Sunday, January 23, 2005

Rabbi Plaut responds

I recieved this email from R. Plaut

For better or - mostly - for worse, people commented on my one-sentence
summaries of the much longer papers I referenced. I would just say that
if you are about to do something like that, you should at least not ignore
any of the words in the sentence. If I am trying to summarize (and a bit
provocatively at that) a 3,000 essay in one sentence, each word counts.

I wrote: "philosophically, a tradition (mesorah) is a much more
powerful and better path to knowledge than sensory observation based on
induction." The comments ignored the last three words. Simple sensory observation
only yields very simple facts that are important in day-to-day life but are
of little universal value and not what most people call real knowledge of
the world. A white pages telephone book is packed with tons of truths, but
so what?

I did not challenge direct sensory observation at all. Rather the
reference is to the consequences of modern scientific observation which, as
philosophers of science have pointed out at great length and in great
detail, rest on induction and elaborate theories including assumptions
(and presumptions) of how the world is and of how instruments work and what
they show.

This does not mean that the instruments are unreliable but it does mean
that anyone's understanding of what they show is subject to change.

Direct sensory observation does not challenge the Chumash. The
challenge comes from elaborate theories built on direct sensory observation but
that nonetheless require large inductive leaps of faith, as Hume pointed out
in the 18th century and as philosophers pointed out in most of the 20th

Modern science thus rests very heavily on what may broadly be called
interpretation of the data that it generates in such tremendous
quantities. I did not make this up. This is standard philosophy of science.

There is a conflict between science and Torah about the age of the
universe. This conflict is logically resolvable, and then, logically
speaking, it does not matter whether you force Torah to bend or science to
bend in settling on a way to think of things. However it does matter
very much philosophically and religiously which side is forced to make way
for the other.

There is a concept in Pirkei Ovos of making one's Torah "keva."Rabbonim
explain that this means that one's daily Torah learning should be the
fixed point in his life. Everything else is ara'i. Just the Torah is keva.
Even if much more time is spent on everything else, the Torah time must be
qualitatively the main part of one's life. Logically you can wiggle
around either to make them not conflict. But religiously and really you should
do all the wiggling to science. I have argued that science deserves it on
its own merits, and not just on the a priori religious obligation.

On a separate but related issue that was raised, in my opinion, you
cannot apply statements made by rishonim about science to the science of our
day. The physical world and its knowledge was a very different thing in
those days and what the rishonim said about science in their days does not
apply to science of our day. This is clear from the rishonim, and, lehavdil,
from what modern historians have written. I have an essay about this on my
personal website ( but
have seen very little interest in the issue so I have not posted
anything further.

To summarize that essay, the Rambam says that we acquire Ahavas Hashem
from contemplating the universe. I argue that modern science has nothing do
to with ahavas Hashem. The only thing that can possibly be gained from
modern science is emunah and not ahavas Hashem. Emunah and Ahavah are quite
different and it may not seem easy to confuse them. However when I once
wrote about that modern science cannot (not does not, cannot) bring to
ahavas Hashem, a very respected authority wrote back indignantly, and
argued fervently that modern science brings to Emunah. Unfortunately,
few people think about the distinction between Emunah and Ahavah even
though it is obvious when attention is focussed on it.

In any case, the rishonim were talking about the scientific knowledge of
their day, which assumed emunah as an unshakable premise. They saw the
world as full of purpose. Modern science has banished purpose from its
discourse and is very proud of that. This is a policy decision and not
something that the data forced upon it in any way. Hence, theoretically
modern science may lead to emunah but cannot lead to ahavah. In practice
modern science paints a cold world of hard facts that are not conducive
to emunah.

A person should not have his thinking planted in the scientific world
of today. If he deals in science he must make it ara'i and make Torah

I(Dilbert) will have more to say later.

Comments-[ comments.]


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