Seder disputation

A typical discussion took place around the Seder table on a fundamental question, what is the meaning of “truth,” religious truth and scientific truth. This is one of the features of the Seder, that generates sometimes animated discussions between Jews of different backgrounds and opinions. This discussion, that at times became a little heated, was between myself, a trained scientist and non-believer, and a group of believers, some of them fundamentalist in their views. The host who is also a scientist and an Orthodox Jew basically agreed with me. The question was whether or not scientists are prepared to question their own scientific beliefs the way we expect believers in religion to question their’s.

What I pointed out is that scientists do not use the word “truth,” it has no place in science. Also scientists do not have “beliefs” they accept the current status of knowledge in their dicipline. Scientists deal only in facts that are verifiable. I was challenged in that if new knowledge is forthcoming, then what were considered “facts” previously have to be revised. So the previous “facts” were not really facts. I pointed out that this is precisely the strength of science, that it adjusts to new knowledge, that the content of science is always progressing. By contrast religion, particularly in this case Judaism, is unchanging, its very basis is protecting the status quo. I was told that this is not really true, since the rabbis are forever changing their interpretations, but to me this is merely tinkering around the edges of a huge dogma.

Science only deals in the physical world, and only in results that can be reproduced, while religion deals in the spiritual world and has as its basis a belief system that is not based on verifiable facts. For example, we celebrate the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt on Pesach, but there is no actual proof that this even happened historically, nevertheless we celebrate it and many believe in it. Strong religious believers see science as their enemy, that it is against religion, but that is not strictly true, as both can exist side-by-side. In principle, in my opinion, the findings of science do not negate any belief system that is not based on demonstrably false factual premises.

Let me give an example, it used to be believed that thunder and lightning were God’s way of expressing his anger to human beings. Only primitive nature worshippers would believe that today. We now know that thunder and lightning are actually the results of static electricity generated between the clouds and the earth. There are many other examples, for instance, the Bible supposed that the earth was flat, and this was believed until Galileo disproved it and now with space exploration who could believe otherwise than that the earth is a sphere. According to Archbishop Usher in 1654 the Bible proved that that the age of the earth was only 6,000 years old, and it was considered blasphemy as recently as the Victorian age to question this “fact.” However, we now know from many measurements of radioactive decays that the earth is in fact 4.5 billion years old. Noone expects the religious to change their sacred books to accomodate these fact, but they must at least acknowledge them.

I liken the inability of science and religion to communicate with each other to ships passing each other on a foggy night at sea, they can only communicate by semaphor for a brief window of time, and then they are each gone. In 1884 an Englishman named EA Abbott wrote a book entitled “Flatland” about a supposed world in which people existed in two-dimensions. He posed the question, what would the people living in that world make of a three-dimensional ball passing through their world. It would first appear as a dot, then grow to a maximum size and then gradully decrease and disappear. The greatest sages in Flatland would spend their lifetimes studying this phenomenon, but they would never be able to explain it because they could only think in two dimensions and not three. Similarly, those whose belief system is steeped in religion cannot conceive of the nature of science unless they have studied it.

After the famous 1860 debate at the Oxord Union between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley on evolution, the Church has been in retreat ever since and has essentially lost the argument. So-called creationism is merely a tactic in fighting a rearguard action. But, in the final analysis, there is little that science can say about religion if it is based on non-measurable concepts, such as love, faith and belief.

Then we all amicably shared the Seder meal together.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.