Friday, 29 October 2010

Torah and Science - No Conflict Possible

Originally published 10/29/10, 11:02 am.
A colleague permitted me to quote this:

Professor Gerald Schroeder is a shomer Torah who is a physicist. ... [And] He [uses] the meforshim and scientists, including the Ramban and Einstein, to help explain relativity and how not only is there no conflict between Torah and Science, but how they must work in harmony, since they both have the same author.

I explained that the way I say it is that:
"true Torah and true science cannot conflict"

My Colleague added:
Schroeder also said that:
«If one thinks they found a conflict between Torah and science it's either because they don't understand what the Torah is saying or they don't understand the science.»



AlexD said...

There are lots of conflicts between Torah and science, and I'm not sure why one would want to deny that? The age of the universe, the evolution of man, the nature of many types of animals, etc, etc. Why can't Torah and science conflict? Many great rabbanim understood there were many conflicts but it didn't seem to bother them, since Torah and science deal in separate spheres of human thought, so the conflicts don't need to resolved. It's the totalism of someone who feels the need to have everything make sense under one theory which is more bothersome than the conflicts themselves.

(Schroeder's books don't really do much to further the discussion, since his standard technique of argument is to beg the question -- and for someone trained in the sciences or Torah, his arguments don't really hold water -- they are used mostly as kiruv tools for people who are impressed by a degree)

micha said...

You can say this even after "God According to God"?

From the book's page on the Harper Colllins web site:

In God According to God, Schroeder presents a compelling case for the true God, a dynamic God who is still learning how to relate to creation. The key to God's action in the world, according to Schroeder, can be found in a well-known verse in Exodus that is typically translated "I am that which I am." Schroeder's correction that it should be translated "I will be that which I will be" reveals a God that changes to fit the ever-changing world.

This opens our eyes to other characteristics of God that we have long overlooked despite their being present in some of the most popular stories in the Bible—a God who regrets (the flood of Noah), a God who wants us to argue with Him (Jacob wrestling with God in the desert), and thus a God who changes His mind (Moses convinces God to spare the Israelite people), and a God who allowed nature, and the creation itself, from the very start, to rebel (Adam's and Eve's betrayal in Eden).


Garnel Ironheart said...

There is no conflict between Science and Torah. There is a conflict between people who insist on a limited, over-literal interpretation of the Torah and science. On the religious side, the conflict is created to avoid having to face reality and its challenges. On the secular side, it's created to dismiss religion and the morality it represents. but these are artificial conflicts.

AlexD said...

"limited, over-literal"

I wouldn't often describe the views of Rishonim that way. But perhaps I should have been explicit -- the views of rov Rishonim and science conflict. Is that better?

micha said...

Name a rishon who actual does believe in a young universe. Just one.

The notion that the universe is old -- whether because there was a long period between Bereishis 1:1 and 1:2 (eg Medrash Rabba, Ramban, Rashi, Bahir) or because the six days weren't as we know "days" (Rambam, Ran, Iqqarim) -- is actually the NORM for rishonim.

This whole business that we invented something new in response to science is revisionism. In fact, it's the Young Earthers who found a new peshat in the Torah. As I said, the challenge is to find a rishon who agrees with them -- not the other way around.


AlexD said...

Rashi certainly believes in a young earth -- his whole history of the universe, in the gemara in Avodah Zarah wouldn't make any sense otherwise.

micha said...

Rashi writes that the sun, moon and stars were created before day one, and only placed in the sky on day four. That's why I categorized him with the Ramban -- those who posit a literal week, but that the universe started well before that week.

Also, remember that Rashi on Chumash is only to explain "peshat" (which Rashi defines very liberally) in the pasuq, and he acknowledges the existence of other layers. How he explains a verse is not necessarily how Rashi believes the history actually went.

IOW, if the pasuq is al derekh mashal, or as the Maharal would have it, only partially comprehensible to the human mind, then all Rashi set out to do is explain is the pasuq -- not creation itself.

BTW, Rav Dessler groups the Ramban with the Maharal, as saying that time before the eitz hadaas didn't have the qualities and limitations we know it as having. I wrote the above taking Ramban at more of a face value.

And arguing over whether Rashi held of a young universe or not wasn't really my point. My point is that if we were being honest about history, the challenge would be for the Young Earthers to find support, not the other way around. Even if I thought Rashi held that time began on day 1, he would still be one rishon in contrast to the many. There is no reason for those who believe the universe to be billions of years old to be on the defensive about it. It's AT LEAST a position clearly supported within the mesorah back when there were no scientific issues with age. (Other than it not being altogether infinite.)


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

What do we really mean when we say that there is a conflict between Torah and science? What we are really saying is that there may be a conflict with our present understanding of Torah and our present understanding of science.

The latter is our attempt to understand the mechanics of the world. We are given the facts of physical reality and attempt to determine theories that can explain these phenomena. New discoveries are supports for these present theories but still everything is up to re-investigation.

Similarly, our study of Torah is an attempt to understand the mechanics of the world of Torah. We are given the facts as presented in the overall corpus of Torah literature and attempt to determine theories to explain them. The very fact that chiddush is so important a concept within Torah study (ein beit medrash sh'ein bo chiddush) is a clear indication to us that we are constantly in the process of re-understanding the world of Torah.

Thus a conflict between science and Torah simply points out to us that there is a challenge to our present theories in one, the other, or both. This is, though,not a problem for the very purpose of our lives, and our lives of Torah, is to uncover new realizations. All a conflict points out to us is that there is a problem, a question. That is a good thing. It should motivate us to think anew. The problem is becoming to tied to our present solutions and not allowing us to open new vistas of science or new understandings of Torah l'hagdil Torah u'l'hadiro.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

AlexD said...


I appreciate your explanation, but I disagree with your understanding of Rashi. See his comments in the gemara in Avodah Zarah (first perek), as well as a number of other places in Shas, and you will see that Rashi certainly believed in a young Earth.

And I think most of the other Rishonim understand the dating from Adam HaRishon on down to us in the same way. I think you are significantly misunderstanding the positions of rov Rishonim. I am talking about whether from Adam HaRishon to us was a matter of 6000 years or hundreds of thousands of years (I am not talking about maseh bereishis). I don't think you will find a source in the Rishonim for the hundreds of thousands of years position for the age of man.

micha said...

AlexD:You write of "Adam harishon down to us". I'm speaking of the week of creation -- before Adam.

As for science -- it has nothing to say about when Adam was. Current theories may be taken to imply that the "mud" of which Adam was made had taken homo sapien form hundreds of thousands of years before, but it doesn't speak to when Hashem breathed a soul into the first homosapien.

The Torah and archeological don't pose challenges until the mabul.


micha said...

Except that, with respect to Torah, we claim completeness -- Toras Hashem temimah.

Therefore, while I'm willing to use Torah to modify my understanding of science, I am limited in my ability to use science to modify my understanding of Torah.

It could be the science is as yet misunderstood.

But for me to accept that the Torah was misunderstood I would insist on a Torah source for some new understanding. Not merely to invent a new peshat because that is what the evidence appears to demand. If no such internal evidence exists that the previous pashat is flawed, then I would continue awaiting the new scientific theory.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The concept of nishtana habriya must also be taken into consideration in any discussion of a historical nature. Of course, this term itself also demands further contemplation thus further complicating the discussion. I will simply note that there are many sources pointing to a wholesale change in what may be termed scientific reality with the eating of the fruit of the eitz ha'da'at tov v'rah, much indication of some change with the mabul and, of course, the constant reference to this term in perhaps more subtle terms found in halachic literature to explain changes between presentations of the gemara and what was observed in later times. Of course, there are individuals who simply see these references to change as attempts at apologetics and find it most difficult to accept changes in reality, i.e. the rules of science over time. That indeed raises many other questions. The point is, though, that a full belief in what Torah ultimately stands for -- i.e. a belief in a God that is above nature and can affect, even change, nature -- renders the issue of conflict somewhat muted as a challenge although it does open up more questions.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

RAM said...

To say that the truth is the truth is a ...truism!

There is a real conflict between our perceptions based on the written and oral Torah and those based on the theories and writings of some scientists. Bending the Torah to our will, as some of us do, is not the way to resolve this.

micha said...

Part of this is the complexity of gray area. Different people will have different thresholds to what they consider "proven". At what point are you denying a theory, and at what point is the theory so forcefully compelled from the data that you're denying the data?

Second, RAM presumes that the universe must be consistent. However, as day school students are taught (but don't fully understand until later, if ever) in first grade parashah class, the same liquid can be simultaneously water for one person, and blood for someone else. According to the Maharal, this is a general property of miracles.

I personally don't see why or how inconsistencies in reality would only apply to the time of the miracle itself. It could be that by the very nature of miracles, those of us who don't merit them, don't merit all that much evidence of them either.

And so, while across the globe, communities have memories of a flood (even Aztecs, who didn't live on anything like a flood-plain) we can't find evidence of any.

Perhaps, RAM, the truth is not the truth for everyone.


RAM said...

Micha, where does objectivity fit into your picture? At a level above all of us?

micha said...

RAM, first we have to divide the concept of "objectivity". We use the word "subjective" to mean (a) something that is particular to an individual, and (b) something that is a product of that individual's way of seeing things, propensities, etc... And similarly, the antonym, "objective" therefore has two elements.

Here I'm saying there is such a thing as a reality that is particular to an individual but is NOT simply a product of how that individual views the world. No more so than someone in France experiencing a different reality than someone in NY. The Maharal speaks of different spiritual planes on which different things occur. Rav Dessler relates this to the 4 olamos of qabbalah.

That said, for people who don't leave the plane of the natural, olam ha'asiyah, we all share a common experience. The number of people who move beyond nature, either as the Jews did or as the Egyptians did, decreases with time.

Of course, I'm wallpapering over gray area by speaking in such absolute terms instead of relative ones. There are things that are not clearly natural or miraculous. e.g. Israel's success in the 6 Day War wasn't the splitting of the Red Sea, but it wasn't olam keminhago holeikh either.


micha said...

The question of what is the ultimate "thing" that's really out there.

Kant asserted we couldn't ever know.

The Tanya says it's Hashem. That all of existence is just the illusion that something other than G-d exists.

Einstein wrote that one of the most inexplicable things about science is that it's explicable. To give my own elaboration, the world around us should make sense; sense was designed / evolved in order to help us cope with it. But that tensor math happens to help explain general relativity? Why should the universe at relativistic scales be comprehensible to us at all?

A friend of his (and noted philosopher and physicist in his own right), Ernst Mach, explained it in the above terms. Science explains the universe as seen from within the human condition. Therefore, it is the same kind of mind that shapes the reality that is trying to understand it.

And along those lines, Einstein wrote, "Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed."


RAM said...

Micha, do you agree with the Baal HaTanya's basic point about the illusion?

micha said...

I find the Baal haTanya's statement to be much like trying to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. (An expression I was taught by Dr Aizik Leibovitch, in my first comp sci course at YU, when explaining why we "boot" computers.)

The soul which has this illusion of being distinct from G-d only exists within that illusion? (Sounds like this Escher painting. And my problem understanding this point in the Tanya roughly relates to the spot in the center MC Escher had to leave blank.)

I do think the ultimate reality is incomprehensible. And that has much to do with why maaseh bereishis and maaseh hamerkavah are. Because they were both revalations of a reality beyond what we can experience.

But this is more a personal answer than something I think is the only one consistent with the evidence -- empirical and mesoretic.


The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

There are enough hints in the midrashim surrounding Maaseh Bereshis to understand that we cannot look at the literal reading of Bereshis 1 as the best reading.
God creating other universes and destroying them, the Torah existing before Creation, Derech Eretz being created before creation, what does all that mean? If Creation isn't come first then Bereshis isn't the beginning of everything in which case who knows how long whatever happened at that time happened for? For good reason the gemara in Moed Katan tells us not to get hung up on Bereshis and trying to understand it. We simply can't.

Bob Miller said...

If the midrashim were intended as allegories, they could not be used to argue "against" the literal meaning.