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Nice Work Rabbis, But Does This Mean Genesis is Just a Big Metaphor?

Kudos to a group of 235 Rabbis who are willing to publicly state their hostility to the teaching of Creationism in science classes. Muffti isn’t really sure how a theory that says that development of species is essentially a random matter of genetic mutation could display God’s hand in anything, but he’s not theologian (nor scientists) so he’ll leave it be. From the Baltimore Sun.

For Rabbi Gary Gerson of the Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion, evolution does not oppose religious belief but strengthens it.

“If anything, it all the more underscores the magnificence of creation as the expression of some highest order,” Gerson said. “We as Jews every day praise God for the times and seasons and the order of being, and that perhaps is the greatest miracle of all. This is not caprice. There is a natural order to things.”

Seeing evidence of the divine in the theories of Charles Darwin meant that Gerson did not hesitate to sign an open letter drafted by a suburban Chicago rabbi this summer supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools. The two-paragraph letter, written by Rabbi David Oler of Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, has attracted 235 signatures since its completion in July, with Jewish leaders from across the United States supporting its cause.

The effort, Oler said, spun off from the Clergy Letter Project, launched in 2004 by Michael Zimmerman, now the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. Zimmerman asked Christian clergy to draft an open letter, since signed by 11,000 religious leaders, supporting the public teaching of evolution and emphasizing that religion does not have to be an enemy of science.

But Oler, who also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, felt that Jewish clergy should also be given an opportunity to endorse the teaching of evolution while rebuking the addition of creationist theories to curricula. “I would say that as Jews, being a minority, we’re particularly sensitive to not having the views of others imposed on us,” Oler said. “Creationism and intelligent design are particularly religious matters that don’t belong in public school system.”

Arguments over whether alternatives to evolution should be taught in public schools continue across the United States, most recently in state legislatures in Louisiana and Florida.

To Zimmerman, “the goal of both letters is to say that religious leaders, both Jewish and Christian, can come together and be secure in their faith without having their faith impact and pervert modern science. There are fundamentalists of many stripes whose religious predilections have perverted scientific worldview. When that narrow religious perspective ends up being taught as science, we’re doing society a real harm.”

Carl Feit, the Ades Chair of Health Science at Yeshiva University in New York City and an ordained Orthodox rabbi, said that compared with American Christianity, Judaism is largely untroubled by evolution.

33 Comments

  1. Ben-David

    9/23/2008 at 1:37 am

    Muffti isn’t really sure how a theory that says that development of species is essentially a random matter of genetic mutation could display God’s hand in anything
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    That is because Muffti has mischaracterized evolution.

    Evolution does not say very much about randomness.

    It talks more about the development of populations in response to environmental stresses and changes. It looks at how natural variations in the population become more or less prominent depending on their usefulness in the environment.

    Those variations are “random” in the same way that the laws of physics can be called “arbitrary”.

    Evolution exists within the realm of science. Like all physical sciences, its application and conclusions are limited to what can be physically observed.

    Evolution was publicized beyond its actual, scientific scope by people with an anti-religious agenda, who sought to give their opinion the authority and inevitability of scientific fact.

    But that is a lie.

    Evolution neither proves nor disproves the existence of G-d. The observation of seeming randomness in the natural world neither proves nor disproves the existence of G-d.

  2. David

    9/23/2008 at 2:03 am

    Are the Jewlicious people skeptical of evolution? holy crap….

  3. themiddle

    9/23/2008 at 2:16 am

    Huh? Where’d you get that, David?

  4. grandmuffti

    9/23/2008 at 3:51 am

    Like Muffti said, he’s no scientist, but he thought that evolutionary change was explained partly by dna mis-replication, which is a random process. Perhaps the doesn’t count as part of ‘evolution’ simpliciter. Genetic drift itself is random in the sense of ‘not predicted in advance’. Or is Muffti missing something

    Muffti agrees wholeheartedly that the existence of God isn’t refuted directly by evolution; he merely said that it was incompatible with a literal reading of the story of the creation of hte earth and animals – where the process is intentional, not natural.

  5. Kari

    9/23/2008 at 7:46 am

    Muffti,

    Evolution is not a random system, it is a chaotic system. The progression of evolution is subject to its initial conditions; i.e. the DNA available before. While the process of mutations is somewhat random, how those mutations might play out in existing organisms is not.

    A random system would not be subject to its initial conditions. If evolution were random, I could someday give birth to a beach ball, a coffee mug or a carbuerator. But I can’t do that. I can only give birth to a (presumably homo sapiens sapien) child who may be slightly different from me and whoever ended up being the father thereof.

  6. froylein

    9/23/2008 at 9:34 am

    If Muffti really wants to know, the stories of creation (there are two ones) are classified as “explanatory / expository legends” in theology / religious studies.

  7. Ben-David

    9/23/2008 at 10:46 am

    What Kari said.

    And G-d is not physical, therefore not subject to physical study or proof.

    As for literal interpretations of the Bible – even the most Orthodox don’t do it to determine the law, and we have solid sources that say we need not relate that way to the narrative passages.

    I like to cite Rav Sa’adia Gaon – which takes us back to the generation of Babylonian scholars who edited and closed the Talmud.

    He says that they contain “the mysteries of creation” and can be taken allegorically.

    There are similar expressions in the Rishonim (early medieval period), that describe these stories as full of “remazim” (hints/allegories) and therefore not to be taken at face value.

    It’s especially important to cite pre-modern sources – which shows that Judaism is not changing to accommodate modern science.

    No change it necessary.

  8. Grand Muffti

    9/23/2008 at 12:25 pm

    Muffti isn’t really sure he is grasping the ‘chaotic/random’ distinction you guys are getting at, especially once you say “While the process of mutations is somewhat random…” If Muffti roles a dice that is weighted towards ‘6’ but not perfectly, isn’t the set of outcomes int eh long run statistically significant but at each role random, despite being limited to the dice coming up on a certain side (and not suddenly beoming a dragon or beachball)? He agrees that there are parameters so that not all options are possible…In any case, he appologizes for mispeaking but he’s not sure that it makes a difference to the piont at hand…

    Muffti agrees that God is not physical, but Muffti figured that he acts intentionally and if Genesis gets things right, with a purpose. Wasn’t Evolutionary theory (is?) so offensive because it implies that the survival and development of species contains elements of randomness (or chaoticness if you prefer). i.e. the creation of Man is an act of the will of God, determined by god, not by chancey long term mutation determined by probabilistic forces. Even if you take the rest of it to be allegorical, Muffti took it that god’s intentional agency wasn’t.

    Out of (genuine) curiosity, why is it ok to take the narrative non-literally but not the laws? And if we don’t take it literally, how SHOULD we interpret it?

  9. Kari

    9/23/2008 at 4:56 pm

    Evolutionary theory doesn’t claim that the existence of the universe or life on our planet is the result of probability.

    That may be a claim common to Atheists (nearly all of whom accept evolution) but it is not part of evolutionary theory itself.

    If you want to argue that G-d is active in the physical world there is no reason that one cannot infer that evolution is simply a manifestation of that on our planet.

  10. Grand Muffti

    9/23/2008 at 5:27 pm

    Not that the existence of life is the result of probability, but that the current character of species depends partly on chance. Genetic drift is probabilistic, and so if it’s a manifestation of God’s will, than you get the (Muffti thought) absurd conclusion that God’s will is probabilistic rather than determinative.

  11. Ben-David

    9/24/2008 at 2:08 am

    …absurd conclusion that God’s will is probabilistic rather than determinative.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Why is that absurd?

    From a Jewish perspective, G-d’s will encompasses “variables” like human free will. And the “determinative” moments in which G-d clearly imposes one option are actually very rare exceptions to the rule in which G-d’s interaction with the world is cloaked by nature.

    As Kari points out, nature can appear to be “random” but still be “determined” by initial set points and other (physical/chemical/biological) restrictions.

    There is no way to prove that the mutations that “happened” to appear were not the one’s “G-d willed” to happen.

    From the Jewish perspective this is all perfectly OK: the world is simultaneously following G-d’s world while providing an impartial backdrop for human free will.

  12. Kari

    9/24/2008 at 4:05 am

    Or you get the notion that the process has a normative goal–human life.

  13. Haim Watzman

    9/24/2008 at 4:14 am

    Grand Mufti understands evolutionary theory much better than his critics. Evolution, as that term is used in biology, requires two components: random mutation and a selection mechanism.

    Random mutation here means changes that can be passed from one generation to the next (usually that means changes in genetic material). These changes are random because the things that cause these changes (cosmic rays, chemical processes, etc.) are not intentional agents. They aren’t “trying” to change the organism in any particular way or make it better at doing what it needs to do to survive.

    The selection mechanism–usually we’re talking about natural selection, although there are some other such mechanisms–means that some of the randomly-changed organisms will survive longer and produce more offspring, and these offspring will inherit that random change.

    There’s no direction to the change–the selected population is not in any sense “better” or “superior” to the population before selection, except at facing whatever environmental conditions they face. If those environmental conditions continue, and if the mutation continues to give the organisms that have it a survival advantage, then it will spread through the population. If the conditions change, or if some other variation emerges that provides superior survival value, the change will cease to spread and perhaps disappear.

    Evolutionary theory thus, like other scientific theories, provides us a way of describing the world in terms of scientific laws that do not require the intervention of a God or supreme being. We don’t need God to explain what we see in the world around us.

    We may choose to believe in God for other reasons (as I do), but anyone who claims that God can somehow fit as a mechanism into the scientific world-view doesn’t understand science.

    This doesn’t mean that believing in God and believing in science are incompatible, but it does mean that they can’t be taught from the same textbook.

  14. Grand Muffti

    9/24/2008 at 11:39 am

    Amen Watzman! Couldn’t have said it better Muffti-self. Of course, B-D, one could say that what appears random is just a plan of God’s being executed using nature as a cover. That’s fine. But incompatible with evolution which posits the processes that Haim mentions are by stipulation of the theory random.

  15. Ben-David

    9/24/2008 at 12:46 pm

    Haim Watzman:
    I think you are answering claims that often are made – but were not made here.

    Nobody is trying to read G-d into evolution in the way you seem to be arguing against.

    And since when does intent have anything to do with whether a mutation is “random”? DNA and RNA do not have intent.

    So when Muffti wrote:
    one could say that what appears random is just a plan of God’s being executed using nature as a cover. That’s fine. But incompatible with evolution
    – – – – – – – – – – – –
    No, not incompatible. Evolution has not “disproved” G-d’s involvement.

    As Watzman points out, the (revised) theory of evolution describes these mutations as initially “dormant” or unimportant to the organism. In this sense they are randomly acquired.

    Within the scientific purview – we are talking about molecular knock-hockey here, so there is no apparent intelligence at work. In this sense, too, the mutations are random.

    But G-d and G-d’s existence are not subject to scientific analysis. They are beyond the purview of science.

    So physical deduction cannot disprove G-d’s involvement, nor can the idea of G-d’s involvement ever be “incompatible” with physical observation.

    That is my point – evolution has been misused beyond its physical/scientific application to “disprove” something that scientific and statistical tools cannot address.

  16. Grand Muffti

    9/24/2008 at 4:31 pm

    Muffti thinks you are running two things together here. One question is whether or not physical observation can be incompatible with God’s involvement. Answer, no. It can’t be. Second question, can a theory that explains the physical observations be incompatible with God’s involvement. Answer, yes. Of course it can. Evolution offers a full and comprehensive explanation (when reduced to genetics) of species development, giving THE conditions under which species change, survive and die. Those conditions don’t involve intentional agency of any sort. So to say that there is also a being that directly intervenes in a non-random way is just to say that the theory is incomplete or wrong in its ambitions. It’s to offer, in other words, a competing theory.

    Furthermore, the truth of a theory can give indirect, if not direct, evidence for or against God’s contributions. The truth of Newtonian theory (well, it’s not really true, but for simplification purposes) gives Muffti evidence that God doesn’t control the stars by will but that they are governed by impersonal forces. Of course, for all Muffti can see, god still may be doing things because he wants things to go just as the laws of physics say they will. but that’s a differnet theory and on most of the ways in which we judge theories (simplicity, explanatory power…) it sucks the big one. hence Muffti thinks that we have little reason to believe that God directs things and that the forces that govern them are all that we need to do the relevant explaining.

    So why should it be any different here?

  17. Haim Watzman

    9/25/2008 at 12:30 am

    My point is not that any given scientific theory proves or disproves the existence of God. The point is that modern science explains what we see in the world around us without recourse to God. The ancients didn’t have a theory to describe the movements of the heavens and the structures of organisms, so they invoked a creator who made and controlled them. They *needed* the concept of God to explain why the world worked and looked the way it did. We don’t need it. Therefore, a theory of God–a theology–cannot emerge from our observations of the world around us. If we want to argue there is nevertheless a God we must understand that it’s a choice we make to insert God into a world in which he is neither necessary nor evident. He can only be an epiphenomenon, an entity that is in fact “superfluous,” that something we impose on the world and how we see it. Doing that, if we choose to do it, doesn’t contradict science per se, but it raises a lot of difficult philosophical and epistemological issues. It’s not enough to say, as Ben-David asserts, that God is beyond the purview of science. Because the minute he is beyond the purview of science then you can’t have a God who intervenes in the physical world (because if he did scientists would be able to detect the evidence; there would be some detectable phenomenon for which God’s will would be the necessary, sufficient, and sole explanation).
    That being said, I think there are some good arguments for making a choice to impose God on the universe. And, to paraphrase Fermat, I have discovered a truly remarkable proof of this which this blog comment is too small to contain.

  18. froylein

    9/25/2008 at 1:24 am

    Are you guys sure you get the issue that religious scholars have had with the evolutionary theory (note that even scientists call it a theory as changes and additions are being made as science progresses in that field)?

  19. Ben-David

    9/25/2008 at 8:37 am

    Watzman:

    Does love have a measurable effect on the physical world?
    Justice?

    There are any number of intangibles not subject to the scientific method, yet effecting the physical world.

    Muffti:
    1) At several points in your last post you veer dangerously close to questions about the nature of existence – the larger framework within which scientific inquiry takes place, in which “species development” takes place.

    As Kari indicated, that consideration of framework can be a determining factor…. the scientific method takes us back to the Big Bang, and leaves us wondering how the reality it describes came to be. That’s a whole other discussion, but… evolution is not a Theory of Everything that explains the whole world without divine intervention.

  20. Grand Muffti

    9/25/2008 at 11:08 am

    Muffti never claimed that evolution was a theory of everything – it’s a theory of (as the title of book goes) the origin and development of species. And it is inconsistent with a theory that claims that god played any active role in developing species at the level of genetic drift. And so if the bible tells us that fundamentally intentional action is responsible for it, that’s inconsistent with the most plausible theory we possess. Of course, Froylein is right that the theory isn’t complete and still changes – but it is wholly implausible to think that it is going to incorporate the wishes and desires of an intentional being any time soon or ever. You may always alter your religious convictions to meet the data of course – since hte bible makes all sorts of empirical claims that we may well find false (Physics predicts the sun didn’t really hold it’s place in the sky for the Israelites to chase down enemies without massive cosmic disaster!) one may well claim they are metaphors and allegories. Then if one wants to play this game, one has to tell you what they are allegories FOR and what the metaphor means.

    Of course evolution offers no comprehensive proof against the existence of God. It can, however, lower the probability that such a being is involve in the mechanics of species development. Any amount of physical observation will fall short of singling out a final theory uniquely – the famous problem of the under-determination of theory by evidence – but that doesn’t mean that all theories that are not directly ruled out by the evidence are equally reasonable. It’s realizing this that has kept people going on about the age of the earth going: fossils are God’s way of testing your faith, carbon dating is, ummn, God’s way of testing your faith by fooling you, lack of evidence…nothing can rule this out as your are (logically) guaranteed to be able with enough finagling to produce a theory consistent with the evidence that bears the ontology you desire. All you can do at that point is start asking questions about which theories seem most likely to be true, and THAT question can’t be settled very easily by just more physical observation since it’s a theory about theories.

    But we do at least implicitly have clear commitments to certain principles of theory choice over others. If you get a message that sounds like it’s from your brother, you don’t give equal credence to the theory that it’s ‘actually from a stranger who happens to have the exact same voice as your brother and misdialed leaving a number for someone else that happened to correspond in content to a message your brother would leave for you. Both are consistent with what you observe but the second is plain implausible compared to the first short of similar evidence. That is part of the framework of how scientific inquiry takes place but it’s reflective of the framework in which we judge good from bad epistemic policy when it comes to theorizing. In other words, a theory that takes up the explanatory slack for God can indirectly lower the probability of God’s involvement in the world without directly refuting it. Just as the reasonableness of the theory that your bother called lowers the probability that it was a stranger with a similar voice without directly refuting it.

    As for love, it clearly has effects on the world. But, it at least is plausible that love isn’t a mechanism on it’s own but a description of a real mechanism (the brain) at a higher order of abstraction. Just as earthquakes cause things but ‘being an earthquake’ describes the actual mechanisms of causation (techtonic plates and pressure) at a higher level of abstraction, the real work of pushing, pulling and shaking being done by the plates and their interactions. Similarly, when we study what the brain does when it comprehends a sentence syntacitcally, we use syntactic trees and symbols without thinking that the brain has a tree in it – the theory supposes that the brain doe the work by neural processing and that the trees are abstract representations that we dont’ know (yet) how to translate into neurophysiology.

    So the, idea goes, while the truth of ‘x loves y’ clearly has an effect on x’s behaviour (and hopefully y’s!) what does the literal work of moving x around and its effects is x’s brain and its functioning, which falls under what we recognize as love. the brain seems to be (to some degree at this point) studiable and measurable and so if it is the site at which causal processes operate, that’s what you want to study.

    Muffti isn’t sure he believes that in the end this is the right picture – reductionism is reductionism after all and has a rather shabby history despite a few massive successes – but it’s certainly a coherent picture and not an implausible one. Suggesting that maybe such things are not out of the realm of scientific study as you think.

  21. Haim Watzman

    9/25/2008 at 11:20 am

    Well put, GM. You just saved me a lot of work.
    Ben-David — I don’t disagree with you that scientific reductionism leaves some important things out of our picture of the world. As GM says, we can certainly offer physical and mechanistic descriptions of what happens when people love or seek justice, but I agree that these descriptions seem deficient. They seem to leave out our personal experiences, which I don’t think we can simply dismiss as illusion. So I do think there’s a place for God in all this, but if we’re to make that case we need to be very careful that we know our science or we’ll end up sounding like imbeciles.
    I write about these issues on my blog sometimes and this exchange, plus a couple others over there, have gotten me working on a series of posts on this question, so if you are interested, stay tuned. It’s complicated stuff so it’ll take me a while to figure out how to write it in blogese.

  22. Pingback: Science and Religion and the Mufti and Me

  23. froylein

    9/26/2008 at 10:54 am

    Serious religious scholars’ issue with the theory of evolution is not whether there’s a deity or deities (it’s a matter of belief or whatnot) but the question what position / role man has got if he’s a product of evolution; many of the rights mankind ha claimed for itself have been based on various legends of creation and how man received certain prerogatives.

  24. Grand Muffti

    9/26/2008 at 12:04 pm

    serious religious scholars take God to have a hand in the creation of the universe and the development of species. Evolution says there was no plan and the development of species is a random and unplanned affair, run off dna replication and the environment.

    No one claimed that evolution can decide the question of whether or not there is a god – it’s a biological theory, not a grand ontological theory. Just the question of whether or not he played a role in the development of species.

  25. froylein

    9/26/2008 at 1:02 pm

    Muffti should read up Genesis again and tell us what was in the beginning and whether divine authorship is mentioned. 🙂 Again, there are two stories of creation, the origins of the first one (Gen 1-2,1a) can be traced back to the Babylonian Exile. Both claim different points in creation when man was created, so no serious scholar (weird fanatics don’t qualify as such) would not use a literal approach, but – always assuming there is a deity of some sort – what man is. B-D correctly pointed out above that nitwits (my paraphrasation) have used the theory of evolution to clam there’s no deity whatsoever while that question is of no relevance to religious people with regards to Genesis as the question that arises out of the clash between tradition and science is a different and way more immanent one.

  26. grandmuffti

    9/26/2008 at 1:47 pm

    Both claim that the species were created rather than evolved, even if we ignore the ridiculous timing of it in 6 days. Both claim that the creation of man was planned rather than a fortuitous combination of mutation and environment. That’s inconsistent with evolutionary theory.

    Look, Muffti understands that sometimes you can interpret things metaphorically. But that doesn’t’ relieve you of the burden of interpreting. So tell me what the creation story you believe in and if at some poitn yuo tell me ‘and then X was created by act of divine will’ Muffti will ring his bell…

  27. froylein

    9/26/2008 at 2:01 pm

    Is Muffti really ready to get into the nitty-gritty of biblical exegesis or shall I save that for private conversations? Basically, the premise is that Oriental narrative tradition explains and exemplifies by using stories to back the intention / moral of a story. The intention is given validity by the story and the story is given validity by the purpose of the intention. Literal reading of Genesis has at all times been a perversion of the literary categories that book consists of, and it already means applying Western thinking that is either deeply entrenched (medieval) or free of phenomenology (post-Enlightment), but in either case it’s absolutely ignorant of the socio-cultural background of those scriptures. Serious religious scholars learn that (at university, that is), so the qestion they ask when exposed to the theory of evolution is, “If God is possibly not involved in creating man and man is just like any other mammal, how can man define and justify its role in this world?”

  28. Grand Muffti

    9/28/2008 at 2:01 pm

    Muffti hardly sees how the basic claim that creation was guided by God and that the creation of man was a planned event rather than result of random forces invovles the nitty-gritty of biblical exegesis. Muffti doesn’t care that it says ‘days’, and he’s willing to give up on any strict adherence to the order claimed, etc. etc.

    If you give that up, then fine. As for man’s role in this world, Mufftid oesn’t really see the big deal. what’s the serious question being asked?

  29. froylein

    9/28/2008 at 2:09 pm

    The serious question being asked is what rights does man have if he’s not created in god’s image and not the height of creation. The whole concept of entitlement to make use of the world (as opposed to what can be found in non-Abrahamitic religions) bases on the stories of creation.

  30. Grand Muffti

    9/29/2008 at 12:41 pm

    Perhaps this is an odd question for a philosopher to ask but, why does man’s use of the world have to be justified? Without a special place in creation, why does it follow that our actions need particular entitlement? Why aren’t we like lions – there actions just are, they don’t stand in particular need of justification.

    what’s muffti missing/

  31. froylein

    9/29/2008 at 2:45 pm

    what’s muffti missing/

    Apart from a question mark?

  32. Grand Muffti

    10/1/2008 at 10:14 am

    smartass….

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