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2 Tammuz 5766 - June 28, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Theories, Geological Evidence, and Assumptions

by R' Dovid Kornreich

Can We Make Do Without Science?

In our previous article, we deprived the physicist, geologist, astronomer and dendrochronologist (who studies tree rings) of his justification to extrapolate natural processes into the indefinite past to arrive at the incredible ages given by modern science.

We also justified our reliance on the consistency of natural law into the future. Only the non-natural formation of the universe and other events described by Chazal lead us to deny the validity of such backwards extrapolations.

Now we are left with a challenge. Their methodology in and of itself is not bad science. The scientists are not technologically incompetent when they use these dating methods. Only their conclusions based on certain necessary assumptions are mistaken.

So how can we rely on any scientific theory that involves making assumptions? Are we as frum Jews discrediting any and all research that probes beyond directly observable repeatable phenomena? Must we be `kofer' in atomic and subatomic particles that cannot be seen even under a microscope? It would be hard to justify such a rejection in light of the fact that we ourselves take full advantage of all the technological and intellectual benefits that all these disciplines have to offer. (These benefits have recently even included archaeology.) Can we have a rational coherent approach that is self-consistent? What would such a position entail?

The answer is that we need to become discriminating consumers of scientific theories.

We start off with the following a priori position that is never negotiable: The ultimate truth about our reality was revealed to us by the same Creator of that reality through prophecy and various levels of ruach hakodesh preserved by our mesorah.

To my knowledge, you cannot find one unequivocal statement in Talmudic or classic rabbinic literature that attributes the formation of the universe to natural means. On the other hand, there are numerous Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim that explicitly and unequivocally state the opposite.

As a consequence, those scientific understandings that either confirm or conform to our superior source of absolute truth — the Torah — may be adopted. Those that don't, must be mistaken. And it makes no difference whether the scientists will eventually discover the mistake through investigation or they will not.

It is distinctly possible that they cannot in principle discover their mistake simply because they cannot access the non-physicality of the forces involved in the formation of the world (and its deconstruction and reconstruction during the Mabul period). But mistaken they must be. G-d informed mankind of unnatural formation of the universe well in advance of the theories that try to pretend that all events are natural. This is self-deception on the part of mainstream science.

Now this may sound arbitrary and illogical: If we acknowledge the validity of the methodology in one area of life, how can we deem it faulty or incompetent in another?

The truth is that this approach is completely justified, and there is nothing arbitrary or illogical about it. Not only do we all do it, but in fact science does it to itself all the time.

Let's give an illustration from this very area of earth chronology. There is a sharp debate between `young earth scientists' and the scientific establishment. But the debate is somewhat one-sided. Mainstream science deems the evidence for an old earth so convincing, that even the scientific evidence to the contrary is simply explained away on purely hypothetical grounds.

Most examples of evidence for 'young earth' use extrapolations of currently observable cumulative processes very similar to those used for old earth. Yet these extrapolations in those cases imply that essential components of our planet (including key elements in our atmosphere, ocean and magnetic field) could only have been formed thousands of years ago instead of billions. Among many others, these processes include: Influx of salts and metals into the ocean via rivers, the decay of the Earth's magnetic field, and the small amounts of Helium-4 in the atmosphere.

Let's flesh out some details of the first example. By citing measurements of the amounts of various chemical compounds in the oceans, and measurements of the rate at which rivers are adding those compounds to the oceans, it is argued that a maximum (quite young) age for the oceans can be derived.

In response to this, all the mainstream scientists do is point out the various processes that work in the other direction to remove these compounds from the ocean which could theoretically achieve equilibrium. They do not cite any measurements, research papers, or studies that in fact show that these processes neutralize the evidence.

The "nexta" example (love that Yiddish) comes from smaller than expected amounts of Helium-4 if earth is old. Helium-4 is created by radioactive decay (alpha particles are helium nuclei) and is constantly added to the atmosphere. Helium is not light enough to escape the Earth's gravity (unlike hydrogen), and it will therefore accumulate over time. The current level of helium in the atmosphere would accumulate in far less than billions of years. Therefore the Earth is relatively young compared to their theories.

Once again, the conventional response is to assert that polar wind can account for the escape. And if that won't do the trick (because they haven't actually measured it to know for sure) then there is always the handy "interaction of the solar wind with the upper atmosphere during the short periods of lower magnetic-field intensity while the field is reversing." However, no one has ever measured a single magnetic-field reversal of the earth taking place, let alone how long they last before reaching full intensity. But that doesn't stop mainstream scientists from simply assuming that 20 of them could have taken place over the past 3.5 billion "years" to account for the missing helium. Problem solved.

This means that mainstream scientists don't really accept the burden of proving the young earth evidence to be grossly misunderstood. They feel that it is enough to propose theoretical possibilities. And sometimes they even openly admit that they may never develop the tools to practically investigate their hypothesis that explains away the evidence.

But it makes no difference. Why? Because they feel enough confidence in the balance of the evidence weighing so heavily in their favor that it makes virtually all the counter- evidence pale in comparison. They feel that they can reasonably conclude that there must be some flaw in the counter-evidence without any actual proof.

And don't get me wrong; I have no problem with this logic at all. I think it is perfectly reasonable for scientists to make these assumptions when you take their limitations into account. But this logic works in both directions.

So it is, lehavdil, with the irreconcilable conflicts between science and Torah.

We don't need to assume the burden to disprove the old earth science. If we use the same approach, it is sufficient for us to assert, based on Chazal, that star motion was not constant throughout all time, and that the igneous rocks of the Creation period simply did not form naturally from magma. And/or, it is sufficient to assert, based on Chazal, that the weather conditions which form the annual layering of lake varves and ice cores were not constant throughout all time.

Even the so-called `directly observable' evidence of previous eras from the fossil record can be broken down into a series of tenuous assumptions to which we can offer counter- assumptions:

1) It is the dating methods discredited above which really give the strata an absolute time scale. Without those methods, the layers in and of themselves don't indicate how long each period lasted. They are called `floating histories' that aren't tied to any fixed number of years.

2) The fossils technically can only inform us of the order in which these creatures perished. Hypothetically, all these creatures could have been created in the same period and died off at different periods. To assert that the record also tells us when they appeared is an intuitive leap that can be contested.

3) Similarly, Chazal that attest to creatures that were created and then destroyed before the creation of man. And we need not appeal to whole worlds created and destroyed before the six days of Bereishis to find such references. Bava Basra 74 tells of enormous land and sea creatures that were created and destroyed during Bereishis for various reasons. We also have the primordial serpent who was created with legs that were subsequently removed (presumably from this entire species of reptile) long before the death of Odom Horishon.

All these tentative directions of thought provide fertile ground to posit the extinction of numerous other animals during periods that well preceded the large-scale demise of human beings during the Mabul.

This is not an appeal to creationist pseudo-science or flood geology. Those are explanations that go beyond the tools that science has at its disposal to analyze and measure reality.

Rather it is parallel to the tendency of science to sustain its well-established theories against powerful objections by positing the existence of all sorts of spooky things. Concepts such as non-luminous matter and cosmological constants (popularly referred to as `dark matter' and `dark energy'), superstrings, repulsive gravity, compacted dimensions — all these are hypotheticals that have not been directly measured and may not ever be accessible to scientific measurement in the future.

We ought to have enough confidence in our mulit-million-man- mesorah to offset all the theoretical evidence that relies exclusively on tenuous extrapolations of literally astronomical proportions.

We've Been Here Before

There is a parable given by the Sefer Hachinuch in his introduction, concerning the reliability of our tradition in reporting events that defy scientific explanation. He asks us to imagine a river whose waters have been observed by tens of thousands of people to cause lethal poisoning to thousands of unfortunate other people upon drinking. Then, along comes a scientist who takes a sample of the river water and determines that it is absolutely normal and safe to drink. The Chinuch asks: Who would you believe?

Our situation with regard to most (but not all) conflicts between science and Torah pose a similar dilemma. And the answer ultimately comes down to how reliable we think our mesorah is.

The tendency of some to modify or disregard the mesorah in light of firmly established scientific theory reminds me of the tragic episode of Choni Hame'agel in Taanis 23a: He is troubled all his days over the first verse in Shir Hama'alos (Tehillim 126). It describes prophetically the return of the Jews from the seventy-year Babylonian exile when they regarded themselves "as dreamers." Choni Hame'agel is perplexed at the feat of such extended somnolence. He sits down in a field to eat lunch, drifts off — and bang! He wakes up seventy years later. After reconfirming that he has actually been asleep for two generations straight, he tries to reenter society and finds himself misunderstood by all around him. Overcome with feelings of total isolation, he prays for and is granted a final end to his troubles. "O chavrusa, o misusah."

I derive a few important principles from this incident regarding the subject we were discussing.

On the simplest of levels, Choni Hame'agel maybe was bothered by the practical impossibility of sleeping for 70 years without eating. An empirical problem: the human physiology isn't designed to survive so long without nourishment. In any case, he was able to maintain such a problem in his mind to be bothered by it for his entire life, without resorting to an obviously valid, alternative, metaphorical understanding. (This was especially reasonable since even the posuk on says, "as dreamers.")

Then Hakodosh Boruch Hu in His infinite wisdom enabled him to experience the resolution of the problem firsthand, which turned out to actually be a literal interpretation contrary to scientific laws.

From the tragic conclusion, perhaps bederech drush, it seems that sometimes it is in our own best interests to remain with an empirical problem and not try to get it resolved at any cost.

We should learn from this experience. Solutions offered by great people of past generations have become obsolete due to the relentless forward march of science. Solutions that reconciled Judaism with the now-defunct Steady State theory of the universe, and Haeckel's doctored embryological evidence for evolution, are cases in point. Even now, the most firmly established scientific theories of the previous century are being considered for serious revision on an ongoing basis.

By adjusting one's understanding of Judaism in order to adapt to modern research, one runs the distinct risk of having to update one's beliefs every 50-100 years.

We again conclude with the far-reaching vision of Rabbi Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, applying his sage advice given on a similar topic: (emphasis added)

"For thousands of years, Judaism waited calmly for the closing of an even wider gap between itself and mankind, that is, the disappearance of polytheism. So Judaism can certainly await, with even more complete calm and assurance, the day in which the thinking human mind will bridge a much narrower gap. . . Judaism looks toward the time when science will have attained a more thorough mastery of its subject matter, and scientists will be able to overcome the intellectual fragmentation caused by the division of labor in the sciences, . . . Scientists will then escape the danger inherent in any attempt to construct a whole world from the study of a mere fraction of a fraction of the world's totality. When that time comes, scientists will bow to a world of spirit and of free-willed morality that cannot be reached by microscopes or scalpels, by flasks or balances, but that is nevertheless a reality which every man can derive from within his own self" (Collected Writings, Vol. VII, p. 259, "The Educational Value of Judaism").

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