Thursday, November 24, 2005

Cogitating the Regurgitation

I am writing in response to "Regurgitating the cogitation", which was in turn a response to my original post on the topic, "Cogitation" (Nov. 23/05). To recap very briefly, I initially argued (1) that it is not irrational for Rabbi Gottlieb to use simultaneously "Living Up to the Truth" and the theory that the universe was created 5766 years ago looking billions of years old; and (2) that the latter theory is not inherently "weak or cheap." Captain Salamander, in his response (the bulk of which I have copied and italicized, below), seems not to question (1). He presents two objections: (a) that I used a poor analogy in arguing that Rabbi Gottlieb's "old-looking-creation" theory is not weak or cheap; and (b) that the Gottliebian arguments discussed thus far on this blog do not answer all the problems modern academic findings create with the historical records of Genesis, whereas a non-literal reading of Genesis does. In the paragraphs below, I will address (a), and argue that (b) is simply irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

a) The "soft" sciences vs. the "hard" sciences. "Suppose academia universally accepts the Documentary Hypothesis of Biblical authorship," writes the Dark Lord. I think this approach is flawed being as that their is a clear distinction between the postulations of sociologists, historians and archaeologists based on guesswork and hypothesizing and the conclusions of biologists, geologists and physicists that are the result of experimentation and observation - that is the wonder of the scientific method.

This analogy was meant for illustrative purposes only. If you don't like it, you can ignore it. Read my last paragraph as follows: "I'd like to aver that there is, in fact, nothing weak or cheap about Rabbi Gottlieb's hypothesis. It fits the facts very nicely. There's no evidence that it's wrong. At the risk of sounding like a right-wing Haredi lunatic, academia's acceptance of a particular explanation for the existence of a body of facts does not require Jews to accept that explanation when another explanation exists, one more compatible with the sum total of our knowledge." I think that the point stands on its own merits.

To address your objection directly, however, while I generally agree with the distinction you draw between "hard" and "soft" science, I do not believe it valid in relation to the dating of the universe. You argue, if I may interpret and paraphrase your words, that "hard" science can create hypotheses and then test them out to see whether they hold true; for example, if you want to see whether Newton was really right that Force equals Mass times Acceleration, all you need to do is construct a dynamic situation where you know two of the variables already and can measure the third (e.g., you weigh yourself: you know your mass, and you know the acceleration due to gravity; you use a scale to measure the force your body exerts on the ground). "Soft" science merely gathers evidence and postulates based on that body of data; there is generally no experiment that can be conducted either to prove or to disprove the hypothesis. Dating the universe and the theory of evolution resemble, in this respect, "soft" rather than "hard" science. No one can employ the full scientific method by running an experiment to test the historical claims of the theory of evolution or whether the universe banged into existence 15 billion years ago any more than they can devise a test to see whether the Israelites conquered Canaan en masse 3000 years ago or to determine the validity of the Documentary Hypothesis, because to test any of those theories, you'd have to go back in time and actually observe what was going on. Short of that, any conclusions about historical events, whether events spurred by natural laws or those due to human initiative, are merely conjectured from the available evidence. The fact that some conjectures are more mathematical or technical than others does not make them more verifiable, and it is verifiability that makes "hard" science more accurate than "soft" science, as you yourself state: "experimentation and observation - that is the wonder of the scientific method."

Nonetheless, it is certain that no two historical assertions will be judged equally likely based on the evidence at hand. It is certainly your prerogative to believe, after an examination of the evidence, that the Big Bang theory (for example) is more compelling than (for example) the Documentary Hypothesis. It is my prerogative to conclude the opposite.

(Let me make a parenthetical point at this critical juncture - if scientists had "empirically" proven that the Torah had been written by numerous human authors, I would still reject this theory. I believe b'emunah sheleimah, etc. etc.)

Why would you reject the theory? "Living Up to the Truth" asserts that the reason to reject it is the historical evidence that the Torah was divinely given. If that historical evidence is overridden, then you no longer have reason to believe in the Torah's divine authorship. Doing so would be irrational.

What I assume you mean is that you would reject the Documentary Hypothesis, no matter how compelling it was, because there exists other evidence that God wrote the Torah, and the evidence the Documentary Hypothesis employs does not contradict the notion of divine authorship; the Hypothesis simply ignores supernatural possibilities. I don't see why your approach to the age of the Earth should differ. If the Torah says that the universe is 5766 years old, you should reject the calculations of modern science, no matter how compelling they are, because there exists other evidence (that the Torah is correct and therefore) that the universe is younger than science says, and the evidence used by modern science does not, after all, contradict the notion of a young universe; modern science simply ignores supernatural possibilities in explaining why the Earth seems really old.

b) The inadequacy of Gosse-Gottleib. If one is willing to suspend their rational observations about the age of the universe and believe that the Lord seeks to deceives us (or test us, if you would prefer) in order to give us a chance to doubt his hand in creation, one is still left with several unanswered questions created by a literal reading of Genesis:

-Why is there sound geological evidence that disproves a global flood?
-If that same global flood wiped out all life a mere thousands of years ago, why are there peoples in far-flung places (Aborigines, Native Americans, etc.) with rich histories stretching back for tens of thousands of years?

This point, while worth discussing, is unrelated to the question of whether Rabbi Gottlieb's various theories are incompatible with each other. I don't claim to be any sort of expert on the evidence of which you speak (or even, particularly, to be familiar with it). I attempted merely to deal with the rationality of accepting both the Gosse-Gottlieb hypothesis (that the Earth was created looking aged) and the arguments of "Living Up to the Truth." If you want to know what Rabbi Gottlieb has to say about the evidence to which you refer, I suggest you email him (I've got his address; ask me if you want it).

As my friend Lord Voldemort likes to say - I am not saying that there are not answers to these questions. I do believe, however, that Gosse-Gottleib cannot answer these problems. Why accept a solution that does not nearly do the problem justice and in so doing accept an approach that requires the suspension of our logical inquiry and rational observation. Perhaps I would be willing to do so for an all-encomapassing answer, a Torah and Science "Theory of Everything"* if you will. But for Gosse-Gottleib? Not on your life.

Once again, you're raising a different issue. You're arguing that it makes more sense to say that the Torah's account of creation should not be taken literally in every respect, and that modern science is right about the age of the world, than to say that Genesis should be taken literally, and that modern scientific theory is wrong. That may be true. But it's incompatible with Rabbi Gottlieb's apparent premise, which is that Genesis must be taken literally. If you want to criticize that premise, go right ahead, but that's a theological, not merely a rational, debate, and requires careful analysis of the rabbinic sources on the subject. It's got nothing to do with the validity of Rabbi Gottlieb's subscribing simultaneously to "Living Up to the Truth" and the notion that the world was created looking old.

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