Monday, January 31, 2005

The Nes-Nisayon Theory for life, the universe and everything


If we are to take Breishis literally, and the universe is 6,000 years old, then how does this reconcile with science ? It seems to me that people are no longer claiming that science is total bunk, since the scientific evidence for most things is pretty solid. Nowadays it seems that Jewish fundamentalists are content to go along with the famous Gosse theory. In this post I shall explore this theory.

The Gosse Theory
Phillip Henry Gosse, who was somewhat of a naturalist/scientist, could not ignore the geological evidence for an old universe. However being a born-again fundamentalist Christian, he could not ignore Genesis either. His solution was to accept the evidence, but claim that G-d created the world 'complete', in a fully formed state. Hence all the things you would expect in a fully formed earth, for example old rocks and fossils were all created directly as is. Here is some good information on Gosse and his life. He published his theory in the book Omphalos in 1857. You can buy Gosse’s book here, and here's an interesting article on why Gosse’s theory did not get much support when it came out. In the introduction to Omphalos, Gosse himself said he got the idea from some pamphlet he saw 20 years earlier, but that he was unable to find any trace of this pamphlet at the time of writing.

Lubavitcher Rebbe
The Lubavitcher Rebbe picked this theory up and from there it spread to the frum world. As to where the Rebbe got it, he may have heard it while he was in university, or maybe he figured it out himself. Most likely he heard it from someone else.

Sources In Gemarah
Some claim that this theory has its basis in the Gemarah. Rosh Hashanh 11a and Chullin 60a talk about animals being created fully formed. There is also a Gemarah where it says that Adam was created as a fully formed 20 year old, so you do see the concept that some things were created fully formed.

There are a number of issues with the theory. Objections fall into two general categories:

1. Theological
2. Philosophical

Note that there are no scientific objections to this theory, since the theory accepts all the science as being accurate from our vantage point, but just that G-d created everything this way.

1. Theological Objections
Most theologists (or is it theologians) have an issue with G-d creating a “fake” old earth. This would be misleading in the extreme, and would almost be a form of deceit, or sheker. Plus Judaism has always had the concept of G-d working within Derech Hatevah, and not subverting it.

Spme people seem not to be bothered by this, for the following reasons:

a) Its all a nisayon to test our emunah. It’s okay for G-d to trick us as long as it’s a nisayon.
b) The alternative is to say Bereishis in (literally) untrue, which also seems somewhat deceitful. So faced with a choice of calling the universe deceitful or the Torah deceitful, they will choose the universe.

Others object to this reasoning:

a) There is no tradition in Judaism of G-d creating fake metzius. The Gemarah about Adam is not to be taken literally. Alternatively, even if it is literal, there is a big difference between creating something fully formed, and creating lots of fake evidence, e.g. Fake cave paintings and buildings.

2) Taking the Torah nion-literally has a mesorah, especially the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim.

I haven’t seen this much discussed, but I have the feeling that there are other objections too. When you think about it, it’s not really such a clean theory. Just saying G-d created an ‘old’ world in 6 days, complete with fossils and all, doesn’t really solve the problem. For example, there are continuous records of civilization in certain places. Also, buildings or other remnants in the US, Australia and other remote regions, even after creation, must be fake up to a point (maybe dor haflagah) because man did not live there. So G-d created a 'complete' world, but in addition created lots of fake artifacts which looked younger than they really are, as opposed to older.

Either way, this whole line of reasoning has nothing much to do with science at all, since the scientific evidence is being accepted as real. Everyone agrees that G-d could certainly have created the world fully formed, had He so desired, and also done as many nisim as required. So it ends up being an argument about theology, not science. Would G-d have done this or not ?

2. Philosophical Objections
From a philosophical point of view, this theory presents a problem too. If the world is fake, then maybe it was all faked up last Thursday, and everything before then is a false memory. This has been called “Last Thursdayism”, I think by Bertrand Russell.

Some people are not bothered by this, probably because

a) They haven’t really thought about it
b) Its not a kashye. Sure everything could be fake from 5 minutes ago, but the Torah says the world was created 6000 years ago, so we know the emes.

Does taking Breishis literally mean accepting Gosse as the standard peshat ? Does it matter that this peshat most likely came from a Christian source ?

In addition to the Gosse Theory, you also need a major dose of nes (miracle). For example the Gosse theory does not help out with the fact that a global flood is a scientific impossibility, or that there is plenty of scientific evidence that there was no global flood. To answer these questions, you need the concept of nes. The flood was a nes, and the clean up afterward was too. Likewise the dispersion of dor haflagah, the dispersion of animal species from the Ark, and many other similar events.

Some people object to this liberal dose of Nes, because traditionally Judasim has tried to limit nes. For example the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim.

Similarly, you need nes to answer all the strange science and animal descriptions in the Gemarah, for example spontaneously generated lice. Once lice were seen to be born like other creatures, a new chiddush appeared, called 'nishtaneh hatevah' (nature has changed). Clearly, from a scientific point of view this is impossible too (as are any changes due to a global flood), so you must say this is a nes too. It is unclear when exactly the tevah changed according to this theory, but it must have been some time after the Gemarah, and before the first recorded event of someone looking into a microscope and seeing that lice had babies.

If you read some of the Christian fundamentalist literature, they go to great lengths to show how all of Bereishis could be literally true. For example, how could Adam have named all the animals in one day ? The answer is he ran really fast since he had superhuman powers, being a direct creation of G-d. To their credit (I think ?), the Jewish fundamentalists don’t bother with all this nonsense, they just call it all a nes and be done with it.

The bottom line is that with a combination of the nes and nisayon explanations, all of Bereishis, and in fact all other scientific objections can be explained away quite neatly. Obviously, the Jewish fundamentalists can’t call it the Gosse Theory (or the Menachem Mendel Theory).

I therefore propose that from now on we call this the “The Nes-Nisayon Theory for Life, the Universe and Everything.”