Sunday, August 23, 2009

Is Cognitive Dissonance a Religious Requirement?

Among my readings is Shemona Kevatzim, a collection of personal notes that Rav Kook Z”L used to jot down. Many of these show the thinking process of a great man, thinker and Tzaddik.

Here is one that made an impression.

Rambam was happy when Hashgacha (providence) took on a rational form in his mind. This happiness is well deserved. For as long as this belief, that is fundamental to [human] life on earth, does not have a rational form, it cannot partake in the living flow of the intelligent soul, the one that has an innate need to understand. However once it has taken on a rational form, it becomes deeply rooted in all the compartments and depth of the soul, the person now finds himself satisfied, as his spiritual inner life is now whole.

Here is the original Hebrew as my translation skills leave much to be desired.

שמח היה הרמב"ם כשצורת ההשגחה קבלה אצלו צביון של הדרגה שכלית וראוי הדבר לשמח על זה מפני שכל זמן שהאמונה הזאת שהיא מבססת את חיי העולם היא מונחת בלא תואר שכלי איננה מתערבת עם כל גלי החיים של הנפש החכמה השואפת להשכיל אבל אחר שקבלה לתוכה צורתה השכלית הרי היא משתרשת במעמקי הנשמה בכל חדריה ומעמקיה והאדם מוצא את עצמו מאושר כשצורתו הרוחנית מתאחדת לחטייבה אחת

This comment spoke very strongly to me. We are taught certain beliefs from childhood on, we develop a way of thinking that directs our actions based on these teachings but as we mature, questions about these beliefs start taking shape. There are two approaches. One sublimates the question and promotes blind faith. That is a very destructive attack on the innate human need to understand. It creates internal conflict, anger and frustration. It is at the root of the aggressiveness we experience today in our society where people condemn any thinking that is different from their own. It stifles and brings about cognitive dissonance and paranoia.

The other approach is to understand that a belief has to be consistent with reality. If one accepts that the Torah is divine, it cannot contradict reality. One has to be confident that thorough investigation and proper insight into the belief dictated by this divine religion will be consistent with reality. All one has to do is work hard and honestly at understanding both, because religion dictates how to react to reality not what it is. It is only then that the cognitive dissonance so prevalent in our community, the split personality supposedly required of the intelligent believer, will be healed and banished.

Here is how Rambam poses the same problem in his introduction to the Moreh Hanevuchim.

The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence, he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he be guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Law. Even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions, and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury, for he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity.

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