8/30/2005

Belief, Intellect, and Life

I have just returned to school for what will be my last semester here, God willing. This evening I attended an event responding to a book of essays by Steven Jay Gould, "Bully For Brontosaurus." Dr. Gould was an eminent evolutionary biologist who (among other things) wrote a great deal about the fallacies of creationism, and it was that subject that elicited the most response from students in the audience.

It is worth noting that just before the main lecture, the Chancellor of the university had given some brief remarks. The Chancellor, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, is one of the great intellectual figures of the Modern Orthodox movement, and he called on the authority of such monumental leaders as Maimonides, R' Kook, Rashi and R' Soloveitchik to make the point that not all of the Bible can be understood literally, least of all the Creation.

That being the case, one might expect students to hesitate before challenging the theory of evolution as flawed. Yet several did so; moreover, they used arguments that Dr. Gould expressly demolished in his essays. Nice to know they did the readings...

It is unfortunate that this burning need to discredit evolution has crept into some parts of the Jewish community. But there are two reasons that it came about, I think, both among us and among the Christians from which it spread. First, some people need the Bible to be understood literally; to introduce metaphor is to reduce the certainty of the text, its power as a clear standard to measure ourselves against. Worse, it could be said the reflect poorly on the Author, who should epitomize truth and not speak in clouded language. Such concerns are misplaced, and ignore the many passages of the Bible which are clearly metaphorical. For religious people to restrict themselves to implausibly literal readings does a great disservice to their understanding of the Bible.

The second cause for the urgency of creationism as an idea is much more serious. Any attempt to interpret the text metaphorically to better fit scientific or historical knowledge, no matter how necessary, represents to many people an attack on the authority of the Torah itself. They have reason to assume so; many in the so-called "rationalist" camp have deliberately used science as a club against religion in general. Dr. Gould, as much as he may protest otherwise and despite his frequent invocations of Psalms, is particularly insidious in this respect:
Genesis and geology happen not to correspond very well. But it wouldn't mean much if they did—for we would only learn something about the limits of our storytelling, not even the whisper of a lesson about the nature and meaning of life or God. (415)
Small wonder that some believers are suspicious.

But to react by blindly defending a needlessly-literal reading of Genesis, as well as attacking evolutionary science, is toxic for the intellect. The defenders of creationism engage in the worst sort of sophistry and sheer folly, to the point of claiming in some cases that the dinosaurs did not exist, and that their bones were created by God as a test for the faithful. Anyone trained to think in this manner will carry such training over into other fields as well; I cannot think that willful ignorance will prove a beneficial trait in the long run.

On the other hand, many scientists have overstepped the bounds of their profession by supposing that evolution somehow is a proof against the existence of a Creator. It is difficult to prove a negative, and impossible to do so regarding transcendent beings; that some try regardless is more a reflection of their own need to deny God than the supposed strength of their arguments.

I have always thought that the Evolution/Intelligent Design "debate" was irrelevant anyway, with respect to the divine origins of life. The development of complex life from simple life is trivial, given enough time and genetic mutations. What is infinitely harder, perhaps inexplicable, is the quantum leap from inanimate matter to the first self-replicating protein. How does inert carbon change into something with a motive force? What is the cause of life?

It could be that science has theories about that too, but I certainly have not heard them discussed publicly with anything approaching the fervor of the evolution "debate". Yet which is the more surprising? That life adapts, or that life exists at all?

2 comments:

Mike Maller said...

I do always enjoy popping into your site, Mastiff. Always something thought provoking.

A point I think you danced close to without landing upon is that the argument of Creation has little to do with the what and the how, and everything to do with the Who. As you said, "... that some try [using evolution as a proof against the existence of God[ regardless is more a reflection of their own need to deny God than the supposed strength of their arguments." The Creationist/Intelligent design "faithful" engage in the reverse, denying Evolution because, as you also said, "... it could be said [to] reflect poorly on the Author, who should epitomize truth and not speak in clouded language. "

Though he may have created the Universe, nowhere in it did he write his name down in a language we understand, save in the Torah. The hardcore Creationists need to believe in God, and require a literal Bible to do so. The hardcore Evolutionists(for lack of a more specific term, and yet...), or rather, that subset of the Evolutionists that use their belief to discredit the story of Creation, think the way those Creationists do, that the Torah must at all times be literal. If either side did not believe in that literal Bible, they would use different tactics. Of course, it's somewhat harder to attack a metaphor than it is a clear statement.

I wonder if these arguments would go on so much if people took more, or paid better attention in, classes involving literary interpretation and analysis.

Asher Litwin said...

Wait a sec, Mike. Are you implying that by better educating themselves and applying their intelligence to aquiring more and deeper knowledges of a subject and a skill needed to better understand said subject, that people can prevent misunderstandings or foolish arguments about a subject? Hrm... I should look into this concept further. It might make for a new social invention.
:-D