Thursday, March 16, 2006

Evolution and Intelligent Design

Q: What is the Jewish view of the theory of Evolution? Is it proper for a religious Jew to accept evolution, being that it contradicts the Biblical story of creation? Shouldn't we support the Intelligent Design approach instead?

A: There are multiple aspects to your question. First of all, let me emphasize that the Torah is not a science book. It is not designed to present us with a comprehensive account of physics, biology or chemistry. The primary objective of the Torah is to teach that the entire Universe is nothing but an expression of the Divine wisdom and that human beings have the unique capacity to comprehend at least some of that wisdom. These are theological principles that have no specific implications for scientific theory. In other words, we subscribe to the idea that Hashem created all that exists and that the material world operates in a lawful, harmonious manner that reflects His knowledge and providence. This general concept neither proves nor disproves any specific scientific hypothesis.

Many modern readers of the Bible are troubled by its apparent inconsistency with contemporary scientific knowledge. These readers have unfortunately been influenced by a fundamentalist approach to Biblical interpretation that is prevalent among Protestant Christians. This approach insists that the words of the Bible are meant to be taken at face value and leads to a wholesale rejection of the scientific method. By contrast, the Jewish view, as represented in the Talmud and in the writings of classic rabbinic thinkers such as Maimonides and Nachmanides, has always been that the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis are not to be taken literally. This assumption was part and parcel of Jewish thought long before anybody had an inkling that there might be 'contradictions' between the Torah and science. The study of the Mystery of Creation has traditionally been reserved for a small elite group of accomplished scholars who are prepared to delve into its secret, metaphoric meaning. A simple literal reading does not do justice to the complexity or the depth of the Torah's presentation of Genesis. The value that we, the common people, draw from it is the knowledge that the Universe is God's creation - no more and no less.

Keeping in mind that the Torah doesn't mean to describe the process of Creation in a literal vein, there is nothing in the Torah that can be used to refute the theory of Evolution. Although the adoption of a completely materialistic, atheistic outlook on the world is often associated with evolutionary theory, this need not be the case. We can easily maintain that God created the Universe in such a way that its various components unfolded through a gradual process of evolution. Indeed, there is a magnificence and a beauty to the concept that God - with one, singular act of creation - set such an unimaginably complex chain of events in motion that culminated in the breathtakingly intricate world we see around us today.

At the same time, though, the Torah does not confirm Evolutionary theory. No scientific theory should attempt to claim Biblical endorsement because, as mentioned above, specific scientific principles cannot be derived from the Bible. Any scientific approach is acceptable to Judaism as long as it is based upon the fundamental assumption that the existence of matter and its lawfulness is the result of God's design, and provided that it is compatible with the idea that the human soul is not a purely physical entity. Beyond this, all scientific concepts are the result of fallible human thought and must necessarily be criticized and reevaluated regularly to ensure that they are not erroneous. A review of the history of scientific thought confirms the importance of a constant process of critical review.

Finally, with regard to Intelligent Design: I do not see what the notion of Intelligent Design adds to scientific knowledge. It is a broad metaphysical or theological conviction, not a specific explanation of any phenomena in the physical world. Intelligent Design answers the question of "Who" rather than "How", placing it outside the realm of science. Indeed, it seems to involve an abdication of our responsibility to pursue true knowledge of God's creations because, instead of working to understand God's natural laws, proponents of Intelligent Design theory simply fall back on "it's the way it is because God made it that way." This belief does not bring us to a more complete appreciation of God's wisdom as revealed in nature.

As Maimonides teaches, the highest level of love of Hashem can only be attained when one perceives the profundity of Hashem's knowledge that is revealed in the abstract laws that govern the Universe. This requires us to seek the simplest, most elegant and most accurate account of the way in which our world operates and how it came to be. Honest scientific inquiry enables us to see how the infinite complexity and detail we encounter ultimately derive from One Source and the laws of physics He has established.

On the other hand, assuming that God needs to fashion or to guide each and every element of His Universe separately detracts from our sense of His grandeur and perfection. An artist who can produce a masterpiece with a thousand brushstrokes is no doubt inferior to an artist who can produce the same artwork with a single brushstroke. Thus, through attributing everything around them to miraculous Divine intervention, Intelligent Design theorists do not honor God, they underestimate Him.

In conclusion, there is no religious objection, from a Torah standpoint, to the theory of Evolution per se. We cannot confirm or deny the theory based upon the text of Genesis, which is understood in our tradition as an esoteric theological work, not a scientific treatise. In fact, the theory has many attributes that recommend it, even from a religious perspective - such as, for example, the elegance of its reduction of the complexity of our world to a simple, natural mechanism. All things considered, though, our belief in the Torah does not require us to embrace or to reject any particular scientific hypothesis. The Torah teaches us about the Source of the physical world and how we should relate to Him, but it stops short of providing us with a specific set of beliefs about how the world operates or how it came into existence. It is up to us as human beings to seek the answers to these questions to the extent of our ability.


Yehuda said...

Beautifully said - excellent post.

Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal said...

Dear Rabbi,

I agree with much of your assessment. However, I think that a natural consequence of Evolutionary theory is the reduction of Man to a purely demtermined animal. The concept of Tzelem Elokim teaches us that Man has an Intellectual Soul. This Soul enables man to transcend his material-causal realm and enter the world of Ideas. This is the battle line between Torah and Evolutionary theory. If a person would embrace evolutionary theory, he would have to modify it by saying that Hashem intervened and injected a meta-physical element into the developing Man

All the best,

Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Dear Rabbi Rosenthal,

I appreciate your feedback. I believe I anticipated your objection in the text, when I mentioned that "Any scientific approach is acceptable to Judaism....provided that it is compatible with the idea that the human soul is not a purely physical entity."

I do think it is worth clarifying this point further, though. My remarks here will be a bit choppy and brief, but this is purposely so, since this topic is really only appropriate for people with a definite kind of background and training (like yourself) and I think those individuals will grasp my intent here without undue elaboration.

The idea of a separate, metaphysical entity that is "injected" by God into man doesn't seem to accurately capture what we mean by a soul. This depiction bears a greater similarity to the view held by Plato (that the soul preexists and is 'trapped'in the body') or the view held by the philosopher Averroes (that the soul is an actualized perceiver of knowledge that is simply held back by its inherence in the body, returning to its pure state upon death.) Both of these views maintain that the soul is a fully actualized metaphysical substance from the moment it comes into existence; thus, it certainly could not have evolved naturalistically.

Maimonides and Alfarabi appear to adopt a very different conception of the soul, in which its metaphysical nature initially exists only in potencia, not in actuality. In other words, our souls have an innate capacity or predisposition to perceive abstract ideas and thus develop an immaterial dimension, but this dimension is not injected into us - it develops from the proper ordering of the material soul, i.e., our imagination, memory, sensory data, etc. This doctrine is alluded to in the Rambam's Mishneh Torah when he states that "The soul of every living being is the form which God has given it. The additional intellect found in the soul of man is the form of the man who is shalem b'daato, complete in his knowledge." In other words, this 'form' doesn't emerge until after a process of perfection, until the person is shalem b'daato.

I can imagine that one might object here and question how a material entity could have the innate ability to perceive abstract ideas that are not physical. This, however, is no more perplexing than the observable phenomenon that material bodies are governed by abstract laws of nature. Indeed, the philosophers have stated that the same metaphysical agent that causes the physical universe to conform to patterns of wisdom also causes the potential of our minds to become actualized.

So, just as there is no contradiction between the notion that the animals have a life-force called a soul and the notion that they evolved by virtue of natural mechanisms, there is similarly no contradiction between the idea that man has a distinct kind of material soul - one capable of being impacted by ideas - and the concept that he evolved from lower animals without any Divine intervention.

Rabbi Maroof