What Science Doesn’t Know

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Practical Highlights of Derashot haRan, Number 2: What Science Doesn’t Know

People have long recognized that the physical world is a profound source of knowledge; a related question is whether there are limits to what the natural world can tell us about our lives, and what those limits are. In the section of Ran’s first derashah that we’ll look at this time, Ran offers an answer that translates into a theory of the best way to engage modern science.

In this series
* 1: Communities, Combination and Creation
* 2: What Science Doesn’t Know
* 3: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?
* 4: The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov
* 5: Changing the World with Evocative Acts
* 6: Predicting and Locking In the Future
* 7: Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
* 8: Drasha 3: Aharon and the Rewards of Sincere Humility
* 9: Drasha 3: Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

In the section we saw last time, Ran focused on how nature mostly consists of items that have been combined. That let him express his awe for his audience, a combination to which he owed his respect, and moved him to trepidation as he approached his sermon.

But Ran doesn’t want to discuss only nature, he wants to discuss the verses at the beginning of Bereshit. Unfortunately for him, the first Mishnah in the second chapter of Chagigah rules that we only teach “ma’aseh bereshit, the work of Creation” to one student at a time, while only individuals, working on their own, can study “ma’aseh merkavah, the workings of the Chariot (a reference to God Himself, as it were, and the heavenly hosts).”

How can he publicly discuss these verses, which speak directly of Creation?

What Science Discovers

By way of apology for what I am about to do, let me note a personal irritant. I have met many Jews who find it endlessly fascinating to show that all the discoveries about the world made by non-Jews, or non-religious Jews, are already found in books of traditional Jewish learning. It feels insecure to me, as if we can’t be confident of our tradition unless we do everything better and first.

Accessing the mind of God requires more than simply examining the world

Nevertheless, sometimes it does happen that an important insight into the world is prefigured in traditional sources; this is one of those times. One of the forgotten insights of the scientific revolution was that science progresses best when it sticks to what it can analyze physically. While many great discoveries have started with theory, they haven’t been accepted as scientifically proven until they were shown in the physical universe. Spotting and explaining regularities of the world we see, and offering explanations that can be demonstrated or proven in that same visible way, are crucial to the scientific method.

This approach is effective in many areas, and has improved human existence prodigiously over the past four centuries. Life expectancy, general health, and quality of life are greater, by almost all measures, in those parts of the world where the advances of science have been applied. Nothing I am about to write detracts from that.

But science does not—despite what some of its practitioners claim—deal with questions that cannot be resolved through physical evidence. The simplest example is God; it is not that science does not prove or disprove God, it’s that the concept of scientific proof of God is meaningless, because it would require that God, too, be a physical part of the universe. Responsible science simply doesn’t go there.

Ran anticipated that divide.

The Visible World, as Opposed to Ma’aseh Bereshit

Ran argues that the ma’aseh bereshit the Mishnah told us not to study publicly does not include those aspects of the world that are easily seen—no one would claim that the fact that heavy items fall to the ground (Ran explained it in terms of the four-element theory; we would speak of gravity) is an esoteric aspect of the universe. Rather, Ran says, the Mishnah never intended to object to study of anything that is visible and explainable by ordinary wise people.

Do we accept that there is yet a whole area of the nature of the world that science hasn’t even begun—can’t even begin—to approach?

What the Mishnah interdicts is public study of Creation’s underlying purpose and goal, the essence and character of the physical universe, which can only be discovered through prophetic inspiration. In more modern terminology, gravity may be an attraction between bodies; we may one day discover the underlying fields that produce those gravitational attractions; we may even unify all the various forces into one whole. But Ran would say science will never show us why those forces work that way. Only prophetic illumination can reveal that.

Note Ran’s certainty that there is an essence to the world. Scientists often speak as if the world is the way it is simply because that’s the way it is, but Ran is saying—as should any person of faith, it seems to me— that the fact of a Creator implies purpose that may not be decipherable from the thing itself. Accessing the mind of God, as it were, requires more than simply examining the world, no matter how carefully, or even looking at Scripture.

Ran gives an interesting example, the rainbow. Greek science had a physical explanation which Ramban (Bereshit 9:12) noted and accepted. If so, in what sense would Hashem make it a sign of the post-Noah covenant never to destroy the world through a flood? Ran answers that there is a physical reason for a rainbow to appear, but there’s an underlying rationale for why the physical laws produce such a rainbow, and that was all part of that covenant.

What’s Ma’aseh Merkavah, Then?

Ran’s claim that ma’aseh bereshit refers to an aspect of the physical world we can only access through divine inspiration leaves little room to translate the Mishnah’s reference to ma’aseh merkavah. If ma’aseh bereshit is the deep essence of the world, what’s left to be even more esoteric?

His answer is that ma’aseh bereshit studies what God imprinted on this world, and ma’aseh merkavah seeks to study God—or, at least, the heavenly hosts (by which we mean whatever mediates between an unknowable God and the physical world). Ma’aseh bereshit takes on the godly aspects of the physical, ma’aseh merkavah takes on the Heavenly Court.

Since Ran will not be doing either, he is free to embark on his discussion. The question Ran leaves us with for this week is how we react to his claim. Granted that the science of his time was not as advanced as that of ours, do we accept that there is yet a whole area of the nature of the world that science hasn’t even begun—can’t even begin—to approach?

Let’s put it more bluntly. Some areas of science—such as evolutionary biology—have moved from describing and explaining the mechanisms of what happens to explaining why they happen. Do we, as people of faith, recognize the flaw in so doing, the mistaken belief that they can move from effect to cause? It is that aspect of the world that I think Ran was defining as ma’aseh bereshit, beyond human ability to understand or explain without help from prophetic inspiration.

About Gidon Rothstein

12 comments

  1. Some areas of science—such as evolutionary biology—have moved from describing and explaining the mechanisms of what happens to explaining why they happen.

    Can you expand on this with an example, please?

  2. >Some areas of science—such as evolutionary biology—have moved from describing and explaining the mechanisms of what happens to explaining why they happen

    Biology doesn’t deal with the “whys” in ways that you are implying. The “why” and the “mechanism” (i.e. “how”) are synonymous.

    It reminds me of a debate between two atheists and two theologians. I think it was Dinesh D’souza that said religion deals with the whys. Lawrence Krauss rightly retorted “What makes you think there is a why?”

  3. Gidon Rothstein

    The theory of evolution assumes randomness of mutations (more on that in a moment), with those mutations that end up having an advantage surviving better. And yet evolutionary biologists repeatedly speak of a mutation evolving “so that” it could achieve x evolutionary advantage. You’ll also read of things evolving to help the survival of a certain species (or gene) or whatever, when that’s a violation of the whole underlying theory, which is that it was random. For one example, there’s this idea that males of species mate in such a way as to maximize the likelihood that their genetic material will continue on into the next generation, whereas females tend to mate in a way that will guarantee them caretaking for their offspring (guaranteeing they will survive). That assumes a purposefulness that isn’t shown in the mechanisms– those mechanisms have that result, but there’s no way to say that’s “why” they came about.

    On randomness, by the way: it’s in the eye of the beholder. No scientist has proven the randomness of evolution (and the more purposeful the mutations look, the less random it seems), they’ve only shown that they can’t see a pattern in how these mutations occur. In fact, there’s a new book (which I haven’t read) called Probably Approximately Correct, which speaks of Nature’s algorithms for learning, since truly random mutations wouldn’t bring about the world we have even in the millions or billions of years that it has had to produce it.

    So that 1) scientists are, frequently, assigning reasons to what’s occurring, sometimes against the tenets of their own disciplines, and 2) randomness is an assertion, not a demonstrated fact, and yet is repeatedly taken as an article of faith (which denies design, and is therefore also part of moving from describing to asserting a why– in this case randomness).

    All of this shows that, in fact, we are discussing an ascription of whys that goes beyond mechanism.

    I think there is a why because I have ancestors who met God and God told them there was a why. Scientists, who don’t believe in that, still repeatedly assume a why, they just pretend they don’t.

  4. I won’t pretend to have read the Ran enough times to fully understand every point, but I’m not sure that he supports your thesis about the limits of science.

    1. The Ran doesn’t claim that the “why” is impossible to determine. Instead he says that the it is only possible for human investigation to find reasons for properties that arise from the “substance” of an object and not from its “form”:

    “There are to all existences two types of properties: those that arise from their substance, and those that arise from their form which is their essence. It is possible to understand the properties which arise from their substance by reasoning (investigation?) and understanding (observing?) their occurrences (accidents?). However, the properties that arise from their form are impossible to understand in any fashion using reasoning (investigation?) outside of what experiment has brought to light. And although we know about these properties from experiment, we don’t understand their reasons.” He goes on to explain that we know why pepper is a hot food (because of the element of fire contained in it, which relates to its substance), but not why a magnet attracts iron.

    2. Setting aside for a moment the difficulty raised by “Holy Hyrax” of defining what “why” means, the Ran states that the phenomenon of magnetism is beyond our comprehension. I think that you’ll admit that modern science can explain quite well “why” a magnet attracts iron. Or it at least it can do so more deeply than the Ran’s explanation of hot peppers. So it seems clear that trying to predict what areas science will be able to penetrate and which areas it will not is fraught with uncertainty, given that the Ran himself picked an example which seem to turn out to be incorrect.

    3. I don’t see anywhere where the Ran is warning us not try to investigate something with science. He just says that certain things are impossible to figure out with human understanding and gives some theory as to where that limit is (and his prediction of the precise limit seems a bit off wrt magnetism). The best test of the limits of science is to do the science!

    4. Generally speaking, when science explains “why” something happens, there are two things that are happening:

    a) Through both experimentation and theorizing, we come to a model of the world can be used to predict some subset of observed phenomena. The fact that the model can be used to make predictions verifiable by experiment is what makes us believe in the model. So Newton’s model of gravitation, where all matter attracts all other matter with a very specific quantitative force could be used to predict the behavior of both balls rolling down ramps as well as the precise orbits of planets, moons, comets and other celestial bodies. And this model was used to predict the existence of Neptune, so even a non-mathematician can appreciate its predictive power.

    One can then say something like: the planets orbit the sun in ellipses “because of” gravity. Or “why do the planets have an elliptical orbit around the sun? Because of gravity.”

    The questions that does not get answered in this instance is “why is the model like that”.

    b) There are cases where models can be explained in terms of other models. The simplest example that I have any grasp on is the following: one can model the behavior of gasses using the ideal gas law: PV = nRT. E.g. when I heat up the gas in a rigid container, the pressure goes up. This model can be explained by a more fundamental model where the gas consists of small “balls” (molecules) that are moving around and colliding randomly according to the laws of mechanics that work for non-gases as well. They we might say that gases obey the ideal gas law because they consist of molecules in colliding with each other in random ways according the more general laws of mechanics.

    5. In this sense, modern science goes farther than the Ran. Nothing is ever deduced from pure theory or from the “nature”, “substance” or “essence” of an object. All models are derived eventually from experiment and confirmed by experiment and no model reaches the “essence” of reality. The distinction between “mechanism” and “reason” no longer even exists: everything is a model derived from experience and confirmed by experience. (I believe that this is what “Holy Hyrax” was getting at).

    6. Biology proceeds along the same lines as other sciences building model with evidence. The why questions of biology are things like “how can we explain this in terms of carbon chemistry”?. The term “evolutionary biology” is bit misleading. All of biology is based on similar mechanisms of mutation and natural selection.

    6) What has happened in science is exactly what you are asking for: the true “why” question as in “what purpose” is no longer part of the enterprise. The Aristotelian notion of “final cause” (purpose) has been swept away as a fundamental explanation. No fundamental scientific theory explains phenomena as occurring because it serves a certain purpose. What Darwin’s theory does explain is almost the opposite: how is it that biological mechanisms seem to be there for a “purpose”, when the carbon chemistry underlying them is “purposeless”. An animal that has a prehensile tail has it “because” he it helps him operate in dense forests, but this “purpose” is not longer the fundamental explanation: mutation and natural selection is.

    7. So if I can be so bold as to attempt to restate your objection, it would be something along these lines: “Modern biology has eliminated ‘purpose’ as a fundamental explanation of biological phenomena. This is troublesome to me because it appears to limit the need for a master designer to create beings to suit a particular purpose and because it devalues purpose as a fundamental component to understanding the world. That missing ‘purpose’ component is Maaseh B’reishis”. Not exactly what the Ran says, but certainly his discussion is a valid jumping-off point.

  5. The theory of evolution assumes randomness of mutations (more on that in a moment), with those mutations that end up having an advantage surviving better. And yet evolutionary biologists repeatedly speak of a mutation evolving “so that” it could achieve x evolutionary advantage.

    When they say that, they are speaking loosely or in shorthand, much like one might speak about the sun’s daily motion. No biological theory depends on a mutation due to purpose.

    The fundamental thing to understand is as follows: if some trait serves the “purpose” of conferring a reproductive advantage, then selection pressures will tend to propagate that trait in the species, since individuals with the trait will reproduce at greater rates than individuals without the trait.

    So finding the “purpose” of a given trait in terms of how it helps an individual survive and reproduce is still part of the program. Random mutation + natural selection + gobs of time explain how this “purposeful” trait could have appeared or changed via the non-purposeful underlying laws of carbon chemistry. This is one reason why the theory is so fundamental to biology.

    You’ll also read of things evolving to help the survival of a certain species (or gene) or whatever, when that’s a violation of the whole underlying theory, which is that it was random.

    Again, this is shorthand or sloppiness. What they mean, if they are competent is that the trait confers a survival advantage, and therefore natural selection pressures caused the mutation and trait to be preferentially selected and made more numerous in the population.

    For one example, there’s this idea that males of species mate in such a way as to maximize the likelihood that their genetic material will continue on into the next generation, whereas females tend to mate in a way that will guarantee them caretaking for their offspring (guaranteeing they will survive). That assumes a purposefulness that isn’t shown in the mechanisms– those mechanisms have that result, but there’s no way to say that’s “why” they came about.

    I believe you are talking about evolutionary psychology. There are serious scientific doubts about those types of theories, but not because of the reason that you suggest.

    The theory is that both males and females evolve traits *including genetically influenced psychological traits* that will enable their offspring to survive and reproduce maximally. This is again due to the fact that individuals with those traits will become more numerous in the population due to greater rates of reproduction within the species. However, since males can have many offspring simultaneously while females can only have one at a time, and females know who their children are, but men do not necessarily know, and because there males and females are not identical, different “psychologial” traits will lead to the maximal gene propagation for men and women. Again, purpose out of non-purpose.

    The correct objection to evolutionary psychology is that not all traits are evolved through selective pressures and not all social behaviors are genetic in nature. For more on this, read Stephen Gould’s Critique here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/jun/12/darwinian-fundamentalism/?pagination=false. Or just google for “gould evolutionary psychology”

    On randomness, by the way: it’s in the eye of the beholder. No scientist has proven the randomness of evolution (and the more purposeful the mutations look, the less random it seems), they’ve only shown that they can’t see a pattern in how these mutations occur.

    Just to tighten up the language, evolution is not random, and neither are the mutations. Here is an accurate statement: “[T]o the best of our knowledge, the consequences of a mutation have no influence whatsoever on the probability that this mutation will or will not occur.” http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/genetic-mutation-1127

    The simple fact is that genetic transcription is not a perfect process DNA can be damaged, and your body has specific DNA repair mechanisms. Thus, potential mutations and mutations are happening all the time, and most of them either are repaired, not important or are in fact deleterious. Thus radiation causes DNA damage and the formation of cancerous cells. The underlying mechanisms that cause mutations are mechanistic and not purposeful. There is a base mutation rate that can be calculated and it is believe that the greatest number of mutations are deleterious followed by neutral mutations.

    Also, understand that evolution continues and can be observed. We are constantly fight against micro-organisms that are evolving to resist our drugs.

    When you play the lottery, I suppose there is no way to prove 100% that the balls are landing in a purposeful manner in any specific instance, but all the evidence points that way, since when you look at all the numbers of time, there is no pattern.

    In fact, there’s a new book (which I haven’t read) called Probably Approximately Correct, which speaks of Nature’s algorithms for learning, since truly random mutations wouldn’t bring about the world we have even in the millions or billions of years that it has had to produce it.

    There lots of books out there there that claim that there is no way that there has been enough time, too much complexity, irreducibl complexity etc. So far no have succeeded in being shown correct.

    So that 1) scientists are, frequently, assigning reasons to what’s occurring, sometimes against the tenets of their own disciplines, and 2) randomness is an assertion, not a demonstrated fact, and yet is repeatedly taken as an article of faith (which denies design, and is therefore also part of moving from describing to asserting a why– in this case randomness).

    Summarizing: #1 is simply scientists speaking in shorthand or in a sloppy manner. #2 is not simply an assertion; it is based on a lot of study as to how mutations actually occur, their causes and observing their rates. There is not evidence for your thesis. #3: “(which denies design, and is therefore also part of moving from describing to asserting a why– in this case randomness).” Actually, is the the opposite; biology shows how non-purposeful carbon chemistry can produce a biologically useful result.

  6. “How can he publicly discuss these verses, which speak directly of Creation?”

    The Rambam and R. Sadiah Gaon discuss similar concerns:

    Emunah V’deois, Hakdamah, 6th Perek
    ואם יאמר הרי גדולי חכמי ישראל הזהירו מזה, ובפרט העיון בראשית הזמן וראשית המקום

    Moreh Nevuchim Chelek 1,Perek 32:

    ואין הכוונה בלשונות אלו שאמרום הנביאים והחכמים ז”ל נעילת שערי עיון לגמרי

  7. Gidon Rothstein

    David Ohsie,

    I don’t want to get into a big back and forth, so let me respond only to your summarizing. You may think it’s simply scientists speaking in shorthand or sloppily, but they move from there to the confidence that there’s no guiding hand, that this all happens and organizes itself on its own. That atheism can only come from believing that they have come to understand the whole system, not that they are only able to draw conclusions about what they can actually see and test. Your number 2 is again not quite right– there’s a lot of study on how mutations actually occur, but that only sees, once again, what’s in front of it. What scientists see as random errors in transcription of DNA, for just one example, is only random if we know that it “just happens.” But we don’t know that– what we know is that all we can see is that it happens, and we don’t see reasons for it happening. It might be random (as Rambam said about a physical world having necessary breakdowns), but it’s not a scientific statement to say that it’s random. It’s only scientific to say we see no pattern to it. For your #3, it’s again an example of you accepting an excessive expression by scientists. When you say “non-purposeful carbon chemistry,” what you must mean is “carbon chemistry that doesn’t obviously give off a sense of purpose.” That doesn’t mean it’s non-purposeful, it means that scientific study doesn’t get at any such purposes as may exist. Which is where I started.

  8. R. Rothstein, I want to say up front that I enjoy your posts which is why I spend the time to comment on my disagreements with them. Thank you for introducing me to Derashos HaRan.

    I’ll take the liberty to follow up on a few items that are key disagreements:

    1) The Ran’s statement implies that he thought that magnetism could not explained. Unless you disbelieve Maxwell’s equations and Quantum Electrodynamics (and I admit to believing them without understanding more than 0.1% of them), we can agree that the Ran’s prediction was off, even if his principle was correct and there are things that are outside the “magisterium” of science. Therefore, I think that the following conclusion related to a specific area in science is very much in doubt:

    Some areas of science—such as evolutionary biology—have moved from describing and explaining the mechanisms of what happens to explaining why they happen. Do we, as people of faith, recognize the flaw in so doing, the mistaken belief that they can move from effect to cause?

    I think that notion that ethics or “why the world even exists” remain outside the limits is much more consonant with the limits that you and the Ran describe, than any scientific theory that you point to that makes you uncomfortable.

    2) You say:

    When you say “non-purposeful carbon chemistry,” what you must mean is “carbon chemistry that doesn’t obviously give off a sense of purpose.”

    No, I mean something very specific with a very solid foundation. I mean that all the known and understood phenomena in chemistry can be explained by a set of physical laws and equations and there is no factor in those equations for “will the outcome serve a specific purpose?”.

    Say for example, you hook up two machines: one will shock your lab animal when set off (bad purpose) and one will feed the animal (good purpose). You run some chemical reaction that will set off the machine upon completion. You will not find any difference between the reactions based on which machine is hooked up. If you could conduct such an experiment or a similar one that showed I was wrong, you would have a Nobel Prize and become one of the most famous scientists in history. No one has done it yet.

    Similarly, while the myriad processes inside my body that enable to me live, thank God, are all based on chemistry that can be repeated in a laboratory outside my body to the limits of our knowledge. This is a relatively recent discovery in human history, and it is actually quite counter-intuitive, but it turns out be true. Again, if someone could show that this was not the case, and that living organisms have some other rules that go on inside them, then again that person would instantly become one of the most famous and lauded scientists in history.

    When it comes to DNA mutations, again, we can make them happen in the lab, and we can induce both sickness and health using these techniques. If you can show that DNA mutations are not like the rest of chemistry, then a Nobel Prize awaits you.

    3) You say:

    You may think it’s simply scientists speaking in shorthand or sloppily, but they move from there to the confidence that there’s no guiding hand, that this all happens and organizes itself on its own. That atheism can only come from believing that they have come to understand the whole system, not that they are only able to draw conclusions about what they can actually see and test.

    What has been seen by atheists and non-atheists alike is that no biological process has been yet discovered that relies on a fundamental scientific law that has “purpose” as one of it’s inputs. And we’ve looked in a lot of places where we certainly though we would find them (basically all of biology). Maybe someday, someone will discover such a phenomena. Until, then you claim otherwise remains without foundation, IMO.

  9. Gidon Rothstein

    David,

    I enjoy the interchanges between us, which is why I continue them. Thanks for your interest and dedication to finding the truth.

    As for your actual claims, let me respond.

    For your point 1) You seem very focused on Ran’s being sure we can’t figure out magnetism, but that’s a specific case of someone thinking ordinary science will never get somewhere (science itself is littered with such statements). I wasn’t interested in his 14th century examples as much as with what seemed to me a cogent distinction between what kinds of things ordinary science discovers. And as for magnetism, science hasn’t found a “why” for it, it’s found the mechanisms by which it works.

    We don’t differ on many areas of science, but in many others, the scientists have gone beyond describing the mechanisms they see and can identify to making broader statements—Stephen Hawking was certain he knew how black holes could or could not behave, and when the science proved him wrong, he just moved the yard marker a bit. The only way to come to that confidence is to assume that you know everything about a topic, which is clearly untrue about cosmology. Ditto for paleontology, which makes repeated claims of certainty even though it has scant evidence, and then is periodically shaken up by a new discovery, only to return to certainty once its absorbed those ideas. And evolutionary biology, which goes beyond seeing mechanisms, or even seeing how mechanisms contribute to the health of an organism, to speaking of why it evolved that way.

    In all those cases, scientific theories are going beyond the limits of what their evidence and method allow them to, and drawing conclusions (about purposefulness of the world, about randomness, about the existence and/or impact of God) in ways that aren’t scientific and that, I think, tie into Ran’s point.

    For your point 2), you seem to have bought into the complete replicability of chemistry and biology, but that’s certainly not generally true, it’s true for some large subset of occurrences. I am not as sure about chemistry, but certainly there remains much about biology that is mysterious (such as to whom cancer occurs, when cancer becomes invasive, how infections do or don’t become resistant to antibiotics, how and when mutations occur). While we can produce mutations in a lab, we can’t produce the specific mutation we want at will, nor can we heal all that we would like to. There are many, many mechanisms we don’t yet understand.

    Or take the radioactive decay of elements (that’s chemistry, right?). We know on average how long it takes particles to decay, but we don’t know how each particle “decides” to decay, or doesn’t. And that means, for your machine experiment, that depending on the chemical reaction, you might not be right (think of Schroedinger’s cat). So apparently there is some uncertainty even there. And you throw in “to the limits of human knowledge,” but that was part of the point, that there are parts of the system that will always be outside those limits, and we shouldn’t think otherwise.

    As for the Nobel Prize, part of the problem is that since I think these things are outside of science, it means there won’t be a scientific way to show them. I firmly believe that the spiritual status of the Jewish community affects the amount of rain in Israel, but I have no belief that I can do some kind of double blind experiment to prove it. I do believe that some aspect of mutations and health depend on whether Hashem has decided (or Nature does it for Hashem) to react to that person’s sins, but I don’t believe there will be an experiment to prove that. Welcome to the world of faith.

    Point is, scientists take their successes and extrapolate beyond where they have the right. And you’ve assumed that they’re right.

    3) On “no biological process has been yet discovered that relies on a fundamental scientific law that has “purpose” as one of it’s inputs.” I’m not sure what you mean—do you mean we haven’t found the way to know how Divine Providence affects biology? True. So? Part of the point of Providence is that it remains hidden enough to allow freewill. You can’t show me a biological process that you know doesn’t have purpose, you can only show that it has mechanisms. I believe that certain biological illnesses, for all that they have mechanisms, are responses to activities that have long been defined as sins, and react to those sins. How would I prove that, other than showing that the biological process happens to people who engage in that sinful behavior much more than to other people?

  10. I would agree that there is a problem when our children’s science books leap from asserting evolution to making deductions about randomness and design. I think that allowing such verbiage in an American public school text book should be as far from Constitutional as allowing Intentional Design. They are, in fact, the same logical fallacy simply taken with different biases.

    As for magnetism and gravity… Truth is we can explain both in terms of fields, and we can make predictions about their strengths and effects using mathematics based on that description. In the case of magnetism, we are even one step closer, as we know it’s a counterpart to electricity and the two are really the same field. And yet, we are simply using a word which has no intuitive meaning, “field”, and using it to hide a good bit of ignorance.

    As for understanding the field, or the “essence” of an object or process in general, I think many scientists acknowledge that with Quantum Mechanics we’ve hit a wall. We can use QM to predict, but by the Copenhagen Interpretation, it shouldn’t actually be taken as explaining anything.

  11. Let me summarize what I think is the most important point in your response and respond. Details follow.

    You seems to be arguing that if evolution is true, then scientists are effectively claiming to have a complete deterministic model of the universe. This would contradict the notion of both free will and reward and punishment.

    My response is:

    1) Neither evolution nor any other scientific discipline depends on or implies strict determinism (especially in light of #1 and #2)
    2) Bell’s theorem implies that the observed universe is not strictly deterministic (there are some things that are inherently random). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell's_theorem
    3) Chaotic systems (like the weather) are inherently unpredictable even when they are deterministic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory

    The result is that you can safely buy into well-established science without contradicting a belief in free will or reward and punishment.

    And since free will and providence apply to people and not other organisms according Rambam and Ramban at a minimum, you can actually fully endorse most of biology even if you have problems with it as it relates to humans for some reason.

    Details:

    You seem very focused on Ran’s being sure we can’t figure out magnetism, but that’s a specific case of someone thinking ordinary science will never get somewhere (science itself is littered with such statements). I wasn’t interested in his 14th century examples as much as with what seemed to me a cogent distinction between what kinds of things ordinary science discovers.

    But if the Ran’s intuition was actually incorrect in his own application of the principle, then perhaps the method is problematic. Certainly, it casts doubt on a statement like this:

    Do we, as people of faith, recognize the flaw in so doing, the mistaken belief that they can move from effect to cause?

    If the Ran can be wrong, then so can our “recogniz[ing] the flaw”. Besides the fact that the Ran said that sometimes the “why” can be determined: when it results from the substance and not the form. So we can tell why peppers are hot, according to the Ran. How do we know if evolution is like peppers or magnets?

    And as for magnetism, science hasn’t found a “why” for it, it’s found the mechanisms by which it works..

    1. This is correct for the definition of “why” that you seems to imply (the ultimate purpose or something like that). But it is at least as much of a “why” as the Ran’s example of pepper being hot because of the element of fire within.

    2. No scientific theory, including evolution, gets to that “why”. Darwinian explain how the fact of evolution can be explained by laws of carbon chemistry, just as the orbits of the planets are explained by gravity and magnetism by QED. So if you think that we haven’t explained the “why” of magnetism by your definition, then the “why” of evolution should be no issue either.

    3. If we are honest, isn’t the real “problem” with evolution the fact that it doesn’t fit the pesukim very well and that it reduces the compelling nature of the argument by design?

    We don’t differ on many areas of science, but in many others, the scientists have gone beyond describing the mechanisms they see and can identify to making broader statements—Stephen Hawking was certain he knew how black holes could or could not behave, and when the science proved him wrong, he just moved the yard marker a bit. The only way to come to that confidence is to assume that you know everything about a topic, which is clearly untrue about cosmology. Ditto for paleontology, which makes repeated claims of certainty even though it has scant evidence, and then is periodically shaken up by a new discovery, only to return to certainty once its absorbed those ideas.

    I don’t know the details of what you are referring to with respect to Hawking or Paleontology, but from your description this seems like ordinary progress in science. The test of any theory is experiment, and you have make a specific prediction from your theory in order to test it; the test may to the way that you thought or it may go the other way. This is not arrogance, but the ordinary course of any empirical science. Neptune didn’t have to be where Newton’s laws predicted it would be, but making the prediction and then confirming it was an excellent test of Newton’s theories.

    What appears more arrogant to me are those who insist that they know the Torah so well, that they can confidently predict that some particular fact about the world simply “cannot” be true, and that anyone who believes such must be an apostate. (To make it clear, I’m not referring to R. Rothstein or this article at all in my description.)

    And evolutionary biology, which goes beyond seeing mechanisms, or even seeing how mechanisms contribute to the health of an organism, to speaking of why it evolved that way.

    I really think that there may be a misconception in there. Darwin explained a mechanism for evolution that would explain how organisms evolve traits that are useful to propagate their own existence. Which is something that we still see happening today. The issue that you have is that before we understood the mechanism, it appeared that there could not possibly be such a mechanism, and that living beings were the perfect starting point for the “proof by design”. Darwin certainly did not explain why the laws of carbon chemistry are what they are.

    In all those cases, scientific theories are going beyond the limits of what their evidence and method allow them to, and drawing conclusions (about purposefulness of the world, about randomness, about the existence and/or impact of God) in ways that aren’t scientific and that, I think, tie into Ran’s point.

    Let’s mark some agreement here. I agree that it is human nature to go beyond the evidence and that we need to always be on guard for that. And that there are a lot of “academic” disciplines are are not very evidence-based and we should be wary of them. I don’t agree that scientists are doing it in the examples that you give, but we probably won’t settle that here.

    Or take the radioactive decay of elements (that’s chemistry, right?). We know on average how long it takes particles to decay, but we don’t know how each particle “decides” to decay, or doesn’t. And that means, for your machine experiment, that depending on the chemical reaction, you might not be right (think of Schroedinger’s cat). So apparently there is some uncertainty even there.

    Actually, for fundamental things like radioactive decay, the evidence tells us there is no underlying mechanism to be discovered; the decay is inherently random, and experiments have been done to to actually test this. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell's_theorem for details.

    So you are 100% correct that science itself tells us that there are things in this world that are inherently unpredictable. In addition to quantum level phenomena, we also have chaotic systems (like the weather) that are not predictable because they have such sensitivity to the starting conditions that no matter how well you measure the starting point, the error in your measurement means that result is unpredictable.

    However, that doesn’t tell us whether evolution is true or not, just as the fac t that such things are uncertain doesn’t lead you to avoid eating breakfast.

    As for the Nobel Prize, part of the problem is that since I think these things are outside of science, it means there won’t be a scientific way to show them. I firmly believe that the spiritual status of the Jewish community affects the amount of rain in Israel, but I have no belief that I can do some kind of double blind experiment to prove it. I do believe that some aspect of mutations and health depend on whether Hashem has decided (or Nature does it for Hashem) to react to that person’s sins, but I don’t believe there will be an experiment to prove that. Welcome to the world of faith.

    You seem to be conflating a particular theory that is bothersome (evolution) with the notion of strict determinism. Evolution doesn’t depend on strict determinism, and as I described above, science and math show us that strict determinism is not how the world works. Google for “free will and quantum physics”. And the weather is chaotic and so also unpredictable. I’m not arguing the faith, I’m arguing that evolution has nothing to do with this.

    3) On “no biological process has been yet discovered that relies on a fundamental scientific law that has “purpose” as one of it’s inputs.” I’m not sure what you mean—do you mean we haven’t found the way to know how Divine Providence affects biology? True. So? Part of the point of Providence is that it remains hidden enough to allow freewill. You can’t show me a biological process that you know doesn’t have purpose, you can only show that it has mechanisms. I believe that certain biological illnesses, for all that they have mechanisms, are responses to activities that have long been defined as sins, and react to those sins. How would I prove that, other than showing that the biological process happens to people who engage in that sinful behavior much more than to other people?

    Let me try to state this in a different way: evolution demonstrates a mechanism by which a non-purposeful process can result in evolving traits that serve a purpose in propagating a species. As a result, the purpose and design that you see in organisms is no longer evidence for design or a designer as a fundamental cause in the universe. Since as you describe above, this belief is a matter of “faith” and not as a result of scientific evidence anyhow, evolution poses not problems for you. In fact, given the belief of Rambam and Ramban that providence is reserved for people, while lower life forms are subject to nature, you could very well believe in a completely purposeless progression of disease in all non-human organisms.

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