Monday, January 21, 2008

What The Science/Torah Debates Have To Do With The Living Constitution

Spurred on by Gil's post about searching for a justification for religion, I'm going to write a few posts about a number of ideas that have been floating around my head recently. That doesn't mean I won't write about the Yankees or the Hall of Fame anymore (I've been meaning to write a series of posts about the HOF), but I'm going to focus on more theological issues for the time being.

About a month ago, I engaged in two seemingly disparate debates. The first, on Hirhurim, was with the Chareidi blogger Frum Kiruv Maniac about the age of the universe and biblical literalism. FKM has been one of the strongest opponents of Slifkin's attempt to reconcile Torah with current scientific evidence and has opposed any attempt to reinterpret what he believes is a consistent Mesorah of supernatural creation. He believes that since the Torah claims the creation was supernatural, any attempt to understand the origin of the universe naturally is bound to fail, and using this flawed scientific method to understand G-d's act of creation is doomed from the start. Therefore there is no reason to allegorize Bereishis because the science used to a reinterpret the text is fatally flawed.

My response can be found here reposted on FKM's blog. I have to give him a lot of credit for publicizing this exchange since it was buried in the comments of an old post and never would have seen the light of day otherwise. My essential argument was that a large number of Orthodox Jews base their beliefs on the historical strength of the Kuzari Principle (KP), which is basically a historical argument. But science and history are similar methods; both work with data and both make inferences based on reasonable data. When a supporter of the KP opposes Slifkin on the grounds that the latter's approach is flawed because science makes unreasonable assumptions, he is being inconsistent. In what way is creation science flawed and how is that flaw not evident in ancient history, especially the KP? Is science's assumption of consistent laws really less justified than the idea that millions of people can't be tricked? If not, why choose history over science? Why not go the other way?

Meaning why start with the assumption that the Torah is true, rather than start with the assumption that science is accurate? Sure if we start with the assumption that the Torah is true, then we can debate whether there are legitimate reasons or sources that allow for allegorization. But why start with that assumption?

I wish I could take credit for this argument, but I owe a debt of gratitude to Little Foxling and Kenneth Einar Himma. I was playing devil's advocate with LF about the Gosse Theory and whether someone could be a supporter of the KP and Gosse and still be consistent. He argued that since the KP is based on experience, how could KP adherents support Gosse, which denies the accuracy of sense experience? I responded that if someone assumes G-d exists and the Torah is true, then Gosse is the result of sense experience. If the Torah is relaying a truthful account of the creation story, and it states that the world was created in six days, then the result of analyzing and weighing our sense experiences is that the world was created in six days less than 6000 years ago. We've basically chosen to believe the Torah over science. (This argument isn't mine either)

LF picks on that point. He argues,

"If we presume, as the Gosseist does, that the fossils really do contradict the Kuzari proof, then just as the Kuzari proof is sensory perception that contradicts the fossil evidence of an old universe, so too, by definition, the fossils are sensory perception that contradict the Kuzari proof. So, if you are wiling to reinterpret the sensory perception of the fossils in light of the Kuzari sensory perception, why not reinterpret the Kuzari sensory prescription in light of the fossil sensory perception?"

Basically his argument is that the Gosseist has chosen to accept the Torah (via the KP) over science arbitrarily. Both the KP and science are based on sense experiences, yet the Gosseist, for no real epistemic reason, chooses the former over the latter.

Professor Himma's article (not available on-line but I have a copy if anyone wants it) argues that the Argument from Design cannot be sustained without "help" from another argument. Put simply, the Argument from Design is that all our experiences teach us that complex objects require designers. If we were walking in the desert and saw a watch lying in the sand, we would assume the watch was made by someone and dropped there. We wouldn't think the watch was just a bunch of pieces that came together on their own to form a complex machine. Certainly in the case of the infinitely more complex universe we should posit the existence of a creator.

Himma's response is devastating (Richard Dawkins responded to the Watchmaker Argument scientifically). We only assume the watch was created because we know that people capable of creating watches exist and that said people have the motivation to create watches. In other words, we have evidence that a designer exists and could have designed the watch. Without that evidence we would not be justified in accepting the design theory over the chance theory.

But in the case of the universe, we do not have evidence of a designer within this argument (there is evidence for a designer, i.e., G-d, but that evidence cannot be derived from the Argument from Design). The chances that the universe happened spontaneously are low, but they are not zero. On the hand, the odds that a designer exists and could have created the universe are unknown because we don't know that such an entity even exists. We are more justified in accepting a known, but low, probability over an unknown probability.

What do both these arguments have in common? Both require us to recognize that we're making a key, but unjustified, assumption and thereby rigging the game. LF's argument forces us to recognize that the the assumption that the Torah is true must be backed with support and cannot be taken as a given in science and Torah debates. We can't just assume it is true and work from there. Himma's point that the Argument from Design cannot stand on its own shows us that the assumption that complexity implies a designer is flawed when we have no evidence of a designer. We cannot assume what we are trying to conclude.

So how does any of this relate to the Living Constitution question? What is a living constitution? I think the link is very important, but this post is already pretty long, so that's for the next post.

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