Monday, November 22, 2010
Actions and Knowledge - Decision Making.
Responding to my comments on the excellent blog Three Jews, Four opinions Evanston Jew posed a few questions which require a more thorough treatment than on a comment thread. Here are the first two: (I rearranged their sequence for clarity)
1. Knowledge=Chochma=wisdom= science= all the sciences +philosophy+ theology. You say in your second comment, "learning Torah encompasses all the sciences etc." Is encompasses the same as identical, and is knowledge, wisdom, science contained in or synonymous with Torah?
2. How can understanding the science of chemistry or evolution predict or give us a picture where the universe is headed. Are you referring to truths like one day the sun will implode or the universe will expand forever? Do you know where the universe is headed?
Let me do the Jewish thing and begin with a question; how does one know whether his or her next act is good or bad? We all agree that every action has a consequence whether trivial or momentous, so we would have to look at the outcome resulting from that act. As I get older and also more introspective, I can see how actions I took decades ago had consequences which I can tie in with specific decisions I made then. Some of those outcomes are good, others are pretty bad and it is clear that in those cases I could have done things differently for a different and better outcome. But even assessing now, so many years later, whether the outcome was good or bad is not so simple. The bad may be just a transition and as those who are affected by that decision continue on their path, we might find out that things evolved for the best and the same goes for the currently apparent good. In fact, many consequences of my actions may only become clear after I am long gone, maybe even a few generations down the road. As I look back on the things I did, the decisions I made, I have to say that all were pretty much like shooting darts in the dark. There was no real long-term impact assessment or study made before deciding. I based my decision on my instinct, my impulses, and my emotional state at the time and whatever logic I could muster up. Is there a way to improve our decision making so that it has the desired outcome in the long term? But what is the “desired” outcome? Isn’t that a problem too? Different people, based on their state of mind, culture, emotional state, personal bias and a slew of other factors will see different things as good and bad outcomes. Is there an objective criterion?
There really is no good answer to these questions because we are human and our perspective is very limited. But there are ways we can improve our decision-making and broaden our horizon. First, we have to define “good” and “bad” so that we can establish what a “desired” outcome is. Then we have to understand what the consequence of each action is. The most difficult task though is to understand ourselves and overcome our impulses and biases so that we can come to an objective conclusion rather that a subjectively self-indulging one. To achieve all this we need to acquire a lot of knowledge. We have to understand the world we live in, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, psychology, mathematics and all the other sciences including metaphysics and theology that try to explain how things function in our world. It is only then that we can hope to develop an understanding of “good” and “bad”, desired outcome and the actions that will bring those about. Clearly, no one person, not even one generation of humankind can achieve all this in one lifetime. This requires years, civilizations, many peoples and trial and error.
Rambam tells us in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:13
ואני אומר שאין ראוי להיטייל בפרדס, אלא מי שנתמלא כרסו לחם
ובשר; ולחם ובשר זה, הוא לידע ביאור האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן משאר המצוות.
ואף על פי שדברים אלו, דבר קטן קראו אותם חכמים, שהרי אמרו חכמים דבר גדול
מעשה מרכבה, ודבר קטן הוויה דאביי ורבא; אף על פי כן, ראויין הן להקדימן:
שהן מיישבין דעתו של אדם תחילה, ועוד שהן הטובה הגדולה שהשפיע הקדוש ברוך
הוא ליישוב העולם הזה, כדי לנחול חיי העולם הבא. ואפשר שיידעם הכול--גדול
וקטן, איש ואישה, בעל לב רחב ובעל לב קצר
Pardes are the sciences while Havayot דאביי ורבא are the rules of self-discipline in both action and thought that are the underlying reason of לידע ביאור האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן משאר המצוות.
Rambam also tells us in Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:12 in a discussion on how one should organize the day and learn Torah and its various components והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל התלמוד. In other words Pardes, the sciences including metaphysics, are categorized as Talmud, as part of the core of the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah.
The purpose of acquiring all this knowledge and working on self-improvement is to try our best and I keep on emphasizing, “try our best”, to figure out how to act properly and responsibly and to assess “good” and “bad” objectively by understanding ourselves and our environment. This is the idea behind the Mitzvah of Vehalachta Biderachav – to follow in God’s path so poignantly and concisely expressed in Breishit 18:18-19
וְאַבְרָהָם--הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ--כֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ.
Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him
כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו
וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה
וּמִשְׁפָּט--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר,
For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.'
Avraham realized that to know what is the desired effect – “to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him” – he had to first figure out what to “keep the way of the LORD” means. The result of that contemplation was “to do righteousness and justice”. It is with that understanding that Avraham could foresee the outcome at Sdom. When Lot decided to move there the basis of his decision was very mundane – (Breishit 13:10)
י וַיִּשָּׂא-לוֹט אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא
אֶת-כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, כִּי כֻלָּהּ, מַשְׁקֶה--לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת
יְהוָה, אֶת-סְדֹם וְאֶת-עֲמֹרָה, כְּגַן-יְהוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם,
10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as one goes unto Tzoar.
I am sure there were signs of the upcoming destruction, as Sdom lies directly on a fault at the edge of a major tectonic plate there must have been earlier less devastating tremors etc… and Lot chose to ignore them because of the short-term gain he saw in the fertility of the land. The “desired outcome” that Lot was seeking was not in accord with Derech Hashem. It was a selfish and narcissistic short-term decision. Avraham on the other hand realized the mistake Lot made and Lot, a student of Avraham, came to that realization just in time to barely save his own skin. Lot’s earlier decisions to join Avraham show his conflicted personality and the imperfect decisions this brought about. It is those early decisions that resulted generations later in the two nations Amon and Mo’av.
So answering Evanston Jews questions, yes all knowledge that leads to our better understanding of our universe, world and society falls under the rubric of Talmud Torah as it helps in our acting responsibly for the long term. The Halachik part of the Torah is only one of the components of Talmud Torah albeit an important one, because it gives us the tools to assimilate the other knowledge and use it constructively. And yes, knowledge and information are crucial in our decision making and for us to know how to act. Does knowledge lead to perfect action, are we always right if we act with knowledge, of course not. We are human and the best we can do is try our best by getting to know as much as we can about ourselves and the world we live in.
I will address Evanston Jews other questions which are related to his first question in a follow up post as I have reached my self-imposed limit on posts lengths and have indulged in a little digressing to Parshanut.