Thursday, November 17, 2011

How Can They Say Science Is Wrong?


As many of you are aware, there are various statements made by Chazal that are at odds with current scientific understanding.  These include statements regarding the physiology of some extant animals, the existence of animals that are now considered to be fanciful, the age and nature of the universe, the movements of the heavenly bodies and other subjects.  Natan Slifkin, in a recent post, described the approach that various critics of his take towards reconciling these differences.  One such approach, taken by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, is characterized by Rabbi Slifkin as follows:

Anyone with the slightest grasp of Chazal will realize that they were not speaking about the physical biology of bats. In the world of pnimiyus, the bat actually does lay eggs.

Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, of Far Rockaway (is he related to R. Moshe Shapiro?) takes a similar approach.  He writes:


In general, whenever Chazal make a scientific statement, they are not talking about the observable universe but rather the "real" universe. What we - and the scientists - see is only a graphic user interface, so to speak. The real world - the real sun, real moon, real earth - is not observable by current scientific means. Chazal were talking about the real world when they spoke. I'd recommend this Shiur for a full treatment.

Therefore, the Jewish sages were talking about the "real" universe, which indeed behaves exactly as the Chachmei Yisroel described. The non-Jewish scholars were arguing with limited information, i.e. with what their scientists could see on the "outside," GUI world. We agree that on the outside, it would appear the way they say. But the Chachmei Yisroel saw deeper, they saw into the real world and there, their description is correct.

Of course, they'd never believe the source of our information, which was the Torah's insight into the world, and it is likely assur to explain it to them anyway. So we couldn't really win this argument. But we were right. 

I find this particular approach to be totally incomprehensible.  Set aside, for the moment, that there is little, if any, indication that Chazal were not talking about the actual physical universe.  The real difficulty with adopting this approach is the fact that you cannot then use any of Chazal's statements as a basis for arguing with modern science.  You cannot say that science is wrong regarding bats laying eggs and, at the same time, use Chazal's statements regarding bats and eggs as proof that science is wrong.

Rabbi Yaakov's argument ends with the statement that we're right and the scientists are wrong.  But he's really fighting a phantom.  He says that when Chazal make statements about our world, they are talking about some "reality" that is not observable through our senses or experimentation.  The scientific community, on the other hand, makes no such claim.  They deal in the observable universe.  They make no such claim regarding any behind-the-scenes metaphysical universe that the Rabbis Shapiro claim that Chazal speak of.

In short, by adopting this approach, the Rabbis Shapiro have ceded the argument to the scientists vis-a-vis the  observable universe.  Science says bats don't lay eggs?  Not a problem -- since Chazal weren't talking about physical bats, we can say that science (which concerns itself with physical, observable bats) is correct (regardless of whether Chazal are right or wrong about metaphysical bats) in it's statement that bats do not lay eggs.  Spontaneous generation (such as with mud-mice or lice)?  Also not a problem -- science is right because it deals with physical, observable animals, not metaphysical ones.  The same can be applied to the age of the universe, and just about any other area of argument regarding science and Torah.  In short, by making the claim that Chazal were talking about some unobservable meta-physical reality, they have lost the ability to use Chazal's statements as a basis for saying that science is wrong about anything.

The Wolf

42 comments:

Yoni said...

I think Chazal would barf if they saw what today's Rabbi's were doing to them!

zach said...

In general, whenever Chazal make a scientific statement, they are not talking about the observable universe but rather the "real" universe.

Psychobabble. This totally meaningless statement has zero intellectual value regardless of the modern spin (GUI) Shapiro futilely attempts to impart to it.

Zach Kessin said...

Who are you going to believe, Me or or your lying eyes?

Well my eyes actually. OK I grew up the son of a research biologist, but I have to say if you tell me something that is demonstrably untrue is real I am going to think you a fool and more over anything else you say I am going to view as suspect.

G*3 said...

> In general, whenever Chazal make a scientific statement, they are not talking about the observable universe but rather the "real" universe.

It’s interesting how this interpretation of Chazal isn’t found until it became necessary to defend obviously wrong statements as infallible Da’ss Torah.

It’s also conveniently non-falsifiable.

To your point, yes, they’ve invalidated any claim they might make against science, but it’s worse than that. Claiming that Chazal – and presumably, the Torah too where necessary – is talking about hidden worlds we can’t know anything about, they’ve left rational discourse behind. It reminds me of this passage:



“One reader of an early draft of this chapter complained at this point, saying that by treating the hypothesis of God as just one more scientific hypothesis, to be evaluated by the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general, Dawkins and I are ignoring the very widespread claim by believers in God that their faith is quite beyond reason, not a matter to which such mundane methods of testing applies. It is not just unsympathetic, he claimed, but strictly unwarranted for me simply to assume that the scientific method continues to apply with full force in this domain of truth.

Very well, let's consider the objection. I doubt that the defender of religion will find it attractive, once we explore it carefully.

The philosopher Ronaldo de Souza once memorably described philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net," and I readily allow that I have indeed been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgement was up. But we can lower it if you really want to.

It's your serve.

Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: "What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tin foil. That's not much of a God to worship!". If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: "oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves?

Either way the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug's game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down.”
― Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Yossi said...

At what point do we distinguish between when Chazal are talking about a "real" universe and when they are talking about our observable universe. Are the miztvos applicable in the "real" universe, or in our observable universe. Is a Kazayis measured by the "real" or "observable standards?

I'm confused.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Really? That's Dennett's best argument? He could claim that God is a ham sandwich and dismiss my objections? Okay, fine, God is a ham sandwich - that created the universe. Makes Him worthy of worship by that standard.

Actually there's a Star Trek episode in which four of the characters visit this "real" universe. It's called "Mirror, Mirror", one of their best ever.

Larry Lennhoff said...

When people complain I don't daven with a minyan 3 times a day, I will explain to them that that is only in the observable, GUI universe. In the 'real' universe of Chazal, I never miss daily minyan.

G*3 said...

Garnel, you’re deliberately missing the point. The point is not the ham sandwich, but that, “If the net is down there are no rules and anybody can say anything.”

"Mirror, Mirror” is a great episode, but it doesn’t suggest that the mirror universe is the “real” universe. The mirror universe episodes is DS9 and especially Enterprise were also very good.

Mike S. said...

The notion that one either argues using the standard of science or there are no rules of any kind is really a pretty silly argument. Both mathematicians and lawyers argue under nonscientific rules in highly structured systems all the time. So do scholars in different fields of the humanities.

That being said I must say that either I am way too stupid to figure out what it means to metaphysically lay eggs, and why the "fact" that lice metaphysically spontaneously generate might make it ok to physically kill them in the world of sensory perception on Shabbat.

G3--actually the interpretation is older the the idea of "da'as Torah" although it wasn't very popular until more recently. But I think you are right that the basic source of its popularity in the Chareidi world is the fear that if Chazal are not elevated into nearly omniscient demigods people will abandon observance. While I do not share this view, and indeed, have little patience for it, the standard Conservative argument of "If Hillel could make the Prozbul we can permit _______" suggest that the fear is not entirely without foundation.

G*3 said...

> The notion that one either argues using the standard of science or there are no rules of any kind is really a pretty silly argument.

Absolutely. It’s not about the standards of science, per se. It’s that the claim, in this case of the “higher reality,” tries to do away with rules altogether. We have no standard at all to judge the statements of Chazal, because they were talking about a higher reality we have no access to. Yet if we are abandoning any pretense of having rules by which to judge the validity of a claim, then that has to go both ways. And, as Larry commented, I can claim that in the higher world I’m really going to minyan three times a day, or that the pork I’m eating is really kosher in the higher world, or even that a given person is really a fly in the higher world, so it’s okay to kill him.

Ksil said...

I have to say, this that slifkin is bringing up here annoys me. And he refuses to post any comments that address it - that of applying his "rationality" tests to his core beliefs. He can apply it to charedim, but i feel he looks silly by dismissing or ignoring arguments using his logic on the validity of the torah and orthodox rabbnic judaism as we (and he) know it and practice it.

BrooklynWolf said...

Ksil,

My post really has nothing to do with Natan Slifkin. He's only mentioned because his post brought me to post on the subject.

The post is actually about the chareidi response (or, more correctly, one particular chareidi response) to science-Torah issues. Please keep the responses on that topic.

Thanks!

The Wolf

Mike S. said...

G3, You may have been arguing about this specific claim, and I'd agree. I think Dennett is trying to make a much more general argument.

Shira Salamone said...

I *knew* this notion sounded familiar, and I was right. So there are some who interpret the statements of Chazal to mean that Chazel accepted the teachings of Plato?

Englishman said...

Wolf:

What brought your attention to Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro or his JewsWithQuestions.com website article? Is he a well-known rabbi (or is that a well-known website)?

Thanks in advance

BrooklynWolf said...

Englishman,

It's the new incarnation of frumteens.com.

The Wolf

Englishman said...

Thanks for that Wolf. I tried going to frumteens.com but it just seems to be a forwarding URL to the other address. Can you clarify if frumteens.com was (or is) a well-known site and if it is something that you regularly read?

Thanks in advance again

BrooklynWolf said...

It was a site that received a fair amount of attention in the J-blogosphere a few years ago. I don't know how popular it is now.

I'm not a regular reader, but I do check in from time to time.

Just out of curiosity, what does this have to do the my argument?

The Wolf

Dave said...

He can apply it to charedim, but i feel he looks silly by dismissing or ignoring arguments using his logic on the validity of the torah and orthodox rabbnic judaism as we (and he) know it and practice it.

@Ksil - He hasn't ever dismissed them, to my knowledge. And he hasn't entirely ignored them either; on a few occasions he's mentioned briefly that there are very serious challenges on fundamental issues. What do you want/expect from him? To provide lame answers, or to announce that Judaism is bogus? Either one would fatally cripple his ability to help Orthodox Jews be a little more rational.

Anonymous said...

to follow this line of thinking would lead one to conclude that Orthodox Judaism is based on nonsense.

Woodrow said...

Do you really want the Haredim to say that science is wrong?

Perhaps Judaism would be better off if they confined their more odd ideas to the metaphysical world...

gntessler said...

Well, since 96% of the "matter" of the universe is made of dark energy and dark matter, it is certainly possible that can be a parallel 'real' world out there. throw in a sprinkling of quantum physics, and you can start a new religion !!

Frank said...

Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro is the nephew of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, and brother-in-law of Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rosh Yeshiva of South Fallsberg. The three have the same Hashkofo, hence the identical approach.

Aleksandr Sigalov said...

Wolf,

Are you seriously contemplating this silly nonsense ?

Do you not understand that the real Torah (Pentateuch) and what most Jews know as Torah are completely different things ?!?

Do you not understand that if not for Talmud, we all'd be living it up in the Land of Israel in peace and serenity ?!?

I mean, for the love of God...

Avreich said...

Wolf,

I live in Bayswater, Rabbi (Yaakov) Shapiro's neighborhood. If you have a question for him, you should ask him. There is no doubt you will get a good answer. You would not be the first one to ask him questions. If you don't want to reveal your real identity, you can send a question to his Shul's website. www.Baismedrash.com , or to his Q&A website, Judasim.Eu.Com

Until then, maybe you can answer my question on your post. I don't know what exactly your issue is. Why would it matter if we can't say the scientists were wrong about the observable universe? Why would we need to say that?

)On this topic, you should see these lectures, especially #3, which addresses your topic head-on:)

http://www.baismedrash.com/2010/07/cosmology-101/

BrooklynWolf said...

Alexander,

Please... don't turn this into a platform for your particular point of view. If you want to discuss something on the topic of the post, then fine. The post is about science, not about whether or not the Talmud is authentically Jewish or not.

Please keep the discussion on topic.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Averich,

I'm not sure I understand what your question is. Can you please re-state/elaborate?

Thanks.

The Wolf

Guest said...

His question is:

You wrote:

"the Rabbis Shapiro have ceded the argument to the scientists vis-a-vis the observable universe."

But the Rabbis Shapiro are saying there never was an argument vis-a-vis the observable universe! Who says there is? Or ever was? They are not saying that your entire debate was never a debate. If the scientists prove something, it is proven. Nobody disagrees. Not even Chazal because like you say:

"science (which concerns itself with physical, observable"

So at the end of the discussion you actually have no objection to what these rabbis are saying, and Chazal has no objection to what the scientists are saying.

Aleksandr Sigalov said...

The post is about science, not about whether or not the Talmud is authentically Jewish or not.

I understand that and I was simply telling you that the real Torah (Pentateuch) does not (and will not) contradict science.

Statements from the Talmud, on the other hand, do and will.

This is why I said that I do not understand why such a reasonable person as yourself would even try to comment on this issue !??

Talmud and all of its derivative works is ridden with circular logic and other problems that result in statements like Mr. Slifkin and Mr. Shapiro make. Not to mention that Talmud by all accounts is way too outdated compared to what we know now, both science and pentateuch wise.

So unless you are trying to rationalize RELIGIOUS beliefs ( not facts) then I see no reason why would you even consider rasing this discussion about the bats and such.

I do apologize if I sounded unclear in my first post. I had no intention to hijack your blog post.

P.S. All above aside, I do agree with you completely that statements of those crazy rabbis are indeed totally incomprehensible.

Joel Gold said...

The question; how can science be wrong?, is offensive. What is "science"?. Merely the teachings and speculations of men. "science" is always changing. A better question would be, when is "science" right?

BrooklynWolf said...

Joel,

My point wasn't that science is, somehow, infallable. Of course it's not.

My point is that if the Rabbis Shapiro are discussing some metaphysical reality rather than the observable universe, then how can they say that science is wrong when it describes that observable universe.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

So at the end of the discussion you actually have no objection to what these rabbis are saying, and Chazal has no objection to what the scientists are saying.

So, you think the Rabbis Shapiro will say that, based on the observable evidence, the universe is more than 5772 years old, evolution is true, etc.?

The Wolf

ItcheSrulik said...

Yossi, perfect example. Clearly halacha is based on this metaphysical world where the volume of an olive is equal to the surface area of a shiurim card * the thickness of a piece of matza.

Apparently women in this metaphysical world are also incapable of learning Torah.

rebeljew said...

"Spiritualizing" an argument is the modern method of dealing with the advances of science. The Christians use it to prove that Mary was a virgin, despite clear texts that she had many children, and to reconcile different versions of the same story. However, how can a witness establish the truth of a matter if we are referring to spiritual truths? I can promise to pay you $100 and when you come to collect, i will say that I meant a spiritual $100.

Why does the argument ad absurdem work? Because, what it does effectively is redefine truth. Truth is no longer the opposite of falsity. It is the definitive. Thus, we can reduce this argument to a logical fallacy, very similar to the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.

Angus is a true Scotsman from Glasgow for 5 generations and he eats sugar on his porridge. No true Scotsman eats sugar on his porridge. At this point, I can go one of two directions.

A) The second fact is false, disproven by the first.
B) The first fact is false, disproven by the second. This simply redefines the generally accepted meaning of "true". Thus, nothing is true, for when it is proven untrue, we simply redefine "true".

This is essentially the argument that the Rabbis are making.

jrs said...

Zach put it best, & most succinctly:
<< This totally meaningless statement has zero intellectual value regardless of the modern spin (GUI) Shapiro futilely attempts to impart to it. >>

Rabbi Shapiro’s “explanation” is one of those statements that’s really just a string of words that SEEM to say something thoughtful & substantial---but which actually mean nothing, like the ’scientific’ exposition in some sci-fi films.
To wit: there is a ‘real’ world---i.e. Chazal’s World---which, given the countless references to these things, apparently has virtually all the same animals, plants, weather conditions, human emotions, political events & countries as, uh, Earth 1 (the scientists' domain)---differing only in those details about which Chazal made statements that disagree with science?
Could a theory be any more stupid?

Many among the current generation of rabbonim & roshei yeshiva have [very relatively] better language skills, & also integrate contemporary buzzwords, phrases & even pop-culture references into their speeches. These superficial nods to modernity are far from being indicative of any real intellectual or cultural sophistication on the parts of those rabbis.

They may be very good people, fine men, intelligent, well-meaning and sincere. But broadly educated, intellectually curious & truly open-minded, they are most definitely not.

Anonymous said...

Ah, why don't you ask the Rabbis Shapiro about all of this instead of just writing about them behind their backs? They both seem to be alive, well, and accessible.

jrs said...

<< why don't you ask the Rabbis Shapiro about all of this instead of just writing about them behind their backs?>>

Ask them what, exactly?

While it makes sense to debate someone’s views with them directly, those views were directly quoted here. People of normal intelligence can read a position and comment on it.
The idea that no one can legitimately form a dissenting opinion without having a rabbi “explain” to them why they’re mistaken is an idea that lives in today’s yeshivas (because, like other ideas, there’s no one to challenge it)---but it’s not doing too well in the real world.

Laughs said...

Give me a break! Mini excerpts of philosophical positions were quoted here. Wolf says there is scant evidence of it in Chazal. Is that true? Why don't you ask what the source is.

You may find out that this "stupid" position was also held by the Maharal and the Ramchal. And, as a matter of fact, they both show that there is ample proof of this concept in Chazal.

Wolf conveniently did not quote the evidence provided even on the website that he excerpted from.

You want to comment on it? Go ahead. But if you want to understand, you should ask.

It is people such as yourself that create straw men due to their lack of understanding of the positions they are disagreeing with.

What you are doing is not commenting. You are gossiping. You are talking about things you know nothing about. You have a chance to really find the truth and you say you don't need to.

That is hwy you and your kind are considered laughing stocks in the Yeshiva world. Ignorance to you is bliss.

BrooklynWolf said...

Wolf conveniently did not quote the evidence provided even on the website that he excerpted from.

I don't know what "evidence" you believe I left out.

The main point of my post was that if you take the approach of the Rabbis Shapiro (that Chazal were talking about some "other" reality than the one that scientists observe as the basis of their statements), then you can't use Chazal's statements to say that science is wrong.

I'm not aware that there was any refutation to that point on the JWQ page. If so, please point it out to me.

Thanks,

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

For decades that fellow Goldberg has been plugging his Geocentric idea http://wolfishmusings.blogspot.com/2007/10/geocentrism-jewish-press-readers-let.html

And he seems to be still at it!
http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/811/geo2a.jpg/

Zecharia said...

"You may find out that this "stupid" position was also held by the Maharal and the Ramchal. And, as a matter of fact, they both show that there is ample proof of this concept in Chazal."

True, it was held by Maharal and Ramchal. But they were the first to apply this approach to scientific statements of Chazal. There is no precedent in the Rishonim for it. And it is very difficult to take it seriously as the real meaning of Chazal's words.

yoni said...

The old frumteens site is still available here:

http://classic.frumteens.com/

If you have a question on something there, submit it to the new website:

http://www.jewswithquestions.com/