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Kickstart School 5778: Science and Torah

How to deal with the hard questions students ask about how science and Torah interface.
When: Sun August 27 10:40 AM - 11:35 AM

Thoughts

. . . unfortunately there are no data for the Very Beginning. . . . Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn't let on).
-Leon Lederman

Posts Tagged ‘science’

A Solar Eclipse Deserves A Blessing

Thursday, August 3, 2017 @ 09:08 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USAF/Museum of Aviation

We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.

We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism. read more

The Rebbe Meets Einstein: A Dialogue

Monday, June 5, 2017 @ 09:06 PM
posted by Ronald W. Pies, MD

“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” — Galileo Galilei
There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. —R.G. Ingersoll

 

Introduction

                When I was a resident in psychiatry over thirty-five years ago, one of my mentors said something that forever changed the way I thought about my profession. “In psychiatry,” he said, “you can do biology in the morning and theology in the afternoon.” My teacher was being a bit facetious, but on a deeper level, he meant what he said. I understood his message to be simply this: the problems of my patients could be understood and approached from both a “scientific” and a “religious” perspective, without fear of contradiction or inconsistency. Yes, I know—there are many critics of psychiatry who would challenge its “scientific” bona fides, but that is a debate that would take me far afield. Instead, I would like to use my teacher’s claim as a point of entry into a much broader question; namely, in what ways do science and religion differ, and in what sense do they have features in common?

                This is hardly a new question, and I don’t claim to have any revolutionary new answers. But I hope that by distinguishing between the truth claims and the wisdom claims of these two realms—science and religion—I can make the case for a modified form of “compatibilism.”  To do this, I will draw out the ancient Augustinian distinction between scientia and sapientia, whose meanings I will try to make clear presently. In addition, as an illustration of how this distinction may be helpful, I will present an imagined dialogue between two seminal figures in the realms of science and religion: Albert Einstein and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as “the Rebbe.” What makes this dialogue different from the usual “Science vs. Religion” boxing match is the eclectic and nuanced positions of the two figures. For in an important sense, Albert Einstein was a deeply religious scientist–and the Rebbe, a deeply scientific theologian. read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 @ 01:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

 

That the age of robots is coming, and soon, seems indisputable.  For some, though, achievements to date in mobility, dexterity and intelligence (discussed in a prior post), may be as unsettling as they are amazing.  Surely future developments will be disruptive and challenging in a wide variety of circumstances, many of which cannot even be anticipated.

How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish? Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us? Let’s look at some objections to a proposed Jewdroid.

The first, and most trivial argument, is that based on appearance: the droid does not “look Jewish.” A similar objection was raised against the Bulbas at William Tenn’s imagined interstellar Neo-Zionist convention. Whether coming from Jews or non-Jews, that line assumes that there is such a thing as a Jewish “look.” Whether there ever was a “look” is doubtful, but today any argument based on a presumed Jewish look involving a distinctive set of physical traits shared by all Jews is not only obnoxious, it is contrary to the evidence of the varieties of contemporary Jewry. In the world in which we live, Jews come in many shades, shapes and sizes, each with a wide range of physical features. Why, there are even Ginger Jews! Looks alone cannot compel a conclusion that our Jewdroid either can or cannot be Jewish. Our droid could come in any hue and be a Jew.  read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 @ 10:09 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

 

 

Credit: Jewish Museum Berlin

In a short story written expressly for inclusion in a groundbreaking anthology of Jewish science fiction and fantasy, Wandering Stars (Jewish Lights, 1974), the British writer William Tenn imagined a future galaxy populated with Jews who, consistent with their ancestors’ history, traveled far and wide in search of a better life. Among these Jews, or at least creatures who claimed to be Jews, was a certain group of small, brown pillow shaped beings covered with grey spots out of which protruded tentacles. Residents of the fourth planet in the Rigel star system (Rigel being a star in the Orion constellation as seen from Earth), they claimed to be Jewish by descent from a community of Orthodox Jews who lived in and around Paramus, New Jersey. Their non-human appearance was the result, they said, of natural relationships, over time, with the native inhabitants of their new planet. In Tenn’s tale, the Bulbas, as they were known, traveled to Venus in the year 2859 C.E. in order to participate in the First Interstellar Neo-Zionist Convention which was convened for the purpose of discussing a renewed claim to Israel, an area on Earth then free of all Jews. The question presented was whether the Bulbas could be accredited as Jews.

While set some eight centuries in the future, Tenn’s story asked age old questions about the nature of Jewishness. And if the context of the story seems far ahead of our times, the reality is that the pace of discovery regarding potential life on other planets continues to accelerate. After all, the existence of the first exoplanet, that is, a planet that is outside of our solar system and orbits its own host star, was not confirmed until 1995. Today we have identified over 3,300 such planets. The first exoplanet in a habitable zone was not found until 2010. Today we know of at least 49 such planets.  In 2014, the first Earth sized exoplanet in a habitable zone was discovered.  Within the past couple of months, we have found a potentially habitable exoplanet in the star system closest to Earth, that of Proxima Centauri.

At a distance of just over 4.2 light years from Earth, though, Proxima Centauri is still almost 25 trillion miles away. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, traveling over 36,000 miles per hour, would still need over 78,000 years to reach it. Obviously Earth bound readers of this essay will not be alive when the first probe to Proxima Centauri reports its findings. But dramatic advances in technology are raising the issue of Jewishness in yet another context. If the claim of the geographically distant Bulbas, who did not resemble our species in the slightest, was challenging, how will we consider the Jewishness of an android, a robot designed to look like us, and programmed with considerable intelligence, artificial though it may be?  read more

Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops

Sunday, February 28, 2016 @ 10:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USDA

Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient. read more

In the Beginning and In the End

Thursday, October 15, 2015 @ 02:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good. read more

Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

Monday, June 22, 2015 @ 11:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Yale

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.”  read more

Free Will vs. Deterministic Cause and Effect

Thursday, March 19, 2015 @ 11:03 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

For over 3,000 years philosophers and religious thinkers have argued about free will. Some have argued that everything has a material cause that determines all material effects including emotions like fear, love and happiness. Others have argued that there are also subjective mental states like belief, morality and self-identity that influence individual’s reactions to an objective material stimulus.

Now it seems that science has discovered that even worms have free will. If offered a delicious smell, for example, a roundworm will usually stop its wandering to investigate the source, but sometimes it won’t. Just as with humans, the same stimulus does not always provoke the same response, even from the same individual.

New research at Rockefeller University, published online in Cell, offers a new neurological explanation for this variability, derived by studying a simple three-cell network within the roundworm brain. “We found that the collective state of the three neurons at the exact moment an odor arrives determines the likelihood that the worm will move toward the smell. So, in essence, what the worm is thinking about at the time determines how it responds,” says study author Cori Bargmann. “It goes to show that nervous systems aren’t passively waiting for signals from outside, they have their own internal patterns of activity that are as important as any external signal when it comes to generating a behavior.” read more

Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai? (Part II)

Sunday, January 4, 2015 @ 02:01 PM
posted by Roger Price

The idea that 3300 years ago, at Sinai, God gave Moses a Torah identical to the Torah we have today is a powerful concept, one that still resonates. But is it probable, even plausible?

Previously, to explore this idea, we have taken the text of the Torah as we have it today and looked at issues of content, language and script. We have already found that the Torah we have not only makes no claim as to its original content, but that internal evidence from the Tanakh strongly suggests that whatever Moses may have written and conveyed at the end of his life was limited in scope. Moreover, external evidence from archeological and other sources indicates that Moses’s sefer haTorah was not written in either the language or the script that a contemporary Torah is. In this post, we look at the transmission of a presumed original Torah, focusing on security for the object and textual variations.

Securing the transmission of the originally inscribed text

Let’s start with the medium of Moses’s inscription of the sefer haTorah that our Torah says Moses wrote just before he died (see Deut. 31:9, 24-26) and the security afforded the resulting work. Our Torah does not say precisely whether Moses chiseled the words into stone, wrote them with a stylus in wet clay or used a quill on parchment or papyrus.  If the entire Torah as we know it was inscribed on stone or clay tablets, there must have been many of them to include almost 80,000 words containing over 300,000 letters. If one or more scrolls were used, the material involved must have been sizable as well. In any event, it is certainly hard to imagine the 120 year old Moses chiseling, pressing or writing that much text as he was about to die.  read more

The Intriguing, Seductive and Ultimately Unsatisfying Anthropic Principle

Friday, May 30, 2014 @ 11:05 AM
posted by Roger Price

Magnetic Milky Way

Credit: ESA and the Plank Collaboration

Some believers in a traditional deity deny, or at least are skeptical about, certain claims of science. The issue may be the origin of the universe in a Big Bang, the age of the universe, the nature of the evolution of life on Earth or some other proposition.  In these instances, the believers see science as inconsistent with, even in opposition to, a sacred truth revealed in some literature such as the Torah, the Christian Bible or the Qur’an, and therefore should be rejected.

On other occasions, though, believers will embrace science. They will hear that the initial conditions of the universe, certain laws of nature or the location and chemistry of our planet are set within a limited range that allows for human existence — a proposition sometimes called the Anthropic Principle (i.e., relating to humankind) — and take those conditions and characteristics as proof of a personal god. They will understand a “fine-tuned” universe as demonstrating, or at least strongly implying, the existence of a Fine-Tuner, a Devine Designer. read more