The Secular Geocentrism

The alleged “debate” between the church and Galileo is misunderstood, and not just because many get the facts wrong. Even if the scientist was locked up for saying the earth is not at the center of the universe, his statement was not religiously offensive on the grounds most people would assume.

The attempted narrative is that religion is a crutch, a fig leaf for gaps in our knowledge, and the outcome of either base fear or an evolutionary glitch (like all forbidden beliefs). This being the nature of religion, it therefore strokes our egos and tells us that humanity is central to the universe, necessary, the goal of its creation. That, apparently, is why religion sees (or, less controversially, saw) the earth as the center of the universe. Meanwhile, the light of science, banishing the benighted demons of Carl Sagan’s worst dreams, says that humanity is a purposeless accident in a very strange universe. Galileo was simply initiating the reduction in ego modern man needed.

The irrationality of the human ego, at least, the Rambam would acknowledge. Though he maintains the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmology of his time (a solid four centuries before Galileo) he has no problem discoursing at length on fools who believe the universe was created for man. In fact, he maintains that there is nothing mankind accomplishes that is not accomplished better by others. In general, says the Rambam, we are not needed in the slightest. Just as the purpose of a tree is to be the best tree possible, so too man is directed toward the highest form of man, but why there should be men in general is a question on G-d’s inscrutable will, inscrutable by definition because to be based on reason is to be caused and that is notoriously problematic. Granted, other schools of Jewish thought say that man is important, though with the caveat that he is important specifically because of his lowliness, not because he is close to being the highest of all creations.

Suffice it to say, the argument between religion and science is hardly one of whether man is important or not important on a cosmic scale. We all know that before the cosmic scale we are nothing. The argument is much closer to whether we ought to use the cosmic scale all. In other words, everyone agrees (at least potentially) that man is irrelevant, whether he sits at the center of the Universe or on some rock flying through infinite space. The disagreement is on why he is irrelevant. The Rambam says we are irrelevant because of G-d’s will which is beyond understanding. “Galileo” (as represented in the narrative) says we are irrelevant in light of our vast new knowledge of cosmology.

Look at it this way: In the old philosophy of the schoolmen, G-d (and to them, there is and can be only One, “your G-d” making as much sense to them as “your physics” might to a modern physicist) is not what fills gaps in knowledge but what stands in the spot of the necessary but unknowable, the being who can end the infinite regress of causes but who is himself uncaused and thus unknowable. The universe in its being, motion, form, and telos cannot exist without a beginning (or, in the case of telos, an end); it is ever pointing to something beyond itself. In the materialist scientific understanding, the universe points to nothing but simply is.

The difference may seem academic but it in fact shakes the worldviews to their foundations. When Maimonides says man is nothing, he has coming to a conclusion that fits the stated goal of his pursuit, to understand of the infinite as much as a limited human mind is capable. Eventually he must throw up his hands and say, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from the very fact that I cannot understand why it should be this way; G-d’s unknowable will for an irrelevant creature man truly is unknowable to that irrelevant creature.”

But when the scientist says man is nothing, he says it with the authority of a God. He will demur that he only follows the experimental observations where they lead, but this position is less humble when it is the best anyone can hope to do, even a god, who must exist within the bounds of science like anyone or anything else. When the scientist says man is a speck whirling in the void, he ceases to be a hominid whose lizard brain evolved into sentience and is instead making pronouncements on the cosmos, speaking at the highest level of all reality. There is no point when he must throw up his hands. He says, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from my vantage point on a hill in the milky way galaxy, my biological chemistry evolved for fitness peering at the truth through massive telescopes. The universe’s production of a tiny, irrelevant creature is understood profoundly by said creature.”

Those who thought the earth was at the center of the universe were certain they were incapable of knowing the purpose of the universe. One’s ignorance needs no more explanation than a rock’s; one simply does not have the capacity to grasp G-d. Those, on the other hand, who hold that the earth is one of a billion trillion planets know their precise place in the universe, and this knowledge has no explanation other than that it is.

It is no accident that Maimonides’s passage on man’s irrelevance is written in the context of discussing theodicy and the claim that G-d does more evil than good. That G-d’s ultimate reasons for creating the universe the way it is are an outcome of his unknowable will refocuses man’s attentions away from the nature of the world’s being to what the world ought to be. There is a reason why the revolution in cosmology that places the earth at a random locus in space did not see a consequent revolution in personal humility among scientists or the public generally; the modern study of nature has not yet found its bound and is assumed by many not to have one; we spend much of our time studying forms and processes and assume that an understanding of morality or righteous action will eventually emerge.

Indeed, your average geocentrist thinks that he cannot know why G-d wanted man to be at the center of the universe, and this might make him self-effacing. He does not know why G-d tells him his own actions come first, then familial concerns, than societal ones, but it makes him truly compassionate. He does not know why G-d tells him to respect property and bodies, but he ends up respecting people. He is not quite sure how those who know the earth is a random planet could be caught up in their brilliance, or how those who care for all of society first often find their own righteousness to go by the wayside, or how those who say property is unimportant often end up treading on people, as well…

To him, these are all strange, paradoxical mysteries of a world impossibly made from nothing by an unknowable Creator.

Who is more humble, he who is nothing out of ignorance, or nothing by dint of his own wisdom?

The Science of the Gaps

The tension between religion and science, at a sociological level, does not exist. There are plenty of religious scientists and scientific believers, and they do not walk around all day clutching their foreheads trying to relieve the pressure of intense cognitive dissonance. On the contrary, the obvious point that there cannot be two contradictory truths denotes an agreeable and elegant unity between the two approaches, whether one views them as a tightly intersected Venn diagram or as non-overlapping magisteria that deal with separate but equally-valid truths.

All is not as peaceful as it first appears, however. With the decline of popular religious feeling and the ascendance of popular science, many religious people have come to view the claims of religion – and indeed, everything else – in a scientific light. It is not so much that there is science and there is religion and they are both avenues to the truth(s), but rather that science is all knowledge but religion can exist comfortably as its subset, as the rational belief in the irrational or whatever.

This may sound like a crazy claim to most religious people, but I beg you to consider: In the subconscious of many a religious believer today floats the notion that one day scientific knowledge will advance to the extent that we will no longer “need” G-d to explain anything. Now, this idea can be defended theologically, and often is. Someone is always quick to declare that G-d created brains and science that we may use them. Other will chime in with the more mystical claim that G-d loves us so much he wants to set us free and never see us again, like any good modern parent, and that human history and the enlightenment is humanity’s opportunity to “move out of the house.” Even more open-minded (and my favorite) is the idea that “using” G-d as an explanation for anything in our world is to make of the deity an instrument, a terrible degradation that should embarrass any mature believer! G-d, like true art, can have no purpose!

These arguments may be correct[i]; it doesn’t matter. We are motivated to make them by this slight niggling feeling in the back of our minds that in a few more years “science” (the disembodied god of wisdom from the headlines) will have it all figured out and religious understanding will be relegated to the museums and university classrooms like all good but useless things.

Really, the opposite is true. Nearly unnoticed, science is headed for a nice solid wall while stodgy old religion is taking new and compelling form in the intellectual crucible.

Instead of religion being in danger from the advance of scientific knowledge, science is in imminent danger of losing its grip on the truth with the advance of religious thought.

This deity we think of in scientific terms is the much-maligned “G-d of the Gaps,” the power that presides over things science has not figured out yet. This G-d finds expression in the religious parallel of Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from religion.” Just as ancient man believed in magic and spirits controlling the weather because he didn’t have meteorology, so he believed in G-d because he didn’t know about astrophysics or biology or evolutionary psychology. Indeed, it follows logically that as he learns more about any of these things, he will believe in G-d less. And if he still believes in G-d, it will not be that same vigorous one from the old texts who created heaven and earth and performed miracles and wonders, but rather some kind of impotent abstraction.

It is worth pointing out that this God of the Gaps derives from the assumption that G-d is a scientific proposition. That is, we postulate in the first place that G-d is the best explanation for all the things science hasn’t figured out. When science figures them out (as it certainly must and will), G-d’s domain shrinks to the yet further things science hasn’t figured out. And if science eventually closes out on all the important questions, well, G-d is no longer a good explanation for anything important.

It is equally worth pointing out that the assumption is false. As I’ve written before, G-d is simply not, in the first place, a “scientific” principle subject to any kind of falsification through empirical discovery. G-d is not Zeus, a god of thunder made irrelevant once the gap in meteorological knowledge was filled in. On the contrary, the best arguments for G-d’s existence presuppose only the most basic claims that science would agree to as well. They start with premises such as, “This hydrogen atom exists” and the like, and their logic proceeds deductively. Unless science somehow puts forth the claim that no contingent creations exist (or any other of a few equally preposterous and unlikely claims), the logical necessity of a creator is unaffected. Indeed, the logical necessity of a maintainer is equally unaffected; not only did G-d create the universe once upon a time, but due to the nature of instrumental causes he must create it at every moment from nothing. If there is an atom, there is G-d, according to the classical understanding, and learning more about Darwinism or big bang cosmology (despite recent prevarications about the meaning of the word “nothing”) won’t change it one bit.

So much for the sad and misleading “God of the Gaps.” But, wait, you may wonder, what if I’m unfamiliar with classical theology and don’t recognize the arguments you’re referencing and basically find these references to scholasticism a bit medieval?

I’m glad you asked. Because we don’t really need to resort to all that at all. In fact, science’s claims to truth are weaker right now all on their own than they have been in perhaps three hundred years.

To understand the curious weakness of science at the moment, we must distinguish between the experimental data acquired through the scientific method and the theoretical underpinnings of those facts. But first, a quick disclaimer on what we mean by science’s “weakness.” I do not mean to put down or diminish the significance of the scientific pursuit, nor to deny any specific scientific findings. Instead, what I mean by the weakness of science is the way in which scientific ideas, unverified and unquestioned, punch far above their objective paygrade in the public imagination. In other words, that scientific “truth” should change one iota beliefs accepted as revelation because they both allegedly have equal claims to the truth is simply mistaken. Scientism, the belief that scientific truth is the only kind of truth, is patently false, and science does not have a claim to the truth such that any proclamation in its name should be taken seriously by default. In fact, the most logical approach to many disciplines within science nowadays is brutal skepticism.

First, the facts of science, the actual experimental work behind the “new study finds” we read about in the news or in pop-sci books. These are the rock-solid realities that, through the sieve of the scientific method we all learned about in middle school, banish forever false hypotheses and allow the scientist to build theoretical understanding. Except that the public is becoming more and more aware of what worries over 50% of polled scientists – the replication crisis, the stunningly pervasive inability of scientists to reproduce the effects of published experiments, rendering the broader applications of said experiments largely void. Perhaps part of the problem is that, as any honest statistics professor will tell you, you really can prove almost anything with statistics, and researchers do just that all the time. Or perhaps it’s other sources of error, such as biases, that create conditions for most published research findings to be false. The situation is not aided by the incredible pressure to “publish or perish,” or the general drift of science away from practical (and thus verifiable) concerns, or the massive problems with the peer review system which is supposed to be the scientific guarantee of honesty. In short, when confronted with the “scientific facts” on any particular issue, one must either be prepared to do all the dirty wet work of assessing the research methodology etc. oneself, or one must have a trust for published papers that published papers, at least at the moment, do not deserve.[ii] Why any of these “facts” should pose, without a lot more research, any sort of challenge to the truths of the religious believer, remains a mystery.

Things get even murkier when we make the leap to theoretical science, which provides much of the more ephemeral fodder for the quantum think pieces and string theory rumination. Unlike the social sciences or medicine, the theories of physics largely have solid foundations in demonstrated, reproducible facts. The problem is that once one departs from the strict facts, the theoretical possibilities begin to multiply, and there is no particular reason for any one of them to be true. In fact, Newton’s laws of physics, which were at one point considered the most experimentally-confirmed scientific theories of all time, turned out to be incorrect, invalidated hundreds of years after their publishing by astronomical observations and replaced by Einstein’s theory. There is no reason to think this could not happen again with today’s physics.

It is almost as if science is good at making quantifiable predictions but bad at finding general underlying truths about the universe.

The truth is that science’s problems go even deeper, to the extent that in private I have whimsically begun calling it the “science of the gaps.” Nothing written so far justifies this moniker. After all, despite the muddled state of scientific research and its weakness as an assertive force, we can still rely on science to at least in theory pick itself up, dust itself off, and to march forward to a unified theory of everything and knowledge of all of reality, thereby banishing the god of the gaps to the realm of pretty daydreams. In other words, if science has some problems and has not yet figured out all there is to know about life, it is only due to technical problems. In principle, however, science can do all of these things.

Except it can’t.

You see, science is fundamentally flawed, not so much in its chosen areas of interest, but in its failure to acknowledge it has a chosen area of interest. Because at some point in early modernity, the forerunners of what today we’d call science decided that it would be beneficial, in understanding the natural world, to ignore everything that cannot be quantified or mathematically measured. Over time, somehow people excited about all the technological progress etc. came to think that what cannot be quantified or mathematically measured does not exist, which is about as correct as a chef deciding there is no moon because it had never been mentioned in a single great cookbook.

This is not, in and of itself, a terrible flaw – after all, a chef may ignore the moon indefinitely and continue to receive Michelin stars. One might say the same of science – that everything is going swimmingly so far ignoring the unquantifiable, and it will continue so indefinitely.

Unfortunately, this is not true. Because it turns out (as the briefest perusal of science headlines today will demonstrate) that the unquantifiable has much more to do with the natural world than the moon does with cooking. In fact, if human beings are part of the natural world, then theoretically psychology, political science, history, sociology, anthropology, law, economics, literature, art, theology, morality, ethics, and philosophy should all be ultimately explicable by natural science, whether by reduction (e.g. economics is real, but is emergent from brain chemistry) or by elimination (e.g. economics isn’t real; only the laws of physics are real).

It goes without saying that, despite continuous process and the best efforts of scientists, psychology has not even nearly been reduced to neurobiology, and the social sciences have generally been unable to produce solid, easily understood, replicatable theories such as Newton’s or Maxwell’s laws. In fact, even economists (for example) admit in candid moments that at least half the time they are wrong, despite the application of all the latest methods and theories. Let us not begin to start down the road of the scientific experiments in social engineering, which have played their role in the deaths of countless human test-subjects and have left their mark in even non-scientifically organized societies through the enduring theories of eugenics, IQ quotas, and the rest. Questions of morality notwithstanding, the “scientific” approach to human behavior and human societies has yet to produce any sort of success comparable to older societies, outside of some great dystopian novels.

So, because not-easily-quantifiable things such as human nature, the experience of subjectivity, and pure reason are important to the sciences broadly defined, we must enter into the great shell game, the fantastic, audacious lie that perpetuates the science of the gaps. We say that one day, when the methods are better and the computers are fast enough and we better understand the chemistry and the genomes and the evolutionary process, we will understand all of these more difficult things. Indeed, just as once upon a time humanity didn’t understand electricity but today it is safely harnessed the world over, so, too, one day we will scientifically understand the human experience. The difference between an electric circuit and the human mind is one of degree, and the scientists simply need more time.

But this is an intellectual Ponzi scheme, which takes deposits from one place to cover its ever-expanding debts and never pays them back. It works like this: (1) Believers in scientism declare that everything can be explained scientifically. (2) It is pointed out that there are plenty of things that cannot be explained scientifically, including the very commitment to the idea that everything can be explained scientifically. (3) Believers in scientism attribute all scientifically inexplicable phenomena, from near-death experiences to the subjective knowledge of the self, as epiphenomena of the human mind. (4) It is pointed out that science does not understand the human mind. (5) Believers in scientism say that science will understand the mind one day, and that nothing exists outside of the realm of what science will understand!

You cannot hide the dirty laundry that is the unquantifiable under the heading of (mere) mental phenomena and then claim that one day science will understand the mind. In fact, science will never fully understand the human experience, because it consists of things that are not quantifiable and not reducible to material explanations. And the only reason this isn’t blatantly obvious to everyone yet is due to the shell game in which we say that all the things science, by its very nature of being a study of the quantifiable, cannot explain are things that one day it will explain, things in the brain.

I think it’s time to face it: the human mind, society, and spirit has not remained impenetrable to scientific analysis because the techniques are not yet advanced enough or the computers fast enough. They are impenetrable to science by their nature, and science has gained its prestige and perception of omnipotence by mostly ignoring them and focusing its attentions elsewhere, like a good cookbook does.

We do not go searching in even our best cookbooks for the truth, because we realize that cookbooks are excellent for the purposes they’re designed for, but those purposes are relatively practical and limited. Indeed, cookbooks preside over certain gaps in our broader knowledge of universal truths that make them unbelievably useful. Science, too, presides over the gaps left by broader, more fundamental ways of understanding.

Even if everything I’m saying is correct, it would still at this point be unfair to compare science to the lowly God of the Gaps. After all, the true power of that pejorative title stems from the development of science. The God of the Gaps is like a shy model with ever fewer scraps of clothing left to work with; the domain of what we need a deity to explain allegedly grows ever smaller with the march of scientific progress. Can the same be said about science? Is its (self-defined) limited purview being encroached upon by the development of other forms of knowledge? Isn’t religion and all that stagnant and confined to old texts that have said the same thing for centuries?

Surprisingly, it’s not. And science itself is partially to blame for it. The enlightenment and the scientific revolution continue to force religion to refine itself. In effect, science has, to the general public and even among many believers, at least partially stolen the crown of religious authority. If a priest and a scientist each make exclusive claims and say, “Believe this because I say so,” the scientist wins today ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But rather than leading to the death of theology, this loss of authority has led to a quiet but steady religious flourishing.

If one must explain how every human has a divine soul, or why suicide is a moral evil, mere declarations of authority will no longer suffice. Instead a serious Rabbi or Pastor now has to actually crack open those dusty books, try his hand at the good old schoolmasters, struggle to understand and apply concepts from a different time and place to the matter at hand. And what these Rabbis, Pastors, and even non-religious philosophers have found to their surprise is that the old books hold up surprisingly well – much better than the assumed materialist metaphysics with which so many scientists are acquainted.

Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine that when the day comes and the scientists finally admit that they have no damn idea how to design a successful society, there might not be a theologian or two waiting in the wings with a book of Proverbs and Nicomachean Ethics, ready to supply advice that was not acquired by scientific method but that has stood some old civilizations and religions in very good stead.

One day, we will not “need” science to explain anything of true significance to the human experience. Its days as the official Best Explanation for the world around us are numbered, as it draws ever-closer and with ever-more embarrassing errors to the limits of its understanding.

Someday soon, science will hit a wall in its understanding, and the public will become aware of its inability to solve the most intractable problems of our nature. At that instant, our minds will be able to spring free from the materialist confines of scientism. In that moment, when all will seem lost to chaos, the new, leaner, modern theologies will be waiting, with answers, without the gaps.


[i] They aren’t, at least not entirely, but that is not my concern here. Suffice it to say that these errors all involve driving G-d from the world in significant ways (after all, as Aristotle would say, what is not an explanation is not a cause) and this isn’t really what most religious people want to do, I’d think.

[ii] That these are the only two choices makes the layman’s attempt to decide political issues purely scientifically laughable at best.

Deus Ex Machina

Statements, in general, are dangerous. A statement claims and at once denies; if the sky is blue it cannot be green. When the statement in question is susceptible to disproof, yet is essential to a worldview that would not survive its falsification, only a brave man or a foolish one would dare to speak. The dinosaur issue, for example, is arguably non-essential to Judaism. The Torah has an opinion on the matter (as with all matters) but the age of the world and the conditions of its existence in the distant past are not central tenets of our religion; on the contrary, there are many orthodox Jews who for whatever reason do not see a contradiction between Torah’s six-day creation and science’s billions-of-years formation. Equally as harmless are a priori axiomatic assertions, such as G-d’s existence; there is (practically) no way to put the lie to it and thus those of us who otherwise just eat popcorn and watch reruns of The Office may proclaim it loudly and without fear. The purpose of mankind, on the other hand, is a different pot of cholent. Torah, and (as we’ll see) specifically Chassidic teachings, takes a gamble and decrees why we’re here. Is it right, even in unfamiliar times?

On the agenda: Humans make gods in their image. It’s all over fiction, from Suarez’s Daemon novels to popular TV shows like Person of Interest. A genius billionaire creates a computer/software that can see/manipulate/do anything, and it proceeds to see/manipulate/do just that. The implications are terrifying; Suarez’s intelligent program adapts itself to news stories it reads on the Internet, runs weapon factories, and enslaves humans by force. To gain loyalty it reads brainwaves with MRIs, detects the basest desires of its followers, and provides them. In PoI, the machine predicts crimes before they take place, has access to every security camera in the world, and communicates through a Delphi-style avatar named Root who openly worships “her” as a deity.

While our stories scout over the horizon, computing power continues to grow next door. Moore’s law says that computer processing speed doubles roughly every year; the Singularity, a kind of technopocalypse when artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, may only be fifteen to thirty years away. It may also not happen at all; it’s hard to take any predictions of futuristic radical upheavals too seriously while I still don’t have my jetpack. Interesting nevertheless is Ray Kurzweil’s characterization of that future time as a move away from the biological and toward the spiritual as the mind is uploaded from the confines of the body.

Now the problem: If in fifty years’ time humanity is no longer the dominant life form on this planet and we exist only as pawns of superintelligent Google bots, what will remain of our central role in the creation, of our unique ability to carry out G-d’s will? It is clear that, say, a caterpillar cannot fulfill G-d’s commandments, since it is an unintelligent creature that cannot understand those commands and desires as they have been expressed to humans. They aren’t smart enough for free will. Is it possible that in the near future there will be robots smarter than any human? Why have Jews if a robot can learn the entire Torah in an instant with an infallible memory, weigh the different sides of a halachic question using fuzzy logic, be bothered by the plight of the Jewish poor, and write novel, extensively annotated responsa on the topic?

In case this is all too abstract or ridiculous, consider that in a way we already suffer from this existential threat all the time. You arrive at a new job and a coworker is…perfect. He can do everything you can do and everything your friends can do, and he’s happier doing it. You know that he must have terrible taste in music and crippling self-absorption and dead people in his basement but it turns out he has deep original insight into your favorite band, feeds the hungry in his spare time, and built an indoor waterfall in his basement with his bare hands during breaks from cooking chicken soup for his ailing aunt whom he supports singlehandedly. It can make you wonder what, if anything, you bring to the world other than your oh-so-special brand of mediocrity.

Torah gives several reasons why we’re here. The answers vary in content and their effect on the human experience. One source it says the world is here that He may be known. Another says the world exists to actualize His potential, for a potential is incomplete without expression. A third place says G-d created heaven and earth so that he may eventually express himself fully in the reality furthest removed from his truth, and Chassidus champions this answer over all others, for reasons simple to any student of Kabbalah.

Our world is not the only one G-d created. There are spiritual realities, populated by spiritual beings. There are an infinite number of angels (Chassidus recognizes this as a logical contradiction that only omnipotence could tolerate), for example, spiritual beings who exist only to serve their Creator, conduits for an ever-falling cascade of G-dly energy. Since there are other worlds, and assuming that G-d does nothing without purpose (a safe assumption only because that’s what He himself tells us through his Torah), it stands to reason that humans exist because we can do something that, say, angels, cannot. If the purpose of creation is that G-d may be known, there is no reason for a human to exist; we cannot know Him like the lowest angel knows him and certainly not as he is known in Atzilus, highest of spiritual creations. It also seems odd that with all that infinite spirituality up there the expression of His potential should be in the physical, philosophically low, as if until Einstein teaches second grade math he is not a genius.

No, G-d likes mediocrity.

In other words: If you think G-d created anything for the reason I create a bowl of cereal & milk, i.e. it adds something to His life, you’re living in delusion. There is no “adding” to G-d. It’s in his job description. He is absolute, everything else is conditional. He is real, and everything else is pathetically fake. He doesn’t need; (unless he chooses to, in which case) He wants. What does He want? Something new. To Him, everything is Him; he wants “not Him.” He creates the material, stuff so dumb its existence at face value demands no explanation or antecedent, stuff that takes up space and therefore exists on technicality. Then, he creates the impossible, little reproductions of himself that operate autonomously, which would be impossible for any spiritual being aware that to fight the divine will is to commit suicide. What if, He wonders, these little things actually chose to be G-dly even though they didn’t have to? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Our excellence doesn’t make us interesting. Our choices in the face of adversity make us interesting. And human adversity is miraculously fine-tuned: constant, enough to hurt, generally not too much to destroy. Personal adversity is the same, a divine constant, tailor-made for the individual and his abilities. “According to the camel is the load.”

No matter how stupid we feel compared to the guy at work or the computer on our desk, we are created with our own challenges and limitations and our own part of this “not Him” to fix. We can’t know anyone else’s challenges. We don’t have to be supermen; we don’t have to be the best. We only have to be the best us.

I’ll take my jetpack now.

Image of BRAAAIIIINS from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, and The Fossils

In the fall of 1987, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits of blessed memory, engaged in a short correspondence about something the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote. The Chief Rabbi’s position was that, though well-stated and perfectly above-board, the Rebbe’s argument was “simplistic” (which Rabbi Jakobovits claimed is not at all in the pejorative; he used the Rebbe’s argument before he ever read the Rebbe’s words on the matter).

What is the simple argument in question?

The Rebbe wrote a famous letter in December 1961 on the much-hyped Torah/Science clash, specifically about evolution and the age of the universe. In it, he mentions the issue of fossils, dinosaur bones, etc. which seem to be, uh, slightly past their six thousandth birthdays. The Rebbe makes two points. The first: It is conceivable that dinosaurs and the like existed a few thousand years ago, and the earth’s past “atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc.” could have created fossils in a much shorter time than is normally considered possible.

This answer is common in the Torah/Science dialogue. It’s the second part which earned the Chief Rabbi’s attention:

“(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that G-d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him), just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.

As for the question, if it be true as above (b), why did G-d have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why G-d chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.” 

As previously mentioned, the Chief Rabbi does not argue with this point, but calls it simplistic; he resorted to using it because it was effective, but on its own it leaves him uncomfortable. This raises the question: If there are intellectual explanations for evolution and the age of the universe that fit with Torah, and in fact the Rebbe himself brings such an explanation for fossils as his “Point A”, what does the Rebbe gain with this second point? The explanation seems tacked on for those backed against the wall by science and have no other way out but to say “He just made fossils. So there.” The Rebbe confirms everyone’s worst suspicions about religious fundamentalism by ignoring evidence of an ancient universe with an argument that could be applied to any scientific fact we don’t like: G-d just made it look that way. Why would he do that? No idea, and how dare you ask.

Seems like a fundamental misstep, pun intended.

 

 

Now, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Lubavitch, or Chabad, is known for a specific, well-defined, vast theology/philosophy concerned with every aspect of life. Therefore, if we hope to understand the Rebbe’s position on any given matter, it would pay to examine the general perspective of Chabad philosophy.

Perspective is important because even if everyone agrees on empirical fact, where each person stands influences the interpretation of those facts. An example that’s near and dear to my heart is the endlessly-repeated back-and-forth on the relative evils of religion and atheism that I get to meet quite often thanks to the Internet (imagine the effort one used to have to exert to find idiots arguing. Now the entertainment is right in your bedroom). Archie the Atheist will say, “Grr, the religions. Crusades, terrorists.  Source of all evil. If only we all listened to the science.”

Davros the Devout will respond, “Bah! Humbug! You are wrong, because Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot/Dawkins!”

Archie will smile and say, “How do you know that those people weren’t evil because of the little bit of influence religion had on them?”

Davros will reply, “For that price, perhaps the evils of the religious are only due to not being religious enough. It’s too much G-dlessness that made them that way.”

You get the idea. Obviously the issue is more complicated than that, but it is clear one cannot deduce anything about the nature of evil from the examples of evil men alone, but must always fall back on one’s general vision of reality. This particular debate can be reduced to a fundamental disagreement about man’s true, “uncivilized” nature, i.e. whether man is naturally evil or naturally good. Whichever way one hypothesizes, one’s theory is untestable, as any debate on the Internet (despite all appearances) takes place from within the boundaries of civilization; no one arguing today can claim to be free of the influences of religion or atheism. Who can say whether thousands of years of religion has refined man or cast him into the depths, if a controlled test cannot be performed? Pure empiricism is not enough. When it comes to how one feels about the facts, living with the facts, perspective is everything.

 

 

Why are we here on this earth?

1) The nonreligious answer ultimately negates the question; to assume an absolute answer is to assume an absolute reality outside of any individual perspective which simply doesn’t exist, and no amount of scientific discovery and observation will answer the question. The universe simply is, we simply are, and we might as well live a satisfying existence while we’re here.

2) The religious answer is that we’re here to do what G-d wants. Life involves making the right choice between the gross and physical and the G-dly. We are only given so much time here, and we are responsible for our actions, words, and thoughts. “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil…choose life!”

3) Chassidus’s answer is that we’re not here at all, at least not in the usual sense of the word. It’s not that we exist, i.e. that we walk this earth, eat of its fruit, sleep, work, love, and raise children, and G-d expects us to do all the aforementioned in a G-dly way. He is all there is, was, and will be, a Necessary Existence, and everything that’s not Him is either false or an expression of Him. We don’t exist. Oh, it seems that we do exist? So G-d must need us for some great purpose. We’d do well to fulfill it.

The difference between the religious answer and the Chassidic one is only in our perspective; both advocate fulfilling G-d’s commandments and learning his wisdom. They are nevertheless profoundly different.

The religious and nonreligious answers both have human experience as the ultimate baseline of reality; the question is merely whether there is any higher cause which humanity can serve other than itself. For example, the nonreligious say that human intellect is an end unto itself, and thus any and all thought and inquiry needs no justification, the same way a basketball needs no justification. It takes up space; it exists. No more explanation is needed. The religious say that the human intellect is a means to an end; think kind thoughts and holy thoughts, and protect yourself from falsehood and blasphemy. Thoughts of illicit pleasure or of violence towards one’s fellow are contrary to G-d’s wishes.

Chassidus says that there is no intellect, there is only G-d, and if you seem to have thoughts, they’re only here to play some role in G-d’s plan. In other words, it’s not that intellect (or the world for that matter) is neutral, and we must use it according to G-d’s will; everything that exists is a claim against G-d’s singularity and must argue for its own right to exist. Guilty until proven useful.

 

 

At first, there was just G-d. He then created a world. The world is here for a specific purpose, and nothing exists without being part of that purpose; there is nothing here on technicality or by chance. This includes the human intellect. In fact, human intellect is the crowning glory of His purpose; He wants to fully express Himself in a place that denies Him, and there is only one entity in the entire creation that can go against his will, a human being. What makes a human, human, is the intellect. The mind can do one of two things: deny its Creator entry and thereby lose all justification for its own existence, or emancipate Him by thinking G-dly thoughts and thereby actualize the greatest potential in all of creation.

What, by the way, is a G-dly thought? This is a contradictory phrase. Is there any reason to suppose that the infinite being that created everything falls within the limits of rational thought? The most logical assumption is that an infinite divide separates G-d from us and our conception. Only one side of the relationship can initiate a connection, and it’s not the limited, physical side. If G-d decides for some strange reason that He wants to be known by the hunks of flesh that walk on two legs, it’s a different jar of gefilte fish. This odd desire of His gives genesis to the vast wisdom known as the Kabbalah. The Zohar and other works describe an intricate spiritual system of interlocking worlds, lights, vessels, contractions, and creations that span the vast distance between our physical world and G-d’s infinite light, a system that is utterly unnecessary. If G-d wills, physicality can arise with no spiritual antecedents, from true nothingness; He instead created logic, the System that must underlie anything that hopes to hide Him. Then He acted according to his own arbitrary rules as much as possible, and revealed his actions to the sages, all that we might be able to relate to Him, so that there could be a G-dly thought.

The practical upshot here is that knowledge is a dependent creation and a tremendous lowness in G-d’s eyes that one ought to use only to fulfill its purpose. Knowledge, as an end unto itself, does not exist, and that’s why the Rebbe added his second answer. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom?

The more one comprehends, the more it seems everything must be comprehensible. The scientific worldview assumes that everything follows rules and patterns. If there’s something that seems to not make sense, it’s only because we haven’t yet invented a tool, physical or theoretical, that’s accurate or powerful enough to plumb the thing’s depths. A phenomenon that cannot be apprehended by the intellect in some way is by definition beyond the reach of science, and since science has never met such a phenomenon, it must not exist; a new discovery comes along that seems to contradict Torah, and if we cannot understand how the two can coexist, it bothers us. We demand answers. And the Rebbe spends much of his letter dispensing the answers: interpolation vs. extrapolation, dating methods, untestable assumptions, etc. But there is another aspect of reality that cannot be left out. As “simplistic” as it sounds, as much as we may have to leave our comfortable thrones as the arbiters of truth, there are some things that cannot be grasped by reason. He is the basis of reality, and intellect is a means to an end, not the other way around. It is more surprising that we comprehend anything than that we fail to comprehend something. The Rebbe’s second argument is not the desperate gamble of a harried believer, but the contextualization of the intellect, without which G-d remains divorced from reality, even for the religious.

 

 

This is why it makes sense to reach out to other Jews and get them to do things like wrap Tefilin or light Shabbos candles. Emphasis, to do things. The Rebbe advised people never to get into debates or intellectual arguments about Judaism on the street; get the commandment performed, that’s all that matters, that’s what will get people in touch with their heritage and their G-d. What of the marketplace of ideas, of weighing Judaism against other systems of thought? How could leather or a palm frond ever bolster confidence in Judaism as a way of life? Shouldn’t we be rational and only do that which totally makes sense to us?

Every Jew has a special Jewish soul, indestructible and united with G-d. Doing a mitzvah, one of His commandments, awakens that connection. One who serves G-d because it make sense really serves themselves, like a spouse who gets married because their mate is “just perfect” and get divorced when reality ousts the dream. This logical misstep of the religious, trimming G-d to fit their tastes instead of the other way around, transforms the whims of an individual into moral absolutes that must bind all of humanity. It changes an individual trying to do the right thing into an aggressor who campaigns against the heretic and apostate. They are the driver and G-d is the vehicle. Only the non-rational reaction to the warm glow of the Shabbos candles or the taste of the Matzah, the feeling that somehow the Mitzvah is right, is home, is G-dly, is a healthy foundation for lasting religious observance, and, for a method that banks on an empirically ridiculous claim to a soul, works well.

 

 

Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and in the words of Freeman Dyson, “[A] famous joker and a famous genius, [but] also a wise human being whose answers to serious questions made sense,” understood this view of intellect. He related the following:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

At first blush it’s a grounded rebuff of artistic fancy by a levelheaded scientist. Not really, though. Implicit is the appreciation of artistic sentiment, that the flower is beautiful not only as a source of knowledge, a specimen to be dissected, but as a mystery, something that exists beyond us that we are allowed to see. And in the end, what is the point of science’s analytical microscope? To bring one to a greater appreciation of the ineffable. The scientist need not dictate terms to reality; on the contrary, through his discoveries, he allows reality to blow his mind. With his peerless grasp of the workings of the body, he touches the exaltation of the spirit. In the words of R’ Saadiah Gaon, the goal of knowledge is to know that He cannot be known.

No bones about it.

Featured Image of Anisopodidae in Amber By EvaK (EvaK) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons