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Paradigm Shifts and Higher Authority: A Brief Encounter

With scientific observation…the scientist can have no recourse above or beyond what he sees with his eyes and instruments. If there were some higher authority by recourse to which his vision might be shown to have to have shifted, then that authority would itself become the source of his data and the behavior of his vision would become a source of problems.
Thomas S Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition”

Paradigm Shifts and Higher Authority: A Brief Encounter

Paradigm Shifts and Higher Authority: A Brief Encounter

Thomas Kuhn, in his brilliant work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggests that in general the world is governed by one’s paradigmatic understanding of the world itself. A paradigm is essentially what Richard Rorty described as normative discourse, a discourse in which the rules of the game are clearly established governing the very questions one is allowed to ask. To a lesser extent, normative discourse governs the answers one receives as well.

For Kuhn, the problem with paradigmatic thinking comes when the questions being asked provide answers that conflict with that which is thought to be normative, to be normal. When that happens, scientists begin to seek new questions that help to explain the anomalies found in their answers. Perhaps the greatest example is the shift from Newtonian physics to the ideas of Einstein and relativity and Boor and quantum physics. Physicists are now trying to develop the tools to respond to the problems posed by the polar differences between relativity and the breakdown of what appears to occur at the smallest of quantum levels of being. When scientists are puzzled by the world they observe they engage in work that seeks to respond to the puzzle. This is what Kuhn describes as a scientific revolution or what Rorty calls abnormal discourse. This neo-pragmatic view of knowledge both in terms of understanding of and developing new clarity is underpinned by the idea that solutions arise from problems and problems are best expressed as questions.

Not all questions are equal. Some questions lead nowhere. Some lead to dead ends. Some are pure speculation without a basis in the real world. Even some of the questions that appear to be on the right path to new understanding turn out not to be supported by evidence based on observation and instrumental data. In short, in order to engage in science, evidence trumps speculation and bombast.

The second sentence in the quotation from Kuhn, “If there were some higher authority by recourse to which his vision might be shown to have to have shifted, then that authority would itself become the source of his data and the behavior of his vision would become a source of problems,” is, it seems to me, to be a perfect definition of blind faith; a reliance on a higher authority outside of observable facts and appropriate data collection. The problem that arises is that the higher authority in general is a compilation of ideas and writings, stories and myths, designed to explain that which is unexplained or appears unexplainable. The higher authority is deemed to be generally speaking the final authority disabusing itself of questions that are not contained within the canon. Often the preservers of higher authority discount science as not being in accord with the canon that authority brings to the table. Believers are, then, stuck in whatever time the canon was developed without hope of a more reasoned understanding.

For me, the world is a wondrous place. It is filled with many things I fail to understand, not because my ability to understand is limited, rather, because I have not taken up the study that might lead to understanding. I am in awe of the universe and its grandeur but that doesn’t lead me to posit that the universe is anything more than a very large, violent, random number generator that, in all probability will simply run out of steam some day in the very far distant future. Our own solar system is a microcosmic representation of the absurdity of the universe itself in that sometime in the future it will cease to exist as the sun burns out of its source of fuel. Absurdity in extinction leads me to the conclusion that there is nothing other than probability guiding the very furnace of the universe itself. No need to explain creation unless one is also willing to explain the demise of everything. The eternal universe is simply not an acceptable answer if one explores even the barest surface of current scientific knowledge.


Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

It all falls on what counts as evidence. In my Western way of thinking, evidence cannot be accepted on faith alone. In fact, faith and what counts as evidence are contradictions. In my approach, evidence must be both reliable and verifiable; it must originate in fact and it must be replicable in multiple contexts. Faith, on the other hand, accepts as fact that which is often absurdly beyond the knowledge, what is knowable, and what is verifiable outside of the limitations of faith itself. Faith, then, presents fundamental problems to rationality. Here is where I am struggling to break from the mold of the Greeks and integrate Jerusalem into my thought process. I am finding it more difficult that I had imagined because much of what I am reading and learning relies on faith based evidence and not on reliable and verifiable evidence.

Let me cite a simple example. Yesterday I was reading a commentary on the current parsha (weekly Torah portion open for study for the week and read in synagogue on Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings) that, among other teachings focuses on the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) by God. In the Torah there is a single line that reads as follows: “And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea and the sea returned to its strength.” (Exodus 14:27)  The commentary I read focused only on the four words (one Hebrew word) in the English translation, “returned to its strength.” The first part of the commentary focused on the vocalization of the Hebrew word that could have two pronunciations depending on which vowels are used in vocalizing the word (Hebrew is a language written with no vowels; vowels are added as an afterthought in more modern times in order to simplify correct pronunciation but the Torah is written with no vowels at all). In one vocalization the word means “returned to its strength” while another vocalization of the same letter combination means “returned to normal.” So with no vowels to guide a translator, a choice was made to translate using the phrase, “returned to its strength.” In recent translations made within the past 50 years, the English translation reads “returned to normal” or “returned to its normal state” while leaving the Hebrew of the Tanakh (the Bible) unchanged.

Using the older translation, “returned to its strength” posed a problem for sages of the Talmud and for commentators on the Torah itself. The phrase as translated makes no sense. Pronouncing the Hebrew  in the accepted manner makes no sense. But since every word in Torah is transmitted to Moses by God, and the pronunciation itself must have been, therefore, taught to the Jewish people by Moses himself, the pronunciation must be accepted as the correct pronunciation as well. Occam’s Razor posits that the simplest solution to a problem is generally regarded as the best solution. In this case, accepting a pronunciation that makes little sense over a pronunciation and vocalization that makes clear the language being used doesn’t comply with the principle of Occam’s Razor. Newer translations correct this problem yet there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of pages of commentary stretching over 3,000 years that have to deal with the problem of what appears to be a mispronunciation of the Hebrew of the Torah; a Hebrew that is sans vowels.

To this commentary, the Lubavitcher Rebbe complicates the problem even more. While admitting to the vocalization problem, the Rebbe focuses on the accepted version and tries to explain it. In order to do this, he must jump through at least three hoops and still can only sound convincing to those who accept the Torah as sacrosanct, as infallible, as the word of God transmitted to Moses, through Joshua, to the Judges, Prophets, Sages of the Mishnah, the Sages of the Gemara, to the rabbis and then to the people. The first hoop the Rebbe must traverse is why God would choose such a word to convey a simple idea that once a miracle is over the natural world could return to some kind of normalcy. To this the Rebbe goes through a complex argument that boils down to the fact that the parting of the Sea of Reeds took two miracles, the first was the parting of the sea and the second was the restoration of the sea to normal. The second miracle was made necessary to confirm the fact that the Sea of Reeds was created with the potential for the first miracle and once the condition of that miracle was met and the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land, that without the second miracle the sea would have ceased to exist for ever and all times. God, therefore, needed to restore the sea with miracle number two. This is one reason that the language seems awkward, to make this very point.

Then the Rebbe admits that this is not a completely satisfactory answer to the problem posed by two vocalizations; by two possible meanings. Rather than look for the simplest solution, the Rebbe argues that in order to understand God one must give up the idea that time for God is the same as time for human beings. For us, time is linear but for God time doesn’t exist as God can travel backwards in time, forwards in time and simply be in the present simultaneously. Therefore, one must think of miracles as coming in two varieties. One form of miracle disrupts the flow of the natural world while the other restores the natural world from the discord of the first variety of miracles. This is likened to a conditional contract where the contract would be null and void if the condition for executing the contract is never met. Once the condition is met, the contract is fulfilled (a miracle occurs) but unless the miracle to restore is undertaken the world will be forever altered by the scar left by the first miracle.

There is more but I think you get my point. The evidence the Rebbe relies on is based in the faith that the Torah was given to Moses by God and transmitted across a long line of prophets and sages to the rabbis and then to the people. I find this form of evidence failing to meet either the standard of reliability or validity. The evidence used here requires one to create complex scenarios in order to explain that which cannot be verified and is, therefore, unreliable and cannot be repeated except as a story and is therefore not valid. In order to make sense of this faith based evidence, complicated arguments must trump the simpler answer. None of this analysis, none of this exegesis would be necessary if the vocalization of the Hebrew word itself made sense in the context of the sentence. Occam’s Razor pushes one toward the solution the the sea was returned to its normal state, a state in which the world is restored. Of course, that still leaves us with the problem of the existence of miracles in the first place but that, too, is a function of reliable and valid evidence and will be saved for a different post perhaps.

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