Monday, May 2, 2016

Metaphysical Amiratzim

I recently heard an interview with James Flynn, the namesake and discoverer of the Flynn Effect. While doing research on intelligence, Flynn noticed that IQ tests have to be renormed every few years. Tables for scoring IQ tests are derived by administering the test to thousands of subjects. For convenience (it makes the math easier), the average result is given a score of 100. IQ tests measure people's performance not against some objective standard of intelligence, but against the average performance of people in their cohort, the people in their age group in their era. The tests have to be periodically renormed because average scores keep drifting upwards.

What this means is that if someone were tested today and scored with the tables used in the '40s, he would score as a genius! It's nice to think that we're all getting smarter, but reversing that experiment exposes an absurdity. If we were to take a current IQ test back in time and test someone from our grandparents' generation as a young man or woman, they would score as profoundly retarded. Obviously, the generation that created the first computers and jets was not made up of people who were not intelligent enough to  care for themselves.

So what was happening here? Flynn found that in some areas that IQ tests measured, like math skills and vocabulary, there was little to no change in the scores between cohorts. What changed was people's performance on sections that required abstract thinking. People kept getting better at it. The rising scores didn't reflect a change in people's intelligence, it reflected the diffusion through our culture of a particular way of thinking. People in the past tended to think concretely, about things that effected them directly. Not because they were intellectually incapable of thinking abstractly, but because they had no reason to, and were unlikely to ever encounter abstract modes of thinking. They didn't have the intellectual tools for it.

I had heard all of this before. What caught my attention in the interview was when Flynn pointed out that there had always been a small minority of people throughout history who could think abstractly, and listed talmudists among his examples. Could this explain the gemara's contempt for the am haaretz? Imagine yourself as an amora, intelligent, educated, and so comfortable with thinking in abstractions that you don't even realize that's what you're doing. You interact with a farmer who is illiterate, ignorant, and, it seems to you, unable to even think. Sure, he can design and build buildings and farming equipment, come up with clever ways to increase his crop yields and keep away pests, and other practical, hands-on things. But ask him to apply logic to a pair of pesukim to see how they are similar and what we can learn about what is discussed in one from what is discussed in the other, and he's completely lost. It's not just that he can't do it, he doesn't even understand what it is you want him to do.  Of course you think he's an idiot.

The farmer isn't an idiot. He's just lacking a particular set of tools. It's like asking a guy who's never seen a screwdriver to assemble a piece of furniture, and concluding he's mechanically inept because he thinks the pointy things with ridges are badly-made nails. He won't be able to put the thing together. He won't even understand what it is you want him to do. You hit nails, you don't turn them. Everyone knows that! But show him what a screwdriver is, explain to him how screws work, and give him a chance to practice, and he could end up working for IKEA.

This all came to mind over Yom Tov when I saw this sign at a keilim mikvah in Brooklyn.

My initial reaction was to ridicule whoever had written the sign. Tevilas Keilim is not a metaphysical or mystical concept? You don't get much more metaphysical and mystical than dunking clean utensils in dirty magic sky-water to wash off the taint of possible involvement in worship of other gods. Here, in red and white, was proof that the frum community was made up of theological morons, philosophical amiratzim who don't recognize a metaphysical ritual when it stares them in the face.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps they weren't stupid. They just didn't have the intellectual tools to see their own religion as metaphysics. And why should they? The wider questions of theology and metaphysics, and the similarities and mechanics of different religions and mythos didn't affect their day-to-day lives. To them, "metaphysical" probably means something like, "Kabalistic."  The sign is probably meant to convey that toiveling keilim is halacha and not a kabbalistic minhag. These same people, complacent in their ignorance of theological terms and lacking the ability to recognize a mystical ritual meant to affect metaphysical impurity might, if given the tools, become adept at thinking about religion.

Perhaps that is another reason to put together a book explaining why people might conclude Orthodox Judaism isn't true. To provide the tools and motivation to even the devoutly religious members of Orthodox society to develop an appreciation of a different way of thinking about their religion. One that understands that "metaphysical"  can include not only those things they consider esoteric but also things that they take for granted, like tummah, avodah zara, and God.

That's almost certainly a grandiose overstatement of the effect of anything I might write, but I'll take motivation where I can get it.

On a related note, I have been working on an outline for the book I proposed a few months ago. It's slow, but so far I have a sixteen page outline, and it continues to grow. When I finish the outline I'll clean it up and post the basic format (Chapters, headings, subheadings, specific topics) for suggestions.


  1. >>To them, "metaphysical" probably means something like, "Kabalistic." The sign is probably meant to convey that toiveling keilim is halacha and not a kabbalistic minhag.<<

    Since kaballah is now popular under the heading of "metaphysics" (see the section so labeled in any popular book store), their understanding of "metaphysical" appears to coincide with the popular one. It does not seem likely that that is where they derived their understanding of the word, but it is a remarkable coincidence.

  2. I'm reading Menachem Kellner's book on Rambam's Confrontation with Mysticism, and it would seem that Rambam emphatically denied a metaphysical aspect to mitzvos. To him they were social or for character improvement of some kind, but not ontological in the sense that they reflected some otherworldly reality.

    1. Rambam said a lot of things that are not part of today's normative Orthodoxy. He famously has harsh words for people who live off of tzedakah in order to learn, and yet, kollel. Rambam 1. lived about 500 years before the Scientific Revolution, and 2. was heavily influenced by reading Aristotle. It would be interesting to see what a Judaism that followed his way of thinking looked like. There is a small Maimonodean movement, but they seem to reduce Judaism to a legal system, which makes mitzvos literally arbitrary.