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Thought for the Day: Why Reconciling Torah and Science is a Non-issue

I have oft been asked: How do you reconcile being religious with your science background.  I always start be telling them that they are not asking a well formed question.  (That, of course, does win a lot of friends for me; I am good with that.)  There are basically two ways to make the question precise.

The first approach (which is what they really mean) is:
How do you reconcile your faith with current scientific theories?
The answer to that questions is: I don't.  Moreover, if those two could be reconciled, it would be proof (nearly) positive that my faith was wrong.  More on that later.

The question they should, be asking, on the other hand,  is:
How do you reconcile your faith and what you believe to be true as a scientist?
That is not only something I can do, it is actually an essential and ongoing activity for anyone who is rational about his beliefs.  To set the groundwork for that, I make the following bold assertions.

  • There is no scientific data that contradicts the Torah view of how we got to where we are. Not in general, and not even in the details. That includes origin of species, age of the universe, development of civilization; all of it.
  • Given a reasonable criterion for acceptance, it will be found that the Torah view is the most consistent with the evidence.

What follows is reasoning to back up those statements.  When discussing "science", we need to distinguish between scientific data and science models.  Data should be something that never changes and can't be wrong.  Models change over time, and are therefore nearly always wrong.  For example, we have data for various chemical compounds that shows that the weight of the constituent elements always comes in certain ratios.  That data can be used as evidence for a scientific model; in this case the model is the atomic theory of matter.  Once I have enough data that is consistent with a model, I upgrade the model to the status of a scientific theory.  The theory is not proven (it never is), rather it is a provisional explanation of the way the world works.  As we gather more and more evidence, we tend to think of the theory as actually true.

Suppose, however, there are two theories (call them A and B; clever, eh?) and I have lots and lots of data that can be used as evidence for A.  People often make a mistake and think that B is thus disproved.  It is a mistake because B is only disproved if the evidence in support of A would contradict B.  If, on the other hand, the data is equally compatible with B, then I am still left with two competing theories.  In physics this happened with the advent of quantum mechanics and relativity.  All the evidence for hundreds of years supported Newtonian mechanics.  At the turn of the last century, though, a very few experiments contradicted the Newtonian explanation.  New theories had to be concocted that explained all of the previous hundreds of years of data as well as the new data.

I spent time on this because it seems to me that people often do that with evolution and creation. The fact that animals are so well adapted to their myriad environments was evidence for Darwin to propose evolution.  People still tend to look at that and claim it is a disproof of creation.  In fact, a book written over a 1000 years ago (Chovos haLevavos) points to that same good fit to the environment as evidence of the Creator!  I find most (all?) evidence in support of evolution to actually be equally suited to use as support for the Torah view of creation.

Theories of origin are even trickier.  If you say we have been making scientific observations for even 1000 years (which we have not), and that the universe is 10 billion years old (which it is not :) ); it comes out that we have been observing the universe for one one-ten-millionth of its existence.  That is comparable to observing the Indianapolis 500 for approximately 1/1000 of a second and trying to work back from that data to the initial starting position of all the cars.  Obviously, you wouldn't bet your life savings on being able to do that accurately.  It is certainly much more reckless to bet your whole life and eternity on it.

Another topic often mentioned is the fossil record and the timeline in Genesis. Dating schemes using radioisotopes depend on two things: knowledge of the half life of the isotope and knowledge of the original amount of isotope.  All evidence for the original amounts is circumstantial -- either by assertion that the isotope is in the same equilibrium with the environment now as it always has been, or by looking at decay products in the vicinity and asserting that originally there was only isotope.  If the amounts of the original are wrong, the dating will be wrong.  Take C-14, for example, as a paradigm.  The standard assumption is that the amount of C-14 in the air has never changed.  On the other hand, suppose there were no C-14 in the environment when G-d created the world.  Then, over the last (nearly) 6000 years, it has been building up due to cosmic ray irradiation of the upper atmosphere.  In that case, the calculated ages would be hugely exaggerated because the original amount would be so much smaller than assumed.  Both old (steady state) and young (creation) values are entirely consistent with the data, but engender quite different models.

The bottom line for me is that I don't feel at all compelled to force the Torah to agree with current scientific models. In fact, given what I said about models always being wrong, I would not expect to find that the Torah agrees with current models. I know the current models are wrong, so the Torah (which is True) cannot possibly agree with them.


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