Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Competing Realities

There is a philosophical theory called the "5 minutes ago" theory or something like that. Basically, it postulates that the world and everything in it was created 5 minutes ago. People were created just as they are now, complete with false memories of a life never lived. The world was came into being with hundreds of millions of years of fake fossils and geological records. Everything you think you remember or know about your life is all an illusion because you were created 5 minutes ago with those memories so you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
Sounds bizarre and I don't believe it for a second but here's the rebuttal: I can't prove it's wrong because any proof I try to bring gets shot down by the "prefabricated" argument.
If that's true, then it is also possible the universe was created 10 minutes, or 1 hour, or 5769 years ago. Indeed, this is what many Jewish creationists argue:
The solution to the contradiction between the age of the earth and the universe according to science and the Jewish date of 5755 years since Creation is this: the real age of the universe is 5755 years, but it has misleading evidence of greater age. The bones, artifacts, partially decayed radium, potassium-argon, uranium, the red-shifted light from space, etc. - all of it points to a greater age which nevertheless is not true. G-d put these things in the universe and they lead many to the false conclusion of a much greater age.
I said the evidence is misleading. Does that mean that G-d is tricking us? Not at all: He told us the truth! Only someone who [perversely] decides to ignore the statement of the Creator and rely only on what he can investigate will be lead to a false conclusion. Only to such a person is the evidence misleading. And note that this policy of creating the world looking different from its true nature is an inescapable Jewish idea. For, we recite twice every morning that G-d constantly recreates the universe, even though this is not observable.

Of course, there is one easy way to reject the "5 minutes ago" theory. It is simply not reasonable to believe that an entire universe would spring into being "ready made" and then start to evolve at normal speed under the control of the current rules of physics. Rav Gottleib's argument above is not disprovable, but it also is not reasonable to those who remains convinced that a prefabricated universe that is literally only 5759 years old (he wrote the article 4 years ago) is unreasonable.
If that's so, then one could ask a further question. Rav Gottleib (and I don't mean to pick on him but his essay really exemplifies the point I'm trying to make) is an incredibly educated man, both in philosophy and Torah Judaism. One could not conceive of him trying to hoodwink ordinary people with high-sounding double talk into accepting facts he felt were untrue. In other words, in his essay he is not lying.
But if the universe is, according to our understanding of time, far older than 5759 years ago and we are not living on a prefabricated planet but rather on one which came into being and developed into the state it is now over hundreds of millions of years, then Rav Gottleib is wrong.
I have previously noted that a single question cannot have two contradictory answers that are both right. What colour is this pencil? It's either brown or black. It cannot be both. How old is the universe? Is it literally 5759 years old or literally eight billion? It cannot be both. And I must note that the word literally is important as I'm not discussing my personal reconciliation of the apparent contradiction between Torah and science. I've dealt with that elsewhere.
Let's look at another issue. Chabad, despite its best attempts to hide the issue in public in many places, holds as one of its doctrines of faith that the last Rebbe, a"h, is still alive and has temporarily shaken off his mortal coil to go up to Heaven and it's from there he still directs Lubavitchers everywhere. Not only that, but his apparent death notwithstanding, he is still the Moshiach, just waiting until the best time to return to this world and reveal himself as the redeemer of Israel.
Now when most people learn about that, or when an earnest Chabad shaliach tries to get that point across, there is a generally rolling of the eyes and one common thought goes through most people's brains: he's dead. He ain't the Moshiach. What's the matter with you people?
Finally there's the various kiruv organizations out there that seem to raise the ire of most non-believers. How dare they talk about the spiritual aspects of the universe as if they were real and not imaginary hocus-pocus invented by "the rabbis"? How dare they present the Torah-observant lifestyle as a happy, personally fulfilling one? How dare they insist that the Torah was given by God when we all "know" that's not so?
In short, how dare all these groups and people lie to them?
But are they really doing that? Are each of these groups and people saying to themselves "I know what I'm preaching is full of crap but if it fills the halls and gets me money, who cares if these unwashed masses actually buy it"?
The answer is: no. When Rav Gottlieb says we live in a prefabricated universe, he believes it. He believes he is given over God's own truth to us. It's the same with the Chabad shaliach. In his version of reality, the Rebbe is still alive and holding the title of Moshiach. And the Aish/Ohr rep at the conference really believes he can make your life better by telling you about his version of the principles of Torah observance. We really could be living in a literally 5769 year old universe when a supernatural Rebbe runs the world and where keeping kosher leads to greater personal happiness. You may not think so but as unreasonable as it sounds to you, it just might be right.
In other others, there are multiple realities, each of them personal. I have mine with all its eccentricities and quirks and every other person on the planet has their own. Who's right? Well I am, of course. If someone else's opinion of reality made more sense to me than mine, I'd adopt it because, as a rational person (no really, stop laughing!) I want to have the sanest view of reality I can understand.
But even though I'm darn sure my view on things I also must remain aware that this view of reality is simply mine and that just as I cannot disprove the "5 minutes ago" theory, I cannot disprove anyone else's view of reality. I may find it unreasonable but then, that's because my view of reality is the most reasonable.
So how does one approach this concept of competing realities? One can be egotistic, like many of the non-believers who have seen "the light" and now go around attacking those of us who still bask in the warmth of God's greatness. Howver, I generally see those kinds of folks as insecure. Lacking anything positive in this new reality of theirs, they can only continue to justify their ongoing apostasy by bashing that which they came from. Like the fat, ugly girl who insults all her colleagues so she'll look better to the boys but who can't come up with a single positive thing to say about herself, they continue to flail histrionically at the truth they left behind without ever coming up with a single positive reason for why their view of reality is the correct one, other than the ubiquitous "if you're frum you're living a lie" argument.
There is another approach, however. The simpler, more rational and psychologically satisfying way is to simply accept that there are many realities because reality is defined by a person's view of it. You cannot insist that there is one true reality and that anyone who doesn't accept it is wrong. A person decides what their reality is and his personal right to that should be tolerated. It is only the person whose grip on that personal reality is so strong that he must inflict it on others or else label them guilty of heresy that must be argued with and shown his place. Otherwise, mutual respect and tolerance would go a long way towards reducing the friction in this world.


BrooklynWolf said...

The idea that the world was created looking old is usually referred to as the Ompholos theory. The way that it is raised in Jewish circles is that the world was created "old" 5769 years ago and then Adam was created. However, I raised some serious questions about whether or not this holds up scientifically here.

The Wolf

Garnel Ironheart said...

Thanks for the comment, Wolf and for the new word. Makes me wonder, because omphalo is the Latin medical term for belly button. Are you aware of any possible connection?

I also agree that scientifically this theory doesn't hold up but the rebuttal point is that it doesn't have to. God, being omnipotent, is not obliged to make things scientifically acceptable. He can create a world instantly in which everything looks old even though He just made it.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

The serious questions raised by Brooklyn Wolf were addressed in the comments to this post:

As with all areas of origin science, there are major assumptions of regularity. Here, there are major assumptions about the uniformity of rate of gene variation over time.

This line of critique does not invoke Gosse theory because it denies the validity of the challenge from the evidence.
The scientific evidence against the Jewish tradition always requires enormous unverifiable assumptions.

Baruch said...

I also agree that scientifically this theory doesn't hold up but the rebuttal point is that it doesn't have to.
For my "Psych and Halacha" class, I recently proposed that antirationalist Orthodoxy adheres to Credo quia absurdum:
1. The gedolim/aggadah say something that sounds really crazy to my flawed ears.
2. Would the gedolim/aggadah, who we know to be authoritative interpreters*, say such a seemingly crazy pshat if it wasn't logical?
3. Hence it is logical & if it doesn't make sense to you, that's due to your own infintesimal smallness. Your "logic" and "morality" don't add up to a fingernail on a gadol. Sure, they could be wrong, but somebody like you couldn't figure that out, especially considering that there's at least 5 pshatim one could kvetch into their statement and you're probably not taking something into account. You are to treat them keilu they have papal infallibility.

*the latter from the gedolim

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

The fact that you've attempted to construct a rational position for logic of the anti-rationalist orthodox* shows that you don't really believe they are really anti-rational.

* assuming the label has any validity

Baruch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Baruch, I found a very early source for your anti-rationalist Orthodox credo quia absurdum.
Read this-- but before you get to the very bottom, try this exercise: guess who wrote it, write the name down on a peice of paper, and then see who wrote it. Compare the author's name to the one on your paper and see if they match.
ומשום כך דברו חכמים ע"ה בענינים האלקיים ברמז. ולכן ראוי לאדם שאם נזדמן לו מדבריהם דבר שהוא נגד המושכל לפי דעתו שלא ייחס החסרון לאותם הדברים אלא ייחס החסרון לשכלו. וכשיראה משל ממשליהם שפשוטו רחוק מאד מבינתו ראוי לו להצטער מאד על כך שלא הבין הענין, עד שנעשו אצלו כל הדברים האמתיים בתכלית הריחוק. ... ולפיכך יש דברים שאצל אנשים מסויימים הם נכונים וברורים בתכלית, ואצל אחר הם בגדר הנמנעות, כפי ערך מעלתם בחכמה.

It was the Rambam in his intro to peirush hamishnayos:

Nishma said...

The issue is one of inherent personal consistency -- and this also sets the standards to tolerance. As Garnel points out, reality is often, to some extent, dependent on the perception of the person viewing reality including and most importantly one's frame of reference. Once you bring someone to their a prioris which they accept as true, it is difficult to move on from there unless one can clearly show that the assumption is wrong. As the a prioris may make that impossible, even though these assumptions cannot be proven, a challenge would be blocked. So, for example, once you postulate an All-powerful God who could create a world with any perception of age, it is difficult to challenge the arguments against literal Creationism. There is still a problem, though. To present that type of assumption would also challenge other possible conclusions based upon rational assumptions and a prioris. As such, how does this person apply this logic in other cases? How does this person explain when one is to apply certain perceptions and not others? You may not like this person's answer either -- but the challenge is not to prove him/her wrong but to demand of this person consistency. What I have found is that this demand fro consistency is either met by great hostility because you have uncercut the person's foundaton or you actually get this person to start thinking -- and then to find out the problems with theories not investigated to their full extent with a consideration of the actual conclusions and repercussions of such theories.

For example, when I confront a person who basically tries to argue that God can do anything, I ask this person if God can become physical. If the person says no, which is surprisingly a common answer for the other alternative would challenge God as all-powerful, then I ask the person if he/she is a closet Christian. Invariably they find the problem going down that path. If, on the other hand, the person responds with a no, than I present the problem of defining all-powerful. Whatever conclusion the person arrives at, it is usually different than his original thoughts on the subject of all-powerfulness. That very movement, emerging not from the challenge of rationalism but rather from a challenge of consistency, is then identified and further challenges the individual to consider all his/her thoughts. And what if the person just concludes that he/she and in fact the world is inconsistent -- well I just build upon tha assumption to show that any subsequent dialogue is inherently impossible as nothing can be derived from anything else without consistency.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

What I have found is that this demand fro consistency is either met by great hostility because you have undercut the person's foundation or you actually get this person to start thinking -- and then to find out the problems with theories not investigated to their full extent with a consideration of the actual conclusions and repercussions of such theories.

Rabbi Gottleib anticipated this challenge and responded as follows:

A more sophisticated objection to the second solution is this. Can we not defend any arbitrarily chosen age for the universe by this logic? If we said the universe is 50,000, or 500,000, or 5,000,000 years old, we could always say that the evidence of greater age was due to misleading evidence put there by G-d! Doesn't this trivialize the whole project? It means that there is no objective standard at all for deciding how old the universe is!

The answer to this objection is as follows. Indeed, if we were to use this logic without any limits, it would trivialize all investigation in the age of the universe. But we are suggesting that it be used to resolve a contradiction between two generally reliable sources of information. Under these conditions it is wholly appropriate. I will give you an analogy. Suppose George is accused of murder, and we have his fingerprints at the scene of the crime, the murder weapon at his premises, and he has a motive. Suppose the only argument put forward by the defense is that George is being framed. That will surely not be taken seriously. To take it seriously would undermine almost all attempts to convict, since almost always it is possible that the defendant is being framed. But now suppose we have a witness who claims to have seen George 100 miles from the crime at the time when it occurred. Now we have a contradiction in the evidence. Now it surely would be appropriate to suggest the possibility of a frame-up and to investigate that possibility. After all, frame-ups do sometimes happen. Our case is strictly parallel. To suggest that G-d hid the true age in defense of any arbitrarily chosen age is wrong. But to use that suggestion to solve a contradiction in the evidence is perfectly appropriate.

Of course, this solution assumes that the Jewish tradition does have enough evidence to be regarded as generally reliable. I believe that this is true, but defending it requires a much larger effort. In the mean time, given that premise, the analogy with prosecuting crime holds.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

WADR to Rav Gottleib, his essay on this is particularly weak.

To say that the Torah and science are two competing but equally reliable sources for the age of the universe is wrong.

Science cannot prove or disprove the truth of God's existence. It is irrelevant to such inquiries which must always be metaphysical. Science is limited to the physical and therefore uses those means to produce its answer that the universe is billions of years old.

The Torah is the opposite. It is entirely metaphysical in this area and therefore cannot compete with the physicality of science. If a literal reading of the Torah demands us to believe the world is only 5769 years old, then we must accept that on faith, not rational thinking.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Let me paraphrase and insert the miracle of the manna in place of creation, and see if you agree with the conclusion:

The Torah's account of miracles is the opposite. It is entirely metaphysical in this area and therefore cannot compete with the physicality of science. If a literal reading of the Torah demands us to believe that it rained supernatural bread to feed 2 million people for 40 years in the Sinai, then we must accept that on faith, not rational thinking.

You think acceptance of the miracle of the manna is not rational? Isn't the Torah a reliable source of historical truth equal to science?

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Again, this is an unnecessary conflict. The narrative on the manna and the narrative on creation are totally different. The former is very specific, the latter very vague. The former leaves no room for mistake - a supernatural bread was given to our ancestors on a daily basis for 40 years. This supernatural bread "violated" what we understand as the constant laws of nature because God suspended those law to feed our ancestors. Done.
And one can say the same thing about the 6 days of Creation but one does not have to.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Not just "anyone" has said it. Chazal, quoted by the Rambam as a "mesorah b'yad kol" in hil. Beis Habechira have stated that Adam Harishon was created directly from the earth where the mizbeach must be built. This is not derush or homiletics, but a direct mesorah about how God actually created the first man.
It is not vague at all. It is exactly like the report of manna falling in the desert for forty years. We ignore all that science has to say on such a topic because we simply know better from our sources of truth about history.