Monday, January 24, 2005

How to succeed in identifying unsupported assumptions and faulty logic

I have read R. Mordecai Plaut's "How to Succeed in Knowing without Really Seeing." The essence of the arguement is this: If you can prove that a certain body of knowledge, call it 'b', is true, and then prove that subsequently a series of parties know with 100% certainty that the proceeding party knew that knowledge 'b' was true, then there is certainty down the line that knowledge 'b' is true. This has an obvious connection with Mesorah, where, if you accept that what was given to Moshe is true, and you are certain that each teacher down the line of Mesorah knew with 100% certainty that what his teacher knew was true, then, we here today, can know, with 100% certainty that our Mesorah is true. This is what R. Plaut terms mathematical induction, and the basis of his claim that Mesorah can be proven mathematically to be more true than science.

As I have found with the other articles written by Rabbi Plaut, this conclusion is based on a number of unstated(and possibly false) assumptions, and faulty logic.

The first question is, what is Mesorah? What does Mesorah include? What does it exclude? Is the body of knowledge at the begining of the chain the same body of knowledge at the end of the chain? has it changed? (you could also add the question: who gets to decide what is Mesorah and what isn't?)

Obviously, Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe at Sinai. We believe it was the written and oral Torah. Did it include Neviim and Ketuvim? Are Neviim and Ketuvim part of the Mesorah? It appears that what was given at Sinai may not be the entire Mesorah. Was the Gemara in its entirety given at Sinai? what about the Shulchan Aruch? Shulchan Aruch Harav? Moreh Nevuchim? Mishneh Torah? what exactly are we claiming as being given at Sinai at the source of this chain? Unless one is going to claim that all of the above were given to Moshe, in addition to numerous books that have yet to be written, we have to come to the conclusion that the Mesorah we have now is not exactly what was given to Moshe.

Next: has the Mesorah been transmitted with total accuracy? 100%? The proof of this from R. Plaut is a quote from Chagigah "If a Rav is like an angel of the God of hosts, one should seek teaching from him...."
One Shouldseek teaching from such a teacher. It doesn't say that one must. It also doesn't say that neccessarily all teachers are going to be like angels, or that a teacher fitting the criteria is always going to be available. Therefore, there is no proof that the Mesorah has been transmitted with 100% realiability. Incidentally, assuming a piece of the Mesorah(in this case Chagigah) is true, and relying on this piece of Mesorah to prove that Mesorah is true, is a no-no in logical reasoning.

On a practical level, If we did have 100% reliability, how do we explain kri/kitiv? or the puncta extraordinaire(dots on top of certain words in the Torah)? or the fact that Sephardi sifrei Torah have a different letter than Ashkenaz(somewhere in Devarim there is a difference- one has a heh, one has an aleph)? Is a claim being made that Hashem told Moshe that many years from now He wants certain Jews to eat beans on Pesach, and some not to?

One other problem, which R. Plaut glosses over. Just because I know with certainty that you know a certain truth, doesn't mean that you have passed that truth on to me, or that I know that truth. R. Plaut says "If b know (a piece of knowledge) p, then p must be true. If (person) a knows that (person) b really knows p, then (person) a should reason that p is true, and hence should know p himself..." That is a big jump, from knowing that someone knows the truth to knowing that particular truth himself, and there does not appear to be a logical justification for it. Let us assume, for example, that I know with 100% certainty that R. Gil knows the truth about when Mashiach is coming. That doesn't mean that I know when Mashiach is coming, just that I am certain that what R. Gil knows about the topic is true.

If you can have 100% certainty of transmission, R. Plaut's equation in theory allows you to prove that we have certainty that what was given to Moshe by Hashem is true. It doesn't say anything about what we know today. It again, is only a theory, marred by human reality. It doesn't address what Mesorah is, what was added, if anything, and what has been lost.

I have not addressed R. Plaut's comments on science, and the lack or reliability of science. I would only say that science is proven by the realiability of the explainations and the predictions that it makes. And, out of all other modes of knowledge, only science can make that claim. Therefore, anyone can theorize that we are like the matrix, only a computer program, and that reality doesn't exist, or that reality isn't anything like what we percieve it to be, but those are unprovable theories. And in the absence of any other evidence, science has the best proof. As is said about democracy, it is the worst form of governement, except every other form.

In summary, R. Plaut has not succeeded in proving that everything in Mesorah is in a direct line from Sinai. He has not even proven that we have certainty of truth in Mesorah. I for one, would rather rely on belief in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and the Mesorah, rather than trying to scientifically prove Him into existance. Additionally, it is quite clear even from the Mesorah that the majority of our Mesorah(Neviim and Ketuvim were transmitted via Nevua, but written by humans, Mishna on down was written by humans) was written by human beings and human beings, saintly though they may be, are human beings by definition, with all the frailties associated with that definition. It doesn't mean that mistakes or errors in transmission had to made, but it certainly doesn't rule out the possibility.

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