The Jewish Roots of Modern Science

     Must we choose between science and religious faith?
     Many people think so.
     On the scientific side, we find pop atheists such as Sam Harris, who believes that “religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised.” [1]
     On the religious side, we find Orthodox writers such as Rabbi Lazer Brody, who wrote that “If parents teach their children Darwin’s theory of evolution, then of course the children won’t respect them, for each generation brings them closer to the apes.” [2]
     But the choice presents a false dilemma. It’s true that dogmatists of science and religion reject anything that seems to conflict with their view of the world. Neither seems to realize that science and religion serve different goals in human life:
     “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” [3]
     Likewise, neither seems to realize that science grew out Biblical religion in general and Judaism in particular.
What Science Needs
     Science depends on a method and an assumption, both of which come from Judaism and ancient Greek philosophy:
     * The method: Observe and reason. We obtain knowledge by observing the world and making logical inferences about it. The scientific method is a little more than that, but that's the basic idea.
     * The assumption: Physical laws are universal. The world and the things in it obey the same laws everywhere and at all times. We can understand the world because the world is rational: logic and mathematics give us reliable knowledge about it. Both Judaism and modern science allow a few exceptions to these rules, but they usually apply. [4]
Observe and Reason
     The most obvious Jewish source of modern science is Medieval Jewish philosophy, as argued by Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE), Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), and other Jewish rationalists. Saadia, for example, says that:
     “There exist three sources of knowledge: (1) the knowledge given by sense perception; (2) the knowledge given by reason; and (3) inferential knowledge.” [5]
     To those, Saadia adds a fourth source, “reliable tradition,” which amounts to testimony from other people. Even scientists rely on this source. They cannot personally verify every fact they use, so they rely on the testimony of other scientists. [6]
     Maimonides gives a similar list of knowledge sources. Of course, Saadia and Maimonides based a lot of their ideas on ancient Greek philosophy, on Aristotle in particular. Do any purely Jewish texts say similar things?
     Yes. The Tanakh is replete with philosophical ideas, but its style prevents us from recognizing them. The prophet Jeremiah, in particular, alludes to reliable sources of knowledge:
     “5:1: Roam the streets of Jerusalem, search its squares, look about and take note …” [7]
     Philosopher Yoram Hazony explains the passage as:
     “... arguing that each and every person is responsible for trying to establish the truth for themselves. This is not a matter of accepting what they hear from wise men, prophets, and priests, since these are only men … Rather, each individual must inquire and examine on their own.” [8]
     That interpretation makes Jeremiah even stricter than Saadia and Maimonides, since he seems to rule out relying on testimony to establish the truth.
Physical Laws Are Universal
     The idea of universal physical laws seems so obvious now that we don’t realize how much of an intellectual advance it was in ancient times. Two Jewish innovations made it possible: monotheism and covenant.
     To pagans, the ancient world seemed chaotic, with no unifying authority. There was a different god for almost everything. The gods often disagreed and fought each other:
     “Since no god really reigns supreme in the Mesopotamian pantheon, the promulgation of a consistent system of divine law and order is a virtual impossibility. In the Mesopotamian view, everything, with the exception of human law, is unstable.” [9]
     In addition, the pagan gods had no obligations to humanity nor did they behave in consistent ways. Even the Egyptian flirtation with monotheism had this problem. It solved the problem of multiple gods making inconsistent decrees, but its one god was still capricious and selfish. Our ancestors’ insight into the moral nature of God made possible His covenant with us:
     “The relationship with Israel, like any real relationship, is permanent and structured, with mutual responsibilities clearly defined.” [10]
     The fact that the one God bound Himself to abide by the covenant meant that stable natural law became a plausible idea. And the assumption of stable natural law is a requirement for doing science.
Science and Religion Through History
     The idea that science and religion are incompatible is recent, dating from the 19th century. It would have shocked most great scientists throughout history. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and many others were inspired by their faith to search for the secrets of the physical universe. It was the intellectual groundwork laid by Judaism that helped make modern science possible.
Works Cited
     Brettler, M. et al (2014), The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
     Hazony, Y. (2014), The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
     Lewy, H. (2012), 3 Jewish Philosophers. London: Toby Press. Kindle edition.
     Muffs, Y. (2005), The Personhood of God. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing.
     Sacks, J. (2011), The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. New York: Schocken Books.
     1. "The Problem with Atheism." Harris is often mentioned together with Richard Dawkins, who is a great biologist but a lightweight theologian; and with the late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), who was a marvelous writer but seemed mainly interested in selling lots of books.
     2. "Passover: Family, Tradition, and Freedom." The quote is from one of Rabbi Brody's Facebook posts, 26 April 2016.
     3. Sacks, J. (2011), p. 2.
     4. It’s amazing how closely the world matches our most abstract reasoning. Eighteenth-century mathematicians such as Leonhard Euler and Carl Friedrich Gauss developed mathematical ideas that had no known application in their own era, but which in the 20th century were crucial for understanding quantum mechanics. In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner pondered the issue in a famous essay titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.”
     5. Lewy, H. (2012), loc. 3016.
     6. See Palmer, N.S., “Scientific Certainty? Oops.”
     7. Brettler, M. (2004), p. 932.
     8. Hazony, Y. (2012), p. 162.
     9. Muffs, Y. (2005), p. 30.
     10. Ibid, p. 16.