ID and Chanukah: Intelligent Design, Part Two

(continued from Part One)

No one else there was particularly interested in asking questions of Dr Meyer, so I had open road ahead of me. Very politely, I let go with all the reservations I had, relating to the frum community setting sail on the ID ship. I wasn’t going to argue whether the ship was seaworthy. Then – and now – I can’t say I know enough about the issues to develop an opinion without doing much more reading than I have time for. My questions had to do with whether the ship was heading for a destination that was good for us.

Were the social implications of Darwinism a concern to us in the frum community? Arguably, Darwinism has been used by some to destroy any sense of the specialness of being human, and any moral message that might go along with that election. We who stood at Sinai ought to be immune to that. Evolution (the G-d initiated kind I wrote about in the last posting) cannot put a dent in the historical relationship between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, from which we draw out emunah and our resolve to lead a Torah life style. Non-Jews as well ought to be able to draw on their faith in G-d and belief in His message to all of mankind to offset the cynical and narrow vision for mankind that some draw from evolution. We don’t need a challenge to evolution, as much as more G-d consciousness. Why would we need ID?

Why had much of Dr Meyer’s very powerful presentation dealt with what he called the new “friendliness” of science to theism. What could ever be unfriendly about science to true belief? Showing areas of overlap between science (e.g. the Big Bang with Creation) and the Bible seemed almost sacrilegious. Torah doesn’t need corroboration from science, not can it offer any. (As Rav Reuvein Leuchter, shlit”a, talmid muvhak of R Wolbe zt”l once put it to me as we tried to outdo each other in our antipathy to the Bible Codes, how can Torah, which completely transcends all teva, be secured by something within teva?) Worse yet, to me, was the notion of pointing to phenomena that some believe are not yet satisfactorily explained by evolution (abiogenesis, the Cambrian explosion, irreducible complexity, etc.), and yelling, “Eureka! We’ve found it! That’s where G-d has been hiding, and that’s where we really need Him!” It sounds far too similar to “G-d of the gaps” for comfort. (“G-d of the gaps” refers to any one of a number of arguments for His existence that start out with “How else are you going to explain…?” The problem with it is that if the gap narrows or disappears through discovery and enlightenment, so does the reason for belief. Unfortunately, much belief around the globe is built on such arguments, reinforcing the stereotype advanced by the New Atheists that religion is only for the undereducated and ill-informed. A posting of three years ago examined more sophisticated objections to “G-d of the gaps.” ID’ers believe that their approach is not “G-d of the gaps,” but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here. At this point, I was asking the questions, and not yet listening to answers.) Why would frum Jews want to get involved with a “G-d of the gaps” approach, which will make us look silly when the gap is filled in, as has happened several times before?

Dr. Meyer instantly grasped all the points, and dealt with them one at a time. He left his deepest impression upon me with an anecdote:

Ten years ago, Dr Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box; often associated with irreducible complexity) met with Father Richard John Neuhaus in the offices of the magazine the latter founded, First Things. Behe was looking for allies, and approached Fr. Neuhaus, one of America’s most respected Catholic thinkers. Neuhaus listened, and finally was not able to contain himself. “Michael! You are a true believer! You have studied some theology. Why would you need any of this?” With great economy of expression, Neuhaus telescoped all my reservations in one exclamation. The true believer need not fear evolution, nor look for the inexplicable as the “place” where G-d resides. Nor need he fear the depredations of evolution on our sense of specialness, and hence on our commitment to a set of moral expectations. The true believer will find G-d in all things, comprehended or not. He will find his moral signposts in the revealed word of G-d.

Behe was equally effective. “You are right, Father. But millions of people are not theologians. To them, if the scientists can explain everything, they will listen to the scientists, not to those who speak of G-d.” Neuhaus accepted the point, and in the decade before he died, he moved in the direction of greater friendliness towards ID, publishing four articles about it.

I can’t say that I achieved any profound insight from the exchange. I did, however, feel validated in Fr. Neuhaus’ initial rejection of ID – and therefore in a better position to respond to the pragmatism of Michael Behe. What I take as obvious about the relationship between Hashem and the natural world, others see as “theology” – and so many people, even frum Jews, have little patience for theology. They can either look at the world naturalistically, or spiritually – but not both at the same time, inextricably intertwined with the former dependant upon the latter. If a naturalist explanation is fully satisfying, they lose interest in a spiritual one. Those who are deeply invested in a spiritual understanding of the cosmos are often quite comfortable with using only its vocabulary, and have little cause to understand naturalistically. There are, of course, many exceptions who have synthesized the two systems of understanding, but they are not in the majority.

In the manner of derush, I would offer that this finding is much a part of Chanukah. Chazal tell us that Yavan “darkened the eyes of Yisrael.” Now, I would have expected them to say that the darkness came from the entire lifestyle that the Syrian-Greeks offered in place of Torah. With all its external beauty and pretentious claim to enlightenment, it was a poor alternative to Torah. (R. Yehudah HaLevi: “Yavan was all flower, and no fruit.”)

They don’t say this, however. Chazal explain that the source of the darkness was the command to “write on the horn of an ox that the Jewish people does not have a portion in the G-d of Israel.” How does this make sense? The horn of the ox is likely a reference to the incident of the Golden Calf. But the Syrian-Greeks believed neither in the G-d of Israel nor in His book. What sort of challenge was this to us?

Possibly, they told us no such thing directly. They didn’t have to. Their arrogant confidence in their enlightenment, their derision of everyone else as benighted, left its mark of the souls of many Jews. For them as well, there was no room for two different world views to overlap. If the Hellenes and the Hellenizers were correct, then Torah wasn’t. Perhaps there once was a special relationship between HKBH and Klal Yisrael, but we must have been replaced. The others couldn’t be so right, and we therefore so wrong, had G-d not abandoned us. He must have rejected us after the sin of the Egel.

In a similar manner, many people are prepared to follow one world view – but not two simultaneously. If the ability of science to explain and to deliver becomes god-like, then they have no use for any other Deity.

For the majority of Jews today who are not theologians, I am beginning to see a place in the Orthodox world for some of the thinking and the materials associated with ID.

As I see it, four issues within the ID orbit have possible interest or utility to frum Jews:
1) Does evolutionary theory explain known phenomena, or must we insist that its methods are inadequate to explain the evidence of design?
2) Is ID science?
3) Poking at the smugness of scientism and its proponents
4) Cataloging the phenomena that have not been adequately explained by believers in the NDS.

Two of these should have little or no interest to us. The laypeople among us need not take sides. We ought to tell our children about the two sides, and that the Torah Jew can be comfortable with either one of them turning out to be the truth. (On the evolutionary side, I am speaking as I did in the first installment of this topic, of an evolution after the initial conditions were deliberately assigned by G-d to allow for the development of a world through natural selection. I acknowledge that some readers correctly pointed out that this itself is a position of some people in the ID camp, who speak of “front loaded” design, and that all frum people therefore must embrace ID. This position, however, is not the majority one. When I speak of two sides, the one I have labeled ID is the one that argues that holes in the NDS position make it wounded animal. It fights ferociously, but will not survive. In the end, they will have to concede that NDS cannot explain everything, and will have to yield to the evidence of a designer.) I don’t believe that we need to make any predictions as to who will prevail, and limit the choices available to committed Jews.

We have even less interest in the issue of whether ID should be considered science or not. Even the judge in the Dover case admitted that ID perhaps has a place in the public school curriculum, as a topic of societal debate, as long as it wasn’t in the science classroom. We should feel comfortable bringing up the points that ID raises in our yeshivos (i.e. the yeshivos that address evolution, rather than ripping the pages out of the textbook).

The last two points have greater promise for us. We should never, never drive a wedge between emunah and science. But when a prominent vocal minority arrogates for science G-d-like knowledge and power, we must be prepared to show that sometimes the Science Emperor wears no clothes. Most of the effort should be placed in showing the difference between the systems of science and religion, and what they can and cannot tell us about ourselves and the universe we inhabit. For many people, however, it will be most effective to demonstrate that there are holes in NDS’ understanding. We can and should admit that such holes are not fatal – that it is part of scientific method to hold on to theories that work, and wait for the remaining answers to come in. Still, it will be important to show that there is smugness – indeed a religious faith – in the ability of the prevailing theory to ultimately address major issues. It will help show our children that those who mock faith are themselves people of great faith – in a different system.

The last point may be the most important. ID presenters can do for us today what R Avigdor Miller zt”l did forty years ago. He opened the eyes of thousands of readers to the wonders of nature, by assembling so many phenomena from the macro world. Science has moved on. In our world, we should be able to turn to the micro world, and show the wonders of what Hashem created. ID has inventoried much of that, and it is the natural modern complement to what R. Miller did decades ago. Whether the “rotor” of the flagellum is an example of irreducible complexity or not, it still should cause the jaw of the believer to drop in amazement and wonder. If ID presenters can bring the information to us, we should welcome their assistance.

In the end, it is still Mah rabu ma’asecha Hashem.

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10 comments to ID and Chanukah: Intelligent Design, Part Two

  • Pinchas Giller

    Intelligent Design, which I do not pretend to follow, has been developed in order to support the Christian reading of the first twp parshiyot of Bereshit, which are important to Christianity’s theology of original sin. That is the whole reason for it’s development. Fundamentalist Christians are offended by Darwin’s theory, because of their literalist reading of Tanach,

    Judaism has no such existential understanding of existence as original sin; in fact it is anathema to Jewish theology. Most of out libraries derive few lessons from the first chapters of Bereishit, with the exception of Shabbat. Our mesorah veers widely from the simple peshat understanding of the these narratives, up to understandings that are by definition beyond human comprehension. In any case we derive out mitzvot from elsewhere. In the meantime, we work with science as opposed to other disciplines (as I was twice informed by Rav Moshe Tendler and Rav Bleich with regards to another matter).

    So this is a dispute among gentiles, and history tells us to stay out of the way. We should not be seduced into carrying water for the ID advocates. We will meet them again in other fields and they will not likely be our allies when push comes to shove.

  • David Finch

    No one who has read Rambam can feel entirely comfortable describing anything HaShem does as “intelligent.” As for “design,” engineers design airplanes; couturiers design dresses; but HaShem didn’t design the universe. He created it, which is an entirely different matter. Divine creation is an entity unto itself, beyond human description or understanding. It is that it is, as He is that He is. What humans can understand is the artifact of science, which, within its own provisional but expanding limits, is about as close as we’re going to get to the truth of natural phenomena. That includes evolution, the ancientness of earth, etc. Faith in G-d involves faith in His presence among all these truths, in the utter consistency of revelation and science properly understood in proper context. To be afraid of science is to be afraid of Torah, I think.

  • Shades of Gray

    “Showing areas of overlap between science (e.g. the Big Bang with Creation) and the Bible seemed almost sacrilegious.”

    Prof. Aviezer touches on a different distinction in the Winter 07 Jewish Action(“The many areas of harmony between science and Torah constitute important plausibility arguments for religious belief. In the
    twenty-first century, the person of faith need not feel apologetic about his or her beliefs. It should be emphasized, however, that the comprehensive agreement between science and Torah described above does not prove that the Torah is of Divine origin, and it certainly does not
    prove that God exists. Plausibility arguments are not a substitute for faith..”)

    “Torah doesn’t need corroboration from science, not can it offer any. (As Rav Reuvein Leuchter, shlit”a, talmid muvhak of R Wolbe zt”l once put it to me as we tried to outdo each other in our antipathy to the Bible Codes, how can Torah, which completely transcends all teva, be secured by something within teva?)”

    I’m wondering why this would be a problem. Despite the fact that Torah is l’malah min hateva, it interacts with teva and history, as well as with the intellect, when “securing” belief. Certainly if one is following “chakirah” when proving philosophical issues, but even if one uses emunah peshutah, there are still means of “securing” belief, with basic logic and reasoning(the latter type, mentioned in Alie Shur II, Vaadim on Emunah, speaking of R. Wolbe). So why would a statistical method, assuming it would be valid, be an issue(unless one is simply saying, as above, that “plausibility arguments are not a substitute for faith”, because such are incomplete arguments) ?

  • dr. bill

    Faith in G-d involves faith in His presence among all these truths, in the utter consistency of revelation and science properly understood in proper context. To be afraid of science is to be afraid of Torah, I think.

    Comment by David Finch — December 16, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

    Up to the second half of that sentance i was in full agreement. I do not hope for utter consistency. to use an analogy, science and Torah are on parallel planes – one plane of far greater, better yet incomparable, importance, but parallel nonetheless. To be afraid of science , as you say, is to have a primitive view of Torah. As Raavad remined us in a related domain, mnay great jews maintain a primitive view.

  • L. Oberstein

    Americans in general are not interested in the fine points of theology.In former generations battles were fought over matters of belier. Western society has moved beyond fixation on such issues. We are a consumer society, if religion makes me feel good, it is true. That’s how most people see it. If you demand allegience to a dogma that is deemed totally out of step with science or common sense as we define it nowadays, you just chase away potential chozrei beteshuva. I had a brief exchange with Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller of Telse Chicago at a wedding several years ago and he told me that I am totally wrong. You can’t defend emes with sheker. If evolution is kefira, as he believes, then anyone who even allows for its possibility is steeped in anti-torah views. He isn’t a lone voice, there are many who espuse what he says. It makes one feel good to have such certainty but it also makes it impossible for someone who thinks as a modern,21st century person to accept his definition of basic dogma.

  • Phil

    “Rabbi Yissochor Frand, in a taped shiur on parshas Vayeitzei, mentions that Rabbi Leib Gurwicz, who was Rosh Yeshivah in Gateshead Yeshiva once visited the British Museum, and saw cow horns that were used in ancient times as baby bottles. Rabbi Gurwicz explained, based on this fact, the command issued by the Syrian Greeks to the Jews in the time of the Chashmonaim, that they should write on the horn of an ox that they have no portion with the God of Israel. The horn of an ox, said Rabbi Gurwicz, was a reference to the baby bottles, and, in a broader sense, the decree meant that the Jews were ordered to change the way they raised their children from infancy. Perhaps, then, following Rabbeinu Bachya, and combining his remarks with those of the Yalkut Reuveni and the Ari in regard to the contents of the jars Yaakov went back to salvage, we can suggest that the jars were baby bottles consisting of cows’ horns, and it was the same form of purity and dedication exhibited in Yaakov’s use of those jugs for his children, in complete conformity with halacha, that was followed in the future dedication of the mishkan, the work of Eliyohu on behalf of the Tsarfatite woman, and the rededication of the Beis HaMikdash in the time of the Chashmonaim. In all of these instances, care was taken to assure, that, from the very beginning, the acts of building sanctuaries and homes were done in complete purity, in order to assure their perpetuation.”

  • nachum klafter

    Rabbi Adlerstein:

    I say the following with the greatest respect and admiration for what you write, for what you stand for, for your tireless ability to remain reasonable and balanced, and the tireless work you do for Klal Yisroel and for HKBH. Nevertheless, I would like to offer my humble observation about one aspect of your analysis of this as well as some other contemporary controversial issues, such as the Slifkin ban.

    Your final analysis of many issues tends to be distilled through the prism of public relations and propoganda rather than your judgment about what is correct or true. This is a good case in point: In the end, you are only concerned with whether it would strengthen or weaken the emuna of our children for them to be exposed to the writings of Intelligent Design adherents.
    It is similar with the Slifkin controversy. In the end, your opinion comes down to the question of the degree to which banning Rabbi Slifkin’s books will protect the emuna of the Hared world, or damaging the emuna of those those who follow the rationalistic Ga’onim and Rishonim in matters of science, etc.

    Now, your way of thinking about it sound practical and sensible, but I do not think it is correct or wise. In the end, our beliefs need to be shaped by what is actually true and correct, and not what makes observance easier. The primary consideration on all of these issues is what is emes. If you aren’t sure what the emes is, then you are entitled to say “I don’t know.” But I disagree that you are entitled to say, “Since I don’t know, I will just try to figure out which position is the best P.R., or which position is best for the frum Jews.”

    Many of us are primarily interested in what is truthful and what is false. In other words, is it TRUE or FALSE that the sages were infallible in matters of medical practice and scientific knowledge? Is there any actual evidence that Rav Hirsch’s letter about aggados and science was a forgery, or is that an preposterous falsehood perpetrated by people who are attempting to conceal an entire fact of the mesorah? Is there really any legitimate, rational basis to challenge the countless pieces of evidence that the earth os billions of years old, or is that an implausible, obscurantist approach which cannot stand up to any scrutiny? Is obscurantism a legitimate approach to belief in Torah, or is it fundamentallly anti-Torah?

    I just don’t see how you can ignore the actual substance of each of these issues. It should not always boil down to what position is more convenient. In fact, I don’t really believe that you are undecided on these issues. I think you know what is clearly false and what is cleraly truthful.

    You are right that Torah Jews-not do not have an stake in academic interest about what can or cannot be considered a legitimate full fledged scientific theory. But as Torah Jews we DO have a stake in the question of whether ID is legitimate but becase we have an interest in pursuing truth and avoiding falsehood. If it is a false, specious, pseudo-science, then we need to distancce ourselves from falsehood. I don’t care about the “definition of science.” Many of us believe that attaching ourselves to falsehood is desctructive because because the seal of the Holy One is Truth.

  • Ken Bloom

    Rav Gurwicz needed to visit the British Museum to see that? It’s on Shabbat 35b-36a.

  • Phil

    There were a couple of surprising comments above, in my mind at least. Pinchas Giller writes: “Most of out (sic) libraries derive few lessons from the first chapters of Bereishit, with the exception of Shabbat.”

    We must have different understandings of the word “few.” Or maybe I just have a special library.

    and

    David Finch writes: “HaShem didn’t design the universe. He created it, which is an entirely different matter.”

    Is it /entirely/ different? In part one of this series, I wrote: “many people know that many ID folks just love the bacterial flagellum. Whether their claims about it are true or not, I indeed fell in love with the elegance of the “outboard motor”. I used to ask myself, “when this ‘motor’ arrived — by any method — on the scene, did God say to Himself, “Whoa, look at that?!” or “Ahh, just like I had in mind!” ?

    If the latter, then it’s as good as “designed” in my view.

  • Zvi Lampel

    Re: comment #2, that “No one who has read Rambam can feel entirely comfortable describing anything HaShem does as “intelligent.” … HaShem didn’t design the universe. He created it, which is an entirely different matter. Divine creation is an entity unto itself, beyond human description or understanding.”

    I think this is a gross misunderstanding of the Rambam. The Rambam in the third section of the Guide for the Perplexed actually attacks the view that ascribes arbitrariness G-d’s decision over the form of His created world, and denies that His decision about the form in which He created the world was based upon anything but the greatest intelligence.

    And concerning the meta-natural process through which G-d created the world–to which the Rambam as well as all the classical sources ascribe–although it is indeed beyond adequate description, the Rambam nonetheless delves into the meanings of the biblical verses and the Sages’ statements thereon.

    One should also be aware of the following quotes from the Guide:

    “…Know, that of the greatest of proofs for the creation of the world–to one who admits the truth–is the fact that one thing exists for the benefit of another, a fact supported by numerous instances. This proves that there is intent by an intender; And intent cannot be imagined unless it be assumed that Nature has been produced in time.” [Rambam is not saying that G-d needed to create one thing in order to have another, but he is saying that G-d indeed created the world such that each thing in fact depends upon another.](Guide, 3:13)

    “We, the community following in the footsteps of Moses and Abraham, believe that the world came into being in such-and-such a form, and became such-and-such from such-and-such ( haya kach mi-kach ), and such was created after such.”( Guide 2:17 )

    Those loyal to the mesorah take a healthy skeptical view of those human beings whose speculations, through interpretations of what they allegedly find, advocate views that contradict the facts we know through the mesorah. If there is a “fear” of science, it is in the same sense that we fear the siren calls of all concepts and teachings and disciplines that threaten our fidelity to the received truth.