Sunday, December 03, 2006

What does a prophet and a great scientist have in common? Guest post by my son Alex.

Scientists/ mathematician always build on previous research or axioms in order to create or prove their own theories. Very rarely do you find a scientist that questions or tries to prove or disprove an existing axiom and then in the process creates his own theory. It is even rarer to find a scientist that will go back to the original building blocks of science and try to prove or disprove the axiom that everyone assumes is true. This is because it can take a life time of work to prove or disprove basic axioms of science and it is much easier to assume that enough critical analysis has been done in the previous generations and to build on what already exists by taking a small part of the existing axiom or an entire axiom and moving on from there. There are exceptions and these exceptions usually turn out to be the greatest scientists in a generation or even in history. These scientists/mathematicians question the original axioms either disproving or creating an entirely new axiom as result of studying the assumed axiom. These people usually create an impact that can change the way all future generations perceive their world around them, their existence and their quality of life. We see this with great scientists/mathematicians such as Plato, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein etc.
In Judaism a similar process takes place. Most Jews take the previous generations axioms as a given and then build from there .We believe that there is a one G-D and we also believe in Torah Misinai, Torah Sheba’al peh Etc. It is very rare that someone questions or tries to prove the previous assumed axioms. It is ironic since the founder of our religion was one that questioned his generation’s axiom and came up with the belief in one G-D. When someone does try to prove the original axioms it is then that he reaches the level of prophecy. It is then, like the scientist that he is able to change the way people look at religion and change the quality of life not only for his generation but also for future generations.

The Rambam writes in his parable to describe the different levels of closeness to GD in Volume 3 Chapter 51 "Those who have plunged into speculation concerning the fundamental principles of religion have entered the antechambers. People there indubitably have different ranks. He, however, who has achieved demonstration, to the extent that this is possible, of everything that may be demonstrated; and who has ascertained in divine matters, to the extent that that is possible, everything that may be ascertained; and who has come close to certainty in those matters in which one can only come close to it-has come to be with the ruler in the inner part of the habitation.” He immediately writes right after this "If however, you have achieved perfection in the natural things and have understood divine science, you have entered in the ruler's place into the inner court and are with him in one habitation. This is the rank of men of science; they, however, are of different grades of perfection.

There is an interesting Meshech Chochma in this past week’s torah portion that I will be creative and build on using this concept. It says in Chapter 32 the end of verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2 that Lavan returned to his place and Yaakov went on his way. Lavan returned to his previous axioms and beliefs and therefore remained a wicked person. Yaakov went on his way constantly questioning previous axioms in his search for God. This is the way of the philosopher/prophet.

9 comments:

  1. The true comparison between scientists and prophets is epistemiological. You are anachronistically introducing philosophy of science into a framework that preceded it by centuries and knows not of it.

    Rambam is very clear in his discussion of prophecy that it is of the same nature as discoveries of great scientists or crystallized wisdom of great lawgivers. There are three classes: great scientists who receive emanation from the Active Intellect only to the logical faculty, soothsayers who receive it only to the imaginitve faculty and prophets who receive to both (Moshe R. was a special case).

    Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty. (Guide p.225)

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  2. Yaakov might have constantly questioned previous axioms in his search for God, but then again, so did Elisha ben Abuya and Spinoza.

    You are comparing apples and oranges. Scientists, true, do build on what has gone before, and indeed paradigm shifts can occur whereby scientists do need to go back and reexamine previously held maxims. But they agree on the scientific method, on what constitutes proof.

    The problem with Judaism is that proof of a Revelation at Sinai or a dual Torah is impossible outside the realm of faith. Only a minority of current living Jews actually believe in Torah Misinai and Torah sheba'al peh. And if liberal jews go back and question those dearly held yet unproveable Orthodox axioms, they are labelled heretics or told that they are practicing a different religion altogether.

    The writers of the Zohar ( not Shimon ben Yohai but Moses de Leon and his buddies) saw clearly the line leading from Maimonides to Spinoza.

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  3. This is because it can take a life time of work to prove or disprove basic axioms of science and it is much easier to assume that enough critical analysis has been done in the previous generations and to build on what already exists by taking a small part of the existing axiom or an entire axiom and moving on from there.

    This doesn't sound quite right to me. First of all, it generally takes an entire career and massive collaboration to do anything significant in science these days. All the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Moreover the scientific "axioms" (I would call them "principles") are not accepted out of expediency or because they are difficult to test. They are being constantly tested all the time! They rather are generally accepted because they provide the most coherent interpretation of vast experimental evidence. Now there is certainly truth in Quine's notion of a web-of-belief, whereby it is never only ONE belief that is under suspicion (and thus empirical results that run contrary to the hypothesis-under-test may cast doubt on a deep scientific principle just as well as they cast doubt on the hypothesis-under-test), but the basic scientific principles have generally received massive empirical support from diverse avenues, and so they are far less suspect than the hypothesis-under-test.

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  4. Yaakov might have constantly questioned previous axioms in his search for God, but then again, so did Elisha ben Abuya and Spinoza

    There is no guarantee that someone who questions or tries to prove a previous axiom or principle will be successfull in discovering a new theory or principle.He may come up with theories that may be proven incorrect at a later date.The same applies to prophecy-kabbalah is right there with elisha be avuah. There is no guarantee but it is a given that without the excercise of questioning previous religious principles and finding G
    -D through this process that prophecy cannot happen

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  5. You are anachronistically introducing philosophy of science into a framework that preceded it by centuries and knows not of it.


    Avakesh-I believe that science and philosophy began at the same time.In our times modern sciences such as quantum physics and string theory could also be considered a form of philosophy.I don't think that philosophy preceded science.I think that science and philosophy at one time were referred to the same way using different starting points or approaches.I think that as each advanced people began to identify them as different.It is funny how it is coming around full circle.This could be the reason why we have such strong resistance from both sides(mixing religion/philosophy with science) in order to keep them seperate.

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  6. >First of all, it generally takes an entire career and massive collaboration to do anything significant in science these days.

    So too prophecy. It was one prophet after another building on each other that prophecy became relevant.

    Big S - I don't think Alex is negating the process of ssientific discovery. On the contrary he is trying to make prophecy understood in contemporary thinking.

    As Avakesh points out, Rambam's conception of reading the active intellect needs to be reinterpreted in light of our current understanding of how the mind works. Rambam did the same by taking Prophecy and adapting it to the understanding of his era.

    And yes I agree that speculation in metaphysics has its risks. Ben Azai who was damaged by his speculation is still used in Massechet Horayot as a paradigm of a great scholar. Faith that is not superstition to me is one that comes as a result of rational investigation. It is exactly as Avakesh quotes Rambam "in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty." (Guide p.225)

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  7. Sounds good. Incidentally, is your son a rabbi?

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  8. Big S - no he works with me.

    He is though more learned than many Rabbis I know and I am very proud of him . He has really taken in the concept that Torah without work means little.

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  9. Wonderful. I'm sure I could learn a thing or two from him!

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