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Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

The Art of ID Stuntmen

Faith vs Reason

Anthropic Principle

Autopsy of the Bible code

Science and Religion

Historical Notes


Serious Notions with a Smile


Letter Serial Correlation

Mark Perakh's Web Site

When quote mining becomes quote mania

Rabbi Slifkin derives science from the Torah

By Shmuel-Pairont de la Meyraque

Posted July 15, 2007

Several years ago my acquaintance, a wealthy man who often provided financial support for various worthy projects, asked me to review a manuscript of a certain young rabbi named Nosson Slifkin. The rabbi was asking my acquaintance to finance publication of a book based on the manuscript in question, titled The Science of Torah, with the subtitle: "How the Torah Unfolds to Produce Scientific Law, the Universe and the Life."

The cited subtitle could sound confusing -- the verb unfold seemed to be used by Slifkin in a metaphoric sense; however, it could create the impression that it implied literally unfolding the Torah scroll, which action magically produced scientific laws, the universe and the life. This my remark, which may be viewed as nasty nitpicking, is just to stress that there is always a hazard the words of a writer might be interpreted in a number of ways, so therefore the utmost care must be taken to avoid any ambiguity.

Nitpicking done with, Slifkin endeavored to pursue a very ambitious goal. The book in question seemed to be designed to prove that scientific laws, the universe and life all are products of the Torah's "unfolding." Starting such an ambitious project, Slifkin must have been aware of the enormous burden of proof he had to encounter. In this regard, the first question he must have answered for himself, would be what kind of a readership the book was supposed to address. It seemed reasonable to conclude that the book was written for true believers, and more specifically for believing Jews. Indeed, the question of the Torah's veracity was not addressed by Slifkin at all. Therefore, a skeptic, starting reading this book, after just a few pages would most probably shrug off all Slifkin's passages and stop reading further.

Regardless of Slifkin's intended audience, another question was: what new insights would this book offer to make it worthwhile for a reader to spend time reading it?

From this viewpoint, the manuscript made an odd impression. It appeared not so much a discourse in which the author endeavors to provide some hitherto undiscovered ideas, but rather was not unlike a school essay, whose main purpose was to show the student's diligence in studying the literature on the subject in point.

Slifkin's opus showed that, besides having spent most of his young years on studying the tenets of Judaism, of works of a large number of sometimes prominent and sometimes rather obscure rabbis, of all those midrashim and numerous volumes of the Talmud, he had also invested some time in perusing works of popular science in a search for quotations which could be used to support his views. The manuscript was so overloaded with quotations that a question naturally arose: wouldn't it be more efficient just to provide the list of references and let the readers turn to the original sources?

At the beginning of his manuscript Slifkin tried to explain the reasons why he decided to write it. For example, on manuscript page 9, at the very beginning of the Preface, Slifkin maintained that, before his book, the "current status of the 'argument from design' has not been properly discussed." While one may argue what constitutes "proper" discussion, the simple fact is that, contrary to Slifkin's assertion, there already had been an abundance of books, articles, lectures, websites etc., discussing the present status of the "argument from design" from a multitude of viewpoints, and the flow of such material did not show any signs of abating. Many of those publications were by Christian writers, many by Jewish writers, some by Islamic authors, and many by skeptics, agnostics and atheists. It was hard to find in Slifkin's manuscript a single notion in regard to the "argument from design" which has not been heard and discussed before, usually more than once.

Continuing, Slifkin wrote: "No book (Jewish or non-Jewish) that I have seen performs the all-important task of adequately distinguishing between different elements of evolution, a distinction that should become clear during the course of this work."

I am sorry to be blunt, but the above quotation is laughable. There is a plentitude of books, papers in journals, etc., in many languages, discussing in minute details different elements of the theory of evolution, and Slifkin's discourse has hardly added anything not said before on that subject.

Here is just one example. There is a discussion of a subtle distinction between various aspects of the evolution theory, from standpoints of both its adherents and opponents, in the book by Del Ratzsch The Battle of Beginning [1]. While Ratzsch, like Slifkin, is himself a believer (although, unlike Slifkin, a Christian) whose views I do not share, his book displays a commendable effort at impartiality, and presents a thorough discussion of the subject much superior to Slifkin's effort. Of course, there are many other books on that subject, including those by Jewish writers, and Slifkin's work did not seem to add anything not chewed before, over, across and sideways.

While on the one hand, as mentioned, Slifkin's manuscript was overloaded with lengthy quotations, he was very selective in choosing them. Each quotation was in tune with Slifkin's own view. There was not a single quotation from the other side of the dispute. It created the impression that nobody was ever able to offer any counter-arguments to the assertions by the quoted writers. Of course, the reality is quite different. Slifkin obviously chose from the multitude of literature sources only those that supported (or at least could be interpreted as supporting) just one kind of narrow viewpoint, while carefully hiding the existence of those sources which could cast shadow on the validity of his views.

Moreover, even when quoting certain authors, Slifkin was very selective in filtering the statements of this or that writer, rather than letting the reader judge what the actual views of this or that writer were. A case in point is a quotation from Einstein. On manuscript page 26 (and repeated on page 39 of Slifkin's book The Challenge of Creation which I will discuss a few lines down) Slifkin quoted from a letter by Einstein to Maurice Solovine, [3] which, if viewed separately from Einstein's other statements, may seem to indicate that Einstein somehow shared Slifkin's beliefs. There are, though, many other statements by Einstein, including even his direct assertion of being in a certain sense an atheist [4] which Slifkin ignored. Such a method of quotation is usually referred to as quote mining. However, the sheer volume of quotations in Slifkin's opus allows one to suggest that he elevated the art of quote mining to the level of quote mania.

Another feature of Slifkin's planned book was his attempt to cover a multitude of scientific topics. It was evident from all those references to scientific theories that Slifkin perused many books on subjects relating to many, sometimes quite remote from each other, scientific disciplines. Unfortunately, more often than not, it was also rather evident that he limited himself mainly to more or less popular presentations of scientific subjects rather than having studied them in a systematic, not to mention professional manner. His understanding of many of those subjects was obviously on a dilettante level, and this led him to some misinterpretation and misrepresentation of scientific facts. In particular, it was quite obvious Slifkin was not sufficiently familiar with physics, but rather has just looked up a number of books aimed at laymen. Here is an example. On manuscript page 20 he mentioned "the so-far contradictory theories of special relativity and quantum physics."

This quotation testified to Slifkin's lack of knowledge of what he was writing about. The special theory of relativity in no way contradicts quantum physics, but Slifkin's assertion indeed contradicted facts. In fact, there is a fully consistent relativistic quantum mechanics, whose fundamentals were developed by Paul Dirac in the early thirties of the last century. The original version of quantum mechanics, as developed by Erwin Schroedinger and Werner Heisenberg in 1928, was indeed non-relativistic, which did not mean it contradicted the special theory of relativity. It just did not account for the relativistic effects, i.e. it was good as long as the velocities of moving particles did not approach the speed of light. When, just a few years later, Dirac developed the relativistic version of quantum mechanic, the non-relativistic version remained as a good approximation valid for not very high velocities. It is not hard though to figure out the source of Slifkin's erroneous statement. He read somewhere (possibly in the immensely popular book by Stephen Hawking [5]) that it is yet unclear how to combine the General theory of relativity with the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. It simply showed Slifkin's vague semi-familiarity with the subject in question, as he obviously confused the special and the general theories of relativity, and did not understand what precisely the point is at which the general relativity and quantum physics still wait for another Dirac to sew them together.

Here and there Slifkin made statements which were highly disputable, but did not bother to substantiate them. For example, on manuscript page 24 we read: "In the last few decades, we have witnessed an astonishing reversal. Instead of science diverging from religion, it has begun to converge in profound ways." It is a highly questionable assertion. What is really occurring is incessant attempts by proponents of the Bible's inerrancy to find arguments allegedly proving that every new advance in science is fully compatible with the biblical story.[6] Probably the most common example is the utilization of the hot big bang theory as allegedly proving the story of the creation given in Genesis. At the very least, all these attempts are questionable, and so far no arguments have been offered in favor of that view to which no counter-arguments could be suggested. The assertion that science is converging with religion was just Slifkin's private opinion, not supported by evidence. As it has been the case until now, religion and science seem to remain two different realms, neither of the two being capable of penetrating each other's domain (although it is possible to approach certain specific tenets of religion using scientific method [7]).

On the manuscript page 26 Slifkin offered a very simplistic interpretation of determinism. The principle of uncertainty and the "bizarre" behavior of micro particles do not negate the principle of determinism but, on the contrary, provide a deeper understanding of determinism, advancing it beyond its Laplacian form. Elsewhere in the same manuscript Slifkin devoted many words to the existence of laws which seem at work in the universe. He seemed not to notice that the existence of such laws is a display of determinism. Each law of physics establishes a certain causal relation between various factors. This causal relation can have sometimes a complex form, but as long as there is a law of physics, a causal relation is necessarily present. That is essentially the meaning of determinism. The question about the apparently random behavior of micro particles is a different topic, but whatever interpretation of it one adheres to, it does not abolish the existence of laws and hence of determinism, if the latter is not interpreted in a very narrow sense.

In some places Slifkin revealed insufficient familiarity even with the literature having the direct relation to his theme. For example, on manuscript page 30, discussing harmony in the universe, Slifkin wrote:

But what is this beauty? Some describe it in terms of harmony or symmetry, but both boil down to the other term used: simplicity.

While I agree with Slifkin's thesis about simplicity (see [8]), many defenders of the Bible's inerrancy disagree with him on that point. In particular, there are many publications in which the opposite notion has been proposed and fervently defended, namely that the extreme complexity, rather than simplicity indicates the so called "intelligent design" of the universe and of life. In particular, writings by Dembski (see their detailed discussion in [9]), by Behe (see [8]) and by their acolytes state incessantly that complexity rather than simplicity is the marker of design. (Adding to "complexity" the qualifiers like "specified" or "irreducible" hardly converts complexity into simplicity.)

I sent to my wealthy acquaintance my brief review of Slifkin's manuscript, which was largely along the lines of the above discussion. As far as I know, the potential donor had shared with Slifkin the text of my review.

Either because of my review, or for other reasons, the potential donor rejected Slifkin's request for money.

However, the young vigorous rabbi managed to find other sources of financial support which resulted in the publication of a book, based on the manuscript in question under the title The Science of Torah.

At that time I had no idea about the publication of the above book. No wonder: its appearance did not stir any waters, what with its being just another in a series of multiple insignificant books asserting the Bible's supposed inerrancy. Perhaps the book would remain almost invisible for a wide audience but an event (not of Slifkin's making) took place which made Nosson (or Nathan) Slifkin kind of a celebrity. His literary output attracted the attention of a bunch of ultra-religious psychopaths. Although Slifkin wrote his output from the position of a faithful Orthodox Jew, a fringe group of extremist rabbis in Israel disseminated a strong condemnation of Slifkin and his publications. They issued a strongly worded prohibition forbidding Jews to even touch Slifkin's books, which they pronounced to be heretical nonsense. What has caused the ire of the pious ignoramuses was Slifkin's acceptance of scientific data. Slifkin joined many other religious apologists who tried to reconcile science and the biblical story while the rabbis in question simply reject each and every tenet of science, insisting on a literal reading of the Torah with its asseverations about the age of the world (about 6,000 years), the creation of the world in six days and all other peculiarities of the Bible's narrative.

To Slifkin's credit, even if he was possibly scared by the vicious attack by his more extreme co-religionists, he displayed an impressive resourcefulness in rebuffing the attack, and continued publishing his books in the same vein as he did before. Of course, in this story each decent person must be on Slifkin's side.

One of the results of the above story was a sudden upsurge in the popularity of Slifkin's books. Their sales jumped dramatically.

If we are sympathizing with Slifkin as a target of an assault by religious fanatics, does this mean we must accept his position regarding the relation between the Torah and science? Of course not. Slifkin's position had to be evaluated on its merits, regardless of what some fringe rabbis may have claimed about it. Such an evaluation leads, in my view, to the conclusion that Slifkin's thesis is dismally unsubstantiated.

Let us turn to Slifkin's latest book [2] titled The Challenge of Creation which is just an updated version of his previous book The Science of Torah, which, in turn, was an expanded version of the manuscript discussed at the beginning of this review. Let us look and see whether or not Slifkin progressed in this book beyond the level of the original manuscript discussed above.

Alas, almost all the weaknesses of the original manuscript are found in the book in question as well, except for some minor amendments. Apparently my comment regarding Slifkin's confusion of the special and the general theories of relativity had its effect: in the recent version of the book this fallacious assertion of the original manuscript has been removed. Otherwise the book is just a substantially expanded version of the original manuscript, with the same abundance of quotations whose overall volume seems to exceed the volume of Slifkin's own text.

Here is one example. I opened at random to a page which turned out to be page 66. It contains total of 34 lines, of which 27 lines are quotation and only 7 lines Slifkin's own text. This page is by no means an exception but is rather typical. Indeed, I again opened Slifkin's book at random, this time to page 216. From the total of 36 lines of text on this page, only 5 lines are Slifkin's text, the rest being a quotation. The same situation occurs elsewhere in the book. Lengthy quotations fill its pages, slightly diluted by swatches of Slifkin's own text.

In one respect the book is substantially worse than the original manuscript: the latter was relatively short while the book is very long, and (sorry, again, for being blunt) intolerably boring. One hardly can find in the book original notions -- almost all of it has been said time and time again by proponents of compatibility of the biblical story with science. I used the qualifier "almost" because there is one notion in Slifkin's narration that can be considered as his personal nuance in the argument favoring Torah's impact on science. Slifkin asserts that the Torah is not just fully compatible with science (such a thesis has been suggested by many other religious authors [6]) -- but that in fact the Torah is the source of all science.

Here is a quotation exemplifying Slifkin's repeatedly pronounced notion (page 31 in The Challenge of Creation):

The entire scientific enterprise has its roots in religion, specifically monotheistic Judaism.

Is this quotation an exception? No, it is just one of Slifkin's repeatable claims of a similar kind. For example, on page 33, where Slifkin comments on a statement in a book by physicist Paul Davies (who is a recipient of the huge Templeton award for his work favoring the converging of religion with science), Slifkin writes:

We tend to think of Judaism's contribution to the world in terms of the Bible and the concept of morality. But here we see that Judaism is also considered responsible for the remarkable phenomenon of the entire scientific enterprise.

Or, perhaps some readers may find the following quotation from Sifkin's book even more eloquent (page 36):

Far from science being an alien challenger to religion, it is actually a child of religion, and one that is gradually returning to its roots.

Such assertions could well serve as a parody of senseless claims by religious fanatics, but in this case Slifkin seems to be quite serious in making such absurd claims. Of course, even in this he is not really original. For example, in a book titled Not By Chance, [10] its author, Lee Spetner (a specialist in signal processing) in an equally serious manner claimed several years ago that his "Non-Random Evolution Theory" (in a certain sense presaging Behe's claim in his Edge of Evolution book [11] about directed rather than "random" mutations) has its roots in the Talmud.

Is the thesis of religion (more specifically of Judaism) being the root of all science the sole absurdity in Slifkin's book? By no means; it only is (arguably) the most vivid display of the level of Slifkin's argumentation. Indeed, the book in question is in fact a conglomerate of many equally senseless notions.

For example, on page 48 of The Challenge of Creation there is a footnote wherein Slifkin discusses the problem of infinite regress (without naming it as such). Presenting the position of those authors who do not share Slifkin's beliefs, he attributes to his putative opponents, as their counter-argument against the idea of a Creator responsible for the existence of the world, the question:

[W]ho made God? This counter-argument is, however, flawed. Somewhere down the line, it seems that there must be something that exists without a prior cause. Faced between attributing this quality to a physical universe or to a supernatural being, it is more reasonable to attribute it to a supernatural being.

Is Slifkin's choice indeed more reasonable? Has Slifkin never heard about Occam's razor, also referred to as a principle of parsimony? We all, Slifkin including, know that at least one "physical universe" indeed exists. On the other hand, the existence of a supernatural being is a surmise based at best on purely philosophical rather than on an empirical foundation. If we have to choose between attributing the "quality" of existing without a prior cause either to the "physical universe" or to a "supernatural being", obviously the former choice is immensely more parsimonious than the latter.

The quality of being parsimonious is inextricably related to being more reasonable.

Furthermore, unlike the arguments for the existence of an uncaused supernatural being, which leave completely unanswered the question of "Who made God?", there are scientific arguments plausibly explaining the reasons for the existence of the physical universe [7], i.e. offering a plausible answer to the question "Why there is something rather than nothing?" While this explanation may fall short of providing a non-refutable "proof" of its validity, it is based on well established scientific facts, is logical and eminently parsimonious. To my mind, Slifkin's arbitrary assertion of the God hypothesis being "more reasonable," only shows that Slifkin's idea of the concept of "reasonable" has substantially been muddled by the long years of his studying the writing of the numerous rabbis which he so admiringly acclaims in his book.

Here is one more example of Slifkin advocating notions that make no sense.

On page 52 Slifkin offers (as usual not really original) discussion of the amazing properties of visible light so perfectly fitting the animal's scope of vision. He lists five requirements electromagnetic radiation must meet to satisfy the needs of animal organisms. Then he writes:

Remarkably, a single small range of electromagnetic radiation -- that between 0.3 micron and 1.5 micron -- meets all these delicate five requirements. Even more incredibly, the majority of radiation emitted by the sun falls within this range. Still more fortuitously, the sun does not emit any of the numerous lethal types of radiation, such as gamma rays.

Well, all those data are as "remarkable" and "incredible" as the incredible coincidence -- human legs have the length exactly needed to reach the ground. In another well known example, a pit in the ground is amazed that the water filling it happens to have the exact shape to fit the pit. Isn't this remarkable, Rabbi Slifkin?

The examples of utter bunkums in Slifkin's book can be continued, but I think the quotations given so far are more than sufficient to conclude that Slifkin's opus is a practically useless piffle produced by a semi-educated (except for matters of Judaism) but very self-confident and ambitious writer lacking qualifications to pronounce judgments on important philosophical and scientific problems.

When asserting that Slifkin is self-confident to the level of arrogance, I can point to one peculiar detail. On the inside flap of the Challenge of Creation, where usually editorial blurbs are placed, we find claims very flattering to Slifkin, extolling the virtues of his book in a greatly exaggerated manner. In itself, it is not something unusual, as editors naturally tend to acclaim their production. What is peculiar in Slifkin's case is the following detail. The book has been published by a publishing outlet named Zoo Torah (and distributed by Yashar Books). Yashar Books is a small publisher that has a real list of its publications (all religious books). However, no such publisher as Zoo Torah is listed anywhere besides the first page of Slifkin's book. Furthermore, we find in the opening pages of the book in question the information that the book's design was done by Slifkin himself, while the name Zoo Torah also clearly points to Slifkin as an individual (see the entry on Slifkin in Wikipedia). In other words, from all the available information seems to follow that the "Zoo Torah publisher" is just a name for Rabbi Nathan Slifkin himself. Apparently we deal here with a self-published book.

There is nothing wrong with self-publishing per se. However, if the book in question is indeed self-published by Rabbi Slifkin (which is why he needed a help from a small, but real publishing outlet, like Yashar, in distributing his book), then the highly flattering editorial blurb on the inside flap must have been composed by Slifkin himself.

It is nice to know that the esteemed rabbi has such a high opinion of himself and of his opus.

Well, if Slifkin is so fond of his own output, it is humanly understandable. What is more puzzling is the array of highly positive blurbs all acclaiming Slifkin's product.

Since the humanity must know its heroes, here is the list of blurbs' authors:

  1. Yehuda Gellman, professor of philosophy, Ben Gurion University.
  2. Carl Rozenzweig, professor of physics and astronomy, Syracuse University.
  3. Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy, Florida State University.
  4. Rabbi Aryeh Carmell.
  5. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein.
  6. Tim M. Kuski, professor of natural sciences. Saint Louis University.

The foreword to the book, also highly positive, was authored by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.

While the appearance in the above list of some of the blurb writers causes no surprise, it is hard to comprehend why such reasonable and intelligent people like Rabbi Adlerstein or Professor Ruse considered it proper to lend their respected names to the acclaim of an obvious piece of piffle, mostly consisting of a multitude of quotations chosen in a biased manner, intolerably boring and offering no original notions. Let them be their own judges.

References and Notes

1. Del Ratzsch. The Battle of Beginning: Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Il, 1996

2. Nathan Slifkin. The Challenge of Creation: Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution. Zoo Torah/Yashar Books, Brooklyn, NY 2006.

3. Albert Einstein. Letter to Maurice Solovine, Lettres a Maurice Solovine, Gauthiere Villas, Paris, 1956. p. 102.

4. Einstein, letter to Guy H. Raner Jr of July 2, 1945. Reproduced in Skeptic, vol. 5, No 2, 1997, p. 62.

5. Stephen Hawking. A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, NY 1996 [1988].

6. See, for example, books by Gerald Schroeder, Nathan Aviezer, Hugh Ross, Grant Jeffrey, and other religious writers, reviewed in detail in the section Faith vs. Reason on the Talk Reason website (as well as in the book Unintelligent Design by Mark Perakh, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2004)

7. Victor J. Stenger. The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2006.

8. Mark Perakh. Chapter 2 in Unintelligent Design (also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Behe2.cfm last accessed on July 7, 2007).

9. Mark Perakh, chapter 1 in Unintelligent Design, also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski.cfm last accessed on July 11, 2007.

10. Lee M. Spetner. Not by Chance: Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution, The Judaica Press, NY, 1998

11. Michael J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. The Free Press, NY 2007.

Another contribution to Talk Reason by de la Meyraque can be seen at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/laugh.cfm where some personal information about the author is also to be found.