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.