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Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things -- a theory usually called panentheism -- is the only adequate religious response to science.
-R. Jeremy Kalmanofsky

Archive for the ‘Life Sciences’ Category

Biology and Genesis: Are they compatible or irreconcilable?

Friday, February 8, 2019 @ 11:02 AM
posted by David Haymer

Credit: Malka Rappaport

Introduction

Biology is the scientific study of life, and Genesis is the biblical story of life. Both address matters ranging from the origin of life to how we find life today, and both contain lessons that are important for our continued existence. And despite the fact that differences of interpretation of Genesis and the Bible in general have been the source of much discussion about perceived conflicts between religious and scientific ideas, perhaps these perspectives need not be considered so divergent.

Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and most Jews accept the idea that it contains metaphors and should not be intended to serve as a substitute or alternative for valid scientific textbooks. However, it is also true that close reading of these stories can reveal perspectives and themes in common with many contemporary issues of scientific interest and importance. For example, the field of biology is now reaching an unprecedented peak of experimental power. We can now change our own biology in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. This is not to say that we should not move ahead, but we need to do so carefully. Because of this unprecedented power, though, all biologists today would be well served to incorporate ethical and moral considerations into their work to consider what should be done, not just what can be done. The stories in Genesis can help here because they directly address many biological issues of current interest, and they may provide valuable philosophical and ethical perspectives. read more

Judaism, Neuroscience and the Free Will Hypothesis (Part 2)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 @ 12:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: DARPA

The Jewish assumption of free will is ancient and enduring. But what does modern neuroscience have to say?

The history of neuroscientists’ efforts to explore the free will phenomenon was reviewed in 2016 by philosopher and neuroethicist Andrea Lavazza in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The setting for our current understanding was drawn a half century ago with the discovery by Hans Kornhuber and Luder Deecke of the Readiness Potential (“RP”), a measurement of increased bio-electric activity in the brain. The RP was measured by an electroencephalogram  (“EEG”), a procedure in which electrodes were placed on a subject’s scalp to allow for the recording of bio-electric activity. This activity was seen as an indication of preparation for a volitional act.

One question raised by the discovery of RP was whether an individual was conscious of an intention to act before RP appeared. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who became a neuroscientist at the University of California-Davis, sought to answer that question. Libet and his team designed a relatively simple test. First, subjects were wired for an EEG. To record muscle contraction, electrodes were also placed on subjects’ fingers. Then the subjects were asked to do two things, spontaneously move their right finger or wrist, and, with the aid of a clock in front of them, report to researchers the time they thought they decided to do so.

What Libet found (Libet et al. 1983) was that conscious awareness of the decision to move a finger preceded the actual movement of the finger by 200 milliseconds (ms), but also that RP was evident 350 ms before such consciousness. While Libet recognized that his observations had “profound implications for the nature of free will, for individual responsibility and guilt,” his report appropriately contained several caveats. First, it noted (at 640) that the “present evidence for the unconscious initiation of a voluntary act of course applies to one very limited form of such acts.” Second (at 641), it allowed for the possibility that there could be a “conscious ‘veto’ that aborts the performance . . . (of) the self-initiated act under study here.” Finally (at 641), it acknowledged that “the possibilities for conscious initiation and control” in situations that were not spontaneous or quickly performed. read more

Judaism, Neuroscience and the Free Will Hypothesis (Part 1)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 @ 05:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Forget Moses’s impassioned plea to the Israelites concerning their choices among the many blessings and curses that God reportedly set before them as they were about to cross the Jordan river into their promised land. (See Deut.  11:26-28, 30:15, 19.) Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne claims we have no ability to choose freely among alternatives. According to Coyne, “we couldn’t have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn’t have taken the other road.” Presumably, the Israelites in the story had not much choice either.

Coyne argues that the free will we sense when we make a decision, the feeling that we are choosing among available alternatives, does not exist. In reality, he contends, our conduct is predetermined by physics. This result follows, he says, because our brains and bodies, the “vehicles that make ‘choices,’ are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by (our) genes and (our) environment.” The decisions we think we make are, in his opinion, merely “the result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.” 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

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

Paleoanthropology in Genesis

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 @ 05:12 PM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

According to the Bible, God commanded Homo Sapiens to “fill up planet Earth” (Gen. 1:28), and as a species we have most certainly done that. But what motivated prehistoric mankind to spread out throughout the entire world, in the evolutionary rapid time of less than 60-80,000 years?  

Homo Erectus originated somewhere in East Africa almost two million years ago, and then slowly spread out to inhabit South Africa, the southern parts of Europe (Spain and Italy), the Caucasus, India, China, and Indonesia over the next million years. Homo Sapiens reached Indonesia and Australia within 40-50,000 years of its exodus from Africa. New research by a paleoanthropologist at the University of York suggests that moral and emotional reasons, especially betrayals of personal and communal trust, are the best way to understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world.  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

Ginger Jews

Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @ 02:04 PM
posted by Roger Price

Last year, about two hundred red haired Israeli Jews gathered for a conference at Kibbutz Gezer in Israel. While that is a nice size group, there were, apparently, many hundreds who were interested in attending, but unable to do so. Those who attended the conference shared stories, sang a popular children’s song called “I am a Redhead,” and reportedly had a good time. Gezer, by the way, is Hebrew for carrot.

And then there is Stav Shaffir, the not even thirty year old Member of the Knesset whose hair is vibrant red. Stav, by the way, is Hebrew for Autumn.

There is even Hebrew slang for redheads: gingi (Jeenji) for a male and gingit (Jeenjit) for a female, both Hebraicized corruptions of the English ginger.

What’s with Jews and red hair? 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