Posted by: cjobrien | 22 December 2009

A Rabbi Rethinks Intelligent Design..But Not The Way Klinghoffer Thinks

Like all good intelligent design proponents, David Klinghoffer is very skilled at massaging events and conversations to successfully market ID to the masses that possess neither the time nor the inclination to look a bit deeper. To hear Klinghoffer tell it, a recent visit from Stephen Meyer, Richard Sternberg and other Discovery Institute dignitaries to southern California was sufficient to change Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein’s mind on subject of ID. Rabbi Aldertein’s discussion of ID was both thoughtful and definitely nuanced. It deserves multiple reads and significant thought. Of course, I don’t believe Klinghoffer did justice to Rabbi Alderstein’s arguments, but I wouldn’t have expected him to do so. Klinghoffer is in the business of marketing a product; Rabbi Alderstein is attempting something far more complicated and nuanced. Rabbi Alderstein is exploring the muddy interface between science and theism…and finding that one does not inherently threaten the other. He bemoans inability of most to see the connection:

What I take as obvious about the relationship between Hashem and the natural world, others see as “theology” – and so many people, even frum Jews, have little patience for theology. They can either look at the world naturalistically, or spiritually – but not both at the same time, inextricably intertwined with the former dependant upon the latter. If a naturalist explanation is fully satisfying, they lose interest in a spiritual one. Those who are deeply invested in a spiritual understanding of the cosmos are often quite comfortable with using only its vocabulary, and have little cause to understand naturalistically. There are, of course, many exceptions who have synthesized the two systems of understanding, but they are not in the majority.

This is not good news for the Discovery Institute fellows, who loathe the concept of any recognition for the possibility that religion and science are simply two systems of understanding. It also clearly not a comfortable response for Klinghoffer, whose theological eggs are seemingly all pinned within the basket of intelligent design (it has to be one or the other, not both). Interestingly I don’t believe Rabbi Alderstein so much has changed his mind about ID as he has found a context for addressing deeper issues of Jewish theology. He suggests that ID may have utility for frum Jews, but that utility is not to be found in a justification of a designer with ID arguments. The real utility appears to be that ID is largely the mirror-image of the New Atheism and that what is of most interest to Jewish theology is the interface beyond the extremes:

Most of the effort should be placed in showing the difference between the systems of science and religion, and what they can and cannot tell us about ourselves and the universe we inhabit. For many people, however, it will be most effective to demonstrate that there are holes in NDS’ understanding. We can and should admit that such holes are not fatal – that it is part of scientific method to hold on to theories that work, and wait for the remaining answers to come in. Still, it will be important to show that there is smugness – indeed a religious faith – in the ability of the prevailing theory to ultimately address major issues. It will help show our children that those who mock faith are themselves people of great faith – in a different system.

My only concern is that Rabbi Alderstein may be accepting ID arguments for the “holes” in evolutionary theory (as presented by ID advocates like Meyer, Klinghoffer, Sternberg and Wells) at face value, without the same deep attention he has paid to other aspects of Jewish instruction. (I say “may” because he does seem to qualify his statements in several instances  – such holes may or may not exist). This is important because Rabbi Alderstein does understand the implications of “god-of-the-gaps” arguments:

Worse yet, to me, was the notion of pointing to phenomena that some believe are not yet satisfactorily explained by evolution (abiogenesis, the Cambrian explosion, irreducible complexity, etc.), and yelling, “Eureka! We’ve found it! That’s where G-d has been hiding, and that’s where we really need Him!” It sounds far too similar to “G-d of the gaps” for comfort….The problem with it is that if the gap narrows or disappears through discovery and enlightenment, so does the reason for belief. Unfortunately, much belief around the globe is built on such arguments, reinforcing the stereotype advanced by the New Atheists that religion is only for the undereducated and ill-informed…Why would frum Jews want to get involved with a “G-d of the gaps” approach, which will make us look silly when the gap is filled in, as has happened several times before?

Rabbi Alderstein senses danger here and he is right to be cautious. Those of us with greater training in evolutionary theory recognize that ID arguments are indeed “god-of-the-gaps” arguments, especially when those issues are explored in greater depth, without the filter of the Discovery Institute’s marketing campaign. Klinghoffer is crowing that…“Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg were invited to teach seminars on intelligent design at three prominent Orthodox Jewish high schools (YULA boys high school, YULA girls high school, and Shalhevet), to great acclaim”. Given the academic excellence of such schools, I would expect the students to challenge their ID instructors and not simply take the ID arguments at face value (I would also be very interested in an unbiased reporting of the exchange). Rabbi Alderstein is measuring the utility of ID cautiously, and I would hope all Jewish students follow his lead and do the same.

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