I keep tabs on the XGH blog, which, despite it’s massive popularity, still strikes me as being pretty, well, adolescent. Here’s a blogger who set out to reconcile faith and reason, and basically hatch a bulletproof philosophy for Modern Orthodoxy – to get a sense of his ambition, his old URL was godolhador.blogspot.com (now closed). Unsurprisingly, he failed, and turned over his blog. His new initials stand for ex-Gadol Hador, and his blog changes name every now and again, but was recently named Existential Angst and now carries the title והמשכילים יזהירו – “And the Enlightened Ones Shall Shine” – a reference to the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment.
Like every other Jewish blogger out there, the last few weeks, XGH has been dealing with Noah Feldman, with whom he sympathizes. I’ve got no problems with that, but I do have trouble with statements like this:
You can’t teach people to think critically, rationally and objectively, and then simultaneously drill into them 13 dogmas of faith which they must believe ‘no matter what the evidence’.
There are two related problems. We’ll start with the definitional one first. It’s not really possible to think critically, rationally and objectively. We don’t fully understand our own sensory and analytical equipment – our sense and our mind. Relying on these organs without knowing what biases they project on data, and without understanding their capabilites and limitations is an act of faith, pure and simple. It is perhaps and easy leap and certainly an unavoidable one. It may thus be a rational leap, given the alternatives. But it is certainly not an objective position. Objectivity is the most elusive of all goals, and as far as I can subjectively tell, it may not even exist within the physical framework. In a sense, the identification of perfect justice with divinity may be understood as the position that objectivity is only possible for God.
It’s also not clear that thinking critically and rationally (or attempting to, anyway) is particularly beneficial most of the time. Sure, critical thinking is important when evaluating information, like is the merchant trying to cheat me, but instinct plays an extremly important role in these calculations as well. Even at the scientist’s workbench, where rationality and critical thinking are practiced formally, they serve only a destructive role, not a creative role. A scientist uses critical thinking to evaluate theories, but not to create them, except inasmuch as knowing what won’t work, in Edisonian fashion, gets you one step closer to what will work. A phenomenon may have an infinite number of hypotheses to explain it; testing of which would take an infinite amount of time. Scientifsts use an almost opaque process beyond current understanding to somehow select from this morass the most viable ideas – a precognitive sense of some kind – to choose which avenues to pursue, and which theories to test first. It’s not clear whether scientists are particularly good at this, or whether we celebrate those who were lucky enough to test those ideas which happened to be most useful to understanding the world. We have made very little sense, so far, of where we get ideas from (I suppose all we need to do to solve that problem is get some more ideas).
I personally don’t believe in the Thirteen Principles in the manner that most Orthodox Jews do, but I do believe in the concept of religious knowledge. I do believe that over thousands of years, our people (and other people as well) have discovered, embraced, and cherished certain ideas and concepts that a person might never reach or uncover through attempts at rationality and critical thinking. Many of these ideas remain untestable, unprovable, unfalsifiable. Yet in accepting them, I do something unexceptional.