Sunday, October 3, 2010

Excuses are not Reasons

Rabbi Slifkin has given a variety of reasons for not debating Dr. Betech. None appear to hold up in the light of reason. Rabbi Sifkin wrote (see his blog comments):


I have given several valid reasons why I refuse to debate evolution with him (Dr. Betech). To recap: 1) His professed desire for a scientific debate is a ruse, since it is a fundamental religious issue for him.
Supporting Darwin's theory of evolution (common descent via chance/natural mechanisms) seems to be a fundamental "religious" issue for Rabbi Slifkin. In fact, Rabbi Slifkin has made a name for himself in support of Darwin's theory. For Rabbi Slifkin to admit that he was in error would be to repudiate his own books and the reputation he has created for himself as a "rationalist". Given Rabbi Slifkin's own biases, and using Rabbi Slifkin's own uncharitable interpretation of Dr. Betech's motives, we might as well claim that Rabbi Slifkin's professed desire to avoid a scientific debate is also a ruse---due to the fact that he would not want to be shown to be in error.

As was stated in an earlier post, somehow, in Rabbi Slifkin's mind, Dr. Betech is too biased to debate --- whereas, somehow, Rabbi Slifkin does not have these disqualifying biases. This is despite the fact that Rabbi Slifkin acknowledged the contribution of Dr. Betech's biological expertise in one of his books. Of course, a rational approach would be too admit that we all have our biases and then attempt to debate the issues on its own merits.

Rabbi Slifkin further writes:

2) I am not a biologist and it is not up to me to defend evolution. He has to convince the scientific community; as far as I know, he has yet to convince anyone. 3) Even if I believed evolution to be false (and frankly, I really don't understand how the mechanisms of evolution work), it would not make a difference; I would still consider it important to publish my book in the same way and show how evolution is not a contradiction to Judaism. Dr. Betech has formally declined to debate the halachic/hashkafic legitimacy of my approach, claiming that he is not qualified to do so. 
In answer to (2), Dr. Betech has offered to debate a biologist of Rabbi Slifkin's choice. In his latest book (page 317) Rabbi Slifkin writes that there are “compelling reasons” to believe that even Rabbi Yisrael Salanter has evolved from monkeys. Given that Rabbi Slifkin has provided scientific evidence in his books that supposedly show that that the Darwinian theory is true, Rabbi Slifkin's claim that he is not a biologist seems disingenuous at best. Surely if his reasons are genuinely compelling they can withstand critical scrutiny.

In answer to (3), if evolution is false, why would we want to show that evolution is consistent with Torah? Logically, it would seem that the first step is to examine the truth of Darwin's theory in the light of the best scientific evidence.

 (But apparently he does consider himself qualified as a paediatrician to challenge the global scientific community of biologists, palaeontologists, physicists, anthropologists, archaeologists, etc., without even having published a single paper on the topic.) 
In point (2) and here, Rabbi Slifkin demonstrates that he is a big believer in the infallibility of the global consensus of scientific experts. True, our first inclination should be to consult the scientific experts. We certainly hope that we can trust them to provide us with the experiments and data needed to evaluate their theories. But, on critical issues, they have also been wrong, and badly so. An informed layman certainly has the right to ask relevant questions. What are the critical experiments that demonstrate the truths that are being espoused? What untested assumptions have been made? etc. Biology is not rocket science. An informed layman (especially a paediatrician) may surely ask what experiments show that the astonishing machinery of a single cell comes from dead chemicals via chance/natural processes, absent of intelligence? Where are the experiments or empirical data that demonstrate that an amoeba can develop into a fish, and a fish into a philosopher via purely mindless physical processes? When these questions remained unanswered by the most qualified experts then the informed layman is within his rights to be skeptical of the proposed theories.

Michael Crichton, in an invited lecture delivered at the California Institute of Technology in 2003, had this to say about the notion of consensus:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had. Let's be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

Biology is hardly rocket science. If the experts have critical experiments or solid empirical data for Darwin's theory, Rabbi Slifkin should have no problem making his case. 


Scientific discovery does not rest on authentic revelation. By contrast, halacha starts with the revelation of the Torah at the mountain of Sinai, and is governed by the terms of the transmission mechanism set in to place at that time. To a very large extent, halacha relies on prior precedent, the majority view and consensus of qualified halachic decisors (poskim) in the chain of that transmission. Perhaps Rabbi Slifkin considers himself a posek; but Dr. Betech is quite within his rights to refrain from making halachic determinations and decisions. Rabbi Slifkin's last comment is:


Dr. Betech has not formally declined my proposal to debate his own "scientific" approach, but since I've asked him plenty of times over the last week and he has not yet responded, it certainly looks like he is declining. (Perhaps he is avoiding formally declining so as not to be challenged to give his reasons for declining.) Which is odd, because he claims to be interested in truth, and claims that scientific debate between us leads to that. Apparently, that was all a ruse. 
I do not see where Dr. Betech has declined to debate his own "scientific approach". However, does the Torah point of view qualify as a scientific theory? If anything, the Torah is God's blueprint for creation, a blueprint that makes science possible in the first place. Surely the relevant question is whether current scientific evidence best supports Darwin's blind watchmaker theory or the Torah's account of meta-natural creation via a transcendent Intelligence (as explained by our baalei mesorah).

So far as I know, Dr. Betech is willing to debate Rabbi Slifkin (or his representative) in an intellectually respectful, protocolized, neutral, public forum on any of the issues presented in Rabbi Slifkin's books in the light of the best scientific evidence.

  1. Cosmic Evolution (Big Bang Cosmology). 
  2. Chemical Evolution (increasingly complex elements, molecules and compounds developed from the simpler chemical elements that were created in the Big Bang). 
  3. The age of the universe. 
  4. Biological evolution (of the species). 
  5. The accuracy of science-related statements made by Chaza"l. 
Biological evolution should be the first subject to be debated, because that was the initial challenge to Rabbi Slifkin presented by Dr. Betech. Darwinism is both a specific theory of biology as well as a way of thinking about things in general (methodological naturalism). So a debate about evolution will strike at the heart of the matter.

6 comments:

  1. While I respect Dr. Betech’s sincere attempts to engage R’ Slifkin in debate regarding Evolution, his efforts will, unfortunately, meet with failure. R’ Slifkin will never debate an individual well-versed in science in a public and professionally moderated forum. Notwithstanding his ubiquitous appeal to “bias”, it is patently clear that Rabbi Slifkin is the one who stands to lose the most from such a confrontation. Dr. Betech is not the one who publicly disseminates books and online literature perpetuating his position regarding maaseh bereihis. Dr. Betech is not the one whose books were banned by a who’s who list of current gedoley Torah. Dr. Betech does not feel the need to support his position against the overwhelming consensus of our messorah, past and present. If anyone is biased, it is R’ Slifkin. If I were Rabbi Slifkin, I too would not engage in a public debate regarding evolution. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of evolutionary theory understands how ridiculous it sounds to an intelligent, well-educated layman who is willing to challenge the establishment.

    Rabbi Slifkin is scared, plain and simple. Sub-consciously he is afraid that his forced reconciliation of evolutionary theory with the pesukim of the Torah will look absurd. I’m no big psychologist but Rabbi Slifkin’s underlying motivations are not difficult to spot. Case in point.

    In response to Dr. Betech’s challenge, Rabbi Slfkin refuses to debate his stated opinions on evolution and instead advances his own challenge. He writes:

    The counter-proposal is to publicly debate the scientific theory of his creation model.

    What “Scientific Theory of a Creation model”?!? What is Rabbi Slifkin talking about! Dr. Betech never formulated a scientific theory for maaseh bereishis. He believes implicitly that the creative process transcends scientific description. Sure, Dr. Betech may feel that there are some tell-tale signs of rapid creation (such as the lack of transitional fossils or the sudden appearance of all of the major phylum in the Cambrian Rocks), but this is not his “model”. He doesn’t have a scientific model. He wasn’t the one who wrote a book outlining a scientific model for maaseh bereishis, Rabbi Sllifkin did! Dr. Betech is simply asking him to defend his position.

    Rabbi Slifkin’s response is yet another obvious attempt at avoidance and misdirection. And you know what? It’s just too bad. I for one would like to see this issue debated publicly in a protocolized fashion. Alas this in not meant to be…

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  2. SC said: "What “Scientific Theory of a Creation model”?!? What is Rabbi Slifkin talking about! Dr. Betech never formulated a scientific theory for maaseh bereishis. He believes implicitly that the creative process transcends scientific description."

    Good point and well-stated.

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  3. Rabbi Slifkin writes: “2) I am not a biologist and it is not up to me to defend evolution.”

    This is obviously false. It is up to him to defend evolution. After all, he claims evolution is correct and the overwhelmingly vast majority of messorah is wrong. His books are aimed at people who, ostensibly, take Chazal and Rishonim seriously. If he is not prepared to defend evolutionary theory he cannot expect sincere people to take his writings seriously. His habit of passing the buck to the supposed “consensus of scientists” might work for those satisfied with superficiality but I suspect it rings hollow to the sincere seeker of truth.

    Rabbi Slifkin writes: “3) Even if I believed evolution to be false (and frankly, I really don't understand how the mechanisms of evolution work),

    I had to smile at that. I also have to grant Rabbi Slifkin his just dues. I am grateful (and tickled pink) that he chose to publicly admit, on his very own blog, that the mechanisms of evolution are not understandable to him. As far as this facet of evolution goes, I am glad to say that we stand side by side!

    Of course, I would be remiss in my “duty” if I didn’t mention that without a mechanism there is no “Evolution”. Darwin’s magnum opus, his innovation, his universally recognized contribution to science, IS the mechanism! Any monkey (pardon the pun) can come up with a hypothesis that the species on earth evolved from a common ancestor. In fact, this theory did indeed exist before Darwin. Darwin’s novelty was primarily associated with the means of evolution. His theory provided a scientifically feasible mechanism which could supposedly account for the incredibly complex phenomenon of speciation. Only then was evolution accepted by the establishment. However, it didn’t take long for the scientific community to recognize the glaring inconsistencies with the theory. Evolution almost died in the early twentieth century. But apikorsus dies hard and thanks to the inane idea of random mutation evolution lives again! Too bad Rabbi Slifkin and I still can’t figure out how the infernal thing works… ah well… maybe one day…

    Rabbi Slifkin writes: “it would not make a difference; I would still consider it important to publish my book in the same way and show how evolution is not a contradiction to Judaism.”

    Why Rabbi Slifkin, why? Your book (actually, its two books: The Science of Torah and The Challenge of Creation) is obviously a product of considerable effort. You claim that you are willing to invest all this effort to reconcile the Torah with a false doctrine. Can you please supply a coherent reason for such a venture!? If it has to do with “effective kiruv rechokim”, I am very disappointed. I have been involved in same for many years and not once have I encountered a sincere potential baal teshuva who, after being properly presented with all the facts, was turned off by a “young earth scenario”.

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  4. Rabbi Slifkin writes: “Dr. Betech has formally declined to debate the halachic/hashkafic legitimacy of my approach, claiming that he is not qualified to do so. But apparently he does consider himself qualified as a paediatrician to challenge the global scientific community of biologists, palaeontologists, physicists, anthropologists, archaeologists, etc., without even having published a single paper on the topic.

    Neither have you Rabbi Slifkin! The fact is, your books imply that you possess expertise both in Torah and in Science. At least Dr. Betech doesn’t claim to possess expertise in Torah. Where’s your peer-reviewed articles in Science? Where are your Chiddushim in the various Kovtzim issued by Yeshivos? And if you respond that you do not possess expertise in either Torah or Science, what business do you have preaching to the world? How do you justify the publishing of your books and the dissemination of your opinions over the world wide web? How can you even begin to criticize Dr. Betech for lacking qualification? The man is simply requesting some information. If you are unable to provide it just say so and let’s call it a day!

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  5. Thank you Rabbi Coffer and "YSO" for offering this forum. With your agreement, I would like to pursue dialogue here on these important issues, without involvement of Rabbi Slifkin and the ban on his books.

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  6. Dear Yitz,

    Thank you for your well wishes. I too would like to pursue the issues without getting caught up in ad hominem material, bans and other personal non-academic stuff. But just so you know, this Blog is currently un-moderated so anyone, including Nosson Slifkin, can post a comment.

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