Sunday, October 19, 2008

Parshas B’reishis: In the Beginning, Brias HaOlam according to the Torah and the contemporary scientific understanding

The most obvious challenge, though perhaps not the most difficult one, which modern science presents to Torah Judaism is the radically divergent picture modern science paints of the origin of the universe and the species from that which we are told in the opening verses of the Torah. It is well known, of course, that Midrashic sources offer various teachings that are much more compatible with the contemporary scientific view but we are nevertheless still left with the pshat of B’reshis. Although true in their own right, midrashim are generally recognized as not being literal while as we have discussed in the post "What Problem?" the natural and traditional position is that any allegorical meaning compliments the literal, not replace it.

For most, whose allegiance to both science and the Bible tend to be a bit peripheral, the resolution can be a bit fuzzy but is often based on understanding the term day (יוֹם) as a long period. This has certain appeal insofar as יוֹם is used in the Bible symbolically to refer to longer periods of time. Likewise it doesn't take modern science to question the meaning of the term "day" before the sun was created. This approach is difficult however since the terms עֶרֶב and בקֶר (evening and morning) seem to suggest that the Torah means "day" in the conventional sense. Likewise Chagiga 12a lists the length of day and night as among that which was created on the first day, a clear indication that Chazal also understood day in the conventional sense. See here for more traditional sources which take a similar approach: I would suggest that their is a better approach which not only accounts for the difference between the age of the universe in the different views, but other areas of dispute as well.

In the Garden of Eden

When one thinks about it the very story of the Garden of Eden is an almost Gettier-esqu thought experiment. Taking the story in the most straightforward and literal way, if one where to suddenly find oneself being present moments after the creation of Adam, or viewing a photograph of that moment, one would certainly be justified in believing that the subject you were viewing, and the entire scene, was older than even the entire six day history of the universe. Such a narrative does not presume that Adam was a zygote, trees as saplings, or the landscape free from the effects of erosion. When we speak of the age of the universe in scientific terms we are not speaking about the measurement of time passed, but the effects of time passed. It is not possible to envision a scenario in which the Garden of Eden did not appear older than the actual six day history of the world! It is not simply a matter of that it would be possible for an omnipotent Creator to make a world that seems older, it is that it is not possible that a universe which functions similar to ours would not appear older where an omnipotent Creator to create such a garden from nothing. And it is in exactly this manner that Chazal tell us that the world was created,“R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: All creatures of the creation were brought into being with their full stature, their full capacities, and their full beauty” (Rosh HaShanah 11a) about which you may recall that the Rambam said, “Note this likewise, for it includes a principle fully established” (Guide 2:30, page 216).

Isn't that deceptive?

It is no more deceptive than creating a world which looks like it happened through blind chance over millions of years and then telling mankind it was created in six days a couple centuries previously and giving no indication that the story was simply an allegory. In fact, insofar as such "pre-history" is a logical necessity in the narrative I would argue it is a lot less deceptive.

Such an objection may have some strength from a materialistic perspective but it has almost no weight theologically once we have accepted that there is a Creator. The fact is that God has, clearly, concealed Himself. We cannot directly observe His existence or presence. Universe, עולם, comes from the same root as "to conceal." Such concealment is a prerequisite for free will, which is a fundamental component for Gods plan for the world. As we will elaborate upon later, this pre-history furthers this goal of providing man with free-will.

It does not seem necessary to conceptualize this “pre-historic” time as “imaginary”. Is it any less real than yesterday is today? When we look at physical objects we measure, to whatever degree of accuracy possible, the effect of time. We can generally make, at least rough, estimates about people’s age or the countless other objects based on “appearance”. We measure based on physical features not with a stopwatch. When we gaze at the stars we are making observations just as much as if we where looking across the room, except what we observe took place long before Creation. According to the notion that the past maintains an existence even in the presence, there is no difficulty in assuming that the “pre-history” was then created “yesh m’ayin” just as the rest of creation.

I wasn't born yesterday!

It has been objected, I believe I saw one blog attribute it to Amisov, that one could likewise argue that we were really created yesterday and that all of our memories and experiences where programmed in (this reminds me of one of the last movies I saw in a theater).

This, frankly, totally misses the point and significance of this argument. This argument shows, conclusively, that evidence of a prior age in the physical universe or organic life does not constitute a refutation of the Genesis account. It does not presume to demonstrate that it is true, the justification for accepting the Genesis account may be related but it is a different discussion. It must be conceded that there exists a discrepancy but when there is strong reason to accept the Genesis account it represents no great hurdle in doing so, and while the discrepancy may assume larger proportions if such evidence is not as strong it nevertheless remains circular reasoning to falsify an account because of factors which can be inferred from that account.

So much history, so little time!

Others object that while we can correctly infer prior age it is a stretch to say this accounts for the great length of time we see in the scientific evidence. The reasoning here is faulty. The account implies prior age but not how much. It is every bit as much an argument from silence to argue a minimal amount of prior age based on the text as it is to attribute untold eons of prior age based solely on the text. The account only gives us a general indication of the prior age, and that only inferred by necessity. To determine how "old" the universe appeared we have no other means at our disposal than science, it is every bit as much arbitrary to assume a short period as it is to assume a long one.

Why would God create the world so old?

It is worthwhile to bear in mind Guiding Principle #8 that our inability to understand the motive for doing something doesn't mean it wasn't done. This pre-history functions as the prologue to the story of the natural world (the very nice analogy of a prologue came from my 10 year old daughter Rochel). If the stage is set at the Garden of Eden then it was the pre-history which set the stage. It is from that "history" that we derive scientific concept (be they biological, geological, or what have you) which help us with contemporary scientific issues. For the scientist this prologue is a vital tool in understanding the story today. Indeed it is not uncommon to hear theists who object to a literal approach to Genesis argue that modern technologies and advances are due to the science made possible by this prologue.

Likewise for the accomplished Talmid Chacham such information about natural process could give rise to new ways of communicating Torah ideas through allegory and analogy, much as Rabbi Akiva’s inference about his own ability to learn Torah by observing a rock which had been pierced by water even though such a process would seemingly have taken much longer than the time since Creation.

Perhaps most importantly is that it provides a framework to understand the world without resort to the supernatural which is fundamental to the balance necessary to allow for true free will. Throughout history, even today, man has always tended to infer that creation has a creator, but another option must be available. Particularly in our era when man has a much greater understanding of the complexities of nature it not having a naturalist explanation for the origins of the universe would too greatly compel man to accept the notion of a creator. That is not to say a purely materialistic explanation is really a valid option, but it must be palatable enough for those who wish to deny God refuge. Indeed I do not believe that these naturalistic explanations counter the argument from design but rather provide a naturalistic process which essentially describes the steps without fundamentally addressing how the cumulative result could plausibly occur unaided. This is something which I should develop further in its own post.

Let Science be Science

The beauty of this approach, it seems to me, is largely overlooked. It really provides a GREAT opportunity for free inquiry. The natural history can speak for itself and is useful in it's context. It is, almost, a case of Elu v'Elu (remember after all that one of the cases about which this term was used is whether the universe was created in Nissan or Tishei).

So if we accept, at least for the sake of argument, that we have sound reason to believe in the Torah then we must recognize that apparent age is a necessary inference from the text. We do not have basis, however, to speculate from the text whether it is a great or small amount of time. We must remember that the default position is that a verse does not depart from it's simple meaning (pshat) and that since the Rambam holds the common ancestry of man in the person of Adam (see Guiding Principle #4) that he would apparently expect demonstrative proof to allow for a complete allegorization of the passage. We should also remember that according to Rav Sa'adia Gaon we only allegorize away the pshat when there is NO other alternative. We should also bear in mind it is one thing to say the narrative is a mashal, it is quite another to provide a coherent and compelling nimshal. We have neither need nor evidence to accept an allegorical interpretation over the simple meaning of the text.

For those of you who recognize this as the Gosse Theory I will, bli neder, post about that more soon.

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