Jeremy England seems like a very interesting guy. Haven’t listened to the podcast, but found this fascinating interview about him:
He is a scientist who is an orthodox Jew, and seems very conversant in the Hebrew Bible. And he connects science with it in interesting ways which are different from most Christian scientists or theologians I’ve read:
Does your work require us to rethink the boundary between that which is alive and that which is not alive?
I don’t have an agenda to change the way we use the word “alive.” We basically know. Fish are alive, rocks are not alive. Border cases, like viruses (an example used by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen), don’t eliminate the reality of a well-defined category. The possibility of moving the boundary is fascinating to people because it could change our relationship to things on one or the other side.
That question has in fact always fascinated. I think about the otot [signs] given to Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses], which can be read in many ways. One of the things that they definitely all are about is the boundary between life and nonlife. You start with this living tree or plant, the sneh , which is encased in a fire that does not consume it, which is this kind of contradiction. It should be on the brink of falling apart and turning into smoke, but it lives. And then turning a stick into a snake is turning something that is not alive into something that is alive. Moshe’s tzara’at [skin diseasef] is a disruption in the very boundary of a living thing, an instability in that boundary, and it is a kind of thing that references the boundary between life and death. And the last, which is most clear of all, is that you take the water and dirt of the Nile and you get dam , blood, the sine qua non of life, and it comes simply from the combination of things you don’t think of as being alive.
I should probably mention that I actually just struck a deal with Basic Books to write a book about my research for a trade audience that will interweave a close reading of Moshe’s encounter with the burning bush with a careful rumination on the boundary between life and nonlife.
(Here is the book mentioned, just published a month ago, now on my reading list!)
And I don’t mean to denigrate [compartmentalizing science and religion], but to me, I don’t want to have a divided mind. It has to be acknowledged that Tanakh is not trying to keep you comfortable with the idea of natural law, it is trying to make you uncomfortable with the idea of fixed, natural laws. That’s at least one current within it. (There are other ones that are countercurrents. There is also the Psalmist’s idea of mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai kulam be-chochma asita [how many are the things you have made, O Lord; you have made them all with wisdom]—the idea that Hashem made everything in wisdom and it has all this natural order and regularity to it. So, there are these currents in tension with one another.) But papering over that tension and saying, “It’s easy, we don’t have to worry about it”—that can come at a cost.
I think it’s also possible to be very committed to Torah in ways that are very authentic and ancient, and still be fully committed to scientific reasoning. I see a lot of people who have a great desire to act on a commitment to Yahadut and their tradition, but they also put a box on it that comes from outside the tradition. That which is kosher according to theoretical physics or biology—that I can think and do. There’s a real, serious danger there, especially in an era when a lot of people are going off the deep end and turning science into not just a way of reasoning about what is predictable about the world, but into a full-blown belief system that has a mystical component to it.
Science is, for some, a religion?
Yes, and it can get very doctrinaire. Here’s an example. Someone might say, “The rules of the universe are fundamentally mathematical and probabilistic. Furthermore, there is a very parsimonious mathematical theory that is the explanation of everything, and we are just trying to refine our understanding of that model. But the universe is mathematical.” That is, in a sense, a mystical claim. It is beautiful and nourishes the souls of people who devote themselves to it. And it’s a very common devotion in my line of work.
But I staunchly reject that way of talking, because I think the laws of physics are human contrivances. And that might sound like a radical statement, but what I mean is that the world has things about it which are predictable, and we can propose to model it, but those models are our constructions. This doesn’t mean they are untrue, but we need to have more humility and say that we simply try to understand what is predictable about the world.
I think that the discipline of holding onto Torah and keeping your feet planted there first and foremost and remaining well-fastened in that sense, as Rav Soloveitchik might say, leaves one open to the full depth of scientific inquiry, but also gives one a much clearer and more precise understanding of the potential of that inquiry and also its epistemological limitations.