Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Science and Torah: Is a Society of Torah Scientists Possible?


This past Shabbat, I attended a Shabbaton hosted by the Chabad of Pasadena. It featured Dr. Mickael Chekroun, an atmospheric scientist at UCLA. He gave an address titled "From Particle Physics to Serving Hashem." (Why someone who is not a particle physicist would speak about particle physics is a mystery to me.) His main point was that it is possible to be a religious Jew and a scientist as you can count on science eventually catching up to the truths that Torah has already revealed.

Already, such an attitude makes it difficult for someone to be a scientist. Science is a method to be followed, admittedly one with a tenuous relationship to objective facts, and not a set of conclusions. A scientist is not a prophet and can have no inkling of where new evidence will lead. In practice, any evidence produced by someone that fits neatly into their pre-set beliefs must be discounted. It is the equivalent of a tainted crime-scene. (Science does have the advantage over criminal investigations in that it is possible to redo an experiment as opposed to a crime.) As to the question of being a religious scientist, yes it is possible, but also completely irrelevant. An individual scientist can hold Jewish beliefs, but he can also hold flat-earth beliefs without it interfering with his ability to perform productive research. Since science can be reconciled with any belief system that does not point-blank declare the scientific method to be invalid, the fact that it can be reconciled with Judaism says nothing positive about Judaism. The relevant question is whether Judaism can serve as a helpful backdrop to a society of scientists, who not only produce legitimate research but also pass on the scientific method to the next generation.

Can Judaism produce a scientific tradition? It has long been recognized within Orthodox circles that it is quite possible to be a committed Jew without being Orthodox or even in any way observant. The difficulty is getting multiple generations of committed non-observant Jews. So it is only fair to ask the same question regarding Orthodox scientists. Dr. Chekroun might, today, identify with Chabad, but he is not the product of Chabad. (Much like Kylo Ren did not rise out of the Dark Side.) By his own admission, he already was a working scientist when he came to be involved with Chabad. Will his children become Chabad scientists? Rabbi Chaim Hanoka, the head Chabad rabbi in Pasadena, is the son of the scientist Dr. Yaacov Hanoka ztl. Like Dr. Chekroun, Dr. Hanoka was not a product of Chabad, but part of the early generation of college students, who became religious through Chabad. The Hanokas are a respectable Chabad family. That being said, none of Dr. Hanoka's children ever became scientists.

The fact that a person's biological children do not become scientists, in of itself, is not a serious challenge. Personally, I feel little at stake over whether either of my children, Kalman or Mackie, will become practicing historians when they grow up even if I am determined to give them the values of a historian. That being said, this issue of children helps us comprehend the larger issues of society and continuity within science. Contrary to popular perception, science is a social process. Science is not about individuals performing experiments. Science happens when those experiments are repeated by other scientists including the scientist's worst enemies. A scientific community is possible because whatever petty personal rivalries might exist, everyone is committed to the scientific method. As with any community, the sense of shared values allows science to craft a covenantal tradition that binds the dead, the living and those who have not yet earned their Ph.Ds.

Can Lubavitch (or any Haredi movement) produce a self-sustained scientific society? In practice, there are very real difficulties for any product of the Chabad school system to ever become a scientist. As a matter of principle, Chabad is against college. It might be theoretically possible for Chabad to create its own scientific institution to train Lubavitch scientists. Perhaps, something along the lines of the Vatican's astronomy institute. In practice, this is unlikely as the scientific method is not something that you can dabble in. It requires a full commitment, the kind we usually associate with religion. A scientist with anything less is going to fall prey to having some kind of outside agenda. (This might explain why so many scientists are against religion. Science cannot afford to submit itself to any outside authority. This causes religion to be seen as a threat. Furthermore, the fact that science is such an all-encompassing commitment allows it to serve the kinds of emotional functions most people get from religion. Hence, for a scientist, science becomes a logical replacement for religion.)

This commitment that science demands for itself makes it different from other professions. It should surprise no one that, in the New York area, Orthodox Jews are a force to be reckoned with in Law and Medicine. This is unlikely to happen soon with any of the sciences as science is not simply a job that you put in long hours in the hope of being well paid and that demands no larger allegiance. (Note that the practice of medicine is not a science any more than being a mechanic makes you a scientist. In both cases, you are applying a set body of knowledge instead of attempting to acquire new knowledge.)

It is here worth distinguishing between applied science and theoretical science. Historically, the tendency has been for a theoretical science to proceed without any sense of how it might be useful, followed several decades or even centuries later by the applied science. The crucial science is the theoretical one. It is also the part of science that would be the most difficult for the Orthodox world to produce on its own. Unlike Law and Medicine, theoretical science offers little in the way of financial reward. Rather than helping fund those engaged in full-time Torah study, a society of Orthodox theoretical scientists would compete for funds. Even more damaging, such a society would demand that the wider community believes that funding science is equal to funding Torah in the sense that both should be pursued for their own sake.

Does any of this make a difference? The Haredi world can do quite well for itself simply recruiting professional scientists for itself from the secular world. But what would happen, granted that this is an extreme scenario, if the Haredi world ever "won?" Say, maybe just in Israel, if everyone decided to become Haredi and we had to face the Yeshayahu Leibowitz challenge. Now Israeli science is going to be handed over to Haredim and, come the next generation, there will be no more secular kids, who became religious as adults to become scientists. What would happen to Israeli science? Historically, one thinks of the philosophical traditions produced by pagan Hellenists, suddenly in the fourth-century, falling into the hands of Christians and later to Muslims. Now we have no more pagans and we must expect Christians and Muslims to step in and do philosophy. There is some debate on the matter, but overall the fall of paganism was not good for philosophy.

Not that I expect Haredim to ever become close to triumphing, but this issue does indirectly have practical implications. As long as Haredim cannot answer questions like what will happen to science if they took over (or the police and the army for that matter), Haredim will always be a marginal group. Even a large birth-rate will not help them as, in the long run, they will not be able to hold on to their children. Such practical questions, with their implied reliance on secular society, will do far more to destroy people's faith than any science lecture. 

I do not doubt that Haredi communities such as Lubavitch will be able to continue to attract scientists. I am also willing to charitably assume that Haredim are tolerant enough to put up with eccentrics in their midsts with an interest in science. Such behavior can easily be justified by assuming that these exceptional individuals have special souls, which require this particular spiritual diet. That being said, I doubt that the Haredi world will ever be able to produce a scientific society of its own that is not dependent upon the secular society it opposes. Yes, one can be Haredi and a practicing scientist. What the Haredi world will never be able to accept is a self-conscious organized society of people with the values of science and with the determination to pass those values on to their children (biological or otherwise).



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