Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rabbi Slifkin on Apparent Age 1

In his work The Challenge of Creation Rabbi Slifkin  poses several objections to the approach I call the "Apparent Age" approach.

Particularly problematic is Rabbi Schneerson's statement that they question, "Why create a fossil?" is no more valid than the question, "Why create an atom?" This is a strange statement; a fossil is directly misleading in a way that an atom is not. Asking why create an atom" is a pointless philosophical speculation, but asking "why create a fossil which appears to be a dead dinosaur if no such creature ever lived" is a very reasonable and obvious question." (page 159).

While I do believe that we can suggest theologically coherent reasons why the world would have apparent age I don't think from the standpoint of Jewish tradition we can be so bold as to demand one:
Accepting the Creation [as opposed to Aristotle's theory on the Eternity of the Universe], we find that miracles are possible, that Revelation is possible, and that every difficulty in this question is removed. We might be asked, Why has God inspired a certain person and not another? why has He revealed the Law to one particular nation, and at one particular time? why has He commanded this, and forbidden that? why has He shown through a prophet certain miracles? what is the object of these laws? and why has He not made the commandments and the prohibitions part of our nature, if it was His object that we should live in accordance with them? We answer to all these questions: He willed it so; or, His wisdom decided so. Just as He created the world according to His will, at a certain time, in a certain form, and upon a peculiar time, so we do not know why His will or wisdom determined any of the things mentioned in the preceding question. But if we assume that the Universe has the present form as the result of fixed laws, there is occasion for the above questions; and these could only be answered in an objectionable way, implying denial and rejection of the Biblical texts, the correctness of which no intelligent person doubts. (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25, Friedlander page 199-200).
I've looked over the larger context and the Rambam's line of reasoning isn't entirely clear to me. Specifically while I think this passage is clearly and directly relevant to our topic it seems a little ambiguous why the Rambam seems to accept that such questions would be relevant given a different set of assumptions.
I believe he is saying that given the general presumption of the Biblical account of Divine Creation which allows for the supernatural all of these questions are an issue of Divine Will, which we may or may not be privy too. Conversely (as I understand it) it is not that accepting Aristotle's position which demands we "disbelieve all miracles and signs" gives us justification for asking these questions, which in turn must be "answered in an objectionable way". Rather the questions are merely rhetorical, the objectionable answers being that such things are simply not possible [in Aristotle's worldview].

At any rate, the Rambam gives a strong indication that our inability to know God's reasoning for an action is of little consequence.  This is so even though I believe he does attempt to answer some of the very questions he mentions.


micha said...

1- Every event has untold effects. If the world were to show its miraculous origin, there would still be effects today. Of course, that's what "looking its true age" really means. But is also means, there couldn't be a complete switch from miraculous origin to natural progression, because seeing the age of the universe correctly would be only one aspect of the non-natural that we are progressing from. Hester panim would be impossible not only on the subject of creation, but on nature altogether.

So, if we believe in a young universe, we would have to also assert "but one that looked like it got there the natural way", and science wouldn't show any sign of supernatural creation.

In any case, I find the position problematic for a different reason. Time itself is a creation. What makes the last 5772+ years more real than the fake 13.7bn years before it? Van Gogh couldn't paint forged artwork had he tried to -- the fact that it was a Van Gogh would make it a valuable piece. Can G-d make forged time, or would it perforce be real because reality is defined as "that which Hashem made"?

Anyway, R' Dessler, in his "time isn't what you think it is" approach, says that the age scientists find in the universe has more to do with science and scientists than the age of the universe. If you analyze the universe through natural glasses, that's the aspect of time you get. Problem is -- he says the same thing about the Torah's age. Not that either is wrong, just that one answer is inferior because it reflects a more materialistic examiner than the other.

Yirmiahu said...

"Can G-d make forged time, or would it perforce be real because reality is defined as "that which Hashem made"?"

I think your equivocating a bit here. The apparent age of the universe is "real" because of the presence of physical traits we typically associate with age. The actual, physical, passage of time is different. It is possible (if not coherent) to suggest that G-d created such time as well, which is what I referred to as retroactive existence prior to my retraction influenced by your objections.

I'm not certain that this additional suggestion cannot be made coherently over your objection, but I realized that their is no additional evidence that it would account for. It might alleviate some discomfort for those who are committed to the historicity of evolution and feel apparent age would compromise that, but that is a persuasion issue not an evidence one. There are a couple other ways it might be useful but as it stands I don't think they constitute logical reason's to accept such a theory, Occman's Razor and all.

Regarding the first part of you comment I believe we are in agreement, unless there is an implication you were trying to make that I'm just not picking up.

Regarding R. Dessler's position, I think that there is significant overlap from what you have mentioned. The only issue I have is that the apparently more hands off approach is fine with respect to the "age" of the universe, but the problem extends to what happened, or seems to have happened, during those time periods. But if it provides a coherent basis for one to more-or-less accept the Torah's peshat while more-or-less allowing the scientific method to deal with the evidence on it's own (more material) terms then I think it is on the right track (Not that R. Dessler needs my support).

micha said...

I don't know what you mean by equivocating. Since I didn't say which is my own position, I can't be backing away from it.

I instead say a number of things from different perspectives.

1- The bit about why Hashem might create a universe that looks old but isn't doesn't require relegating it to being one of the unknowable things about G-d. It is quite logical to think that if there were evidence of the universe's miraculous origins still with us, nature wouldn't work in numerous ways. Nature is predictable because we can trace the causal chains from comprehensible to comprehensible. The n-th hand effects of a miracle would mess that all up.

(A similar argument might explain why Hashem made a global flood, but left no effects of the miracle -- outside of people's memories.)

2- I personally have another difficulty with that same position, because I don't think the "fake time" before creation would be any less real than "real time".

So, if Hashem didn't want a universe in which we periodically experience the effects of miraculous creation, He "had to" create an old universe.

3- Or, according to R' Dessler, time itself isn't what we think it is. R' Dessler ascribes this position to the Ramban's description of the week of creation. What time really is is incomprehensible. (The Maharal says this of Maaseh Bereishis as a whole.)

So, it is somehow 13.7bn years and also 6 days. A person is holier if he sees the world through the "6 days" prism, as that means he is focusing on Torah rather than gashmius, but neither is really wrong.

That's very different than saying the scientists are wrong because they are assuming the evidence is of real events rather than miracled in after the fact.

I once blogged a survey of ways of resolving the two. See "Different Approaches to Creation".

I lean toward R' Dessler's position most days. But the truth is, the Torah isn't about history. I have a harder time dealing theologically with a mitzvah that calls for genocide -- even if no longer applicable -- than with these topics. After all, ethics is central to Yahadus, it's harder to simply say "I'm sure there is a good answer out there, somewhere" and table it.

micha said...

Ah, thus the confusion -- a simple misunderstanding of a word. So, to avoid such problems in the future, I checked Merriam Webster. The mistake was on your part. Equivical is much like conflate, but to equivicate implies intent to deceive (meaning 1) or to avoid committing to one position (meaning 2).

Yirmiahu said...

"Most words have ore than one literal meaning, as the word "pen" may denote either an instrument for writing or an enclosure for animals. When we keep these different meanings apart, no difficulty arises. But when we confuse the different meanings a single word or phrase may have, using it in different senses in the same context, we are using it equivocally. If the context happens to be an argument, we commit the fallacy of equivocation." (Introduction to Logic, 5th Edition, Irving M. Copi, page 110)

"An argument exhibits equivocation if and only if it tries to justify its conclusion by relying on an ambiguity in a word or phrase." (The Art and science of Logic, Daniel Bonevac, page 92)

"The falacy of equivocation occurs when the conclusion of an argument depends on the fact that one or more words are used, either explicitly or implicitly, in two different senses in the argument." (A Concise Introduction to Logic, 45th Edition, Hurley, page 150)

"A term or expression is used ambiguously or equivocally in an argument when it is used in one sense in one place and in another sense in another. When we fail to notice a shift in meaning of this kind and are in meaning of this kind and are led to accept a conclusion that we otherwise would have denied, then we are victims of the fallacy of equivocation." (Logic and Philosophy, page 353).

(I've tried to post this twice, and the text even was emailed to me as a new comment, but it doesn't show up for me)