Handmaiden of Spirituality

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Nothing puts some scientists in a good mood like finding evidence that, at least to their minds, diminishes man’s unique qualities or standing in the universe. Discovering human-like tendencies in the great apes or dolphins, discerning a hint of some form of life on Mars – anything will do, so long as it has the desired effect of “proving” that we’re not that all that special. The always unspoken corollary is, of course, that, hence, the Creator couldn’t possibly be interested in what us li’l old, not-very-special beings do with our lives.

Over half a century ago, Rav Eliyohu Dessler noted the fascinating contradiction inherent in these efforts to diminish man’s stature. On the one hand, men of science are responsible for the technological advances that have given modern society its sense of hubris and invincibility, based on a belief that science can conquer all problems and solve all mysteries if given enough time. Scientists, who are accustomed to enjoying near-universal credibility and adulation, are also often not, on a personal level, the most obsequious of people. In particular, they have little patience and open-mindedness towards those who challenge scientific orthodoxy, as global warming “heretics” and alternative medicine practitioners will attest.

Yet, upon finding the slightest basis for challenging humanity’s uniqueness, these same self-possessed individuals are more than eager to yield their dignity and pride of place in the universe. Apparently, wrote Rav Dessler, when the drive for hefkeirus, the longing to free oneself from the constricting yoke of Divine oversight implicit in such uniqueness, comes in conflict with the opposing impulse towards arrogance, the former prevails.

Another area in which science is often invoked to downsize humans is that of free will, or the purported lack of it. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on the work of neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes, who found that the brain appears to “make up its mind” some time before one becomes conscious of the eventual decision.

Using an MRI machine, Dr. Haynes and his colleagues monitored the neural currents coursing through the brains of volunteers as they decided at random whether to push a button with their right or left hands. Studying the brain behavior prior to the moment of conscious decision, the researchers identified signals that indicated a volunteer would push a button 10 seconds before he did so.

“We think our decisions are conscious,” Haynes commented, but while this research “doesn’t rule out free will . . . it does make it implausible.” For joy! Free at last!

In truth, however, it would be premature for anyone to begin partying at the prospect of having demonstrated, once and for all, that we humans are bereft of free choice and, consequently, of responsibility for our actions. In fact, Haynes’ conclusions actually jibe rather neatly with what the Torah has been teaching for millennia: that it is the subconscious that drives our decision-making.

The role of the conscious mind is to attempt to influence the subconscious recesses of the brain through various means, including study, introspection and the stratagems employed by the Mussar masters such as hispa’alus (emotional rousing) and tziyur (mental imagery). This, of course, is the message conveyed by the posuk quoted thrice daily in the Aleinu prayer: ”‘v’yodata hayom v’hasheivosa el l’vovecha – and you shall know this day and return [it] to your heart.” Ours is not to directly determine what our hearts feel, but rather to work at imparting that which our brains know to the heart, providing the input that will indirectly influence the nature of our feelings and, ultimately, our actions.

Far from absolving man of responsibility for the desires of his heart and the resultant deeds of his hands, this conception of the interplay between heart and mind actually ups the ante of human obligation. It places an even greater onus on man to be creative, clever and far-sighted in finding ways to reach and impact the untamed subconscious and redirect in positive ways its innate predilections for what is often spiritually harmful or stunting. This task, always central to Jewish spiritual practice but given renewed emphasis by Rav Yisroel Salanter and his spiritual heirs, is the work of a lifetime.

Ironically, then, findings like those of Dr. Haynes, showing the inscrutable subconscious to be the seat of human choice, do not render us hapless automatons at the mercy of mindless forces beyond our control. Rather, they serve only to amplify the enormity and subtlety of the spiritual work that we were placed in this world to accomplish. Similarly, the farther outward space exploration pushes the frontier of the universe and the more it becomes apparent that our little world is a singular oasis of sentient life in an otherwise lifeless cosmos, the more this highlights humanity’s uniqueness and the implications that flow therefrom.

Truly, science in service of spirituality.

Published in the August 20, 2008 edition of Hamodia.

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14 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Shlomo — August 22, 2008 @ 3:59 am

    A horse is a horse, of course of course…

    Shlomo’s argument makes perfect sense from the utilitarian point of view of the grantor who is results-oriented only. However, my point was that no academic believes in his heart of hearts that he himself is an automaton.

  2. David says:

    “one should concede, on the personal level being discussed, the existence of refinement of character amongst said religious leaders. This can point to the efficacy that Torah study has in affecting change on a person, and needs to be noted in a comparative analysis of the studying of different kinds of materials.”

    One does not concede this, any more than one concedes that scientists are, by nature, “obsequious.” If anything, I have noted a greater inclination on the part of religious scholars to disregard or impugn science where it contradicts religion than the reverse. I think scientists are better conditioned by their education to confront challenges to their beliefs than are Torah scholars. Indeed, a scientist who is able to disprove long-held theories will achieve renown, while a Torah scholar who challenges long-held beliefs will be labelled a heretic. What this may say about their “refinement of character,” I will leave to other readers to decide.

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Religious leaders, who are accustomed to enjoying near-universal credibility and adulation in their communities, are also often not, on a personal level, the most obsequious of people.”

    Leaving aside the counter-argument of biases(it deserves a discussion), one should concede, on the personal level being discussed, the existence of refinement of character amongst said religious leaders. This can point to the efficacy that Torah study has in affecting change on a person, and needs to be noted in a comparative analysis of the studying of different kinds of materials.

  4. C.Z. says:

    Charlie – quite to the contrary, the vast bulk of evidence shows there is no such thing as the so-called “global warming”. The southen hemisphere is currently in a cold spell, actually. This past year was far colder than many others in previous years. There is no evidence whatsoever of a “hole” in the ozone layer. Besides, a few cold or warm years in a row are meaningless – flip a coin in the air a hundred times, and at some point you will have eight flips in a row of heads. There are patterns within a constant, you see. There is an enormous amount of disagreement in the scientific community . And finally, no one should let the status of being a “scientist” count for anything here. Clearly many scientists have an agenda, and you have to look very carefully at the source of the funding whenever you hear something from a scientist.

  5. elana says:

    Eytan, why the need to attack and claim that “…these same self-possessed individuals are more than eager to yield their dignity and pride of place in the universe.” They do not necessarily yield their dignity and may possess a moral compass that enables them to be sincere, ethical, and honest.

    More importantly, on a philosophical level, great Jewish thinkers have dealt with various concepts that involve differing elements of determinism since the days of the Mishna. regardless of the source of the challenge from metahphysics of old to modern day psychology, these views were attacked, modified and accomodated within a hashkafa that includes a fundamental belief in bechira. As opposed to just attacking, you are on more traditional ground in dealing with their viewpoint as you begin to outline. You would do the world a greater service if you DROPPED much of the first part of your essay.

  6. Shlomo says:

    Bob Miller, you’re not making sense. A horse may not have free will, but if it succeeds in pulling an especially heavy cart, you can bet its owner will be willing to grant it extra oats and grooming. A scientist could be no different.

    The real issue is that once you eliminate free will, you eliminate ethics, since ethical judgments cannot be made about actions that were compelled by nature. I have not yet heard any of these scientists say that no ethical standards exist. They may have trouble understanding exactly how free will works, but tacitly they accept its existence.

  7. Mark Smith says:

    Nothing puts some fundamentalists in a good mood like finding evidence that, at least to their minds, diminishes science’s unique qualities or standing in the universe. Discovering human-like tendencies in the great scientists or philosophers, discerning a hint of some form of bias in Academia – anything will do, so long as it has the desired effect of “proving” that Science is not that all that special. The always unspoken corollary is, of course, that, hence, Science can’t be trusted when it contradicts religion.

    Over half a century ago, pretty much everyone noted the fascinating contradiction inherent in these efforts to diminish Science’s stature. On the one hand, men of religion are responsible for the moral values that include truth. Religious leaders, who are accustomed to enjoying near-universal credibility and adulation in their communities, are also often not, on a personal level, the most obsequious of people. In particular, they have little patience and open-mindedness towards those who challenge religious orthodoxy, as global flood “heretics” and documentary hypothesis practitioners will attest.

    Yet, upon finding the slightest basis for challenging religion’s truths, these same truth-possessed individuals are more than eager to yield their value of truth. Apparently, when the drive for your religion to be the one true religion, the longing to be the most loved by Divine oversight implicit in such uniqueness, comes in conflict with the opposing impulse towards truth, the former prevails.

  8. Noam says:

    I am not sure why Mr. Kobre feels the need to denigrate scientists as “often not, on a personal level, the most obsequious of people. In particular, they have little patience and open-mindedness towards those who challenge scientific orthodoxy…”
    As Dr. Hall very accurately pointed out above, scientists are obliged to look at the data, and form conclusions from the data. Conclusions that contradict the data are usually not true, no matter how much one may want to believe it. Many “alternative” medicine treatements are not based on data. There is a reason the label on your nutritional supplements usually says something like “this product is not intended to treat or prevent any illness.” Well, why are they selling it and why is anyone taking it? Many people want to believe that what they take is helping them, but the data is frequently quite sparse and sometimes contradictory. People used to believe that snake-oil was also helpful, and now a ‘snake oil salesman’ has a very non-medical meaning. This is not to say that none of the ‘alternative’ treatments work. However, for many of them, there is no proof(perhaps yet) that they actually do. If accurately performed, unbiased scientifically designed studies showed benefit, they wouldn’t be considered ‘alternative.’ Scientists have little patience for claims that are not based on real data and evidence. Critizing scientists for insisting on data based discussions is really unfair and uncalled for. What would Mr. Kobre want to substitute for data? His own unsubstantiated opinions?

    Noam Stadlan, MD

  9. HESHY BULMAN says:

    Charles B. Hall, PHD – Where have you been for the past 3 years or so? I can’t think of any intelligent commentator or writer suggesting that there was no Global Warming going on. The whole debate has been about whether Man’s involvement in this has been of any significance. Why can’t people get this straight???

  10. Bob Miller says:

    When one of these savants submits a paper for publication or an application for a grant, does he let on that he deserves no credit whatsoever for his accomplishments since he lacked free will?

  11. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    The problem that we scientists have with people who say that global warming doesn’t exist, or claim that some alternative medical therapies are certain to work, is not that they disagree with science but that they reject the entire framework of empirical scientific investigation. Having discussions with them is like trying to have halachic debate with Reform Rabbis who reject the entire authority of the mesorah. While the questions of how much humans have contributed to global warming or how much the earth will warm in the future are legitimate, as are clinical investigations of some alternative therapies that have not been adequately researched, anyone who accepts the primacy of empirical evidence must accept that the earth has gotten warmer over the past 125 years and that the evidence of efficacy for many alternative medical therapies is minimal to non-existent. Contrary to what postmodernists might say, it isn’t my bias, it is simply what the data show.

  12. HESHY BULMAN says:

    I vey much enjoyed this extremely erudite and incisive piece. One additional comment – Chazal tell us “All is in ‘The Hands of Heaven’ save for the fear of Heaven”. Thus, it may be quite true that our initial responses are totally subconscious – and not even by virtue of innate personality or training, but rather as pure “Nisoyon” or divine intervention. Nevertheless, as Human Beings possessed ourselves of a spark of the divine, we are able to react based upon fear of G-d or the lack thereof.

  13. Ori says:

    Scientists, who are accustomed to enjoying near-universal credibility and adulation,

    Not exactly. They get this credibility from lay people. But the people they work most often with are other scientists. Part of the job of scientists is to find holes in other scientists’ theories. Usually there is an overarching theory, and they can’t process challenges to that. But within that theory, there are plenty of points of argument.

    To try an analogy, Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai both believed that not working on Shabbat is divinely ordained. Anybody who disagreed with that would be laughed out of their synagogues. But they argued about specific details of keeping Shabbat.

    Scientists can be very arrogant, they’re very smart and spend most of their lives in an environment that measures people mostly by their intellect. But science is a humble process of trial and error.

    “We think our decisions are conscious,” Haynes commented, but while this research “doesn’t rule out free will . . . it does make it implausible.” For joy! Free at last!

    This is truly sad. You can’t measure free will, so scientists who spend their lives trying to measure things think it does not exist.

  14. joel rich says:

    Nothing puts some scientists in a good mood like finding evidence that, at least to their minds, diminishes man’s unique qualities or standing in the universe. Discovering human-like tendencies in the great apes or dolphins, discerning a hint of some form of life on Mars – anything will do, so long as it has the desired effect of “proving” that we’re not that all that special. The always unspoken corollary is, of course, that, hence, the Creator couldn’t possibly be interested in what us li’l old, not-very-special beings do with our lives.
    ===============================================

    WADR what research into the minds’ of scientists has revealed this propensity? I’m sure some feel this way but it seems to me the Rambam would have some concern with your labeling scientists as he says “And how is the way to love of Him? When one contemplates His deeds and His great and wondrous creatures, and one sees from these the wisdom of G-d — that it is immeasurable and unbounded — immediately ,he loves and praises and glorifies and has a huge desire to know the great name.”

    KT
    Joel Rich