[Readers of this blog need no introduction to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham, one of the most innovative and forthright Orthodox religious thinkers in Israel today. Rav Avraham was kind enough to provide an interview on his latest book based on a series of questions, the answers to which have been translated for English speakers. Enjoy – Avi/AIWAC]
AIWAC: Why Evolution and Religion? Is it really such a burning issue in the religious (Jewish) world?
MA: The issue is not a burning one for the Jewish world (as opposed to the Christian world). The problem is that the public discussion, mostly in Israel and in Hebrew, is controlled by fundamentalist neo-Darwinists, who constantly repeat the argument that science shows that there is no God (or that there is no need to assume his existence). The other side is either silent or it tries to disprove evolution at the scientific level (usually with no small amount of demagoguery, which exists on both sides).
I have personally met quite a few people (mainly young people) who are having doubts about these questions. The deliberate avoidance of the issue by Jews gives them the impression that there are no answers. We are talking about a very intelligent part of the religious community, and if they arrive at these conclusions, this could affect broader circles.
Furthermore, I believe philosophical questions are important, and it is important to figure out the truth behind them, even if the general public is not concerned by such questions. I don’t see myself as a provider of a public service but rather as one who shares his thoughts with anyone who’s interested.
AIWAC: The subject of evolution and religion has been discussed for decades and has spawned many books. What new insights does your book bring to the table?
MA: My book tries to take a position which is common amongst the public, yet almost entirely absent in intellectual discourse, and present it in a systematic fashion. This is the position which cuts the connection between the two questions: the scientific question and the philosophical-theological one. My main argument is that dealing with evolution, either in research or in attacks and finding flaws in the theory, has nothing to do with believing in God. Flaws in the scientific theory should be solved using scientific tools, and only these tools will decide whether the theory is good or not. To me evolution seems very likely (at least a big part of it).
I should make two comments:
- This disconnection (of the two questions – A.W.) does not mean that it is impossible to systematically deal with the question whether there is or isn’t a God. I am merely arguing that this should take place in the philosophic field, not the scientific one. My conclusion in the book is that precisely in light of the scientific findings of evolution, atheism becomes very unlikely (again, on the philosophical level, not the scientific one).
- I do not speak of faith in terms of a subjective experience. For me, belief in God is a factual argument (correct or not), and not a subjective report of feelings. There are systematic tools with which one can arrive at the conclusion that there is a God at a high level of probability (nothing can be proven with absolute certainty in this world).
AIWAC: Could you briefly summarize, in your words, the main argument(s) in your book?
MA: My argument is summarized in the answer to the previous question. To be more concrete I will provide the following example: Let’s say you see a factory that operates smoothly, with every worker and every clerk knowing their job, and everything works in a harmonious and coordinated manner. This phenomenon can be explained in terms of the rules of factory protocol: the protocol tells everyone what to do in any situation, and therefore it works so well.
The question is whether this answer is satisfactory. On the ‘scientific’ level – certainly. This is the scientific explanation for the manner in which the factory operates. However, when you ask, on the meta-scientific level, who wrote these rules of protocol, or is there someone who wrote them, the answer is clearly in the affirmative. The argument that there is someone who wrote the rules does not contradict their existence, and it certainly does not forbid research into how they work. This research takes place on an entirely different level of discussion. However, the opposite is true, that is the research regarding the rules is not directly related to the question of whether this someone who wrote them. Beyond this fairly obvious argument, I deal with specific arguments of Dawkins in his book, not just regarding evolution but on other levels as well (Is evolution scientific, that is falsifiable? I describe the problematic and often non-topical nature of the discourse from both sides, and so on).
Another important point which is very important for public discourse: There are talented people of science who express positions on theological matters, and they are given credit for this as though it was their field of expertise. Even those who are talented and successful in their fields, including Einstein, Hawking and of course Dawkins, often speak nonsense on philosophical matters (I show this quite a bit in the book).
The worship of people of science has replaced religious worship, and science (mostly the atheistic branch) is turning into a church with priests and rabbis. They preach with a great deal of demagoguery and distort the picture (sometimes unintentionally) just to guard their ‘flock’ and the ‘purity of the atheistic outlook’. It’s very important for me to burst that particular bubble. Again, not at the expense of harming the credibility of science, which is what creationists often do, but at the expense of faith in scientists (who leave their area of expertise).
AIWAC: What has been the response to the book (reviews, personal correspondence &c)?
MA: The book has garnered many responses, from which I learned that the error of mixing science with philosophy is very common, and it is shared by both creationists and neo-Darwinists. Both of them believe in the “God of the gaps”, that is that God is only necessary if there are holes (or gaps) in theory (the scientific explanation). I disagree with both sides on this point, and this is the primary point of this book.
I have already been interviewed by Yediot Acharonot (There was an article in its Mussaf Shabbat on the book and the responses from the scientific community), on Israeli television (On erev chadash on Channel 10, and by London and Kirshenbaum). There are reviews slated for the book (it has only been out for a little over a month). My impression is that quite a few copies have been sold (I don’t have numbers yet), and it is definitely getting people interested.
AIWAC: What are you planning for your next book?
MA: I am working on a number of books at once (this is my 15th). There is another book on Talmudic logic which deals with the solution of paradoxes and halachic and ethical conflicts in general (Part of this series). In addition and alongside that book, I am beginning a book on free choice and neuroscience (science of the brain – A.W.). This issue has developed very strongly in various research institutes in recent years, and the results are astonishing. Today it is accepted there that science has proven that the world is deterministic and materialistic, but these ideas have not yet spread to the broader public. In my opinion, this will have a much greater effect than evolution, and already today perplexed students come to me with these questions. Once again, you can see scientific priests of the church of atheism guarding their flock by making self-assured statements on subjects in which they have no expertise. I hope that this will be my next book, in which I will once again separate science and philosophy.