Sunday, January 17, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (II)

Let’s now address 2, the implication that because scientific theories change they are unreliable. This is usually contrasted with religious doctrine, which remains unchanging. We generally perceive someone who constantly changes his mind as fickle and unreliable, while the person who can always be trusted to be true to his word and not change his mind is steady and virtuous. But claims about how the world functions are not people, and this is not a question of loyalty. This is instead like the person who insists that the sky is purple because that’s what his parents told him, and when you take him outside to show him the sky is blue squeezes his eyes tightly shut.

Scientific theories are our current best guess as to how the world functions, and so are subject to change as we uncover new evidence. Religion, on the other hand, as the revealed wisdom of the Creator cannot change. For religious doctrine to change implies that God was wrong. At the very least, it implies that generations of pious, learned paragons of faith misinterpreted God’s message. This rigid adherence to tradition is not a strength. While we all crave certainty, an unwillingness to change which produces the illusion of certainty is not the same as actually having certain knowledge of how the world functions. The reluctance of religion to change in the face of scientific discovery has led to some strange confrontations. The most famous is Galileo’s run-in with the Catholic Church, and while this was mostly his own fault (he insulted the pope and was notoriously rude towards those who disagreed with him) it, and the even more severe treatment of some of his predecessors, stands as an example of the difficulty of changing doctrine and the lengths of suppression organized religion will go to in order to avoid doing so.

Judaism itself has been left with many, many examples of counter-scientific articles of faith, ranging from the age of the Earth to the creation of the Earth before the Sun. While many of these sorts of difficulties can be gotten around by using non-literal interpretations, if we take the great rabbonim of past generations to be infallible (as much of chareidi Judaism does) we’re forced to accept things like spontaneous generation and Aristotelian physics (particularly the four elements).

What's worse, religion's claim to be unchanging isn’t even true. Religion has changed, often radically, and often in response to social and scientific advances. At a certain point, the evidence is overwhelming, and religious texts are reinterpreted allegorically to fit with the newly-acknowledged truth. There are few people today who claim that the Earth is flat and has corners or that the Sun goes around the Earth. Those who do hold such views are rightly seen as the lunatic fringe.

The real difference between science and religion is that for a scientist, acknowledging mistakes is okay and, “I don’t know,” is an acceptable answer. For the religious apologist, changes to the religion have to be ret-conned so that they were part of the tradition all along, and, “God did it,” serves as a handy answer to any mystery. For the scientist, mistakes are opportunities for improvement and mysteries are exciting new areas of discovery. For the apologist, mistakes are at best a demonstration of the puniness of humans attempting to understand God’s will and mysteries are an opportunity to marvel at His greatness.


  1. tsk!

    Science only explains the "how"

    Religion (at least the one I follow) explains the "why"

    A fruitful life demands one to know both the "how" and the "why" to the world.

    Science will tell you the rainbow is an interplay between water particles and light refraction.

    Religion will tell you the colors of the rainbow serve as a "sign" that God made the world full of various people's and cultures so that they might come to know one another.

    Your glass is half empty my friend!

  2. Religion is only needed to explain the "why" if you assume everything needs a deeper meaning.

    A rainbow is light refracting through water in the air, no different than what you can do with a prism on a smaller scale. "How" it appears is light passing through water droplets. "Why" it appears is because the conditions were right to produce it.

    Made-up interpretations of its appearance, whether your "peace on Earth" or the traditional Jewish explanation are merely the arrogance of humans assuming that everything in the universe must have a deeper purpose directly related to themselves.

    > Your glass is half empty my friend!

    Not really sure what you mean by that. Do you think I'm a pessimist because I don't believe in the supernatural? I don't think I am a pessimist, but even if I were, I don't see the relation that would have to any supernatural belief or lack thereof. There are many believers who are pessimists and may atheists who are optimists.

  3. FYI - I emailed a link to the author of Search Judaism letting him know about your critique.

    I hope he comes to comment - I'd love to see what ensues.

  4. I considered contacting him, but it seemed too mean. He clearly worked very hard on the book. It's not like I'm likely to convince him I'm right, so why have him read what is unavoidably a harsh critique of his effort?

  5. @ Shalmo:

    I don't know if you have considered this, but a rainbow can seem beautiful, and it can cheer one up without actually thinking that God made it that way.

    I was really disturbed and depressed for around two days when I convincingly realized that all our emotions, decisions and intentions are interplay of chemicals called neurotransmitters, but later on I also realized that just because I know the basis for my emotions, it does not make a case to disregard them or to take them any less seriously.

    @ G*3:

    I very much liked the last paragraph of this post, and have linked it as a recommended reading in my latest post. Hope, you do not mind. But it is not to mean you will necessarily find new readers or commentators for your blog (apart from me), because my blog itself does not enjoy a huge readership, nor those who read it take keen interest in religion, science, philosophy, critical thinking, etc.

    And lastly, your maturity as reflected by your response to anonymous above greatly impressed me. Keep it up!

    Take care.

  6. Very true, full support to your thought.
    scientific theories change because science is dynamic .It attempts to find the answers to 'Why' by what is called scientific method. These theories are reflections of thought that can be substantiated by experiments and results and not just collection of opinions.

    Beauty of science lies in exploration, to give a very simple example, Newton thought light was corpuscle having mass, Hygens thought it was mechanical wave, maxwell suggested it is EM wave. Einstein explained photoelectric effect by considering the light as bundles of energy called photons . We all know now, that light has dual nature.

    Change is strongest sign of life and a mind that never questions the validity is like stagnant water that can only breed reptiles.

    I had uploaded a video of Richard Feynman on You Tube .... I think he truly says it all that every person who has belief in science would say....Link given below for those who are interested..