Monday, December 6, 2010

Logical Consistency versus Rationality

Pursuant to our most recent blog entry, Rabbi Slifkin took to the comment section to protest what he considers a mischaracterization of his position on our part. In fact, he feels that our description more aptly fits the parameters of this Blog’s own position! This blog entry is dedicated to responding to his claims while simultaneously clarifying both his position and our own.

Rabbi Slifkin maintains that there is sufficient evidence to assume that the world is very old and that life evolved over a period of billions of years. He admits that he is not sure precisely which mechanism could be responsible for such a feat but nonetheless he is convinced that it definitely did happen. Consequently, he is forced to reinterpret the verses in Genesis and reject our universal mesorah. This alone has been a cause of much concern amongst his critics but is not the topic of this blog entry and will thus be overlooked for the time being.

Our most recent accusation against Rabbi Slifkin’s view is that it compromises our ability to utilize a study of the beriah as a means of becoming aware of Hashem’s presence. In response to this accusation, Rabbi Slifkin makes a vigorous counter-argument that is designed not only to defend his position but to simultaneously condemn our position. His argument goes as follows. Since we would admit that one of the fundamental imperatives of Jewish theology is to see Hashem’s hand in the events of our lives and in the events of history, evolution is no different. If evolution did indeed occur, we would simply attribute it to Divine Providence working in the background in exactly the same way we would attribute the events of our lives to Divine Providence. Thus, claims Rabbi Slifkin, by maintaining that evolution compromises our ability to see Hashem, we are in effect countermanding the well-established Jewish principle of Hashgacha.

On the surface his argument might seem compelling but just a little contemplation reveals the fallacy of his position. As explained in the comment section of the aforementioned blog, Rabbi Slifkin is improperly conflating two separate concepts. A study of the beriah is conducted for the purpose of establishing the presence of the Creator whereas the concept of Hashgacha enjoins us to impute the already established reality of a Creator to the daily events of our lives or to historical events, something we would not necessarily have done had we not first established His existence (either from the beriah or from the Torah).

In response to this, Rabbi Slifkin claimed that he too uses the beriah as a means of establishing the presence of the Creator, just not through the phenomena of the universe. Rather, he sees God in the fortuitousness of the laws of nature (e.g. fine-tuning coincidences)

While acknowledging Rabbi Slifkin’s claim, we maintain that such a position is wholly untenable. The phenomena of the universe also require a healthy measure of "fortuitousness", especially life. What principled distinction can Rabbi Slifkin make between fine tuning coincidences (i.e. laws of nature) and random chance mutations of the gene (i.e. evolution)? None. Thus, his claim is self-contradictory and therefore incoherent.

While contemplating all this, I suddenly realized precisely what bothers people about our rejection of Rabbi Slifkin’s view, including perhaps, Rabbi Slifkin himself. Notwithstanding all of our argumentation above, the simple fact remains that there are two possible explanations for life: either it was specially created or it evolved via naturalistic causes. Even if the latter is statistically improbable, so what? Do we really need to make such a big deal of all this? After all, we can still see Hashem in the beriah via our own self-mandated theology (i.e. hashgacha). As such, evolution is consistent with our theology! Who says we have to see Him directly from a study of the beriah??

Personally, I believe our remarks about the importance of seeing Hashem directly from the beriah should convince people of the major theological shortcomings inherent in Rabbi Slifkin’s views but since there seems to be some resistance to this critique, I’d like to approach this from an entirely different angle. Rabbi Slifkin and his chasidim consider themselves "rationalists" and therefore the following argument appeals to the rational element in man.

Consider the following. You are sleeping in the top floor of your home when suddenly you are awakened by the sound of rumbling in the attic. You try and fall back asleep but the rumbling continues. Your wife is also awakened and both of you stare at each other quizzically. She speaks first.

"I think the beavers hanging out in our backyard finally figured out how to make a nest in our attic. There’s been a rash of beaver nests in this neighborhood. We need to call the ASPCA tomorrow. They’ll know how to get rid of them"

Satisfied with her explanation, your wife closes her eyes and tries to get back to sleep. Not to be outdone, you decide to advance a theory of your own.

"That’s not it", you tell your wife. "I think I know what’s going on. Recently, a family of three foot tall green goblins moved into our attic. Occasionally they get bored so they entertain themselves by bowling. The rumbling noises we are hearing tonight is the sound of three foot tall green goblins bowling".

Now, is your explanation illogical? Absolutely not. The noise that three foot tall green goblins would make bowling is logically consistent with the available empirical evidence i.e. the sounds you are hearing. But is it rational? Does it appeal to our native human intellect? I think that anyone reading this would most likely reply in the negative. (If you reply in the positive, this Blog has nothing significant to impart to you and you are wasting your time reading it).

The same applies to Rabbi Slifkin’s view. Yes, it is logically consistent with our theology of hashgacha. But is his view rational? Do we need hashgacha to see Hashem in the phenomena of life? Isn’t life so amazingly complex, so amazingly purposeful? Doesn’t it scream out the presence of a designer no less than the laws of nature Rabbi Slifkin is so fond of quoting? We have a choice. Either we can align the phenomena of life with the theology of hashgacha or we can align it with the theology of ma’aseh bereishis i.e. special creation. The rational choice is clear and thus Rabbi Slifkin’s choice is simply irrational. Since he considers himself a rationalist, it would behoove him to reconsider his views on ma’aseh bereishis.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Those disappearing comments

Some readers complained that their comments were deleted. Actually no comments have been actively deleted (except at the request of the author of those comments). However, when I looked in the blogger spam folder, I did see a number of comments (and I am not sure why blogger flagged them as spam). Those comments have been re-enabled. Any advice on how to train blogger's spam folder to be more discriminating, would be be appreciated. (I'll have to check the spam folder more often :-). My apology to those who have been inconvenienced.

What's Wrong With Rabbi Slifkin's Theology - Part 3

In part one of this series, we explained that by comparing the miracle of Purim to the miracle of Creation, Rabbi Slifkin is improperly conflating Hashem’s role as Creator, i.e. Boreh, with His role as Administrator, i.e. Manhig. The former involves meta-natural processes whereas the latter involves Hashem’s administration via currently operating laws (unless in extreme exceptions). In Part 2 we expanded upon this while drawing a clear distinction between operational science and historical based science. In Part 3, we intend to illustrate what is perhaps the most objectionable element of Rabbi Slifkin’s approaches to ma’aseh Bereishis.

In Hilchos Avodah Zarah, the Rambam discusses the unfolding of Avraham Avinu’s career as the originator of Monotheism. Avraham was born into a world inundated with idol worship. No one (other than a tiny pocket of individuals living in Jerusalem) recognized the true One God. The Rambam writes as follows: (my translation with bracketed words inserted for explanatory purposes)

"As soon as this [spiritual] giant was weaned, his mind began to wander while he was still a young boy, and he thought by day and by night. And he wondered how it could be that the sphere continued to operate without an operator; who would cause it to turn? He had no one to teach him, no one to inform him of anything. Rather, he was steeped amongst the idiotic idol worshipers in Ur Casdim. And his father and mother and the entire nation were serving strange gods and he was amongst them [yet] his mind [continued] to delve and understand until he apprehended the true path and understood the "straight line" from his own correct understanding. And he knew that there was a unique Deity, and He causes the sphere to turn, and He created everything, and there is no other deity in existence other than Him."

The Rambam then goes on to recount Avraham’s history, his ongoing debates with the surrounding nations, and his ultimate achievement in introducing the knowledge of the One True God. It is clear from the Rambam’s presentation that Avraham reached an awareness of Hashem’s presence via empirical observation. This idea is clearly expressed in the following Medrash. (my translation)

"R’ Yitzchok stated: This can be compared to one who travels from place to place and notices a palace which is lit up. ‘Can we possibly say that this palace does not have a master’? The master looks out at him and says ‘I am the master of the palace’. So too, since Abraham was saying (i.e. thinking) ‘is it possible that this world has no master’? Hashem [therefore] looked out at him and said, ‘I am the Master of the world’" (BR 39:1)

Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Avraham reached an awareness of Hashem via empirical observation of the phenomena of the world.

Nature was formed via the asara ma’amaros (ten sayings) whereas the Torah was bestowed via the eser dibros (ten forms of speech). Both are manifestations of the Will of the Hashem. Consequently, a concerted study of either one has the inherent ability of leading one back to an awareness of their Source. Until the advent of matan Torah, the primary method of reaching an awareness of the Creator was via a study of nature. Once Moshe descended with the Torah, the study of nature took a back seat, at least temporarily. Matan Torah was such an extraordinary experience it eclipsed any other agent of Divine revelation, even nature itself. This situation obtained for several hundred years until Dovid haMelech re-introduced the study of nature to our nation. Ever since then, we have been using both forms of revelation as a means of gaining awareness of Hashem.

Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda – in his monumental work Chovos Halevavos – states that there are three primary ways of reaching an awareness of Hashem and His laws: 1) Through Torah 2) Through Nature 3) Through Tradition. He explains that although Torah may be superior to Nature, Nature is the surest, most direct method of reaching an awareness of the Creator.

In Slabodka they used to say that there are two batei medrash. There is the beis medrash of Avraham Avinu and the beis medrash of Moshe Rabbeinu. Both are equally valid. And both are equally necessary.

What’s wrong with Rabbi Slifkin’s theology? Simple. His approaches to ma’aseh bereishis have effectively eliminated Nature as a means of gaining an awareness of the Creator. Avraham Avinu’s beis medrash has become entirely irrelevant. How can one gain an awareness of Hashem via a study of nature when said study yields nothing but random chance mutations? If naturalistic explanations suffice to account for the presence of life, what meaning can Dovid haMelech’s enthusiasm in Barchi Nafshi, and countless other kapitlach Tehilim, possibly contain? If the very phenomena he describes can be understood as evolving over billions of years via naturalistic means, how do they possess the ability of demonstrating the greatness of Hashem?

Claiming that a hidden God is somehow causing the evolutionary process to unfold is entirely meaningless. It takes a pre-conceived notion and forces it upon an otherwise rationally acceptable materialistic process. Occam’s razor, which eschews unnecessary assumptions, considers the assumption of such a notion as unreasonable.

The pesukim are clear. We gain an awareness of Hashem’s presence from a study of nature as opposed to insinuating our pre-conceived notion of Hashem’s presence into the study of nature.

Evolution possesses no evidence whatsoever and yet Rabbi Slifkin feels the need to re-interpret the pesukim in order to satisfy a bankrupt theory. This alone is a serious breach of acceptable Torah interpretation. Unfortunately it pales in comparison to the true ramification of his approaches; the undermining of the very foundation of our religion i.e. the clear, unadulterated awareness of our Creator.