2/28/2005

When You've Got a Hammer, the Whole World Looks Like a Nail

סַבּוּנִי גַם-סְבָבוּנִי; בְּשֵׁם ה' , כִּי אֲמִילַם.
They compass me about, yea, they compass me about; verily, in the name of the LORD I will cut them off.
Tehillim 118:11

One one side, there's stuff like this:
"a tradition (mesorah) is a much more powerful and better path to knowledge than sensory observation based on induction"
On the other side (sitra achra) stuff like this:
How about you stick to the facts? Oh wait, that would make you an atheist.
And so, pulled from two directions, the call goes out:
Is Faith the opposite of Reason ?
No. Perhaps according to Mordechai Plaut, but not here. Not on my blog.
My critique of Mordechai Plaut's thinking and Mis-nagid's thinking is actually the same. They both set up a faith vs. reason dichotomy, and they pick their sides. I don't think there's really the dichotomy that they describe - at least I don't experience it. Let me try to explain.

Let's start with the flaw in Mis-nagid's thinking. He writes:
The rule you can draw from every observation ever is that everything we've ever observed has natural or unknown causes.
This is a classic rationalist bias. Rational, and therefore, scientific thinking views the world in terms of cause & effect. Every observed phenomenon must have been caused. Some things we've found the causes for, and for others we're still searching. But everything is cause & effect. This is the rationalist bias from Aristotle to B.F. Skinner. The flaw is that it presupposes c&e to be the explanation for EVERYTHING, and therefore will classify everything as a predetermined effect of a past state of affairs. From the moment of the Big Bang, it was predetermined that I was going to have pizza for dinner tonight. Cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect. Our universe is a closed system where what you see is what you get.
I'm not trying to argue against causality. Well, perhaps if I would have thrown a baseball through the neighbors window, I'd have tried to pull some Hume-schtick by contending that the most we can ever prove is a correlation between the ball striking the glass and the shattering of the glass. Hume had some great ideas - great questions, really - but Kant had some great answers. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant acknowledges that causality can never be objectively 'proven', but that's irrelevant because I don't live in or have access to an 'objective' world. My faculty of perception, conditioned by experience, constructs for me the world which I occupy. Causality is an integral part of that constructed world, and a part that is shared (intersubjectively) by nearly all of humanity.
The moment that one extends the hegemony of causality beyond that which is directly observed or deduced, is the moment that it ignores Kant's critique and oversteps its boundaries.

Take, for example, the matter of free choice. I've chosen the white socks over the black socks. A purely causal system will assume that my decision must have been determined, ultimately, by the sum-total of factors in my life that would have influenced my decision. Any variable that one might try to introduce that would grant the decision-maker true autonomy must be subjected to the same line of reasoning, and so forth. Ultimately, since my decision was made for a reason, that reason must be the cause. Even though the human mind/brain is a black-box - nobody really understands its processes - when one looks at the world through the lens of causality, it becomes IMPOSSIBLE to describe any phenomenon in any other way. The fact that I experience an internal struggle when making a decision is explained away as a byproduct of having to decide against a strong pull. Choice must be an illusion in a purely causal worldview.

One of the greatest implications of Kant's critique is that a person is capable of multiple 'worldviews', though perhaps not simultaneously. The electron microscopist can relate to all matter as packets of energy behaving in predictable patterns, but he's still in the doghouse if he forgets to buy his wife flowers for their anniversary. If he brings his work home and begins to relate to his family as packets of energy behaving in particular patterns, then he's gehockt in a tzoores and his marriage will fail. He must be capable of looking at the world through different sets of lenses at different times.

The greateest tragedy of modernity is that it attempted to reduce everything to a rational, causal worldview. It created this Flatland where the full range of human experience, culture, emotion, art, and ethics are reducible to laws and rules and predictable patterns. What's 'good' became a function of utility in the skewed mind of J.S. Mill. Theories abounded for the 'rules' by which something would be deemed 'beautiful' and why. Much of the 20th century has been the rebellion of various groups and cultures who began to resist this monistic European male way of looking at reality.

Thus, pure causality is the way in which a detached outsider looks at the world to determine its surface space, to categorize the phenomena that he sees. It can be very dangerous if allowed to invade the inner spaces - the experiential, the mystical, the beautiful, the good, the cultural, the kind, the loving, the religious - of human individuals and human groups, and reduce them all to neural impulses and plots on a graph. I'm not trying to denigrate the causal view of the world. Far from it; it is the only way for man to advance his knowledge of the universe and to innovate technologically. But it's imporant not to let that view overstep its boundaries.
There are other, completely different ways of looking at the world. As conscious human beings, we experience a range of phenomena that are not reducible, or that we don't reduce, to causality in any fundamental way. We balme; we assign guilt; we feel insulted, loved, hated, etc. All of these experiences are meaningless in a causal system, but very meaningful in our consciouness. They belong to an entire different realm - much like the above-cited electron microscopist; perforce, he must look at the world in two different ways, one with the eyes of a physicist, and one with the eyes of a husband and father.
[BTW - R' Zadok quoting the Arizal seems to use this type of thinking to mediate the tension between determinism and conscious choice; see Tzidkas HaTzadik #40, ve-acamo"l]
It's also important to note, as Kant instructed us, that neither of these two world-visions actually represents the true reality. They are phenomena - the world as perceived and interpreted, not noumena - the world as it truly is, which humans have no access to (Schopenhauer might disagree and see in consciousness the individual experiencing himself qua noumenon, but I don't think he's right, ve-acamo"l).
Faith and tradition belong to the realm of consciousness, not to the relam of causality. I believe that it is this mixing of realms that generates the entire conflict between Torah and Science, and I believe that this is what the Rav, zt"l (RYBS) meant when he explained that he was not bothered by scientific questions regarding creation.
Faith is a conscious experience of God in this world. Greater faith, at least according to R' Kook zt"l, means acheiving a more sublime vision of Godliness-in-world, i.e., a paradoxical situation where the more God is hidden from the world, the more He's embedded in it. Faith does not see God in the details. God forms the entire substructure through which I can see the universe. Trying to think of a Godless world is like trying to watch TV without electricity. The man of faith doesn't 'see' God any more or less than anyone else, at least not as a perceived phenomenon. Rather, he experiences more of life as a expression of Godliness, and ultimately experiences the whole of existence as a unified manifestation of Godliness.
Tradition is a hermeneutic, the translation of the faith experience into the observer's realm, and somewhat narrow in scope. It tells me how to look at things. It doesn't provide an alternative source of information. People interpret the same things differently. A tradition guides my interpretation.
[For a beautiful, and funny, application of this phenomenon, see IBN Ezra on this week's Parsha, 35:3]
It's pretty tough to overstate the importance of shared interpretations in the formation of any human group. EVERY person assimilates new data into schema, stories, fundamental narratives, that inform the way he looks at the world. Tradition, or 'mesorah', is comprised of those modes of vision, those ways of viewing the world, into which all new data are assimilated. I'd reccomend Yosef Yerushalmi's Zakhor for an excellent introspective look at the evolution of Jewish historical consciousness in this vein. ve-acamo"l.
Thus, setting up sensory data and mesorah as opposites betrays a gross misunderstanding of the concept of 'mesorah'. Mesorah informs how I view and interpret data. It does not provide an alternative to sense data. Of course, the explosion of sensory data that has been made available in the last 200 years has severely overburdened the 'traditional' way of looking at the world.
Some have reacted by putting mesorah up as a counter to all of this new sense data.
Some have reacted by jettisoning the mesorah in favor of all of this new sense data.
Most probably don't think about this stuff much.
And a very few are actually trying to expand the palace of our tradition by looking at all of creation through the eyes of tradition. It may force us to rethink many of the things we've always assumed, may engender certain ideas that hadn't been articulated before in the context of our mesorah, but we really have no other recourse.
Fortunately for us, it's been done successfully before.

גַּל-עֵינַי וְאַבִּיטָה נִפְלָאוֹת, מִתּוֹרָתֶךָ
Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.
-Psalms 119:18
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