Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Better Angels of Our Nature

I recently finished reading "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker, and I highly recommend it. It's just short of 700 pages, so it took me a while to get through, but it was never boring and was packed full of fascinating insights into why people are violent - and why they are less violent now than in the past.

The thesis of the book is that violence has declined steadily over the history of civilizations. Despite the widespread belief that we are living in exceptionally violent times, we are in fact living in exceptionally peaceful times. Wars today kill more people (in whole numbers) than did wars in the past, but there are far more people and far fewer wars than there used to be. As a percentage of the population killed, even the cataclysms of the 20th century, the world wars, barely make the list of the greatest episodes of violence in history. The author documents how violence has declined across the board, from warfare to the justice system (we no longer have public executions or break people's arms and legs, thread them through a wagon wheel, and leave them to die) to the way we discipline our children, to our recognition of the rights of other people.

When people decry the abysmal morality of our society, they are usually talking about sex. (They're completely wrong about that, but that's a different post.) Pinker has convincingly shown that in terms of violence and recognizing the rights of others not to be harmed, there has never been a more moral time.

If I were motivated, I could have written a dozen posts inspired by this book. Instead, I'll just write about a couple of things I bookmarked.

The first speaks to the often-heard idea that morality comes from religion. For most of history, it was the norm for heretics and apostates to be tortured and killed. This wasn't cruelty for its own sake,  but was the logical result of the belief that heretics would suffer an eternity in Hell, and could be saved from this fate by confessing their sins and recanting their heresy. As terrible as torture was, it was better to make the heretic suffer for a few days or weeks now and so motivate him to repent than it was for him to suffer even worse torment for all of eternity. As for someone who spread heresy, he had to die to prevent him from causing others to be damned. Pinker makes the point that this logic still holds today, yet people in the West are horrified at the idea of torturing or killing heretics. While there is some cross influence between religious and moral beliefs, it is for the most part their morals that inform their religious beliefs, not the other way around.

The second is a group of studies about violent offenders. It was found that these people's brains are different from typical people. The area of the brain that controls impulses and modulates behavior is smaller in criminally violent people than it is in typical people. If a typical person was involved in an accident that damaged his brain so that he was no longer able to control his impulses, would we hold him morally responsible for his violent actions? I don't think we would. Then what about people whose brains naturally develop that way? How can we hold them morally responsible? And yet, the American justice system is  structured to be punitive rather than rehabilitative.

Similarly, it was found that people's capacity for self-control could be boosted by feeding them sugar. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher functions like self control, burns a lot of energy. Controlling yourself literally requires energy, and the more you do it, the less energy you have available and the more difficult it becomes. Add energy, and you're ability to control yourself shoots up. In other words, you're best prepared to resist eating a chocolate bar after you've eaten it. As I've said many times before, if there is a God, He's a practical joker with a nasty sense of humor.

The last piece I'll mention is a study that, "looked at twenty-five civilizations in Asia and Europe and found that the ones that were stratified into hereditary classes favored myth, legend, and hagiography and discouraged history, social science, natural science, [and] biography." Does that sound familiar?  The study's author suggests that this is because it is not in the interest of those in the controlling classes to have scholars uncover the truth about the past (or present) and cast doubt on their descent from heroes and gods. Or in the case of the frum world, pious holy men and superhumanly adept scholars.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What is Chometz?

When I learned about Pesach as a kid, I was taught that when flour and water are mixed together the mixture begins to rise after eighteen minutes, and this makes it chometz. The implication was that this was a physical change. Before eighteen minutes the dough had not yet begun to rise, and so it was still kosher l'Pesach. After eighteen minutes, it was chometz.

The problem here is that this isn't the way the world works. Yeast is a naturally-occurring parasite that lives on grains and other produce. When it is wet it metabolizes starches and sugar to make more of itself, giving off gasses in the process. It is these gasses that make bread rise. Eighteen is a magic number in Judaism, but yeast doesn't know that. Fermentation begins as soon as the water and flour are mixed together, not eighteen minutes later.

The problem can be solved by reclassifying chometz as a legal rather than a descriptive definition. Dough becomes chometz after eighteen minutes because that's the rule rather than because of some physical change. This sidesteps the empirical problem, but leaves two others.

The first is that this wasn't the original understanding. When the halacha was first formulated, people didn't know about microorganisms like yeast or how their lifecycles affect our baking. They just knew that if you mixed flour and water and left it alone long enough in a warm place, it would rise, and that by adding a bit of already-risen dough to a new batch, you could make it rise faster. Why this happened was a mystery. It wasn't until the invention of the microscope in the 1600s that it was discovered that there were tiny things on grain, and it wasn't until the mid-1800s that it was understood that these things were alive and were what made bread rise.

Given their lack of modern knowledge, it was reasonable for the formulators of the halachos of chometz to assume that it took some time for whatever it was that made bread rise to start working. If you watch a batch of dough, it certainly seems that it takes a while before anything happens. The importance of eighteen led them to use that number, and for millennia it was thought that dough doesn't begin to rise until eighteen minutes after the water and flour are mixed together. It is only in the last hundred and fifty years, when we learned how it really works, that it became necessary to reclassify chometz as a legal rather than a physical definition.

The second problem is that it makes the definition of chometz arbitrary. There is no discernible difference between a batch of dough that has been sitting for seventeen minutes and one that has been sitting for nineteen minutes. Instead of something real, chometz becomes a rule in a game we're playing called "Judaism." It's no longer that chometz is a different kind of thing than non-chometz, and we avoid that thing during Pesach because the nature of the holiday is such that chometz affects us differently than it does the rest of the year. Instead, chometz and non-chometz are separated only by  the rules of the game. They are the same thing, but the rules say that after eighteen minutes we call dough "chometz" and treat it as if it were different than non-chometz.

Some try to save the sense of chometz and non-chometz really being different types of things by shunting the difference off into the metaphysical world. Although here, in the physical world, we don't see a difference, in the olam haemes there is a profound spiritual difference between them. Putting aside the oddity of people who decry the corrosive effects of "Greek wisdom" embracing a Platonic conception of the cosmos, this is obviously a post-hoc attempt to save the reality of the distinction between chometz and non-chometz. Right up until we knew differently, it was assumed that there was a real physical difference. As soon as we found out how fermentation really works, the difference was shunted off into an inaccessible metaphysical world where it is safe from empirical investigation.

One of the first major figures to change the underpinnings of halachos from physical to metaphysical was the Maharal, who lived through the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the mid-1500s. That this trend emerged just as we began to discover how the world really works should make it obvious that it was not so much a revelation about the true nature of halacha as it was an attempt to keep halacha from becoming irrelevant as it's real-world justifications were cut out from under it.

For most of its history, the halachos of chometz were thought to rest on a real difference between chometz and non-chometz. They were different kinds of stuff, and so it made sense to treat them differently. As soon as it was discovered that's not so, chometz became just a rule in the Judaism game, weakly bolstered by the unknowable assertion that metaphysically, they really are different. This is the danger that science poses to religion. Rules that were once simply a reflection of reality become arbitrary, and those who want them to be more than that are left to petulantly insist that their game is real after all,  in an inaccessible higher reality that small-minded materialists refuse to acknowledge just because there is no reason to posit its existence other than to keep religious rules from becoming arbitrary.