Friday, September 27, 2013

Conversation with a believer, Part 1

It started with a status update from a friend of mine:
To believe that religion holds a monopoly of virtue is as narrow minded as to believe that science holds a monopoly of truth -- Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Which prompted my reply: "Perhaps, but if I were a gambler I would wager that the physicist paints a more accurate picture of the origin of the universe than the tales told by a rabbi/priest/imam/swami."

This led to a prolonged discussion with a devout Jewish individual, previously unknown to me. I had hoped to learn something new about the foundations of faith. I was resolved from the start to be polite and to take his arguments seriously, while not compromising on what makes for a cogent argument. I will share the (lightly edited for anonymity and clarity) discussion in the next few posts. All indented text is quoted directly from my discussion partner.
Accurate to our perceptions, but science does not have the complete picture. Besides, both science and religion's depiction of the origin of the universe are starting to merge.
Have religious texts changed to such an extent that they are now largely consistent with our current scientific understanding of the universe? If so, a lot has happened without my being aware of it.
Religious texts don't change, they are eternal. However, science is always changing. Look up the Unified String Theory and quantum physics. They are very similar to what was written in religious texts over 2,000 years ago.
So much was written in religious texts centuries or millennia ago, you'd likely be able to find something from eras past that is consistent with whatever our best understanding of the universe is at a given point in time.

The key point is, it took astronomers, physicists, and cosmologists studying the skies to comprehend galaxies, supernovae, the lifetime of stars, along with all the other knowledge we have accumulated in recent decades. All of this progress was made without reference to any religious text.

If the best you can say about a particular religious text is that it sat dormant for thousands of years, and only after humanity harnessed its collective brainpower to learn about the world we inhabit does it release its wisdom to the world, then it is a stale, sterile book that contributes nothing to human knowledge. Something that is useful only in retrospect does not, in practise, contain wisdom.

Finally, religious texts are anything but eternal. The Jewish ones were written between five and six thousand years ago; humans have existed in their current form for roughly ten times as long. Hindu scrolls go back a bit further; Christian and Muslim holy texts are considerably more recent. But none of them are eternal.
I respect you disagreeing, but your argument has many holes and I can't address all of them now. I will say this; If it has taken decades recently to discover what we now know about the universe, but the same information was written in religious texts milleniums ago, you are right- it doesn't contribute to our knowledge- however it does validate the divinity of the text. For example, the fact that the world is round, revolves around the sun, and the exact number of days, minutes, seconds, and hundredth of a second it takes for the the moon to revolve around the Earth was written in Judaic texts over 2,000 years ago, but only recently discovered in Science a couple of hundred years ago. Without telescopes and high powered scientific methods we have today, who or what could have given us that information? Anything divine is by definition eternal.
Please point me to a two thousand year old source that accurately describes the moon's period around the earth to the hundredth of a second.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, page 25a.
Here is the text: "Twenty-nine days and a half and two-thirds of an hour and seventy-three halakin" (Lit., ‘parts’ (sc. of one hour), 73/1080 X 60 m == 4 m 3 1/3 sec)
This is from NASA; the synodic month is 29.53059 days (29d 12h 44m 03s) (NASA is off by a mere 40 minutes, and they couldn't calculate to the hundredth of a second!)
Let me know if you need any other proof of the divinity of the Torah.
I find your reasoning interesting. Given a discrepancy between NASA's measurements of the moon's orbit and the figure given in somewhere else in the Talmud, you claim that therefore NASA's measurements are inaccurate.

Wouldn't a more reasonable interpretation be that Jewish astronomers two thousand years ago were off by (an impressively small, but still far more than divinely inspired) 40 minutes, rather than NASA being incorrect today?
Science is constantly updating its theories and there is nothing discovered in science that hasn't been mentioned before in Judaic sources (for example, that the earth is round). There are also some incredible claims made in the Torah itself that, if debunked, would would invalidate the entire religion. But, try as they might, no one has been able to disprove these claims in over 3,300 years. And I'll be more than happy to be specific about these claims.

So for me, NASA is inaccurate, and in time they will adjust their data accordingly- as science always does. But, in all honestly, we are talking about a mere 40 minutes of something measured millions of miles away, without any advanced multi-billion dollar equipment and a team of rocket scientists. Are we really that naive to think any human being has the capability to measure such a thing back then? Or, perhaps it was the oral tradition divinely handed down from generation to generation tracing back to Sinai that gave us this information. Tractate Rosh Hashana page 25a will answer this question for you.
Assuming that one halakin equals one second (I could not find a formal definition in several online dictionaries), then the passage translates to 29 days + 12 hours + 40 minutes + 73 seconds, or 29 days, 12 hours, 41 minutes, 3 seconds.

According to several astronomy sites, the synodical month is 29.530588853 days, or 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.88 seconds long (note the precision). So if a halakin is indeed equal to one second, the Jewish astronomers were off by only three minutes, not forty.


Not divine.

The Babylonians recognized that Venus was a planet over 3,500 years ago. Their discoveries were the foundation for astronomical advances in later civilizations, including for Egyptian, Indian, and Greek star gazers, each of which made unique and (at the time) unprecedented contributions to our understanding of the sun, stars, and planets.

Perhaps Jewish astronomers were the first to measure the synodical month of the moon with such accuracy. It is one accomplishment of a long list of advances made by civilizations before, during, and after that period, all around the world.

Nothing about it demonstrates anything in the least about divine inspiration.

If the Talmud (or any other text) were an accurate guide to the universe, then people would use it to learn more about the world we inhabit. But that's not what happens anywhere. No sacred scroll has ever contributed one whit of knowledge about the physical universe that was not already known elsewhere - the best that can be said is that they sometimes recorded the best knowledge of the day but very, very often got things entirely wrong.We make advances using purely secular techniques (though many contributors are deeply religious), but then holy books are reinterpreted to line up with new discoveries.

Or, in this case, human intelligence and diligence are discounted and only a divine revelation is deemed an acceptable explanation for the development of new theories, advances, and technologies.

The conversation continues in my next post.