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Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

Why are so many scientists atheists? Part IV Concluding remarks

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As reluctant as its practitioners are willing to admit, science is a human activity, accompanied by all the foibles, biases, and misinterpretation of which Homo sapiens is capable. In his seminal 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that contrary to the popular picture of science as a dispassionate search for truth, it proceeds by establishing paradigms, or models, of how it views the operation of the universe and then builds a structure around those paradigms. In time, some phenomenon appears that the model is unable to explain. In response, scientific pioneers construct new models. They are typically met with resistance from the champions of the old paradigm, especially those whose careers are heavily invested in it. No one likes to see his or her past work invalidated. Inevitably, however, a new model arises that can explain the new phenomena without losing the successes of the old one. This model now becomes the new paradigm, and the cycle repeats itself.

Consequently, the conflict between science and religion should not be surprising, but the vehemence of that rivalry is.  The conflict revolves around two competing, mutually exclusive views of reality. As expressed by the theories of evolution and the multiverse, contemporary science essentially takes the view of Amalek, that all of existence is but a series of random events without a Prime Mover. Religion, on the other hand, beginning with Judaism, asserts that the evolution of the Universe is guided by G-d’s plan as expressed in the Torah.

Although they reference one another, the two sides certainly don’t conduct themselves in the spirit of the Sages Hillel and Shammai, who respected each other to the point of citing the other’s opinion before his own when they disagreed.  The proponents of science and of religion often seem to be talking past each other; as we found in part II, MIT physicist Dr. Jeremy England holds that “Torah and science describe Creation using different ‘languages.’” Creation, Dr. England explains, is presented in the Torah using language that is suited to the goal of preparing its readers to serve Hashem following a specific code of law.”

Science generally reasons from observation; religion reasons from contemplation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the religious use of the argument from design, as we saw implicitly in part II and explicitly in part III. One might think that the miracles accompanying the Exodus from Egypt would be sufficient to make the case; instead, the atheists go to great lengths to find “natural” explanations for everything. There’s just one problem. Suppose, for example, that the parting of the Red Sea was a natural phenomenon, a fortuitous combination of winds and tides. Why did it happen at precisely the right time for the Children of Israel to cross safely, and cease at the right time to drown the Egyptian Army? That goes beyond any reasonable definition of coincidence.

Aside from such considerations, the most compelling proof should be the Revelation at Mount Sinai. In the presence of about three million witnesses, men, women, and children, G-d descended upon the summit of the mountain with thunder and lightning, with fire and smoke, and declared the Ten Commandments. Since when do natural phenomena speak? The only counter that can be offered is that the Torah, or at least that part of it, is fiction, to which believers can and do respond that if human beings had written the Torah, they would never have the nerve to promise a three-year harvest in the sixth year to sustain those who observe the laws for the Shemittah [Sabbatical] year until the eighth year, when crops can be planted. And so goes the conflict between the secular and the religious.

A major consequence of contention is that each side invades the other’s territory. When science tries to invalidate religion by citing examples such as Bishop Usher’s calculation based on Biblical timelines that the world was created in 4004 B.C.E. compared with the results of geological dating, it oversteps its bounds.

Likewise, when religion tries to dictate science, as, for example, the Church did when it sought to deny the evidence of Copernicus and Galileo that the earth is not the center of the universe, it is also overstepping. Simply put, science should seek to answer the question “How?” and religion should seek to answer “Why?” Or, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning.”[Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l , The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning,  p.37] Subsequently he elaborates, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” [Ibid. p.39 et seq.]

We have seen examples in this series of essays and elsewhere of how the scientific community can be just as dogmatic as the adherents of any religion. One such example is set by Richard Dawkins, who condemns religion in the most strident terms. Conversely, though far more moderate in tone, is the denial by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rav Joseph Soloveichik that science has any right to express an opinion about the origin of the universe. [Rabbi Chaim Jachter, Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith,  p.79]  It is high time to declare a truce and let the warring sides go back to what they do best. And both science and religion should realize that they can’t convince the other side that they are right.

In the final analysis, a wise observation by the Chofetz Chaim zt”l says it all: “With faith there are no questions; without faith there are no answers.” (Alternatively, Rabbi Berel Wein ascribes the quotation to “[t]he great Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (Halperin) of Kotzk [who] pithily summed up the matter as follows [:] ‘For the believer, there are no questions; for the skeptic and agnostic there are no answers.’”

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

May I express my appreciation to Rabbi Michael Dubitsky, Content Editor for YU Torah-to-Go, for reading and commenting on an earlier merged version of these essays.

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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