An Unexpected Pesach Present

While my children were out purchasing their “afikoman presents” with my in-laws, I happened on my own holiday present in the form of a remarkable article by Dr. Francis Collins.

The highly regarded Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and the piece is a synopsis of his personal journey of faith. I found the statement noteworthy as much for what it did not claim as for what it did assert.

Collins’s main premise is that not only is there no conflict between science and belief, but that, in fact, scientific discovery is itself testament to the greatness of God’s creation. As he so beautifully writes,

As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan . . . I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.

This perspective is, in effect, a contemporized restatement of Mamonides’ famous declaration (Basic Principles of the Torah 4:12) that when man “contemplates these matters and recognizes the creations – angels, spheres, man, etc. – and sees God’s wisdom in all the formations and creations, his love for God will increase, he will find his soul, and his very essence will yearn to love God.”

At a time when there seems to be a recurrence of religious skepticism towards science, we would do well to recall that while this statement is likely the most well known of its kind, in fact, other giants of Jewish tradition both pre dated and have subsequently endorsed Maimonides’ attitude.

As the Psalmist poetically observes (19:2), “The heavens tell the glory of God and the expanse of the sky tells of His handiwork.” [See commentators there, especially Ibn Ezra.] This approach is further developed by many, including, to name just a few, R. Bachye ibn Pakuda (Chovos Ha-Levavos II:2), R. Moshe Isserles (Shut HaRamo, #7), and more recently, the Chazon Ish (Emunah U’Bitachon 1:3-7).

It is inspiring to read the account of a life long devotee of science and a leading expert in one of the most important areas of contemporary research reaffirming the basic compatibility of science and faith.

But perhaps even more important is Dr. Collins’s caveat about the limits of science in the furtherance of religion.

As he describes his evolution from self-described atheist to believer, Collins tells of his emerging realization that “one could build a very strong case for the plausibility of the existence of God on purely rational grounds.” (ital. added)

Further developing this point, he continues,

But reason alone cannot prove the existence of God. Faith is reason plus revelation, and the revelation part requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind. You have to hear the music, not just read the notes on the page. Ultimately, a leap of faith is required.

When initially reading the article I was immediately struck – and thrilled – by his balanced approach. This, I beleive, is percisely the right understanding of the relationship between science and religion.

Science – whether it be genetics, Collins’s area of specialty, or in counteless other areas – has much to teach us not only about the world but, by extension, about God. And there is no question that scientific study and knowledge of the overwhelming complexity of the natural world can play a vital role in deepening ones appreciation of – and even belief in – God.

But science should not be used for something it was never inteded for. Science cannot prove the existence of God who is, by defintion, a supernatural being and beyond the measurable or observable categories that science deals with. I have never liked so-called scientific “proofs of God” for this reason; “arguments for God” perhaps, but not proofs.

A close reading of the Maimonides’ statement, I believe, bears this out. Note that he never says that observing the wonders of the natural world will prove God’s existence. Rather, he posits that the complexity of nature will deepen our love of God (and, by extension, humble us). But this presupposes that one already believes in God; it never suggests that these observations themselves will conclusively demonstarate the existence of a Creator. And that first step requires a leap of faith, or what we commonly refer to as emunah peshutah.

By aticulately demonstrating both the beneift and the limits of science, Dr. Collins has made a critical contribution to this importanct discussion.

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6 comments to An Unexpected Pesach Present

  • Seth Jacobson

    I have found the film “What the Bleep do we Know?” to be similar. It may be an oversimplification of both faith and science, and in fact at least one of the scientists in the film seems to be strongly opposed to organized religion, but the general theme is that today’s scientific knowledge and andvancements seem to be leading “science” to merge with philosophy and spirituality.

  • Greg

    In the Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides lays out a systematic approach for proving God’s existence, predicated on a knowledge of natural science. Indeed, his entire philosophy begins with the presumption that one must first learn natural science in order to obtain the requisite knowledge to progress to divine science, or metaphysical speculation (i.e. knowledge of the Divine). There is, however, much debate about Maimonides “true” position regarding this proof; some feel that he did not believe his proof to be 100% air-tight, and was subversively trying to communicate to the those with a true understanding that proof for God, from the natural world, was impossible. Certainly Artistotle, on whose philosophy Maimonides based his own, believed to have proven the existence of a Prime Mover based on observations of the natural world.

    A complete seperation between faith and reason did not occur until much later, somewhat in the thought of Pascal, and more explicitly in Locke. Culminating, of course, in Nietzsche.

  • One Christian's perspective

    Rabbi Gottleib thank you for sharing such a beautiful post ! Your present became ours as well.

  • Chizki

    Dr. Collins also gave an interview on NPR with Terry Gross (“Fresh Air”) recently on March 29th, covering the much of the same ground. It’s a fully developed conversation lasting ~40 minutes, and I highly recommend it. You can find it on iTunes (free download; search for “NPR Fresh Air” in the podcast section) or on the NPR website (streaming; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9207913). It’s worth noting that they ran an interview with Dr. Richard Dawkins on the preceding day – I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’m sure it provides an interesting contrast.

  • Ariel Krakowski

    Leap of Faith?

    The “leap of faith” you find so appealing is a Christian concept:

    Christian dogma, according to Kierkegaard, embodies paradoxes which are offensive to reason. The central paradox is the assertion that the eternal, infinite, transcendent God simultaneously became incarnated as a temporal, finite, human being (Jesus). There are two possible attitudes we can adopt to this assertion, viz. we can have faith, or we can take offense. What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd.
    –The Stafford Encylopedia of Philosophy
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/#Reli

    Maimonides says a person can’t believe irrational things and mentions some Christian beliefs like the one above. This is what he has to say about Emunah Peshutah:

    There are some who think a lot about G-d and mention him frequently but
    have no knowledge and merely follow imagination or accept tradition
    blindly… Such people are outside of the habitation … and do not in truth
    mention or think about G-d. Because that which is merely in his
    imagination… does not correspond to any existing being at all…
    –moreh nevuchim 3:51 translation by D. Eidensohn

    Although religious belief isn’t based entirely on logic, no “leap of
    faith” is necessary to recognize G-d. Part of recognizing G-d may indeed be “hearing the music” and not 100% mathematical proofs. But it is still based on reason. Avraham Avinu looked at the Universe and realized there must have been a Creator. Only than, was there revelation to him. Certainly now, after the revelation to our forefathers, we need no leap of faith.

    Science doesn’t just show the “plausibility of the existence of G-d”, it
    is very strong evidence for it. The perfection of the laws of the
    Universe and of DNA are are far more rational to explain based on a
    belief in G-d than on atheism. Atheism and Christianity require a “leap of faith”, not Judaism.

  • One Christian's perspective

    Ariel, when a Christian speaks of a leap of faith, he/she does not mean a step into blindness but into the light — the light of HaShem. Actually, one of Israel’s Prophets spoke of this kind of faith and his name was Habakkuk. He said “the righteous will live by faith”. I don’t know much about Kierkgaard even though my ancestors are Danish but I know much more about Dr. Collins – without even meeting him – because his words ring true in my heart. When the object of faith is G-d , the believer trusts in G-d’s wisdom and understanding at the sacrifice of their own. Faith cannot be explained by man’s logic but knowledge of who G-d really is…..that is the beginning of faith.