|Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God
||[Aug. 25th, 2016|10:21 pm]
The summer I was fifteen, I went as an observant Conservative Jew to an Orthodox Jewish summer camp and came back wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit on a daily basis. I passed it off to my parents tacitly as some sort of conversion that'd happened at camp, but that wasn't really accurate. Jew camp was thoroughly ridiculous, in fact, but I didn't reveal most of the horrors to my parents until many years later. The basic principle of the camp was that all morning we studied Talmud and all afternoon we played sports and all night we did whatever the hell we wanted without supervision as long as we were awake the next morning for Shacharis davening. It was a strange unbalancing combination. It was an interesting experience for a few weeks, but it was exhausting and confusing and most of the time had very little to do with Judaism. One night those of us who were actually asleep at 3AM were awakened by our counselors- someone was friends with the dude responsible for closing the Baltimore kosher Krispy Kreme and had managed to score all of the leftover donuts from that night- several garbage bags full. They spread the garbage bags out on the hood of someone's car and urged all of the campers to eat as many stale donuts as they could. It was an incredibly surreal experience that did not bring me any closer to God, needless to say.
The truth is I'd been contemplating making some shift of the sort for months if not years before I went to camp- camp gave me an excuse and an impetus to make the shift. I found Conservative Judaism an uncomfortably tenuous place to be- I believed in Hashem and believed that at Bar Mitzvah I'd been obligated in Hashem's commandments, but I wasn't exactly clear on what Conservative Judaism said that obligation looked like. Conservative Judaism's answers to how to resolve the tension between modernity and traditional Judaism did not satisfy me and even in cases where today their answers do satisfy me, my teachers in Conservative Judaism often failed to do a good job of publicizing those satisfying answers. (Part of the problem, looking back, is that most of my teachers in Conservative Judaism weren't actually Conservative Jews. For want of qualified staff, my Hebrew Schools often hired a)Orthodox Jewish teachers and b)Secular Israelis who could teach Hebrew. Neither was equipped to intelligently articulate the philosophy and praxis of Conservative Judaism. But that's neither here nor there.) I was looking for an approach to Judaism that offered a deeper connection to Mesorah and I was looking to make a commitment to it. But I've never been the sort to make a blind commitment. I research and I research and I think and think, and then I jump. The jump I made that summer was in the aftermath of a long and serious negotiation with my faith, and the reality is that I'm still negotiating.
One of the things that was important to me in this negotiation with Modern Orthodoxy was making sense of Judaism's ideas about science. I already knew at 15 that I was probably going to end up a scientist or engineer- After those three weeks at Orthodox Jewish summer camp, I went straight to three weeks at a summer camp (CTY) where I studied number theory all day. I was (and still am) a giant nerd, an intellectually curious, skeptical, omnivorous bibliophile, and a strong believer in the scientific method, and I needed reassurance that there was a place in traditional Judaism for those parts of me. And people have a sense that religion and science are things in tension with each other, and there are reasons for that. Not always good reasons, but sometimes they are good reasons. They're fundamentally epistemologically different approaches to the world, and while I don't think that means you can't use both approaches, it does provide an explanation for why they might see the world differently. It is not, in fact, easy, to hold two visions of the world in your head at the same time. It's much easier if you can reconcile the two approaches so they're both seeing things the same way. You will find Jewish scientists on the Orthodox Right who say things like "People ask me if it's hard to be a scientist and an Orthodox Jew and I tell them No! When I'm doing my scientific work, I apply the scientific method. When I think about God and our place in the universe, I turn to Judaism." It does not strike me as being as easy to compartmentalize as that, for many reasons.
One of the texts that was really important and influential to me on this nebulous journey we might hyperbolically call a teenage religious epiphany was Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God. I've recommended the book to a number of people since then, including marginaliana. I sent her a copy for Yuletide bookswap, after she asked me how I thought about Creation and entropy, but I realized I hadn't actually read the book myself since I was 15 and my thinking about religion and science has changed considerably since I was 15, so I figured I ought to revisit it myself.
And, well, I can see why the book mattered to me at 15, but I am not the same person anymore, and the book does not well-serve the 31 year old me.
Schroeder's basic question is this: Genesis describes a particular story by which the World was Created. Many of the particulars of this story do not match the conventional presently dominant scientific narrative of the origin of the universe and the Earth. How should a religious person who wants to hold by the dogma that the Bible is unerringly true understand the tension?
And his basic approach to resolving the question is twofold: First, he asserts that the ancient Rabbis understood the narration in Genesis not literally and not as a metaphor, but as a sort of coded explanation of true events. And second, he asserts that if you can decipher the code, scientific revelation never contradicts Biblical revelation, and in fact affirms the hidden wisdom of the Torah and it's worldview.
I have less problem with the first prong of his approach than the second. It's pretty obvious if you spend any time learning traditional Jewish approaches to Genesis that most Rabbis don't expect you to read Genesis literally, but that if you start reading it metaphorically you're veering out of theism altogether. Which does not necessarily make such an approach non-Jewish. Obviously that kind of metaphorical reading is how observant Reform Jews tend to approach Genesis, though not exclusively, and I don't presume to speak to their theology. It also sort of appears to be how Ibn Ezra reads Genesis, if you take the ibn Ezra at face value, which is probably a bad idea since ibn Ezra is smarter and cleverer than you. And it's worth noting that there are some who do read it literally- the Lubavitcher Rebbe is noted for the claim that the dinosaurs may have been planted by Hashem to look older than they are, apparently as some sort of test of faith. There is a strand of tradition in Judaism particularly aligned with the Kabbalist/mystical tradition, in opposition to the rationalist strand, that believes that God miraculously maintains the universe from moment to moment and that because of the nature of this miracle, any effort to study archaeology or history or cosmology is useless. Schroeder barely acknowledges this tradition, but that's fine, most Jews I talk to on a regular basis usually don't either.
But the second prong is problematic to me. Schroeder uses as his proof texts of the Rabbis' wisdom a number of quotations from the Talmud, and from Nachmanides' (Ramban) commentary on Genesis. There is a confidence in his writing that suggests he's got an absolutely clear comprehension of these texts from the religious side, and he's using this comprehension to share the wisdom of the Rabbis with the reader. At fifteen I swallowed this up fairly unquestioningly, not because I felt Schroeder was some unerring Torah scholar, but because the interpretations he was placing before us seemed like fairly straightforward Torah interpretations.
But let me share with you one of the first things Nachmanides says in his commentary on Genesis. He's asking a question about the commentator Rashi, because Rashi famously opens his own commentary on Genesis by saying that it is puzzling that the Torah begins with Genesis, since there are no commandments in the Creation story, and the Torah is ultimately a vehicle for delivering the commandments to Israel. Nachmanides objects, since clearly if one knew for certain that Hashem created the universe in miraculous fashion, it would have an impact on their observance of the commandments, so why is Rashi puzzled? His answer is that Creation is a mystery and the narrative in Genesis does not actually explain it, and so therefore Rashi's question pertains- given that the Genesis account fails at its ostensible purpose, why open the Torah with it?
And one can question it, because there is great need to begin the Torah with "In the beginning God created" for it is the root of faith; and one who doesn't believe this and believes that the world is primordial is an apostate and has no Torah whatsoever. And the answer, it is because the work of creation - it is a deep secret - is not intelligible from the verses, and will not be understood by its students except through the received tradition up until Moses our Master from the mouth of God [lit. "The Strength"], and those who know it are required to hide it.
So I'm more than a little skeptical of Schroeder's assertion that Nachmanides's interpretation of Creation aligns with science's interpretation. Supposing it were true, it would actually mean Nachmanides failed at his purpose, which was to offer religious insight into the message the Torah was providing in Genesis while hiding that which he was obligated to hide about the true nature of Creation. Nachmanides explicitly says that he is not offering a scientific explanation of Creation!
But that's sort of a meaningless speculation without actually looking at what Schroeder's project means for his analysis of the scientific data. And here it gets a lot messier. The problem is exactly why the book was so useful when I was 15. I said to liv that The Science of God is Jewish apologetics, which does not work the same way as Christian apologetics does. Schroeder teaches a Judeo-scientific approach by way of the Ramban, but his main purpose is not to create a book teaching the teachings of the Ramban.
Schroeder's real purpose is to offer a Jewish counterpoint to secular atheistic popular science books- Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Gould's Wonderful Life, Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, and so on, not to offer the answers to the deep questions about Creation and its nature. The '09 edition that I'm reading now actually has substantial updates to add to the list of atheist popular science books he is parrying, including Dawkins's noxious The God Delusion.
And when I was fifteen, that's exactly what I needed, because those were the books I was reading, and I needed something in conversation with them. I was reading Gould and listening to him lay out this flimsy, speculative mechanism by which he thought evolution occurred and thinking "That doesn't quite add up," and I was looking for other ways to think about the bigger questions we grapple with when we think about the origin of humanity and our place in the the universe because Gould and Dawkins and Hawking weren't giving me what I needed. But most of the Jews I was talking to weren't giving me the answers I wanted, either. Most of the Jews I was speaking to about these questions weren't scientifically trained and they couldn't recognize the problems I was having with Gould and Dawkins and so on, so they couldn't articulate for me the appropriate Jewish counter-arguments. Schroeder at least was, more or less.
There is a dogmatic certainty in the writing of these materialist secular scientific giants that the gaps in their scientific knowledge will be filled with more and more materialist interpretations of nature until all the gaps are closed, and I found this faith wanting. But there's a trick Dawkins in particular pulls- he fills his works with so much legitimate evidence that it almost papers over the giant gaps in his knowledge. So a Jewish counterargument against Dawkins that I find worthwhile has to acknowledge and accommodate all legitimate evidence, while still finding value and truth in whatever it is the Torah says. And while rejecting all the clear nonsense Dawkins is pitching.
Now that I'm much more experienced as a scientist I see the flaws in those popsci books as scientific literature much more clearly. I therefore don't find refutations of them very interesting on their face because I recognize that disproving arguments advanced in popular science books is not equivalent to disproving the latest scientific theories, and furthermore, that disproving scientific theories is something that scientists do. It's epistemologically part of the process of doing science, it's not epistemologically part of the process of pursuing God. Seeing Schroeder pick up a particular oversimplified argument from Dawkins and knock it down is not a very fruitful exercise for me. I could do it myself, and have. But it doesn't say anything about the nature of God's universe to do so. But I guess it was a stepping stone to where I am now. Which is a deep, powerful uncertainty.
But to the book!
Schroeder tries out some old chestnuts from the book of bad arguments for theism. Quantum mechanics, says Schroeder, proves that miracles exist! Why? Because one of the elements of some parts of the theory of quantum mechanics is apparently 'effect without cause', which he says is the definition of a miracle. But this is only true of some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, while others preserve locality and causality. And in any case it's a baldly presumptuous linguistic game- the sort of 'miracle' quantum mechanics implies has very little to do with the sort of miracles the Bible treats with- the parting of the sea in Exodus, or the stopping of the Sun, in Joshua, or the swallowing of Korach in last week's Torah portion.
To a certain degree I'm being too hard on Schroeder. He's making a qualitative argument in a popular theology work, and if I were feeling more generous I could say that his point here is the same as the point he makes more effectively about the Big Bang Theory: Until a revolution struck the mid-20th century astrophysics world, the scientific consensus was toward a steady state theory that the universe had always been in the basic form it is now. However, the Bible and its believers firmly claimed that the Bible argued that the universe had a Beginning. Now, via a 'new convergence' (his term, not mine, definitely not mine), the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that there was a Beginning- and it is the scientific world that has shifted.
Similarly, we could say that Schroeder's point with respect to quantum mechanics is not that quantum mechanics is miraculous in the same way as Elijah being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, but that science until recently always claimed that causality was inviolate, that cause always preceded effect, whereas believers in the Bible insisted that there mechanisms by which effect could happen without cause, i.e. miracles. However, by the same 'new convergence', the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that causality is not inviolate. This is a much flimsier argument, though, and the original argument about Beginnings, which I just defended as being well-sounded by Schroeder, is rather flimsy and qualitative to begin with. There is the fact that the assertion about science and steady state hypotheses is less storybook-true than the theists would prefer, and there have always been 'scientific' theories about a beginning to the universe. I put 'scientific' in quotes because the problem for Schroeder's triumphalist narrative of science converging on the Bible is that until the 20th century there was no significant scientific evidence either for or against a Beginning of the universe, so any so-called scientific theories were just speculations with little basis. Even worse, there's the fact that seeing as many scientists, albeit with no real evidentiary basis, supposed the steady state hypothesis to be the truth, several great Rabbis, most famously Maimonides, tried to do what Schroeder attempts in The Science of God and reconcile the Bible with the steady state hypothesis. And likeweise in the centuries before the 20th, the majority of scientists were theists and believed in miracles, so it seems silly to claim a new convergence on the idea of cause not following effect as a vindication of the Torah over scientists.
Schroeder's problem gets even deeper when he leaves physics and moves on to tackle a proposed Jewish scientific approach to evolution. At least with physics, the basic effects are more or less understood in a quantitative way. There's a clear scientific consensus about the things he is talking about. Everyone agrees that the equations of relativity work in a specific way. The problem with evolution is that Schroeder is trying to prove that science agrees with the Bible, when science isn't even sure what it thinks!
It's inarguable that there are species that once existed and no longer do, and that these species have familial similarities with currently living beings that suggest that species change over time on a geological scale. It seems likely that one or some of the to this point poorly understand mechanisms of genetic mutation drive these changes that lead to speciation. But how this happens is not clear. Those Christians who argue against evolution in a scientific register make the argument that whole complex biological systems would seem to have been required to develop all at once, as it's implausible that partially developed versions of such systems would offer fitness advantages, an argument called 'irreducible complexity'. Schroeder is not interested in arguing against evolution, thankfully, or I would throw the book across the room. Irreducible complexity is a stupid, qualitative, sleight of hand argument. It looks at something really complicated, acting by mechanisms that we don't understand, and it concludes without evidence that since it can't figure out the mechanism, there must be no mechanism. Irreducible complexity is not something to place faith in. But it has a certain air of plausibliity to it. The truth is that we DON'T know where the human eye comes from, what kind of evolutionary mechanism might have had to occur for it to happen and how many steps there were along the way. And the plausibility of the irreducible complexity argument is a problem for Schroeder- if scientists cannot explain how these systems developed, how can he show that the scientific truth of how evolution works is in agreement with the Bible's description? Schroeder's general solution is to go through the counterarguments against all the current tentative hypotheses, as if to show that since none of them are right, the ultimately-to-be-discovered true explanation of evolution will necessarily have to agree with Genesis, since there is no known unresolvable incompatibility between the inarguable facts of evolution and the Torah, and in fact that the order in which God is described as creating different sorts of creatures in Genesis is in at least rough alignment with the current fossil evidence about the origin of species.
But this is much harder to show than Schroeder would like it to be, for all the reasons that Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books show so well- definitions of species and categorizations of species are not indisputable scientific truths, they're fuzzy categories applied by taxonomists for convenience. And this is both true in science and in the Bible, which each use different taxonomic categories because of their different purposes. In one notable place of conflict, Schroeder dispenses with the difficulty posed by Genesis 1:20 with a single sentence. Per NJPS: "And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl [עוֹף] fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.' " But this is too early, right after the appearance of liquid water, for birds to have evolved. Schroeder easily resolves this problem by retranslating עוֹף as 'flying creature', a translation he says is uncontroversial among Rabbis since צִפּוֹר is the true word for 'birds'. The truth is more complicated: The language the Torah uses does not align with modern scientific taxonomy, so it's not so simple to say that the Bible does not use עוֹף in the more specific sense. As R' Slifkin points out, as far as the Bible is concerned, winged creatures fall into only two taxons: kosher winged creatures, and unkosher winged creatures. Any further granularity is unnecessary. The idea of 'species' is not really in the picture. The idea of distinguishing between the dove and the bat by one of them being a mammal and one of them being an avian is not worth considering. This is not because the Torah is unscientific, it's because the Torah is not a 21st century science textbook! Most of the places where עוֹף is used in the Torah use the word as a figurative language where it doesn't matter whether it means bird or just winged creature, like several places in Daniel. So Schroeder could be right. But עוֹף is used in Leviticus, like in Leviticus 7:26, "And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl [ עוֹף ] or of beast, in any of your dwellings." In that verse, clearly it must be referring to birds more or less as we currently understand them, since it's talking about the laws of kashrut and non-bird flying things are not kosher, so nobody would possibly think the verse is suggesting that you would consider eating the blood of generic winged creatures. So while resolving the scientific discrepancy as Schroeder does is possible, it is not incontrovertible the way he suggests it is.
Beyond the argument for alignment, Schroeder attempts, even less successfully in my opinion, an argument against 'randomness' in evolution. I put 'randomness' in quotes because it remains unclear to me exactly what principle Schroeder is objecting to, other than pure materialism in general. According to Schroeder's 'randomness' paradigm, every time a DNA transcription error occurs, it is like a four sided coin is being flipped. Some almost completely hypothetical number of such coin flips must go in the correct way, over a certain period of time, for new biological pathways to be installed in a genome. I don't think this is the right way to think about evolutionary statistics, as I've said before. The probabilistic alternative isn't no change, it's a different change.
That is to say, suppose we play a game with a four sided die. I tell you, "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey kiss, if it rolls anything else, nothing happens." That's the game Schroeder is imagining. Now suppose we play a different game: I tell you "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey's kiss. If it rolls a three, I'll give you a Mounds bar. If it rolls a two, I'll give you a bag of M&M's. If it rolls a one, nothing happens." That's the game as I see it. The probability of getting a Hershey Kiss is the same in both games. But the meaning of getting a Hershey Kiss is different. If you start with the end result: I have a Hershey kiss in my hand... then you can calculate and say it's a fairly improbable event. There was only a 25% chance of it happening. But if you asked what the probability of something happy-making happening was, it's 75%. The difference is considering the possibility of other different but positive outcomes.
Both Schroeder's arguments on the Big Bang and evolution are buttressed by the book's biggest and most notable construction, which is to use General Relativity and a 'universal' non-Earth based frame of reference to construct a relativistic time clock for Creation. Essentially, if you plot the temperature of the cosmic background radiation on a polar natural log plot with the time constant being the expansion rate of the universe, you get the time dilation of time on Earth relative to time at the beginning of Time itself. This works out to roughly six logarithmic time half-periods. Depending on how you calculate the expansion rate of the universe, obviously, which is in some dispute, so it could be five and it could be seven, I guess. Each of these successive time periods is roughly half the length of the previous, in the Earth's current relativistic frame of reference. The result is that if you call each of these periods a 'Day' for Torah purposes, each successive day is zooming in closer and closer on the story of Earth and humankind. (In a really weird moment, Schroeder says "I do not claim my calculation is any more accurate than +/-20%", which is weird because what is he asking you to believe? That when Hashem composed the Bible, what was actually meant was "And it was evening, and it was morning, Day 1 +/- 20%""??? More likely he's asking you to take on faith that since his calculation came close, as science refines its calculation of the age of the universe it will get closer and closer to his cosmic clock, but this is the same problem I complained about with Dawkins and Gould. Being close but not quite there sometimes means you're close to true understanding, but it sometimes means you're missing some important factor. In my lifetime as a scientist, I have been off by 20% for some pretty colossally important reasons.)
Schroeder uses this idea of a cosmic relativity clock to claim that the various events that happen on each Genesis Day align with the events that scientists believe happened in each time period. The similarities he finds are compelling and fascinating, but not convincing, because the science is not certain enough for it to be convincing. Scientists think that life appeared about 500 million years ago, based on radiation dating of the earliest fossils and hypothesizing about the nature of the origin of life. This aligns with Schroeder's clock reasonably well, but this scientific idea is based on us not finding earlier fossils and not finding any calculation errors in our radiation dating, and all sorts of assumptions that are not set in stone, as it were. Darwinian gradualism, which scientists now think is generally implausible, was a plausible interpretation of the fossil record as it stood when Darwin was writing, and it is the quite-recent discovery of further components of the fossil record that has cast doubt on the idea of gradual evolution. Furthermore, there are some types of creature that because of body type cannot be discovered in the fossil record- our knowledge of their evolution is much weaker. If the science refines its calculations and pushes some events out of one period into the next, is Schroeder going to be sunk on his reliance on in-progress science? Defenders of Genesis's primacy can't be dependent on the latest science. They can point to it to show it holds no contradictions, perhaps but they can't assert it as a truth on its own because it's built on assumptions and suppositions. Schroeder's cosmic clock is not a dependable proof of Hashem's creation, just a cute game to tease people with.
And furthermore, have you tried reading Nachmanides's commentary on Genesis? It's incredibly hard to read and interpret and most of the time I have no clue what it's saying. If you actually read Schroeder against Ramban, as I did this time, you realize that what he's pointing to as uncanny similarities with the scientific narrative are small sections carefully selected from the account. That's not an accusation of deceitful manipulation on Schroeder's part, mind. He uses all the comprehensible parts and his translations seem reasonably fair to me. It's just that so much of Ramban's understanding of Genesis is not part of Schroeder's schematic, because so much of Ramban is abstruse metaphysics pointing toward, apparently, the hidden Torah of Genesis he's not allowed to discuss. Much of the Ramban's commentary on Genesis, Artscroll's Ramban Chumash refuses to translate because it considers it to be Kabbalah not meant for the common reader. It's hardly worth the effort of keeping it secret, though, because when I try translating it on my own it makes no sense to me. One wonders if in a hundred years, with advancements in cosmology, a new generation of Schroeders will be struggling to explain how those incomprehensible Kabbalistic passages correlate to the new theory of the start of the universe.
The truth as I see it is that the Torah is its own greatest defender. The words of Genesis have an evocative power that speaks to me and testifies to its own truth, and that is the truth I see echoed in the commentaries of the great Gedolim of Jewish history, of Rashi and Rambam and Ramban and Rif and Ibn Ezra and so on. All the answer Ramban need have provided to Rashi's question, if you ask me, is that the Torah began with Genesis to prove that God's creation matters. To tell us that it is a challenge to all Jews to try to ask questions about God's universe, and to wonder where it came from and how it came into being. The Torah is blessing scientific pursuit and linking it to the mitzvot. Reading further into the words of Genesis is worthwhile without having any expectation of revelation of the great secrets of the text. Still, fifteen year old me appreciated that Schroeder made the effort even if he didn't really get anywhere solid. Thirty one year old me wonders how he got as far as he did without questioning the effort.
Ultimately, what Schroeder reassures me of is not that Nachmanides's evocation of Creation is convincing or accurate, but that there is a plausible reconcilation. I don't need the specific reconciliation. I've never needed the specific reconciliation- God as Jews understand God is not a falsifiable proposition. But the ideas Schroeder lays out, though I don't believe them, suggest that at least a similar approach might actually be accurate. Or not, I don't really know where science will go in its explorations of God's universe.
So going forward, when friends ask me for books to read about Judaism and science, I do not think I will continue to recommend The Science of God. I think instead I will invite them to join me at a bar over a beer to talk about Judaism and science. I am in a place right now where I don't have all the answers, but I think that might be the more productive way to advance the conversation.
This entry was originally posted at http://seekingferret.dreamwidth.org/201118.html. Please comment there using OpenID. There are comments.