Wednesday, October 13, 2010

R. Slifkin's Problematic Blind Watchmaker Thesis

In the comments to his blog entry (October 12, 2010 7:19 PM), R. Slifkin said: Now I have a question for you Dr. Betech. Considering Rav Hirsch's words, don't you think that it is important to show that evolution can be reconciled with Judaism...

The short answer to R. Slifkin is -- absolutely no! And I mean within the Torah hashkafa of Rav Hirsch zt"l.

The modern definition of evolution is common descent via blind, mindless, unguided, purposeless processes such as random mutation and natural selection  --  the blind watchmaker thesis. Even Darwin said that he would consider his theory to be rubbish if he would need to appeal to G-d for any one stage. As Richard Dawkins sums it up with evident approval "For Darwin, any evolution that had to be helped over the jumps by God was not evolution at all". Evolution without the blind watchmaker thesis is not evolution at all. At best (or perhaps at worse), it would be common descent with meta-natural guidance from G-d (something that the scientists R. Slifkin relies categorically reject). 

The quotes in Collected Writings and in his commentary to Chumash (here) show Rav Hirsch in absolute opposition to evolution's blind watchmaker thesis. And in his later writings, Rav Hirsch also rejected common descent and the whole man-from-proto-monkey nonsense. 
Question for R. Slifkin: Have you provided even one quote from all the works of Rav Hirsch zt"l that explicitly support the blind watchmaker thesis? 
Let me answer that one. No! R. Slifkin's blog and books deeply misrepresent Rav. Hirsch. 

As Rabbi Elias points out, in the entirely hypothetical case that overwhelming evidence can be brought to bear, Rav Hirsch would accept it, provided there is clear evidence that it works and that it does not depend on random processes and natural selection, but is seen as a Divinely planned and instituted development. These conditions were not met in his time, and they are certainly not met today. (Rabbi Joseph Elias, The Nineteen Letters, Feldheim 1995, page 44).

As Rabbi Yehuda Halevi puts it: 
Heaven forbid that there be anything manifest or proved which could contradict anything in the Torah (Kuzari I:67)
The blind watchmaker thesis is supposed to account for eyes, wings, the mammalian brain and everything else. What utter nonsense! There is not a single shred of evidence in support of it. R. Slifkin knows this and this is why he has refused to debate Dr. Betech.

(This was originally a comment to the previous entry, but has now been slightly revised into a post.)


  1. RS advocates that although he himself has problems with the attempted explanations of the mechanisms of evolution, the evidence proves that there is “common descent”—and how it [could have] occurred needs explanation. He agrees, as I understand it, that the process is not a “blind, mindless one,” but an intended, wisdom-filled one instilled by Hashem at Creation as the process we call “nature.”

    He would be on safer grounds if he would proffer that the mechanism is/was indeed not natural. Meaning, he would be on safer grounds if he would advocate that the creation mechanism of evolution is not taking place anymore, but (in an interpretation of the pesukim still radically differing with that of Chazal and Rishonim) was itself the unique mechanism of the miraculous process that took place before the first Shabbos.

    However, by instead aligning himself—or excusing others who align themselves—with the assertion that the processes of ששת ימי בראשית were identical to the processes that exist now (including the time required for such processes to occur), he is in effect denying the Torah’s teaching of Shabbos being a cessation of whatever it was that occurred during ששת ימי בראשית.

    Zvi Lampel

  2. Zvi Lampel,

    The process by which the sun formed from a cloud of hydrogen is well understood. We observe similar star creation all over the galaxy and in other galaxies.

    Is it unreasonable to say that God formed the sun through a natural process?

    You may also be interested in R' Aryeh Kaplan's interpretation of ששת ימי בראשית, found in Faces and Facets, page 80-83, which avoids the problem you mentioned.

  3. Here's the quote. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I find it interesting, and R' Kaplan is certainly a well-accepted authority on matters of hashkafa:

    Now, as a scientist, I do accept the modern concepts of evolution, as well as most of the best scientific theories of the origin of the earth and the solar system. There is ample evidence for the concept of evolution, as well as for the fact that the universe is probably around 15 to 20 billion years old. The evidence comes from astronomy and geology, from radioactive dating, and from the study of fossils.

    So now, let us look at the first chapter of Genesis.
    [. . .]

    On the basis of much study, especially of Talmudic and Midrashic traditions, I am convinced that the first chapter of Genesis is speaking of the initial creation of matter, an event that took place over 15 billion years ago. The Bible does not give a date for the Six Days of Creation, and our only tradition is that it took place at the beginning of time.

    We are speaking of the creation of matter itself, when God made the universe an arena for life, when He created in matter the potential of life, the potential of plants, the potential of animals, and finally, the potential of man. God did not actually create man on the sixth day, but the universe was now a universe in which man could evolve.

    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Faces and Facets, 1993, p. 80–83.

  4. Dear Rafi, I used to believe that evolution was compatible with Torah until I studied it in greater depth.

    Rabbi Kaplan z"l was a phenomenal person for whom I have the greatest respect. I used to quote him as a source for reconciling the age of the universe, until I studied his Torah sources in detail. I urge you to do the same.

    Rabbi Kaplan wrote w.r.t to the age of the universe assessed by scientists at 15 billion years (the current age is quite a bit less):

    But there is even a more serious problem. Nowhere in Torah literature is there even the barest hint of such an approach. If not for scientific discoveries, no one would have even thought about presenting such an argument. Thus, it is both ex post facto and without a basis in Torah.


    The only choice remaining is to look into our classical Torah literature and determine whether there are any pertinent statements regarding the age of the universe.

    These are powerful words. If one is looking for support for his hashkafic ideas, he must (a) turn to the Torah (not science) for support, look for sources that pre-date currently accepted scientific norms (in our case, pre 19th century), (c) determine that his conclusions conform to the Torah. Rabbi Kaplan categorically rejects any approaches that do not fit into the above categories.

  5. Dear Dr. Ostroff,

    You took those lines by R' Kaplan out of context!

    The approaches he was rejecting as not based in Torah were two specific approaches, the Omphalos approach and "day-age" approach, which no one has supported recently on this blog or R' Slifkin's. Then, in the part of the passage you skipped, he tears young earth creationism to shreds, calling it not just "effectively refuted" by science but also "dangerous and anti-Torah." He then goes on to apply his powers of genius to finding Hazal-based approaches that fit a 15-billion-year cosmology into the Torah!

    This perspective is remarkably similar to R' Slifkin's, and certainly much different from yours! How could you quote that passage to support your position?

    And what did you mean by "I used to believe that evolution was compatible with Torah until I studied it in greater depth"? What new depth did you discover?

  6. Rabbosai, how is that you did not respond to Rabbi Slifkin's latest post, regarding the potential kefirah of your position? Did you not have anything to say?

  7. I still can't believe that you used the most anti-young earth passage ("dangerous and anti-Torah"!) I have ever seen written by an Orthodox rabbi to support your position. But I also want to add a few technical points:

    ▪ Where did you get the "pre-19th century" standard from? R' Kaplan cites the T"Y, who is 19th century, and discusses dinosaurs!

    ▪ The 15-billion-year estimate had a much larger uncertainty than the current estimate, which is 13.75 ± 0.17 billion years.

    ▪ R' Slifkin rejects both the Omphalos and Day-Age approaches in CoC. So really, there is next to nothing in your passage that contradicts R' Slifkin's opinion.

    Of all the recent Torah literature on the age of the universe you could have quoted...

  8. Dr. Ostroff, I made the following comment at SC's recent blog post, but I will post it again here to make sure you see it.

    At this point in our discussion I have three burning questions. Your answers will greatly help me to understand your viewpoint.

    1) Please explain your previous denial of the entire concept of theistic evolution, calling it "Rafi-theory"—when it is a position held by prominent evolutionists, the majority of Americans who accept evolution, and compatible with Judaism by R' Slifkin's "ostensibly" "compelling" (says SC) argument.

    2) Please explain why you used the following passage from R' Aryeh Kaplan zt"l to show me that young earth creationism is the only Torah-true opinion:

    There is another issue that must also be dealt with squarely. Many fundamentalist Christian groups have adopted the idea of creationism, a teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Of course, since gentiles do not take the Oral Torah into consideration, their approach is certain to be very different than ours. Moreover, many of their arguments have been very effectively refuted by some of the best scientific minds. That Orthodox Jews should align themselves with such groups is both dangerous and anti-Torah.

    From Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe: a Kabbalistic View, page 5.

    3) You said "I used to believe that evolution was compatible with Torah until I studied it in greater depth." I'm curious to hear more about this odyssey of yours. How exactly did you previously reconcile them? What insight led you to give up on their compatibility?

  9. Rafi, you asked me:

    The process by which the sun formed from a cloud of hydrogen is well understood. We observe similar star creation all over the galaxy and in other galaxies.

    Is it unreasonable to say that God formed the sun through a natural process?

    If the process you describe of forming the sun could take place within one to four 24-hour-type days, then perhaps He did it through that process. But not necessarily.

    Rafi--and Yissachar, as well: Just so that I know where we are standing, could you tell me if you are familiar with the writings of Rav Saadia Gaon, the Kuzari, the Rambam, the Maharal on these issues? I get the feeling that you think we are making things up when we talk about Creation by definition including meta-natural mechanisms, and Shabbos representing the cessation of that porcess and the beginning of nature acting exclusively as it does now.

    As for Rav Kaplan, zt"l, for reasons such as those indicated by RSC, I feel forced to say in his favor that he was utilizing a kiruv technique for the uninitiated, in the hope that through learning they will eventually mature. The problem is that there are some who despite their exposure to the sources that contradict his theses, still believe what he wrote despite its innaccuracies.

    Rabbi Slifkin is not one of them.

  10. Zvi Lampel,

    I am familiar with those sources, except for the Maharal, but I saw the relevant quotes in RSC's essay. I do not accuse you of making things up. I think you are delegitimizing a legitimate approach to understanding ma'aseh bereshit given the state of the science today.

    R' Kaplan could have easily stopped before using the words "dangerous and anti-Torah" if his goal was kiruv.

  11. Dear Rafi you say that those lines by R' Kaplan are taken out of context!


    Rabbi Kaplan z"l was describing the right method after rejecting all the wrong methods: The only choice remaining is to look into our classical Torah literature and determine whether there are any pertinent statements regarding the age of the universe. Rabbi Kaplan, quite correctly, looks to our b'aalei m'sora for true Torah opinions (not science). Please read the rest the rest of his essay that follows this statement, where you will find him following his own advice -- quoting the Maareches Elukos, Sefer Temuna, Ari"zl, Ramak etc. in an attempt to find support for his approach.

    Except, that when I applied Rabbi Kaplan's stated method to his own Torah sources (in the original and in context), they did not live up to what was claimed. This was a grave disappointment to me at that time, because I had misled others by referring them to this approach. Now, it would take me a long time to write up those labours. Instead, I invite you to visit every single one of those sources for yourself; then you can be the judge for yourself.

    If you want light reading as to why some us of question cosmic evolution (big bang cosmology), chemical and biological evolution --- you might want to look at it from the perspective (see here, 63 pages) of a scientifically informed but agnostic Jew, living in Paris. Who also happens to be skeptical of ID.

  12. I'm sure R' Kaplan resorted to creative use of some sources. The bottom line is that he saw young earth creationism as "dangerous and anti-Torah" and not an option. Thank you for directing me to that line, it is the strongest anti-YEC expression I have ever seen or heard from a Torah scholar.

    You may quote me whatever atheists you like about how evolution is anti-God or unscientific. The fact is that most frum scientists accept the antiquity of the world and there are giant talmidei hakhamim who don't see any problem whatsoever reconciling it with Torah. I have also examined the evidence for antiquity myself and find the conclusion unavoidable. The diatribes on your websites do not impress me in comparison.

  13. Dear Rafi, did you read the critique of big bang cosmology (this is supposedly how we know that the universe is 13.7b years old) etc. by an agnostic Jew living in Paris, who also happens to be skeptical of ID? (See earlier comment). He probably believes in an ancient universe. But he knows how to distinguish between data and interpretation of the data.

    Who are these putative "giant talmidei hakhamim" that believe in the billions of years of evolution? You must have at least two, right? I wonder whether they have been exposed to the Paris material. I would love to have their comments to it. Do they also believe in R. Slifkin's blind watchmaker thesis? Do they understand the untested foundational assumptions behind the dating methods? Do they follow Rabbi Kaplan's z"l advice to look to our baalei mesora for the Torah approach?

  14. I have read the critiques of mainstream science on your website and many other YEC websites and am not impressed. Indeed, "he probably believes in an ancient universe." The evidence for more that 5771 years is not just the big bang but dendrochronology, ice core analysis, varve analysis, radiometric dating, lunar craters, optical dating, starlight and almost everything related to geology and astronomy.

    The following is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of great rabbis who were/are not afraid of an ancient world, in random order: R' E. E. Dessler, R' G. Nadel, R' Y. Herzog, R' A. Y. Kook, R' D. T. Hoffman, R' A. Kaplan, R' Y. D. Soloveitchik, R' S. Goren, R' Y. Kafah, R' A. Lichtenstein, R' H. Schachter. I am sure there are many more. Then there are also the many rabbanim of impressive Torah knowledge whom I have personally encountered.

    Your favorite phrase "R. Slifkin's blind watchmaker thesis" really turns me off, as I have said several times already. R' Slifkin believes in theistic evolution. If you can't understand that, maybe discuss it with R' Coffer, who explained it correctly here ("Rabbi Slifkin replies with a passionate, vigorous, well-considered theological argument in favor of theistic evolution"), or with R' Lampel, who actually corrected you here ("He agrees, as I understand it, that the process is not a 'blind, mindless one,' but an intended, wisdom-filled one instilled by Hashem at Creation as the process we call 'nature.'").

  15. Dear Rafi, the issue is not just the age of the universe but evolution's blind watchmaker thesis (recall that this is the topic of this blog entry).

    The blind watchmaker thesis has an ancient history (Epicurus being an early proponent). We have thousands of years of our baalei mesora who had to deal with proponents of this dogma, and rejected it. That is why I specifically asked you "Who are these putative "giant talmidei hakhamim" that believe in the billions of years of evolution? Many of them should come from times prior to Darwin.

    Now your first candidate, presumably in answer to my question, is Rav Dessler zt"l but you don't actually answer my question. You only say that Rav Dessler was not afraid of the antiquity of the universe. But that was not my question. My question was: "Who are these putative 'giant talmidei hakhamim' that believe in the billions of years of evolution?

    So let's start with Rav Dessler. (1) Where does he say that the universe is billions of years old? (2) Where does he commit to the billions of years of evolution? (3) Where does he commit to evolution's critical blind watchmaker thesis (the one that R. Slifkin claims is compatible with evolution)?

    [As an aside, I repeat my comment from the Rav Hirsch post: It is the scientific consensus and only the scientific consensus that has the potential to raise questions on the Torah due to the strong claims that scientists make to objective knowledge--and why R. Slifkin feels that Torah has to be reinterpreted in the light of that consensus, no? Now R. Slifkin wrote explicitly that Darwin's blind watchmaker thesis is not incompatible with the Torah; in fact he even states that Judaism sees the random processes that Darwin invoked as ideal. Was R. Slifkin misleading us when he explicitly used this term "blind watchmaker thesis", by which he meant something entirely different than (a) the usual use of the term; (b)the scientific consensus; and (c) without telling us that he means something else entirely? In which case he does not mean what he says, and he does not say what he means? Dear Ari and Rafi, it is R. Slifkin's blind watchmaker thesis that I am contesting, as these terms are generally understood and used by the mandarins of science. Now if R. Slifkin is willing to retract his original statements about the compatibility of the blind watchmaker thesis and Torah, that would be news to me. But I would like to see an upfront admission to (a), (b) and (c) above.]

  16. Dr. Ostroff, the question with an obvious answer is (c). I already told you that. R' Slifkin is explicitly clear that the blind watchmaker thesis is reconciled with Torah with a solution known as THEISTIC EVOLUTION. Explicitly clear. I'll quote it again (CoC 2006 edition, p. 302):

    "So far, we have only discussed the argument that the blind-watchmaker thesis need not be incompatible with the concept of God. Theistic evolution fully agrees with the Darwinists, except that it claims that God is behind the whole process."

    You are the only one on this blog who thinks theistic evolution is irrelevant. Your colleagues have figured out that this is R' Slifkin's position (see my previous comment, I even bolded their relevant words for you). I also note that it is the position of a long list of evolutionary biologists and about 40% of the United States public.

    Lay off the "blind watchmaker thesis" please. It's an obvious misdirection.

  17. I also find Dr. Ostroff's position to be incomprehensible. The whole point of R. Slifkin's book is to explain how God works through mechanisms that only superficially appear to be naturalistic, random and unguided. Even R. Coffer and R. Lampel acknowledge this. R. Slifkin spelled out at length (in his book and on his website) that the people who Dr. Ostroff love to quote-- Dawkins and co.--are making unwarranted metaphysical extrapolations. He pointed out that the scientific theory itself does not rule out God's role any more than any other field of science--as many people, from Ken Miller to Michael Ruse, agree. So why does Dr. Ostroff keep ignoring all this, and hammering away with the ludicrous and slanderous suggestion that R. Slifkin is an atheist or deist?

  18. Did you know that it is the opinion of many in chazal that the world is older than 5771? A of the U by Rav Bechofer.

  19. Dear Rafi, your quote from R. Slifkin actually shows his confusion. Evolution's blind watchmaker thesis means that we are here by unguided processes that did not have us in mind (as emphasized in the biology textbooks here). It is a matter of elementary logic that the concept of "unguided guided" evolution is incoherent.

    For the problems with theistic evolution, see here.