Thursday, May 31, 2007

Can One Believe in Heliocentrism and Still be a Scientist?

Four hundred years ago Judaism and Christianity were challenged by the rise of heliocentrism, the belief that the earth circles around the sun, and the collapse of geocentrism, the belief that the sun, stars and all the planets circle around the earth. This was a problem for Jews and Christians in that according to the book of Joshua, the sun stood still for the Children of Israel, implying that the sun circles the earth. This without any doubt is a major challenge to the authority of the Bible. In the standard Whig narrative, this shift is seen as one of the two great triumphs of the forces of science over the forces of religion, the other one, of course, being evolution. What is so often glossed over though is that, while heliocentrism is a challenge to Judaism and Christianity, this challenge pales in comparison to the challenge heliocentrism poses to empiricism and any faith in humanity’s ability to understand the natural world around him. If I accept heliocentrism, which I do, then I must recognize that when I look up at the sky I am falling victim to one massive optical illusion for the sun, the stars and the planets all appear to circle around the earth. If my senses can be fooled on something as basic as the sky above me then I must ask whether I am mistaken about everything else I think I know about the natural world. I must like Descartes come to doubt whether I have hands or feet or whether there is even an earth if it is not merely an illusion. If I cannot be confident that the world even exists then I must also come, like David Hume to question whether there is even such a thing as a law of nature. Why should a non-existent world even have consistent laws? If I cannot talk about laws of nature then I can have no science. How can I search for patterns and rules that do not exist? If my belief in science can survive admitting that the heavens are a giant optical illusion then surely my religion can survive admitting that Joshua is not meant to be taken literally.
Today with evolution we find ourselves in a similar situation. Can our faith survive admitting that Genesis is not meant to be taken literally? This may be a problem but it is nothing compared to the problem faced by the believer in science. If I accept evolution, which I do, then I must admit that, as C.S Lewis argued, my intelligence, my ability to reason, and every other tool with which I explore the natural world is the byproduct of natural selection. If human beings use the methodology of science simply because that mode of thinking helps the human species survive then we have no reason to assume that it is valid. As with heliocentrism, if my belief in science can survive admitting that the human mind is the product of natural selection then surely my religion can survive admitting that Genesis is not to be taken literally.
When reading Richard Dawkins, I am reminded of Nachmonides’ constant reply to Pablo Christiani at the Barcelona debate: if you truly understood what you were saying then you would realize that your claim is a far bigger problem for you than it is for me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Awards Dinner

Wednesday, May 30, 4:30 - 6:00 p.m.
at OSU Hillel
46 E. 16th Ave.

Join us for a free BBQ dinner to congratulate your fellow students for their achievements in Jewish studies

The Gretel B. Bloch Scholarship:

The Ellen E. and Victor J. Cohn
Scholarship for Study at Hebrew University:

The Morris and Fannie Skilken
Scholarship for Yiddish and Ashkenazi Studies:

Roth Essay Contest:

The Samuel M. Melton Graduate Fellowship in Jewish Studies:

The George M. and Renée K. Levine
Graduate Fellowship in Jewish Studies:

Diane Cummins Scholarship in Hebrew and Yiddish

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Tyranny and the Left's Failure of Imagination

I often ask anti-war protestors if it was morally acceptable for us to go to war with Nazi Germany, a country that had not attacked us and which posed no direct threat to our interests. There is no reason why we could not have, in the days after December 7, 1941, sent Joseph Kennedy to Berlin to tell Hitler that we had no interest in fighting him and were willing to break off our support of Great Britain if he would not try to stop us from fighting Japan, a country that did attack us. We spent billions of dollars and put several million American soldiers on the frontlines to fight an "unnecessary" war.
The thing that really gets me about the war in Iraq is that we have absolutely lost the moral argument. Most of the world and most of the Democratic Party looks at what happened in Iraq and see America as the villains. That just boggles the mind: we invaded a country under the control of Saddam Husain, a brutal dictator, who had been our most prominent enemy for over a decade. This was a man who had no respect for human rights and who broke countless treaties. If you cannot go to war against Saddam then who on this planet are you allowed to fight a war with? This is not to say that it was a smart thing to go to war with Saddam. That is a separate debate.
After we defeated Saddam we set about reconstructing the country. This was no different than our occupations of Germany and Japan after the war, countries which we did far worse things to. As with the invasion of Iraq, the wisdom of our attempt to help put together a functioning government and country is not the question here. Whether our heads were in the right places or not, our hearts were. How is it that Arab terrorists can murder innocent Iraqi civilians and America gets the blame? The narrative we have seen after every attack these past few years is that this is an example of our failure. The dead civilians are added to the cost of our invasion and occupation. For all intents and purposes, we might as well have murdered them ourselves. Most of the left in this country and most of the western world seem to have trouble telling the difference between trying to fight against tyranny and tyranny itself. They become the moral equivalents of each other.
I would suggest that the problem is that the left, at a fundamental level, is suffering from a failure of the imagination to truly appreciate tyranny. For the modern-day left, a tyrannical government is one that does things like not allow gay marriage, or abortion and keeps files on what books people check out of the library. This becomes a major problem when the left has to confront a real tyrant like Saddam. They do not have a word for a type of government acting above and beyond making stupid laws that interfere with people’s lives. As a result, they cannot imagine such a thing existing. So Hitler and Saddam were tyrants and so is George W. Bush. Words like tyranny, racism, bigotry, and injustice no longer have any meaning. As a fighting nineteenth-century liberal I find that scary.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

New Proof for Global Warming

I admit that I have my doubts about Global Warming. How much has the earth's temperature risen over the past century? Have humans played a significant role in this warming? How negative will the effects be and is there a cost-effective means of countering it?

I do not have a Ph.D. in Climatology, Ecology or Earth Sciences. So I am in no position to go about evaluating the evidence. This is an issue that is so politically loaded that one simply does not know whom to trust. (Surely not Al Gore) Normally, I would say trust the experts, but I must confess that I have no idea how to even go about figuring out who are the experts. This creates the frustrating situation where I must throw up my hands and say I really just do not know.

Today, while walking around campus, I was handed a Lyndon LaRouche pamphlet titled "Implications of the Gore Hoax." In true to form Larouche fashion, he proceeds to explain how Global Warming is a hoax being perpetrated upon the world as part of a grand conspiracy by the intellectual heirs to the Venetian bankers and Norman Crusaders in order to take over the world.
Clearly, if Lyndon Larouche is denouncing something as part of the synarchist plot to bring down the global economy and create a new world empire then what he is denouncing must be good and true. Ergo, if Larouche does not believe in Global Warming, then it must really be happening.