Thursday, March 04, 2010

Perception and Reality

My interlocutor (R Micha Berger) in the last thread was disappointed that I could not rise to the level of Beis Hillel, and understand where the other side is coming from, while still maintaining my position.

He seems further to want me to understand this without negative value judgments, such as "ignorant of science", "fool", "charlatan", "unwilling to admit the they're out of their depth", etc.

As it is, we only discussed one figure, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, for whom I had actually given a reasonable excuse for maintaining an idea, largely because the Rebbe's position is out in public for all to see, in English, and can thus be easily critiqued.

The Lubavitcher lays out his position in a letter from 1962, included in Carmell and Domb's book on the interaction of Torah & Science, "Challenge."

That letter was critiqued for flaws in logic and superficial readings of science, by Mark Perakh, here.

There is a reference to an earlier exchange on this topic from 1963, with a Dr. Velvl Greene, a biologist in Minnesota, who was in process of becoming a Lubavitcher, in which the Rebbe refutes the critique, but I don't know if or where the letters were published. Dr Greene himself does not appear to subscribe to the ideas in the Rebbe's 1962 letter, preferring an allegorical/mythological approach.

As I said in the previous post, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe may be excused for dismissing the evidence of an old universe, because part of the Lubavitch theology, is that the universe has no real existence separate from God, because God's infiinitude nullifies the finite universe next to it. They call this the "upper unity". They also maintain a "lower unity", which says that the universe is perceived to have real existence, but we know intellectually that it is all part of God.

To quote R' Norman Lamm, in "The Religious Thought of Hasidism," p. 50:

click on picture for larger image

That idea, it seems to me, undoes creation ex nihilo - if the physical universe is made of "God-stuff" rather than Sagan's "star-stuff", then the matter of which the universe is composed, even if it's "spiritual" matter, is as old and eternal as the rest of the Divine Essence. It's only the form of the Universe which was applied to this pre-existent "matter", to bring the Universe into existence. In view of this complete reordering of the understanding of the Universe, the question of old vs. young earth is battel, since both space and time, which Kant demonstrated had to really exist, don't really exist for Lubavitchers. We may experience them, and be commanded in certain behaviors while "existing", but space and time have no real existence.

This seems further related to the question of whether the "tzimtzum" was real or metaphorical. The major source discussing it, the Etz Chaim by R' Chaim Vital, which presents the teachings of the Arizal, is ambivalent. The Tzimtzum was the moment where God withdrew from the space in which the physical universe would be created, since two things (God and not-God) cannot occupy the same space.

From Etz Chaim, Shaar 1 section 2:

דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי' אויר ריקני וחלל אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א"ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי' ראש ולא בחי' סוף אלא הכל היה אור א' פשוט שוה בהשוואה א' והוא הנק' אור א"ס. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא' בחקירה הראשונה. והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א"ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש (אמר מאיר בערכינו אמר הרב זה וק"ל) וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה

Is the tzimtzum in "atzmo" or in "oro"? Does it really create a "hollow, empty air/space"? Ambivalent.

The Lubavitchers believe the tzimtzum was metaphorical, that God did not remove Himself, because He is unchanging, but rather designated this space as a space of veils, where whatever bits of Himself were there, would not perceive that they were bits of God. Further, the Lubavitchers maintain that physical Tzimtzum is heretical.

The more common view is that the tzimtzum was real, that God created, as it were, a vacuole in Himself of finite size, in which the Universe could be created, presumably out of bits of God-stuff that were now separated from Him.

What troubles me more, is the apparently bad logic and poorly understood science, masquerading as a real response, that makes up the Rebbe's letter in 1962. That, and his position on geocentrism, which seems to be based on a confusion between perception and reality. That is, in reality the earth and sun revolve around a common center, with perturbations from the other planets. An exact formula may be hard to construct, because of the intractability of the n-body problem. Whereas relativity in terms of frames of reference, as the Rebbe cites it, is only about perception. Given the relative sizes and distances of the bodies, it is still approximately correct, within perhaps 1%, to say that the Earth revolves around the Sun in reality.

Evidently it bothers many people who read the 1962 letter, including the aforementioned Dr. Greene and Mr. Perakh. Now, perhaps the Rebbe felt it was useful in the case of his correspondent, I have no idea to whom he was writing. Perhaps it was better to write a letter which impressed the correspondent, even if a close reading reveals it to have serious problems, than to try to explain very high level spiritual concepts, ideas which, after years of (occasional) study, I'm just barely beginning to grasp. Perhaps this was the "Hashem's secret" that R' Berger referred to.

Perhaps I should just rest assured that others made the critique during the Rebbe's lifetime, and he had answers for the problems, which satisfied Dr Greene.


Garnel Ironheart said...

As I noted in your last post, when Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai debated, both were presenting valid halachic positions and recognized that their opponents were so doing. That's when eilu v'eilu works. It's not a justification to allow for a clash of any two opinions, especially if they're wrong.

BTW, I was learning with the local Chabad shaliach last night and challenged him on the whole geocentric universe issue. Naturally he was dismissive of the inconclusive science that shows the Earth revolves around the sun, and how can they know this for sure anyway, and then there's this Velvel Greene fellow, and then he proceeded to tell me about the theory of relativity only it was totally wrong.

Sad, just sad because when I mentioned keeping an open mind he told me that if you're mind opens up, things fall out. I reminded him that blinkers are for horses and remember what they produce from their back end. Wasn't too impressed.

micha said...

Well, I am glad I at least changed Jon's attitude toward those with whom we disagree. Of course, Garnel, you keep a 10' pole of anonymity between your blog persona and your personality. I think it impacts your ability to exchange ideas rather than simply argue.


Garnel Ironheart said...

Reb Micha, again I mean no disrespect but I still maintain there are different types of disagreements. If a person wants to disagree about the colour of the sky with me, that's not something I can take seriously. The effect of ozone depletion on the environment? Totally different. I am quite happy to engage in discussions about the latter and I have no problem respecting the positions of others. It's cases like the former that I cannot respect because the attitude "I don't care about the facts, I know what I believe!" is emminently dysfunctional to me.

thanbo said...

"change in attitude"? Hah.

For Chassidim, where we know there is another focus, OK. But what about the misnagdim, the ones who, e.g., banned R' Slifkin's books?

RMF's teshuva on "books that deny the Creation of the World" does not insist on any one interpretation of the Creation as the only acceptable one, so it's hard to use him as a basis for banning books on evolution or geology.

Where's your limud zechus for these people who go against the weight of Rishonic and Acharonic precedent?

Y. Aharon said...

I can't comment about the mystical ideas in Chabad since I never had the patience to delve into the Tanya and similar Chabad works. However, there is another aspect of the Chabad approach to physical reality as illustrated by the letter from the late Rebbe. It is a fundamentalist approach to statements in the torah, talmud, and the Rambam's Mishne Torah. The evident reading of the torah's creation story is that it occurred in 6 literal days. Hence Chabad and their Rebbe will insist that the literal reading is the true one. Nach (Joshua, for example) and the talmud treat the sun as traversing the earth's sky daily. Hence, they take that to be literally true. The Rambam accepts the Aristotelian hypothesis that what we call gravity is merely the tendency of things to return to their point of origin, i.e. solids will fall and sink, water flows into oceans that naturally lie above the solid earth, fire and hot air rises - because the original configuration, from bottom to top, was earth, water, air, and fire. Moreover, those 4 "elements" are the building blocks of all matter. Hence Chabad accepts that version of gravity and the classical 4 "elemens" as literally true.

P.S. That anonymous commenter on the prior post was me.

Anonymous said...

that reminds me; Nahum Branover, a soviet Chabadnik and physicist, had said in a public lecture (as noted in one of Kellner's books), that Mishneh Torah was Given by Ruach ha Kodesh.

thanbo said...

That could mean a lot of things. Did Dr Branover give any context?

1) any work of Torah has some Ruach haKodesh;

2) universal acceptance is de facto evidence that there was ruach hakodesh in its writing (RYGB);

3) Kabbalization of Rambam - it really bugs some people that the Rambam was not a Kabbalist, so they invent "evidence" that he was;

4) Pedestal - making his code paramount, or at least on an equal level with Shulchan Aruch - we know R' Yosef Karo was a kabbalist, who summoned and was taught by a maggid who was the spirit of the Mishnah.

Did he say what he meant by it? Does Kellner speculate? Which book by Kellner (I have one or two, but haven't read them in detail)?

הגיין said...

Re.: Dr. Branover (about whom I know nothing) and רוח הקודש.

I assume that Dr. Branover intended praise of the רמב"ם. But then it would be odd to intend a meaning of the term 'רוח הקודש' other than that of the רמב"ם, because that would imply that the רמב"ם misunderstood both the term and himself!

הלכות כלי המקדש, פרק י, הל' ט/י:
עשו בבית שני אורים ותומים, כדי להשלים שמונה בגדים--ואף על פי שלא היו נשאלין בהן. ומפני מה לא היו שואלין בהן: מפני שלא הייתה שם רוח הקודש; וכל כוהן שאינו מדבר ברוח הקודש, ואין שכינה שורה עליו--אין נשאלין בו.

I think this constrains what Dr. Branover might have meant.

(BTW: Thanks for your blog, Thanbo.)

הגיין said...


Re.: (referring back to your blog post) "He seems further to want me to understand this without negative value judgments, such as 'ignorant of science' ..."

What if you had formulated the predicate 'ignorant of science' more concretely, viz. 'ignorant of what {certain specified scientists} are articulating about their first-person perception of {certain specified phenomena}'? Wouldn't that be, at least in principle, a decidable matter of fact, rather than one of value?