Judaism and Science – Noah 5782

D'var Torah | Genesis

One of the towering figures in modern philosophy is Karl Popper. Born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1902 he escaped the rise of Nazism by fleeing to New Zealand and eventually London, England. Popper is best known for his books The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and Its Enemies. He is hailed for formulating what theorists call the “principle of falsifiability” upon which modern science rests. According to Popper, for any principle to be considered scientific, it must be able to be tested and proven false. This is critically important for debunking pseudo-scientific ideas and all kinds of conspiracy theories.


For example, one of the most persistent and dangerous conspiracy theories is propounded in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, historically a fictitious forgery invented by the Russian tsarist regimes to justify anti-Semitism. Over time, however, this propagandist text has taken on a life of it’s own. It reputedly exposes a secret Jewish cabal that seeks to control the entire world. The beauty of this conspiracy theory is that no matter how hard one tries, it is impossible to disprove. Asking for any evidence of this conspiracy, defenders argue that it operates in secret. Asking what evidence might be offered to repudiate this theory, defenders would state that there is none. Consequently, Popper would argue that any theory that cannot be tested with the possibility of proven false is no theory that can be called scientific. It is simply a prejudice.


The Torah seems to offer support for Popper, or at least the ideas on which Popper’s principle rests. Noah believes that the rain has stopped and believes that it is safe to emerge from the ark. But prior to acting on his belief, he tests the theory. If the floodwaters have receded so that it would be safe to emerge, any bird sent from the ark would have no reason to return. The bird could roost on any tree or the ground itself. So Noah tests his theory. He sends forth a raven. But the raven returns. However, this experiment is not conclusive. Perhaps this particular raven found the ark more comfortable than the alternative? The raven’s return does not conclusively prove that the waters have receded. So Noah sends out another raven. This raven returns as well. Again, the conclusion that it is safe to emerge would be premature. Perhaps ravens as a species are more inclined to seek shelter on the ark. So Noah sends out a dove. Had the dove not returned at all, it would still be premature to conclude – literally – that the coast was clear. Perhaps the dove died. But when the Torah reports that the dove returns with an olive branch, Noah now concludes that this is evidence that trees are now above water and, if so, it is safe to emerge.


All this is an early confirmation of the value of scientific theory. It is in the twelfth century that Maimonides writes that Judaism must yield to science should the two conflict. While his position is controversial, it points to high regard that Judaism has given to the value of scientific theory and its application to life.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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