently shared by many in the yeshiva world, that the working scientist is on average less intelligent than the typical potted plant.

How else can we explain the rabbi's readiness to believe that he has discovered fundamental problems in the theories of physics or biology that have escaped the notice of scientists who study these fields professionally? Such an attitude reflects either an unusual degree of hubris or a fundamental belief that scientists are all bumbling idiots. I suggest it's the latter.

I don't think that the issue is one of hubris or a belief that scientists are idiots. In my humble opinion, I think the issue is that, among many frum people, there exists a belief that there is a vast conspiracy among scientists to keep the truth of God's creation from the masses.

I've come across this mentality in the past. I remember having a conversation with a high school classmate about science and scientists. His response was that the scientists *have* proof that there is a Creator, have proof that the world is only 6000 years old, that there was a global flood, have proof to the existence of Avraham, Moshe, Dovid, etc. However, that evidence is being covered up so that the scientists can push their athiest agenda. (Incidently, he held a similar belief about Christians: that they all know the truth that Judaism is the proper religion, but they are stubbornly clinging to the wrong traditions - for what purpose he couldn't tell me.)

It's not so much that the average chareidi layperson believes that he has a better scientific knowledge than the scientist - it's just that he believes that the scientist is lying through his teeth. Of course, he (the chareidi) has no knowledge of the scientific process or peer review - or if he does, he believes that it is contrived to avoid having the truth leak out.

The problem we face is not one of lack of scientific knowledge (although, I acknowledge Mr. Fass's point about the state of the scientific cirriculum of our high schools) but the belief in a vast scientific conspiracy to hide the truth. The same people who would dismiss as an ignoramous a person who believes that the moon landings were faked or that the U.S. Government is hiding evidence of alien life at Area 51 have no problem believing that every scientist in the world is actively hiding the truth.

The Wolf

33 comments:

J said...

Thanks for pointing this out. I agree 100% and am so sick of that attitude as well.

Jewish Atheist said...

Great letter. I had to post about it as well. :)

SephardiLady said...

Being that a great many of our friends are PhD sciences who work on serious groundbreaking reseach, all while being observant, G-d fearing Jews, I find some of the assertions I hear about scientist to be, well, uninformed, ignorant, downright stupid, and more.

Lost Young Jew said...

Why is this tendency to believe in a widespread conspiracy of scientists silencing the truth so prevalent?

It seems like the challenging questions of how science lines up with Torah and vice versa is avoided and yet through both we seek to understand the universe around us.

Why smother the curious fire of either one, with ignorance or simple "proofs" against them?

The Jewish Freak said...

It is not that they neccesarily think it is a conscious conspiricy, but rather, they believe that the thinking of the scientists is clouded by a desire to deny G-d. - JF

The Hedyot said...

To raise a related issue, the typical chareidi will react almost exactly the same way to one who argues on a gadol. They'll respond with, "How can you even think to challenge the psak of such a great talmid chacham like Rabbi X!? You're nothing compared to him! Your knowledge of the subject is nothing compared to his expertise! He's spent decades studying Torah, you're barely out of yeshiva, and you think you know enough to argue on him?!"

Can anyone spot the difference?

Jewish Atheist said...

The Hedyot,

(simul-commented from my blog)

Appealing to authority is appropriate when you're talking about an issue that the authority is a specialist in. Gedolim are experts in Talmud, perhaps, but certainly not science. I would never claim that the Gedolim were wrong about the interpretation of a tosafos because 9 out of 10 scientists disagreed with them, for example.

I guess the key point is that knowledge of shas does not remotely qualify one to debate science with scientists.

The Hedyot said...

I'm speaking about a situation where one would argue with a Rav in an area of halacha, hashkafa, or some other religious area, the sort of thing which would be considered the Rav's area of expertise. I imagine that the blog world would be a whole lot less interesting if views on religious matters had to be supressed because they went against the established authorities and experts on those matters, no?

(cross-posted to JA)

Chana said...

I think you've hit it on the head. Most people think scientists are involved in the most elaborate cover-up job ever.

It's strange, because science started out with some very religious people. Isaac Newton, for one. In fact, the entire Englightenment spawned deists, not atheists, many of whom were brought closer to God through science.

It's odd, isn't it...

Mis-nagid said...

Chana, Deism is as much a threat to religion as atheism. A non-personal, non-involved god is almost as useless as no gods, and makes worship every bit as moot. And while you're right that the Enlightenment spawned a lot of Deists, many of them would be atheists in an era where that word wouldn't get them lynched. Today's spate of scientists is good evidence of that.

P.S. The "We're Not Worthy" letter is also a great read, but for the opposite reason.

The Chainik Hocker said...

Sigh.

I saw that letter too. I thought it hit the nail on the head.

I should mention, however that I read an article about faith in the Atlantic Monthly (December 05) by Paul Bloom. In it he mentions that a poll taken in 1996 of American scientists regarding their religious beliefs, and forty per cent reponded that they believe in Yad Hashem- that an intelligent Being guides the affairs of man in his day to day activities, which is about the same percentage of scientists who believed this in 1916.

Sorry I can't link you to this article, as The Atlantic's site is subscription only.

Now, I believe in the Ribono Shel Olam, I daven, eat kosher, keep shabos, etc. But for a period of my life, I wasn't so sure. Even though I was a typical Boro Park kid, I had a library card (and unlike other Boro Park kids with library cards, I spent most of my time in the non fiction section). So, reading these books on evolution, geology, and physics, I began to have Doubts.

I resolved those doubts, eventually, after about a year of discussing (read: yelling) this stuff with my rebbi... but he did NOT dismiss this stuff out of hand. Not like my sixth grade rebbi, who explained to me impatiently how all scientists were apikorsim who devoted their lives to disproving the Torah haKedosha in order for them to sin with clean consiouses.

Then he gave me an assignment for going to the library.

Man, that felt good. really have to start blogging again.

Mis-nagid said...

Chainik hocker, you do realize that means that sixty percent don't believe, right? Just checking.

Chana said...

Re Mis-nagid's comment:

"many of them would be atheists in an era where that word wouldn't get them lynched"

Actually, I don't think that's so.

In Carl L. Becker's article, 'On the Temper of Eighteenth-Century Thought,' he writes:

"We are accustomed to think of the eighteenth century as essentially modern in its temper...And yet I think the Philosophes were nearer the Middle Ages, less emancipated from the preconceptions of medieval Christian thought than they quite realized or we have commonly supposed...They denounced Christian philosophy, but rather too much, after the manner of those who are but half emancipated from the "superstitions" they scorn. They had put off the fear of God, but mantained a respectful attitude toward the Deity. They ridiculed the idea that the universe had been created in six days, but still believed it to be a beautiflly articulated machine designed by the Supreme Being according to a rational plan as an abiding place for mankind...They renounced the authority of Church and Bible, but exhibited a naive faith in the authority of nature and reason...They dismantled heaven somewhat prematurely it seems, since they retained their faith in the immortality of the soul...They denied that miracles ever happened, but believed in the perfectability of the human race."

And then 'In a History of Western Society, Eighth Edition, since 1300' by McKay, Hill and Buckler, we read:

"In his System of Nature (1770) and other works, the wealthy German-born but French-educated Baron Paul d'Holbach (1723-1789) argued that human beings were machines completely determined by outside forces. Free will, God, and immortality of the soul were foolish myths. D'Holbach's aggressive atheism and determinism, which were coupled with deep hostility toward Christianity and all other religions, dealt the unity of the Enlightenment movement a severe blow. Deists such as Voltaire, who believed in God but not in established churches, were repelled by the inflexibe atheism they found in System of Nature. They saw in it the same dogmatic intolerance they had been fighting all their lives."

So yes, deism would not include the idea of worship, but it certainly is and remains very different from atheism. Voltaire is regarded as the transition element of the Enlightenment (between Newton and Rousseau) and if he was put off by D'Holbach, one can infer that a very great many also saw D'Holbach as dogmatic and inflexible, close-minded in a wholly new way.

Mis-nagid said...

How is that not support for what I said? From the 1700s to 1860s (Darwin, etc) the level of religiosity dropped and the stigma of atheism fell. All your quotes are nice and early, showing Deism supplanting Christianity. Now tick some more years off, and watch atheism take some of the market share, just as I said.

"So yes, deism would not include the idea of worship, but it certainly is and remains very different from atheism."

A world full of Deists would be nearly indistinguishable from a world full of atheists.

Chana said...

It isn't a question of time, nor of stigma. Nor of atheism taking the market share...

"Deists such as Voltaire, who believed in God but not in established churches, were repelled by the inflexibe atheism they found in System of Nature. They saw in it the same dogmatic intolerance they had been fighting all their lives."

My point was simply that it wasn't a question of stigma so much as it was that they (or at least Voltaire) felt atheism to be "the same dogmatic intolerance they had been fighting all their lives" and were "repelled by it." In effect, it wasn't the stigma that kept them from becoming athiests (after all, d'Holbach was one) so much as the ideology.

Hence they probably wouldn't be atheists in today's day and age.

Belief in some kind of God- even a great Clockmaker God- or an impersonal God- strikes me as different from complete atheism. There's still someone watching over the world, a Creator even if he does not interact. If that's what "nearly indistinguishable" means to you, then I suppose I agree.

The Chainik Hocker said...

Chainik hocker, you do realize that means that sixty percent don't believe, right? Just checking.

Well, golly, gee, the only math they taught us in Bobov was what we needed to know to sell digital cameras and commit insurance fraud, so thanks for pointing that out!

Seriously, my point was that most yungerleit belive that number is closer to %98 or so, that nearly all scientists are engaged in a Grinch-like crusade to disprove G-d.

As for deism v. atheism, even if you believe there is a god, if you think he doesn't control or even care your day-to-day affairs, why would you care? The poin is not that an Intelligent Being created the world, but that He runs it as well.

That IS the point, right?

Chana said...

"As for deism v. atheism, even if you believe there is a god, if you think he doesn't control or even care your day-to-day affairs, why would you care? The poin is not that an Intelligent Being created the world, but that He runs it as well.

That IS the point, right?"

Not according to the first ani ma'amin.

"Ani ma'amin...borei umanhig lekhol haberuim"

He is the Creator and Interactor-

If it would suffice to say that he interacts, and that was the final point, there'd be no need to state that God was also the 'borei' or Creator.

The Chainik Hocker said...

Well, I was just pointing out that you can have a Creator who is not neccesarily an Interactor- this is what Deism is based on if I'm not mistaken- but an Interactor implies a Creator. We belive that the Creator and the Interactor is One and the same. Deists don't believe in interaction.

And if you don't believe in interaction, how is that different from those who don't belive in a creation? There may have been a creator but that desn't really affect you in any way.

Anonymous said...

My sense is that those who are committed to observance won't necessarily be deterred by science, and can indeed find ways to reconcile it with their religious practice (most MOs probably fit into this cateory). What I wonder is how the rabbonim's dismissal of science and scientists impacts people in terms of their respect for these leaders. I think the willful ignorance and fanatasicim of the leaders is actually more of a problem that the "official" belief that the world is 5000 some odd years old.

cipher said...

The Chainik Hocker said:

"Not like my sixth grade rebbi, who explained to me impatiently how all scientists were apikorsim who devoted their lives to disproving the Torah haKedosha in order for them to sin with clean consiouses."

I agree completely. I just said much the same thing in a comment on Jewish Atheist’s blog. There’s a distressing similarity between the arguments of Jewish and Christian fundamentalists. They always come back to this imagined idea of non-believers really knowing the truth, but wanting not to be held accountable by God. It seems to be the only way in which they can rationalize it.

The Chainik Hocker said...

Well, not the ONLY way (I wouldn't be frum today if there was no other way), just the easiest way.

Mis-nagid said...

Chana, we're not really disagreeing. There are some very prominent examples of people who would not be atheists even today. However, as a popular phenomenon, the lack of atheism was definitely an artifact of stigma. And as to the difference between a world with Deism and a world with Atheism, they'd both be without religion. The remaining differences are petty in comparison.

Chana said...

Huzzah! Agreed! *Smiles*

bluke said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bluke said...

This sounds bizarre but this actually came up in a conversation.

Someone told me that his son came from home school and said that his Rebbe had told him the following. We shouldn't think that we are better nowadays because we have modern technology. In fact, the Rebbe said, Shlomo Hamelech was the wisest man who ever lived and he knew everything the scientists know and he could have created cars, phones, etc., anything that we have from modern technology. Why didn't he do it? He felt that a simple non-technological lifestyle was better.

I was stunned speechless. I could not respond. After this conversation I definately better understand the reaction to R' Slifkin's books and the Charedi attitude towards science and scientists.

SephardiLady said...

Were they better off without indoor plumbing, electricity, kitchen appliances, refrigeration, and more?

I much prefer the modern world despite its many challenges.

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

There have been a number of studies that show that despite technological advances, the number of hours spent per week on household chores has not decreased.

Maybe solomon was right? :-)
I can live without many kitchen appliances. but not without a waffle oven.

I was just going to say, Mr Wolf, that the quality of discussion on your blog is very high - a great compliment to the nature of your posts. Sorry to louse it up with this last comment.

SephardiLady said...

Even though the amount of time spend per week on household chores remains high (indoor lighting is highly responsible for that), at least the work is not backbreaking.

If we were to go back even 100 years, I don't know how I would do basic chores like laundry.

BrooklynWolf said...

SephardiLady,

You should check out the PBS series "1900 House." It was an eye opening look into how we lived a century ago.

In short, a family in London moved into a retrofitted house as it existed in 1900. They could only use implements, buy groceries, etc. that were available in 1900. It was a real shock to see how hard my great-grandmother had it.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Zeh Sefer

Firstly, thank you for your compliment.

Secondly, even if our lives are more complicated by modern technology, nonetheless, there is really no doubting the fact that (a) we live longer lives than our ancestors did. No one in Shlomo's time died of gunshot wounds, bombs, AIDS or a multitude of other causes that didn't exist in his day, but nonetheless, we still live much longer lives than even a century ago, let alone 3000 years ago; (b) we *do* have more free time than our ancestors. Our forefathers didn't work 9-5 (or even 9-6) but pretty much all day.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

True enough.. There is a museum of health in Leeds, UK that highlights how utterly disgusting conditions generally were only 100 years ago, and that we are now living in the best possible time ever.

and yet... the 20th century was the bloodiest ever. More people were killed in it than any other century.

But in the Ethics of War Dept of the London School of Economics, the theory goes like this: It's not the technology that makes us kill people, rather it is our ethics that allows us to do it. The chinese had gunpowder for many years before they used it for guns. They used it to make fireworks. We can use nuclear technology to power hospitals, or to blow people up. It is our ethics that is the more significant element.

I'm not for a minute suggesting that solomon did know the technologies we have today.. that would be dumb... but rather the idea that we may be better off without them is not so far off the mark. We do need to think about whether we want the technology or not - or how we will use it.

zeh sefer toldot adam

Anonymous said...

More to the point, I can forgive solomon for not inventing the car - maybe he was an environmentalist...
but he could have found a cure for cancer. or the rambam too - he was a doc who knew a lot about Torah..

or perhaps they just didn't care?
zsta

joshua said...

>In my humble opinion, I think the issue is that, among many frum people, there exists a belief that there is a vast conspiracy among scientists to keep the truth of God's creation from the masses.<

As time goes on, it actually looks more and more like there is a vast conspiracy among rabbanim to keep truth from the masses.