Moshe Kosower
Retired physicist

Some Reflections on Torah, Science, Rationality, and Morality

Title page of a reprint of the 1730 edition of Sir Issac Newton’ Optics. Newton is considered to be the father of modern science, and this volume contains some of his views on God and creation. On page 370 he describes the order, beauty, and purpose apparent in the universe and attributes it to “a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent . . .” On page 402 he describes the harmony manifest in the planetary structure which he attributes to be “associated in the first Creation by the Counsel of an intelligent Agent.” and goes on to declare “For it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it’s unphilosophical to seek for any other Origin of the World, or to pretend that it might arise out of a Chaos by the mere Laws of Nature; though being once form’d, it may continue by those Laws for many Ages”. A unequivocal declaration of his firm belief in creation and divine providence!  The closing sentence of this volume: “And no doubt, if the Worship of false Gods had not blinded the Heathen, their moral Philosophy would have gone farther than to the four Cardinal Virtues; and instead of teaching the Transmigration of Souls, and to worship the Sun and Moon, and dead Heroes, they would have taught us to worship our true Author and Benefactor, as their Ancestors did under the Government of Noah and his Sons before they corrupted themselves.” Newton was what we call a Noahide, a righteous gentile who accepts the Torah of Israel and observes the seven Noahide commandments.

Torah and Science are often presented as two conflicting and mutually exclusive views of the world. Many times have I been asked how it is that one who has “devoted” so much to “Science” can still lead the life of a believing and practicing orthodox Jew? My interlocutors are invariably persons whose knowledge of either science or Torah, usually both, is meager or non existent, and when I point out to them that their question is not a question at all but rather a statement of opinion, the answer I invariably receive is “but everyone knows that the two are incompatible”.

Well, anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of the history of science will tell you that the greatest and most far reaching discoveries were made by disproving what “everyone knows”. Let us then carefully examine the “well known” fact that Torah and science are in eternal and irreconcilable conflict. We shall begin by examining the very concept of knowledge.

Most people are born knowing very little indeed. Knowledge is slowly acquired and accumulated from various sources and any speculation on the nature of knowledge must therefore include an investigation of our sources of knowledge. These are clearly enumerated by Maimonides at the beginning of his letter to the Jewish community of Montpellier:

“One should not believe [i.e. accept as true] anything except the following three:

“First, that which is proven by methods of human logic and reason such as the propositions of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy;

“Second, that which is made known to a person by one of the five senses, for example one knows that a certain object is red and another black by means of his eyesight, or that one substance is sweet and the other bitter by his sense of taste, or that one object is warm and the other cold by his sense of touch, or that one odor is pleasant and another unpleasant by his sense of smell;

“Third, that which is received from the prophets and men of righteousness [i.e. men whose word is to be trusted].

“A person of intellect should classify in his mind and thoughts the various facts which he accepts as true and say to himself this I accept because I received it from others, this I believe because my senses tell me so, and this I believe because it is logical. But he who accepts as true fact anything that does not fall into one of these three categories of him is it said (Proverbs 14:15) ‘a fool believes everything’”

Maimonides refers not only to different sources of knowledge but also to different types of knowledge. Obviously, the knowledge obtained through our senses is different from that obtained through our reason; the knowledge that a certain table is green is different in kind from the knowledge that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the two other sides of a right angled triangle (given certain assumptions).

If I am told by another person that a certain table is green, the ultimate source of this knowledge is the sense of sight of that person. I too have such a sense of sight and I can therefore verify this fact by my own observation or that of someone whom I trust. The source of this particular kind of knowledge is the human sense of sight, and not some special faculty of that particular person. Similarly, if I am given the solution to a mathematical equation I can easily verify this sort of knowledge by my own powers of reason.

But what about knowledge obtained from the “prophets and men of righteousness”? Obviously, prophets do not come to tell us the color of tables or to teach us mathematical theorems; from the prophets and men of righteousness we gain moral knowledge. When the Torah tells us that we should not have double standards because such conduct is despicable in the eyes of God (Deut. 25:12 – 15) we gain knowledge the source of which is neither sensate nor rational; it is knowledge which comes to us through the special faculty of prophecy possessed by the person who gives us this knowledge; a distinct kind of knowledge from an extraordinary source.

Human cognition then, according to Maimonides, is three dimensional: it is made up of sensate knowledge obtained through our senses, rational knowledge whose origin is in our reason, and moral knowledge gained from the prophets.

This three dimensional view is, however, not shared by all.

Many philosophers reduce the edifice to two dimensions, sensate and rational. Some go even further and reduce the whole of human cognition to one sole dimension: either rational or sensate. The philosophers who maintain such views are legion and there is no need here to mention them by name or to go into detailed accounts of their theories and methods; the common denominator of them all is their firm denial of the extra-human dimension of prophecy as a legitimate source of knowledge. This denial of prophecy has, in many circles, actually become the sign of a “modern”, “enlightened”, “forward looking” and “scientific” viewpoint, and everyone wants to be “modern”, “enlightened”, “forward looking” and “scientific” (without, of course, taking the trouble to examine the exact meaning of these terms).

Such out of hand rejection of the traditional source of moral knowledge, i.e. prophecy, and of the traditional motives for moral behavior, i.e. divine purpose in the creation of man and divine concern (not retribution) with human behavior, creates a problem usually avoided by most possessors of “enlightened” and “forward looking” viewpoints. If the divine does not exist and, ipso facto, there can be no prophesy, from what source are we now to obtain moral knowledge and to what purpose? Who is to tell us what is “right” and why we should “love our neighbor as ourselves”? The original reason for such behavior as stated in Lev. 19:18 is “because I am God”.

One way of evading this problem is to adopt a nihilistic view of the world and deny the necessity for any moral or ethical code at all. Such a view is expressed by Aldous Huxley in his Ends and Means (1946):

“For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom”.

I am aware of the fact that Huxley did not himself retain this view in his later years, but I am quoting it here because it clearly describes an attitude that I have very frequently encountered from many of my colleagues and coworkers in academia and high-tech. They usually expressed themselves in more explicit and graphic terms which I could not really quote here. Huxley is quotable.

But meaninglessness leads to purposelessness and purposelessness leads to the drug addiction, alcoholism, crimes of wanton destruction, and suicide that we see increasingly today. Even those who reject the existence of divine prophecy agree that such a state of affairs is not good.

But what about a moral system based on scientific fact and human reason? Can we not concern ourselves only with concrete facts and by human reason and logic develop a rational moral code understood and accepted by all. Sounds good, prima facie, but I am reminded of the following story of an attempt to teach a moral lesson by means of a “scientific” experiment.

A lecturer was trying to convince his audience of the evils of drink. “Alcohol”, he told them, “destroys the body”. “Alcohol kills!” In order to press home this very important message the lecturer demonstrated the effect of alcohol by means of a “scientific” experiment. In front of him were two tumblers, one full with water, the other with pure alcohol. The lecturer produced two healthy wriggling earthworms and proceeded to explain the nature of his experiment. “I have as you can see two live and healthy earthworms and before me two tumblers: one with pure clean water and the other with alcohol”. He then proceeded to drop one worm into each glass and, after informing his audience that they would soon see the results of the experiment, continued his description of the pernicious effect of alcohol on the human body. After a while the two worms were removed and displayed to the audience. The worm that had spent the duration in water was still wriggling happily; the alcoholic worm was, of course, hanging limply, obviously quite dead.

“What”, asked the lecturer “do we learn from this experiment”? Someone at the back of the audience was waving his hand, clearly eager to explain. “Yes my good man”, said the lecturer, “what did you learn from this experiment”? “It seems to me”, came the unexpected answer, “that if I drink enough alcohol I won’t have worms”.

A perfect example of Thomas Hobbes’ description of the relationship between thoughts and desires in his Leviathan: “For the thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies to range abroad and find the way to the things desired”.

Frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan, 1652

The drunk in the story followed his thoughts to where they led him, and most people will similarly use their reason and logic to rationalize and justify their desires.

The man in the story wanted drink, Aldous Huxley wanted something else, and every person has some bodily instinct or passion in which he would like to indulge freely. Given the opportunity, “satisfying reasons” are all too readily forthcoming. Rational systems will be fabricated to show that such behavior is not only permissible but actually “ethical” or “moral”.

Maimonides’ taxonomy of human cognition will help us to identify not only the various sources of our ideas but also the motives for our daily actions.

Let us consider the following scene. A group of people are gathered in a room and among them is an engineer whose specialty is the safety of buildings. He notices certain cracks and defects in the walls and realizes that the building is in danger of imminent collapse and that the lives of many are in danger. Those present are warned of their danger, they leave the building before it collapses, and the engineer is commended and perhaps even rewarded for “good citizenship”, “bravery”, “service to humanity”, or whatever value phrase happens to be in vogue at that time and place.

Our engineer “knew” that the building was in danger of collapse; he also “knew” that he must warn others of the danger they were in so as to save their lives. What are the sources of these two items of knowledge?

The source of knowledge of the imminent collapse of the building is obviously the sense of sight of the engineer combined with rational knowledge acquired at engineering school and through years of experience. But what about the knowledge that he should save the lives of his fellow men? Obviously this is a completely different sort of knowledge. What is its source? Did he analyze the situation in a rational manner and conclude that he must warn the other people in the building because the ensuing fame would advance him in his profession? Were the other people in the room a source of gain to him which would be lost at their demise? If, on the other hand, those present were mainly competitors who stood in the way of his professional advancement would it not have been more “reasonable” to have let them perish; after all isn’t it always “every man for himself” and “survival of the fittest”? We see that based solely on “rational” considerations the decision taken by our engineer would not be an easy one.

But what about “common decency” and “moral obligation”? Doesn’t “everyone know” that it is a “basic moral obligation” to warn someone in danger and save him when possible? Well, in modern western society this may be a nominally accepted moral obligation, but even a cursory study of cultural anthropology and history, especially recent history, will show that such is not the case in all societies. The source of the moral knowledge that one must warn others of danger and save them when possible is prophetic: “you shall not stand on the blood of your fellow”; and the reason for such behavior is also clearly stated in our Torah: “because I am God” (Lev. 19:16).

Our Torah has been accepted, at least nominally, as a source of moral knowledge by western civilization for more than a thousand years. As a result, Jewish moral concepts have permeated society to the degree that they are by many considered “normal” or “natural”, perhaps even due to an inherent “moral instinct” present in all human beings, or the result of some sort of “natural ethical evolution”.

Other “civilized” societies that have not had the benefit of acquaintance with the Jewish ethic have produced very different concepts of morality.

Consider, for example, the views of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic:

“ . . .  in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.”

A precise exposition of the philosophical foundation of Nazism. As we all know, mid-20th century Germany was considered to be one of the most civilized and cultured nations on earth. They despised Judaism and had the greatest admiration for Greek philosophy.

Or the views of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias:

“  . . . .  for how can a man be happy who is the servant of anything? On the contrary, I plainly assert, that he who would truly live ought to allow his desires to wax to the uttermost and not to chastise them; but when they have grown to their greatest he should have courage and intelligence to minister to them and to satisfy all his longings. And this I affirm to be natural justice and nobility.”

These views were considered morally acceptable by a Greek society whose values were, as we all know, not very Jewish.

Similar sentiments were expressed by many philosophers up to the present e.g., H. Spencer:

“The ill-fitted must suffer the evils of unfitness and the well fitted profit by their fitness. These are the two laws which a species must conform to if it is to be preserved.” (Ethics II 247, 1887)

And

“. . .  to those who take an optimist view, or a meliorist view of life in general, and who accept the postulate of hedonism, contemplation of these principles must yield greater or less satisfaction, and fulfillment of them must be ethically approved.” (ibid 248)

It appears that the Nazis seem to have had quite a few “rational” philosophers on their side.

In our age we have witnessed the conduct of two socio-political systems, Nazi Germany and soviet Russia, both based on “rational” principles and explicit repudiation of the Jewish moral code. The evidence against the existence of an innate “moral instinct” or of “moral and ethical evolution” is overwhelming.

From a purely logical point of view the morality professed by the Greek sophists and other “rational” philosophers is not surprising. Our senses tell us quite clearly what is pleasure giving and desirable and our rational faculties enable us to devise the means of procuring what we desire. In the absence of any other considerations, the views of the sophists and those who follow in their moral footsteps are inevitable.

And, from the ancient Greek point of view, why should there be other considerations? The difference between ancient Greek morality and Jewish morality stems from the difference between ancient Greek and Jewish cosmogony. The Aristotelian view was that of an eternal universe with no creator to whom one is accountable. The universe, according  to this view, is a vast piece of unowned property waiting to be claimed by whoever has the power and wits to conquer and hold it. Any person or group that succeeds in conquering and dominating has a “natural” right to make their will law. Man is absolute master of the world; there is no power above him save that which he has not yet succeeded in subduing.

The existence of a divine moral code is a logical consequence of the Jewish belief in creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). Whenever we come across some new or strange object that was obviously manufactured, we immediately ask “who made it?”, “what is it for?”, and “where are the instructions?” We also do not expect a machine to have any useless or unnecessary parts; everything should be there to serve a purpose. If we then look upon the universe as a vast instrument made by a supra-human intelligence, we cannot but conclude that it was created for some purpose and that somewhere there must exist some sort of instruction and maintenance manual from which we can learn this purpose and discover how to “make it work”.

It is the concept of creation by a divine being which provides the rational basis for the morality of a landowner leaving over a portion of his crop for the needy (Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19) or being kind and generous to the helpless (Deut. 24:17). The reason given for such behavior is invariably “because I am God”. God is creator and absolute master of this world and no man can ever aspire to such a position; man’s position is that of tenant (Lev. 25:23) with both rights and obligations imposed by the landlord.

The “moral sense” of B. Russell (Mysticism and Logic, Pelican, 1953, p.53) and other “humanists” to whom a morality based on the struggle for survival is so repugnant is not a sense; it is a moral conditioning brought about by generations of Bible-reading Protestant ancestors. Paradoxically, by denying the divine origin of moral knowledge, Russel and his secular humanist friends destroy the only rational basis for the moral values which they claim to cherish. The Nietzsches and Carlyles whom Russell finds so reprehensible at least present us with some clear and logical arguments; Russell can only refute them by invoking a mysterious and non-rational “moral sense”.

The Greek philosophers’ answer to the Jewish belief in “creatio ex nihilo”, creation out of nothing was the famous assertion by Parmenides: “ex nihilo nihil fit”, out of nothing comes nothing. Creation out of nothing was impossible because it was both inconceivable and also contrary to the observation that nothing ever seems to change. Obviously, if nothing ever changes then nothing ever changed and therefore the universe was always there. Indeed, until recently no relevant “truths of observation” concerning the origins of the universe were at hand to challenge this view.

Today, of course, the situation has changed completely. Starting with the paleontological discoveries in the 18th and 19th centuries and up to the recent discovery of the radiation left over from the “big bang”, the rapidly accumulating observational data all point in one direction: that the universe, including time and space, had a definite beginning and slowly by stages developed into what we have today. “Science” has discovered a beginning “ex nihilo”, out of nothing. (Scientists are not allowed to use the word “creation”; it is not “scientific”.) And, from the point of view of “science”, we cannot even ask what was there before the world began; time itself was created and in the absence of time “before” has no meaning.

But the creation story in Genesis does not only tell us that the world was created “ex nihilo”, it also describes six stages of creation.

Stage one: the sudden appearance of energy (light),
stage two: the formation of matter (firmament, including stars and planets),
stage three: the appearance of vegetation,
stage four: the arrangement of the planets in their orbits,
stage five: the sudden appearance of aquatic life, birds, and the “great serpents” (dinosaurs?, Cambrian explosion?),
stage six: the sudden appearance of terrestrial life forms, (continuation of the “explosion”?) and, at the very end, the creation of Adam — a generic term for mankind.

In the June 25, 1978 issue of the New York Times the following appears in an article by the renowned physicist Robert Jastrow:

“The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: The chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.”

The description in Genesis so closely corresponds to what modern science has discovered that it is inconceivable how any human being could have known this three thousand years ago, or even one thousand years ago. How then did the author of the Torah know all this? The only plausible answer I can think of is that the author of the Torah also happens to be the Creator of the universe. He would certainly know!

Why then, has the theory of creation not become universally accepted and “scientifically respectable”? Robert Jastrow in the above cited article writes the following:

“Theologians generally are delighted with the proof that the universe had a beginning, but astronomers are curiously upset. Their reactions provide an interesting demonstration of the response of the scientific mind — supposedly a very objective mind — when evidence uncovered by science itself leads to a conflict with the articles of faith in our profession [emphasis added]. It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper it over with meaningless phrases.”

It is interesting to know that science has “articles of faith”.

Then again there is the credo of Aldous Huxley and the story of the worm in the tumbler full of alcohol. Is the credo of Huxley the basis for these “articles of faith”?

And, of course, there is the obsession with “rationality”.

Robert Jastrow, again in the above cited article, writes the following:

“I think part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon that cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money. There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the universe and every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause. Einstein wrote, ‘The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation.’ This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications — in science this is known as ‘refusing to speculate’ — or trivializing the origin of the world by calling it the big bang, as if the universe were a firecracker.”

And, of course, only a heretic would dare ask who set off this firecracker.

This abhorrence of irrationality and insistence that everything in this world must be mentally under “control” is a carryover from the ancient Greeks. With the rise of the new physics and the serving up of such intellectual delicacies as the dual nature of light, particle waves, the uncertainty principle and the various paradoxes arising from relativity theory and quantum mechanics (which Einstein could not accept and referred to as “spooky”), to mention but a few, such a stance is no longer compatible with scientific fact.

Take for example the behavior of light. When we don’t look at it, it behaves like a wave but as soon as we look at (measure) it, it behaves like a particle. Sometime it even seems to know in advance that we are going to measure it. Nature seems to be playing hide and seek with us!

So what is light really and how can it do that? Only God knows! (Scientific heresy!)

This situation was already described by the prophet in Isiah 40:28 “His wisdom is beyond comprehension” and by the Psalmist 147:5 “His wisdom cannot be quantified”

The traditional Torah view of a world created and maintained by a supra-human intelligence whose origin and behavior we can only partially and imperfectly understand is much more in keeping with present day reality.

The fact that scientific discoveries increasingly strengthen the Torah position is not surprising and is only to be expected if we believe that the Author of the Torah is also the creator of the universe.

Scientific theories change with time; Torah is eternal.

About the Author
Moshe Kosower lives in Safed where he now lectures at two Yeshivot, mainly on topics connected with Jewish thought (philosophy) and belief and also on topics relating to the Torah-Science interface (International date line, Hebrew calendar, halachic times, etc.)
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