Monday, November 26, 2007

The Age of the Universe and Literalism

I've been arguing from time to time with a commentator called Oshea on Harry Maryles' blog about the age of the universe. Here's the most recent thread. I've decided to write a post about.

I understand his essential argument this way: evidence of an ancient universe is insufficient to shift the interpretation of the text from literal to allegorical because the evidence does not really contradict the text. The universe was created, according to Chazal, not to look brand new, but rather to appear old. Since Adam was created as an adult and trees were created grown, the universe must have exhibited some form of age at its initial outset.

Even if the universe appears ancient, that fact does not contradict the literal meaning of the text. It actually fits quite well with the text, because the text implies that the universe would look old. Therefore the empirical evidence is incapable of generating the need for an allegorical approach because it actually coheres with the literal meaning.

This argument, from what I understand, has nothing to do with the Rambam or Rav Saadiah. Their methodology dealt with conflicts between the Torah and other disciplines (mainly philosophy), but the current science/Torah conflict regarding the age of the universe is not really a conflict since science actually fits with the Torah's account.

I believe this is a very good argument, and really makes a proponent of the allegorical approach do some serious work. First he must show that science and Torah actually conflict. If the empirical evidence fits with the literal reading, then there is no conflict. He must further prove that someone like the Rambam would have allowed reinterpretation based on a conflict between Torah and empirical science. All we have right now is arguments that the Rambam allowed the literal meaning to be trumped by philosophy. How do we know he would have allowed reinterpretation based on modern science? On top of that there's also a presumption of literalism in interpretation of the Torah. All together that's a tough hurdle to pass.

I also want to note that I don't believe Oshea considers the non-literal view to be kefira. Designating a view apikorsus is a very strong statement and can have very serious repercussions. Since Judaism has a long tradition of pluralism in interpretation of texts (especially non-Halachic texts) arguing that the view is kefira or even just not allowed (the view of some of the Slifkin banners) shifts the burden to the opponents to prove that only the recognized interpretations are legitimate. The presumption of literal interpretation does not, in my mind, fulfill that burden given how many non-literal interpretations there are in the corpus of Torah.

Ok, on to first issue, the argument that the science/Torah conflict on the age of the universe is merely illusory. That argument assumed that the evidence of an ancient universe does not conflict with the literal meaning and actually comports with Chazal's view that the universe was created already looking old. The biggest problem with that argument is the evidence is very different from what we would expect from Chazal's view. Sure, the world had to look older than it really was, because otherwise it's hard to imagine how Adam could have existed in that climate. Trees were already grown, food was available, etc. But did it have to look billions of years old? Is there any reason to expect it to look billions of years old? Why are there dinosaur bones? Cave paintings? Fossils of human-like creatures that date tens of thousands of years old? Why did scientists recently find an eight-foot long scorpion? Unless we can prove (not just assume because of the Mabul) that our dating methods are way, way off, in what way does this evidence conform to Chazal's view of apparent age?

I believe the disparity between what should be expected by the Torah's account and the actual world that we see is vast enough to generate a conflict. And since the idea of an ancient universe is not required by the sources, I believe the burden is properly shifted from the proponents of the non-literal account to the supporters of literalism to show that only the literal approach is acceptable.

Onto the second issue. Would the Rambam or others allow allegorizing because of a posteriori rather than a priori reasoning? That's a difficult counterfactual question and is hard to answer. But I think the more important issue is recognizing that the Rambam's views on this matter were clearly influenced by the philosophical constructs that existed at the time. Would the Rambam have still postulated the argument from contingency if he had read W. V. Quine? Would Rav Saadiah still consider a priori reasoning paramount if he had lived during the time of the Empiricists or the modern Foundationalists (a school of though that believes that experiences are the foundation of all knowledge)? It's anachronistic to ignore the development of philosophy and especially the philosophy of science when asking these questions.

Instead we should take the essential structure of their theories and try to strip them of their medieval trappings. The fundamental aspects of the Rambam's methodology was to allow other disciplines to influence our interpretation of the Torah. Now, we shouldn't claim the Rambam would allow reinterpretation willy-nilly because he wouldn't. But if I am correct that the appearance of an ancient universe does pose significant problems to literalism, then perhaps the Rambam's essential theory would allow reinterpretation.

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