Sunday, October 23, 2005


Weekly Portion Blogging: Bereshis (Part I)

Let's see how well I'll keep up with this, but it would be nice to have weekly Torah portion blogging won't it? (Also ... sorry for all the blank space on top ... blogger put it in and I cannot figure how to edit it out)

Anyway, let's start at the beginning. After all, according to Julie Andrews, it's a very good place to start. This week, with Simchas Torah, we start reading the Torah at the beginning. Hopefully, soon I'll have a chance to comment on Cain and Abel and the meaning of sacrifice, but for now, I'll just give a few thoughts on the Creation itself.


There has been a lot of discussion lately about the idea of "Intelligent Design". As I have stated before, I wonder if the whole goal of this discussion is simply what some Republicans are saying they want to do: "teach the debate". After all, what will students come away learning from such a "debate"? That evolution is how life has come to exist as it does, but that living organisms are darned near divinely designed. The problem with this is that living creatures are full of design flaws while "free market theory" uses evolutionary language to make ridiculous claims (as ridiculous as my spelling). If students do not really learn what evolution is capable of, how it works (I recently heard a fundamentalist saying that the variability of living organisms is evidence against evolution when, in fact, such variability is a key aspect of the theory of evolution as well as its key import in theology -- evolution destroys the position of the Medieval "realists" for whom the 'prototype' was more real than the variable and hence 'imperfect' individual by showing that it is our imperfections and variability that allows for evolution, both biological and spiritual!), etc., they will be more susceptible to evolutionary-themed economic and socio-political snake oil. They will believe Friedmanite economics and The Bell Curve because instead of being taught how evolution really works, they are taught evolution is almost divine in its perfection.

What is often missing from this debate is a full discussion of what is ment by "Design". While most scientists oppose "Intelligent Design" as an alternative scientific theory, I would reckon that of those scientists who are religious/believe in God, two philosophies prevail.

One philosophy borrows from Schopenhaur, Ibsen, James, Nietzche and Kierkegaard, not to mention Bayes and Pascal: the scientist believes because that is his "will". Belief in God is a "vital lie" and it's vitality makes belief and religion not only a "will" and a "right" but a pragmatic thing to do. At the very least, because belief does not kill, it makes one stronger. Therefore, one ought to make a leap of faith and be religious. A Bayesian might point out that the existance of God, while not provable, is probable and therefore it is advisable to believe in God. At the very least, even if Bayesian optimal beliefs are not actual true, they are utilitarian and must be adopted even if they are lies -- they are vital.

The other approach is that of belief due to belief, in spite of Hume, in the Design Argument. The universe is Designed for life by a Designer. While some may wish to blow smoke in the current debate by citing the acceptance by many scientists of the Design Argument, this argument is purely meta-physical and neither yields a testible hypothesis nor precludes evolution as a mechanism of Design. Indeed, while we mere humans cannot understand the methods of God, human design is often evolutionary: we take an idea, mutate it, test it, tinker with it, etc. If a watch is evidence of a watchmaker, that watchmaker designed the watch by tinkering with previous watch designs and optimized them to the best of his ability.

There is an idea in some quarters of Judaism that God transcends time as well as space (indeed, one Jew happened to make quite some waves claiming the equivalence of time with spatial dimensions). Some people hold notions of a process philosophy in which God runs a creative process. In either case, the act of Creation was not a one time event but is something continuous. And what is the mechanism for Creation? Evolution, perhaps.

It thus must be clarified that "Intelligent Design" is not the "Design Argument". "Intelligent Design", in spite of the protestations of some scientists, is being presented as a testible scientific theory -- no more nor less scientific than evolution. Of course, it is a patently wrong theory -- the evolution of all of the supposedly "irreducibly complex" systems cited by ID theorists is easy to conceive if not well understood in scientific practice. But what concerns me more than the incorrectness of the science of ID are the theological implications.

Evolution is not incompatable with religion or even the Design Argument, but it is incompatable with certain religious philosophies, e.g., Medieval Realism. Similarly, those who attempt to derive a scientific and testible form of the Design Argument (as "Intelligent Design") are proposing a theory with specific theological implications. If God Creates by Evolution, that takes a lot of responsibility for our imperfections out of the hands of God. But if God has created complex systems directly, then why did He Create them so imperfectly?

Is God imperfect? Is God trying to teach us lessons about something? And if so, why not just reveal those teachings to us like the religious hold he has revealed so much else. Of course, some ID proponants do hold God to be limitted ... and not in the sense of Steinberg. God is, to them, limitted in His ability to accept our sincere repentence, as discussed by Kaufmann who is quoted on Adventus.

OTOH, the ID proponants pointedly do not claim God is the Intelligent Designer. Are the ID proponants specifically advocating Platonic or Gnostic thought? Obviously some are.

Evolution is a scientific theory with meta-scientific consequences. So is ID. When is it acceptable, in a secular society to teach such theories? I would say it is acceptable to teach evolution but not ID. Why? Because evolution seems to be true and more importantly has practical consequences: to fully appreciate the power of microevolution, which affects us greatly with emerging diseases, etc., we must believe in macroevolution. Is ID true? Is ID pragmatic to believe? I think not ... so why teach it?


One interesting aspect of the debate over evolution is the role of the Creation story in this debate. Belief in evolution, or even ID, is incompatable with a literal intepretation of the creation story presented in Genesis (although ID is closer to a literal interpretation). But if the creation story in Genesis is not literally true, why include it in the Torah? Jews, Liberal Christians and Orthodox/Catholic/Calvinist Christians can answer this question easily: the story is either myth or allegory. Even the Talmud pretty much treats the Creation story as allegory by asking why creation went the way it did ... and later Jewish thinkers, even before Darwin, clearly viewed the creation story in terms compatable with Darwin. For some Christians, the Creation story can function as an allegory to explain the "origin" of Original Sin.

But what do fundamentalist Christians, whose soteriology is not so orthodox in terms of Original Sin but who do not accept the Jewish/liberal Christian allegorical interpretations of the creation story, do about the creation story? They have no choice but to view it relatively literally. So that is what they do.


Sorry about the confused nature of this post -- I have a lot to say and not so much time to say it. Hopefully, though, it ties in some way together a lot of stuff I've been ranting about lately.

Looking forward to your post on the section preceeding this, also. (i.e., the last bit, read before Bereshith.)
Intelligent Design is rightly not considered a scientific theory by the scientific community. It cannot be tested or disproven, nor can it make predictions about future results. It's really just a political ploy to get literal Creationism into schools. Irreducible Complexity is a scientific theory, though even its designer, Michael Behe, has been forced to admit that by the standards which it is considered a theory, astrology and phrenology would also be considered scientific theories.
Basically, Christian fundamentalists don't like that this is a pluralistic nation but know they don't have the support to get the Establishment Clause repealed. So they try these twisted, back-door approaches to institutionalizing their conservative interpretation of the Bible.
Neil ... actually, I've not thought of anything to say about the last part of Torah yet.

Samurai Sam ... that is the problem with "Intelligent Design". Do they mean the "Design Argument" as supposedly demolished by Hume (which I happen to accept ... although I would still quibble about the use of the word Intelligent -- I am agnostic as to God's intelligence in some ways)? Or do they mean irreducible complexity?

If the latter, than it is scientific. Indeed, phrenology and astrology also can be phrased as scientific theories that happen to be wrong. Of course, if the former, it is not at all scientific. Of course, the ID proponants themselves are deliberately vague as to which form they want to teach: because one form is falsifiable (and hence falsified -- btw, as a student of science, I note that any scientific theory is indeed wrong. Why? Any scientific theory is falsifiable ... and anything that can happen will happen in some way shape or form at some time ... hence any scientific theory, being falsifiable, will somehow be falsified) while the other is not falsifiable and while not certain to be false is not science, they have to keep shifting lest they be pinned down as advocating teaching either a false theory or a non-scientific one.

But, call me paranoid, I tend to feel there is more to the whole business of teaching "Intelligent Design" than just placating a few Fundamentalists to whom "Intelligent Design" must be as anti-Biblical as Evolution.
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