Friday, April 08, 2005

On Cognative Dissonance

I've been reading The Camel, The Hare & The Hyrax on my subway commute for a few days now. I've actually finished it once through and am in the middle of a second reading.

While on the subway, I make a point of not hiding what I am reading. While I don't deliberately flaunt the book, I dont read with the cover faced downwards either.

I've been noticing some of the reactions that I get when I read this book. Some people either don't notice, don't care, or may not be aware of the controversy. Others have given me "dirty looks."

Last night, someone broke the ice.

As I was standing on the platform in Manhattan, waiting for my train ride home, a young man approched me and said (in a friendly tone) "I don't know if you're aware or not, but that book's been put into cherem."

"Yes," I replied, "I'm aware of the controversy surrounding it."

We actually got into a friendly discussion on the matter of Torah, science, evolution, biology and astronomy (and Rabbi Slifkin). He wasn't the hard-liner I took him for at first, but rather seemed willing to entertain the idea that science might be correct. I actually enjoyed our conversation so much, I missed my stop and had to take a train back in the other direction.

One thing that he said kind of struck me, in that (without having those words) it was the attitude that I had taken for years. The attitude was that of cognative dissonance; the idea that one could two sets of contradicting beliefs, and give them both validity. When I was younger I could blithly read a sefer which posited a literal 6-day/24-hour view of Creation exactly 5765 years ago and then turn around and read a book on astronomy on stellar formation, a process which takes much longer than 5700+ years; and simply ignore the contradictions between the two worlds. It's much like the famous story about the rabbi who hears two litigants arguing in front of him; after the first one makes his case, the rabbi says "You're right." Then after the second one makes his case, the rabbi says to him "You're right too." The rabbi's wife hears this, goes over to him and says "they presented two contradictory cases! How could they both be right?" The rabbi turns to his wife and says "You're also right!"

That was the attitude that I had for quite a few years (even if I didn't have the words "cognative dissonance" to describe it). Once he mentioned it, though, I remembered other occassions where this sort of thing was "officially" accpeted. While the Catholic church denied the Copernican model of the solar system, one could "unofficially" use it if one wanted to know where to find Mars in the sky on any particular night.

I can't pinpoint when it was that I began to slip out of this cognative dissonance, but it was at least a few years ago. It was at that point that I began to better understand the idea that Berashis does not have to be taken completely literally - especially in light of the fact that the most Chareidi person takes other parts of tanach non-literally as well. But once I began to slip out of my cognative dissonance, then I began to better appreciate the miracle that is Creation.

While discussing science vs. Torah (which is a particularly bad way to frame it) with my fellow traveller, I presented my view on the matter. If you're going to accept Torah min ha-Shamayim, and once you get past the silly idea that science is nothing more than a conspiracy to deny God's existence, then what do you have left? The only possibility that you are left with is that science and the Torah *must* reconcile with each other. If a (the Torah) = b (the truth) and c (science) = b (the Truth), then a must equal c - there is no other option. I know that there are those reading this blog who don't accept the first premise (of Torah min-haShamayim). If so, that's fine - I'm perfectly aware that there is no evidence for it and accept the matter on faith and I don't really ask anyone to accept anything on faith. But if you do believe in Torah min-haShamayim, and you're not chasing conspiracy theories about scientists - then the only option to accept is that there is a way to make a reading of Berashis (even if not a 100% literal reading) mesh with scientific findings.

The Wolf


The Hedyot said...

Science = Truth? Since when?

Science is an approach to understanding the truth of the universe. Sometimes science figures out the answer right and sometimes it doesn't. Personally, I'm pretty confident with science's track record that I'm on it's side. But I would never automatically presume that it's always true. That view plays right into the absolutist portrayal that fundamentalists have of those who trust science. Science is the best we have to knowing the truth of the universe, but believing that Science = Truth is itself a misunderstanding of science.

BrooklynWolf said...

You are correct, Hedyot - it was a poor choice of words on my part.

The idea, however, still applies. I think that whatever the scientific truth turns out to be (and I'm reasonably confident with the scientific truth of the origin on the universe being on the order of 15 billion years ago), then that must be reconcilable with the Torah.

The Wolf

TRK said...


I think cognitive dissonance is an essential part of an Orthodox Jew's life.

Science can be one aspect of truth, while Torah provides us with a different aspect.


BrooklynWolf said...

But can they both be true? Either chickens evolved from reptillian ancestors, or they didn't. This isn't a case of "eilu v'eilu..."

I had this cognative dissonance for a long time, until I began to realize that it was, deep down, intellectually dishonest. Two contradictory facts cannot be simulteneously true. I suppose one could explain 6 days vs. billions of years by using Einstein and different frames of reference, but at some point, you're going to have to say that either (a) a literal reading of the Chumash (or Gemora, or Midrash, or whatever) is wrong or (b) science is wrong. But you can't maintain that both are correct (again, using a literal reading) and maintain intellectual honesty.

The Wolf

Sarah said...

Actually, the whole process you went through was cognitive dissonance. The whole point of cognitive dissonance is that when one comes up against the unpleasant state caused by the inconsistencies of their beliefs, he or she reinterprets one aspect to make the two compatible. The fact that you are able to reinterpret the Torah non-literally is a manifestation of the cognitive dissonance. I do the same thing, but cognitive dissonance is almost synonymous with lying to oneself by convincing oneself that the reinterpretation is true. Is that what we're doing? I don't know. I hope not.