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Science and Torah - At Odds?

Science and Torah - At Odds?

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A letter by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory

By the Grace of G‑d
18th of Teveth, 5722
Brooklyn, NY
 

Greeting and Blessing:

After not having heard from you for a long time, I was pleased to receive regards from you through the young men of Chabad who visited your community recently in connection with the public lecture. I was gratified to hear that you participated in the discussion, but it was quite a surprise to me to learn that you are still troubled by the problem of the age of the world as suggested by various scientific theories which cannot be reconciled with the Torah view that the world is 5722 years old. I underlined the word theories, for it is necessary to bear in mind, first of all, that science formulates and deals with theories and hypotheses while the Torah deals with absolute truths. These are two different disciplines, where reconciliation is entirely out of place.

It was especially surprising to me that, according to the report, the said problem is bothering you to the extent that it has trespassed upon your daily life as a Jew, interfering with the actual fulfillment of the daily Mitzvoth. I sincerely hope that the impression conveyed to me is an erroneous one. For, as you know, the basic Jewish principle of na'aseh (first and v'nishma (afterwards) makes it mandatory upon the Jew to fulfill G‑d's commandments regardless of the degree of understanding, and obedience to the Divine Law can never be conditioned upon human approval. In other words, lack of understanding, and even the existence of legitimate" doubts, can never justify disobedience to the Divine Commandments; how much less, when the doubts are illegitimate, in the sense that they have no real or logical basis, such as the problem in question.

Apparently, our discussion which took place a long time ago, and which, as I was pleased to learn, has not been forgotten by you, has nevertheless not cleared up this matter in your mind. I will attempt to do so now, in writing, which imposes both brevity and other limitations. I trust, however, that the following remarks will serve our purpose.

Basically the problem has its roots in a misconception of the scientific method or, simply, of what science is. We must distinguish between empirical or xperimental science dealing with, and confined to, describing and classifying observable phenomena, and speculative science, dealing with unknown phenomena, ometimes phenomena that cannot be duplicated in the laboratory. Scientific speculation is actually a terminological incongruity; for science, strictly speaking, means knowledge, while no speculation can be called knowledge in the strict sense of the word. At best, science can only speak in terms of theories inferred from certain known facts and applied in the realm of the unknown. Here science has two general methods of inference;
(a) The method of interpolation (as distinguished from extrapolation), whereby, knowing the reaction under two extremes, we attempt to infer what the reaction might be at any point between the two.
(b) The method of extrapolation, whereby inferences are made beyond a known range, on the basis of certain variables within the known range. For example, suppose we know the variables of a certain element within a temperature range of 0 to 100, and on the basis of this we estimate what the reaction might be at 101, 200, or 2000.

Of the two methods, the second (extrapolation) is clearly the more uncertain. Moreover, the uncertainty increases with the distance away from the known range and with the decrease of this range. Thus, if the known range is between 0 and 100, our inference at 101 has a greater probability than at 1001.

Let us note at once, that all speculation regarding the origin and age of the world comes within the second and weaker method, that of extrapolation. The weakness becomes more apparent if we bear in mind that a generalization inferred from a known consequent to an unknown antecedent is more speculative than an inference from an antecedent to consequent. That an inference from consequent to antecedent is more speculative than an inference from antecedent to consequent can be demonstrated very simply:

Four divided by two equals two. Here the antecedent is represented by the divided and divisor, and the consequent - by the quotient. Knowing the antecedent in this case, gives us one possible result - the quotient (the number 2.

However, if we know only the end result, namely, the number 2, and we ask ourselves, how can we arrive at the number 2, The answer permits several possibilities, arrived at by means of different methods: (a) 1 plus 1 equals 2; (b) 4-2 equals 2; (c) 1 x 2 equals 2; (d) 4 2 equals 2. Note that if other numbers are to come into play, the number of possibilities giving us the same result is infinite (since 5 - 3 also equals 2; 6 3 equals 2 etc. ad infinitum).

Add to this another difficulty, which is prevalent in all methods of induction. Conclusions based on certain known data, when they are ampliative in nature, i.e. when they are extended to unknown areas, can have any validity at all on the assumption of everything else being equal, that is to say on an identity of prevailing conditions, and their action and counter-action upon each other. If we cannot be sure that the variations or changes would bear at least a close relationship to the existing variables in degree; if we cannot be sure that the changes would bear any resemblance in kind; if, furthermore, we cannot be sure that there were not other factors involved - such conclusions of inferences are absolutely valueless!

For further illustration, I will refer to one of the points which I believe I mentioned during our conversation. In a chemical reaction, whether fissional or fusional, the introduction of a new catalyzer into the process, however minute the quantity of this new catalyzer may be, may change the whole tempo and form of the chemical process, or start an entirely new process.
We are not yet through with the difficulties inherent in all so-called scientific theories concerning the origin of the world. Let us remember that the whole structure of science is based on observances of reactions and processes in the behavior of atoms in their present state, as they now exist in nature. Scientists deal with conglomerations of billions of atoms as these are already bound together, and as these relate to other existing conglomerations of atoms. Scientists know very little of the atoms in their pristine state; of how one single atom may react on another single atom in a state of separateness; much less of how parts of a single atom may react on other parts of the same or other atoms. One thing science considers certain - to the extent that any science can be certain, namely that the reactions of single atoms upon each other is totally different from the reactions of one conglomeration of atoms to another.

We may now summarize the weaknesses, nay, hopelessness, of all so-called scientific theories regarding the origin and age of our universe:

(a) These theories have been advanced on the basis of observable data during a relatively short period of time, of only a number of decades, and at any rate not more than a couple of centuries.
(b) On the basis of such a relatively small range of known (though by no means perfectly) data, scientists venture to build theories by the weak method of extrapolation, and from the consequent to the antecedent, extending to many thousands (according to them, to millions and billions) of years!

(c) In advancing such theories, they blithely disregard factors universally admitted by all scientists, namely, that in the initial period of the birth of the universe, conditions of temperature, atmospheric pressure, radioactivity, and a host of other cataclystic factors, were totally different from those existing in the present state of the universe.

(d) The consensus of scientific opinion is that there must have been many radioactive elements in the initial stage which now no longer exist, or exist only in minimal quantities; some of them - elements that cataclystic potency of which is known even in minimal doses.

(e) The formation of the world, if we are to accept these theories, began with a process of colligation (of binding together) of single atoms or the components of the atom and their conglomeration and consolidation, involving totally unknown processes and variables.
In short, of all the weak scientific theories, those which deal with the origin of the cosmos and with its dating are (admittedly by the scientists themselves) the weakest of the weak.
It is small wonder (and this, incidentally, is one of the obvious refutations of these theories) that the various scientific theories concerning the age of the universe not only contradict each other, but some of them are quite incompatible and mutually exclusive, since the maximum date of one theory is less than the minimum date of another.

If anyone accepts such a theory uncritically, it can only lead him into fallacious and inconsequential reasoning. Consider, for example, the so-called evolutionary theory of the origin of the world, which is based on the assumption that the universe evolved out of existing atomic and subatomic particles which, by an evolutionary process, combined to form the physical universe and our planet, on which organic life somehow developed also by an evolutionary process, until homo-sapiens emerged. It is hard to understand why one should readily accept the creation of atomic and subatomic particles in a state which is admittedly unknowable and inconceivable, yet should be reluctant to accept the creation of planets, or organisms, or a human being, as we know these to exist.

The argument from the discovery of the fossils is by no means conclusive evidence of the great antiquity of the earth, for the following reasons:

(a) In view of the unknown conditions which existed in prehistoric" times, conditions of atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc. as already mentioned, conditions that is, which could have caused reactions and changes of an entirely different nature and tempo from those known under the present-day orderly processes of nature, one cannot exclude the possibility that dinosaurs existed 5722 years ago, and became fossilized under terrific natural cataclysms in the course of a few years rather than in millions of years; since we have no conceivable measurements or criteria of calculations under those unknown conditions.

(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that G‑d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him), just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.

As for the question, if it be true as above (b), why did G‑d have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why G‑d chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.

What scientific basis is there for limiting the creative process to an evolutionary process only, starting with atomic and subatomic particles - a theory full of unexplained gaps and complications, while excluding the possibility of creation as given by the Biblical account? For, if the latter possibility be admitted, everything falls neatly into pattern, and all speculation regarding the origin and age of the world becomes unnecessary and irrelevant.

It is surely no argument to question this possibility by saying, Why should the Creator create a finished universe, when it would have been sufficient for Him to create an adequate number of atoms or subatomic particles with the power of colligation and evolution to develop into the present cosmic order? The absurdity of this argument becomes even more obvious when it is made the basis of a flimsy theory, as if it were based on solid and irrefutable arguments overriding all other possibilities.

The question may be asked, If the theories attempting to explain the origin and age of the world are so weak, how could they have been advanced in the first place? The answer is simple. It is a matter of human nature to seek an explanation for everything in the environment, and any theory, however far-fetched, is better than none, at least until a more feasible explanation can be devised.
You may now ask, In the absence of a sounder theory, why then isn't the Biblical account of creation accepted by these scientists? The answer, again, is to be found in human nature. It is a natural human ambition to be inventive and original. To accept the Biblical account deprives one of the opportunity to show one's analytic and inductive ingenuity. Hence, disregarding the Biblical account, the scientist must devise reasons to justify his doing so, and he takes refuge in classifying it with ancient and primitive mythology and the like, since he cannot really argue against it on scientific grounds.

If you are still troubled by the theory of evolution, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to support it. On the contrary, during the years of research and investigation since the theory was first advanced, it has been possible to observe certain species of animal and plant life of a short life-span over thousands of generations, yet it has never been possible to establish a transmutation from one species into another, much less to turn a plant into an animal. Hence such a theory can have no place in the arsenal of empirical science.
The theory of evolution, to which reference has been made, actually has no bearing on the Torah account of Creation. For even if the theory of evolution were substantiated today, and the mutation of species were proven in laboratory tests, this would still not contradict the possibility of the world having been created as stated in the Torah, rather than through the evolutionary process. The main purpose of citing the evolutionary theory was to illustrate how a highly speculative and scientifically unsound theory can capture the imagination of the uncritical, so much so that it is even offered as a scientific" explanation of the mystery of Creation, despite the fact that the theory of evolution itself has not been substantiated scientifically and is devoid of any real scientific basis.

Needless to say, it is not my intent to cast aspersions on science or to discredit the scientific method. Science cannot operate except by accepting certain working theories or hypotheses, even if they cannot be verified, though some theories die hard even when they are scientifically refuted or discredited (the evolutionary theory is a case in point). No technical progress would be possible unless certain physical laws are accepted, even though there is no guaranty that the law will repeat itself. However, I do wish to emphasize, as already mentioned, that science has to do only with theories but no with certainties. All scientific conclusions, or generalizations, can only be probable in a greater or lesser degree according to the precautions taken in the use of the available evidence, and the degree of probability necessarily decreases with the distance from the empirical facts, or with the increase of the unknown variables, etc., as already indicated. If you will bear this in mind, you will readily realize that there can be no real conflict between any scientific theory and the Torah.

My above remarks have turned out somewhat lengthier than intended, but they are still all too brief in relation to the misconception and confusion prevailing in many minds. Moreover, my remarks had to be confined to general observations, as this is hardly the medium to go into greater detail. If you have any further questions, do not hesitate to write to me.
To conclude on a note touched upon in our conversation:

The Mitzvah of putting on Tefillin every week-day, on the hand facing the heart, and on the head - the seat of the intellect, indicates, among other things, the true Jewish approach: performance first (hand), with sincerity and wholeheartedness, followed by intellectual comprehension (head); i.e. na'aseh first, then v'nishma. May this spirit permeate your intellect and arouse your emotive powers and find expression in every aspect of the daily life, for the essential thing is the dead.
With blessing,

 

17th Chesvan, 5723
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Greeting and Blessing:


My secretary, Dr. Nissan Mindel, has brought your letter of October 23rd, to my attention and I am pleased to not that you took time out to review my letter of the 18th of Teveth, 5722, and to put down in writing your observations thereon. Many thanks.

In reply, I can either follow the order of my letter in the light of your remarks, or take up your remarks as they appear in your letter. I will choose the latter method. In any case I trust that our views will be reconciled, since, as you indicate in the introductory paragraph of your letter, you are in full sympathy with the aims of my said letter, namely, to resolve any doubts that science presents a challenge to the commandments of our Torah.

I must begin with two prefatory remarks: (a) It should be self-evident that my letter did not imply a negation or rejection of science or of the scientific method, In fact, I stated so explicitly towards the end of my said letter. I hope that I will not be suspected of trying to belittle the accomplishments of science, especially as in certain areas the Torah view accords science even more credit than science itself claims; hence many laws in Halacha are geared to scientific conclusions (as e.g. in medicine), assigning to them the validity of objective reality. (b) A remark has been attributed to you to the effect that just as Rabbinic problems should be dealt with by someone who studies Rabbinics, so should scientific problems be left to those who studied science. I do not know how accurate this report is, but I feel I should not ignore it nevertheless, since I agree with this principle. I studied science on the university level from 1928-1932 in Berlin, and from 1934-1938 in Paris, and I have tried to follow scientific developments in certain areas ever since.

Now to your letter: (1) I quite agree, of course, that for the aim mentioned above, scientific theories must be judged by the standards and criteria set up by the scientific method itself. This is precisely the principle I followed in my letter. Hence I purposely omitted from my discussion any references to the scriptures or the Talmud, etc.

(2) Your wrote that you can heartily applaud my emphasis that scientific theories never pretend to give the ultimate truths. But I went further than that. The point was not that science is not (now) in a position to offer ultimate truths, but that modern science itself sets its own limits, declaring that its predictions are, will always be, and in every case, merely Most probable but not certain; it speaks only in terms of Theories. Herein, as you know probably better than I, lies a basic difference of concept between science today and 19th century sciences where in the past scientific conclusions were considered as natural laws" in the strict sense of the term, i.e. determined and certain, modern science no longer holds this view. Parenthetically, this view is at variance with the concept of nature and our own knowledge of it (science) as espoused by the Torah since the idea of miracles implies a change in a fixed order and not the occurrence of a least probable event.

Acknowledging the limitations of science, set by science itself, as above, is sufficient to resolve any doubt that science might present a challenge to Torah. The rest of the discussion in my said letter was mainly my way of further emphasis, but also because, as already mentioned, according to the Torah, i.e. in the realm of faith and not that of science, it is admissible for the conclusions of science to have the validity of natural law".

(3) Next, you deplore what you consider a gratuitous attack on the personal motives of scientists. But no such general attack will be found in my letter. I specifically referred to a certain segment of scientists in a certain area of scientific research, namely those who produce hypothesis about what actually occurred thousands upon thousands of years ago, such as the evolutionary theory of the world, hypothesis which contain no significance for present day research (see in my said letter the paragraph immediately following the paragraph you cite;) hypothesis which are not only highly speculative, but not strictly scientific, and are indeed replete with internal weaknesses. Yet lacking any firm basis, these scientists nevertheless reject absolutely any other explanation (including the Torah narrative): it is the motives of these scientists that I attempted to analyze, since their attitude cannot be equated with a desire to promote the truth, or to promote technological advancement, scientific research, etc. I did not want to accuse them, of anti-religious bias, especially as some of them, including some of the originators of the theory, were religious. I therefore attempted to explain their attitude by a common human trait, the quest for accomplishment and distinction. Incidentally, this natural trait has its positive aspects and is also basic in our religion, since without the incentive of accomplishment, nothing would be accomplished.

(4) Your remark about the misuse of the terms fission and fusion in relation to chemical reactions is, of course, valid and well taken. I trust, however, that the meaning was not unduly affected thereby, since it was twice indicated in that paragraph that the subject was chemical reactions. Undoubtedly, the term combination and decomposition should have been used. Actually, I believe, the different usage of these terms in nuclear and chemical reactions is more conventional than basic. Nevertheless, I should have been mindful of the standard terminology.

Here a word of explanation regarding the terminology of my letter is in order. If the terms or expressions used are not always the standard ones, this is due to (a) the fact that I do not usually dictate my letters in English, and while I subsequently check the translation, the perusal may not always preclude an oversight, as the present instance is a case in point; and (b) the fact that I received my scientific training, as already mentioned, in German and French, and previously in Russian, which may also account for some of the variations.

(5) You refer to my statement that scientists know very little about interactions of isolated atoms and subatomic particles, and also question its relevance to the theories about the dating of the world. The relevance is this. The evolutionary theory as it applies to the origin of our solar system and planet Earth, from which the dating is inferred, presumes (at least in the case of most of the hypothesis) that in the beginning there were atoms and subatomic particles in some pristine state, which then condensed, combined together, etc.

I am aware of the fact that a major part of physics research in this century has been concerned with interactions of individual units ranging from atoms to the most elementary particles known. But as late as 1931, of the subatomic particles only protons and electrons were known and explored". The bubble chambers was constructed only in 1952, and a field ion microscope (by Dr. Muller of Penn State University?), reaching into the realm of the atom and subatomic particles-only in 1962. We have good reason to believe, I think, that just as scientific knowledge was enriched with the introduction of the first microscope, we may expect a similar measure of advancement with the aid of the latest (though it had been preceded by the electronic microscope). Therefore, it is safe to assume that all we have learned in the field of nucleonics in the last few decades is very little by comparison with what we can confidently expect to learn in the next few decades.

(6) You object to my statement that conditions of pressure, temperature, radioactivity, etc. must have been totally different in the early stages supposed by some evolutionists from those existing today, and you assert that those environmental conditions have, for the most part, either been duplicated in the laboratory or observed in natural phenomena. Here, with all due respect, I beg to differ, and I believe the study of the sources will confirm my assertion.

(7) You state that there is no evidence that any radioactive element produces cataclysmic changes, and go on to note that there is a lack of clear distinction in my letter between cosmogony and geochronology. The reason for the lack of such a distinction in my letter is that it is irrelevant to our discussion. The subject matter of my letter is the theory of evolution as it contradicts the account of Creation in the Torah. According to the Torah, the creation of the whole universe was ex nihilo, including the Earth, the sun, etc. The theory of evolution presents instead, a different explanation of the appearance of the universe, solar system and our planet Earth. Now, in evaluating this theory, I have in mind that strength of a chain is measured by its weakest link, and in my letter I attempted to point out some of the weakest links in both areas, cosmology and geochronology. With regard to geology and the changes and upheavals that may have occurred at a time when the whole universe is supposed to have been in a state of violent atomic instability, with worlds in collision, etc., cataclysmic changes cannot be ruled out, such nuclear reactions should have caused changes which would void any evolutionary calculations. Similarly, in the evolution of vegetables, animal and human life on the Earth, radioactive process of such magnitude should have produced sudden changes and transmutations which would normally take long periods of time.

(8) You state, finally, that the crucial point to consider in regard to geochronology is the existence of objects and geological formations in and on the crust of the earth which serve as physically observable clocks, etc. But I have already pointed out in my said letter that such criteria are valid only as of now and for the future, but cannot be applied either scientifically or logically to a primordial state. By way of illustration, though you do not identify any of the objects you are referring to, let us examine radiocarbon dating, since most of the letters and questions I received on this subject pointed to it. This method assumes that the average cosmic ray intensity has remained constant for the whole period of the dating, and that atmospheric mixing is rapid compared to the lifetime of. Now to mention but one flaw in the criterion: it requires that the shielding power (density etc.) remain constant. But the evolution theory is built on the premise that there had been most radical changes. Incidentally, in most recent years geologists in South Africa discovered such a disorder in geological formations in that part of the world that contradicted all the accepted theories of geology. The discovery was publicized at that time, but I do not have the informational media at hand, and I mention this in passing only. I suggest another look in my letter, p.5, par. beg. The theory of evolution...

Should you wish to continue the discussion, please do not hesitate to write me.
With esteem and blessing,

/Signature

P.S. I have just been able to trace and borrow one of your books, "The attenuation of Gamma rays and Neutrons in Reactor Shields." May I say that I was greatly impressed with the effort, material and clarity of presentation. Incidentally, I noted in it your observations about the discrepancies between theory and experimentation which I found more than once in your book. Such a statement as Not only is the simplest organism an incredibly complicated entity whose chemistry and physics are barely glimpsed at (the underscoring is mine), but the classical scientific pattern of experimentation is necessarily not available (ditto) in studying radiation efforts - is very significant and has a direct bearing on the theory of evolution which involves an age of unimaginable radioactivity both in the universe and our planet Earth.


By the Grace of G‑d
18th of Cheshvan, 5723
Brooklyn, N.Y.


…In addition to my letter of yesterday's date, which was confined to a purely scientific discussion, it is this second letter which will express my real approach to you, the Torah approach of one Jew to another.

It is surely unnecessary to emphasize to you that the basic principle of the Jewish way of life is "Know Him in all your ways." This principle has been enunciated in the Talmud, Early and Late Responsa, until it has been formulated as a peak-din the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, sec. 231). It is there explained that it is the life's mission of every Jew to acknowledge G‑d even in the simplest pursuits of the daily life, such as eating, drinking, etc. How much more does this apply to the mere essential aspects of one's life, especially in the case of one who has been endowed with special qualifications, knowledge and distinction, etc., all of which place him in a position of influence. These are gifts of Divine Providence, which the Jew is duty-bound to consecrate to the service of G‑d, to disseminate G‑dliness through the Torah and Mitzvoth to the utmost of his ability, in compliance of the commandments and - the great principle of our Torah. And since, according to the Torah view, everything in the world is ordered and measured and nothing is superfluous, the duty and Zechus of every Jew are commensurate with his capacities and opportunities.

I have only seen you briefly, but I have formed some impressions, which have been augmented by your book, the only one I have been able to obtain so far, and by what I have heard about you and your station in the academic world and otherwise. I have no doubt that you have unusual opportunities to disseminate the Torah and Mitzvoth among wide circles of Jewish scientists, students and laymen.

In recent years, especially in the U. S. A., we have witnessed two tendencies among Jewish youth, striving in opposite directions. On the one hand there has been an intensified quest for the Truth, a yearning for closer identification with our people and our eternal values. At the other extreme, the pull of assimilation, intermarriage, etc. has been gaining, too. Aside from the colleges and universities in a few major cities, the situation in campuses in regard to Kashrus, Shabbos, etc. is too painful to contemplate not to mention the widespread confusion and misconceptions in respect of the most basic tenets of our faith.

If the first of the above mentioned tendencies were to be stimulated and fully utilized at this auspicious time, the chances are very good that it would gain momentum and grow wider, and in time also deeper. If, as our Sages say, to save one soul is to save a whole world, how much more so to save so many lost Jewish souls.

I want to express to you my fervent hope - and, if necessary, my urgent appeal also - that you put the whole weight of your prestige as a leading scientist behind a resolute effort in the cause of the Torah and Mitzvoth. I am informed that you have been elected as this year's President of the organization of Jewish orthodox scientists. You could set the pace for the entire organization, individually and collectively, to follow your example, and set in motion a "chain reaction. "
I will conclude with a well-known saying of the Baal Shem Tov, which I frequently heard from my father-in-law of saintly memory: "G‑d sends down to earth a soul, which is truly a part of G‑dliness, to sojourn, embodied, for seventy-eighty years on this earth, in order to render a favor to another Jew, materially or spiritually." If a single favor justifies a whole earth bound life, how great is the Zechus of a consistent effort to help a fellow-Jew, and many of them, to find their true way, the way of the Torah and Mitzvoth in their day-to-day living.

May G‑d grant that your words coming from the heart will penetrate the many hearts which are ready and eager to respond, and may G‑d grant you success in this as in all your other endeavors for yourself and your family.
With blessing.

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