Nothing to be Nervous about Neuroscience
I’ve encountered two attitudes in our community to cutting edge neuroscience. Many react to it less love than root canal. Its presumptions to offer “natural” explanations for things previously seen as spiritual and mysterious – love, happiness, loyalty – scare off those whose cause for belief is explaining the inexplicable. With less left to be explained, there is less reason to believe.
A second group finds no great challenge in this, or any other science. If it is real, then it is part of G-d’s genius in designing the world. Every phenomenon understood is a peek at the way Hashem runs His world.
Then there is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He goes one step beyond. Not only is there nothing to fear from any scientific inquiry, but he believes that a strong connection to G-d and His teaching will inform science with greater understanding, will offer it insights it could not have without it. This stands out in his recent essay in the New York Times.
Whether you agree or disagree with his argument, his approach to knowledge and the natural world is breathtaking. It is the opposite of the insecurity and isolationism so prevalent, that is taking so many korbanos from us. I would think it is the mark of the true maamim: the utter conviction that there is nothing more powerful than the Word of G-d.
there is a saying in Pirkei Avot, whose validity the CR demonstrates. While some interpret hafokh bah ve-hafokh bah ki kulah bah as asserting Torah as the singular source of knowledge, Lord Sacks demonstrates what I believe may be its real meaning: Judaism has something significant to add in any circumstance.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ article reminds me of an ongoing debate regarding our minds: Is our minds an inseparable product of our brains, or is our consciousness paradoxically limited by our brains? I bring this up because the fact that there is a genetic component to altruism does not necessarily mean that our higher selves are completely dependent on our physical selves. Furthermore, while my background in the biological/evolutionary sciences is not exactly strong, it has nevertheless seemed to me for the longest time, that Darwinism sounds an awful like a more sophisticated restatement of the notion that all that exists, does so purely by chance. If my interpretation of the root of Darwinism is correct, then I see no more reason for its validity than the general philosophy of atheism/nihilism. I am not saying that therefore such thinking is wrong, but rather to place such thought in its proper ideological camp.
A third group (of at least 1) not only relishes it as “a peek at the way Hashem runs His world” but understands that one studies a program/process one at some levelsees into the mind of the programmer/designer. Thus both ends of the Torah U’Mada equation bring us closer to understanding (to the extent possible) “the mind of God” or as I’ve summarized it in classes I’ve given, “when we peel back the last layer of subatomic physics, HKB”H will be there – I’m just not sure whether he will say “nitzchuni banai” (my children have defeated me or my children have eternalized me) or “welcome children, what took you so long?”
[YA – If I am not mistaken, the Zohar states this explicitly. I’ve taught for some time that according to the Rambam, studying the natural world brings one closer to HKBH by making one marvel at His wisdom. According to the Zohar, studying the world allows one to see not His wisdom, but to see Him! The world is a refraction of the Ohr Hashem, and permits us to sense aspects of His being.]
Benjamin Libet’s experiments are quite troubling. Neuroscience has a potential of producing counterintuitive results. Kind of creepy if you ask me.