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It went through an essay I'd recently posted online in which I speculated that seemingly miraculous phenomena attested to in Solomon's Temple, such as the center-most lamp of the Menorah staying lit all day, the Showbread staying warm for a week, and the Ark fitting in the Holy of Holies despite its staves being too long to fit, could be explained by way of Special and General Relativity.
In Chu-Carroll's essay, my ideas were taken to task and I was roundly mocked. What I want to do here in this reflection is two things: 1) highlight where exactly I went wrong in my thinking, and 2) talk about the role of mockery in critique.
When Cognitive Bias Leads to Far-Fetched ExplanationsLet's start with this one:
Mr. Bar-Cohn claims that these are strange events that require some explanation: there must be a reason why one particular lamp's oil lasted longer that the others, and there must be a reason why the bread stayed fresh for so long. (Apparently explanations like "different lamps can end up burning fuel faster or slower depending on minor variations in how they're built, airflow, etc." don't fly.) No, it can't be anything mundane: it must be a miracle!Actually, I wouldn't have called it a miracle. I assumed the Torah to be a repository of "ancient technology," and that "energy" was somehow at the heart of what we now take to be miracles. That was my presumption, my bias, and it led me into building what I thought was a creative "solution" to explaining things that were otherwise hard to explain on naturalistic grounds.
But the author is right, in doing so I failed to consider other simpler, more plausible explanations. He mentions some possible physical explanations that would account for the lamp staying lit and bread staying fresh. This is an important point, and we see this kind of thinking all over the place.
For instance: A person claims to have seen a ghost. They had some sensory experience presumably. But why not assume it was simply a flash of light, wind, an optical illusion or hallucination? Or this? Why posit a far more radical thing, that the deceased can live on as quasi-spirit entities which have nothing better to do than meander through our houses and spook us? Because the person believes that such things exist, and therefore the road for mental suggestion has been paved so that the experience is interpreted in kind. When a door shuts on its own, or a movement is caught out of the corner of the eye, the mind goes right to "ghost" and the belief is confirmed. Confirmation bias.
Which is exactly what happened in my case, except it wasn't an experience. My belief about the Torah encompassing a technology was "confirmed" when I managed to devise a creative (albeit totally erroneous) explanation using "physics."
And of course there's an even better explanation for the Temple phenomena - that they simply didn't occur, that these are legends which were passed down, and which the rabbis of the Talmud taught, in order to inspire awe and wonder in relation to God and the Temple.
"Science-ish" Ignorance and MisconceptionsLet's continue:
So he looks to the Torah again, and - suprise (sic.)! - he finds a list of other events that he argues show time dilation. Of course, he misses one of the most important parts of the real scientific method... in science, real science, you try to prove that your hypothesis is wrong... That's not the approach of Mr. Bar-Cohn. No - he takes the classic crank route: he only looks for evidence that his hypothesis is correct, never for exidence (sic.) that it's wrong.Right. Even if we were talking about real data, carefully selecting the data that fit your hypothesis is called cherry-picking. It's bad science, and it's dishonest when done knowingly. And of course in my case, we're not even talking data, just interpretations made with the help of the bias I discussed previously.
I also offered a speculation that the long lifespans of figures in the early stories of Genesis could be explained by residual "energy" left over from Eden, in Special-Relativistic fashion, to which the author responded:
And that would blow away a ton of other Jewish fundie arguments about the long lifespans - provided this bozo actually understood what relativity means. But he doesn't. So he appears to think, for example, that you could have people living in a time dilation field age more slowly than other people, while still experiencing the same amount of subjective time as people outside of it.Well, I could potentially counter that everyone at the time was living in this time dilation field, aging slowly. But again, what's a simpler explanation: that the Torah is merely conveying the sense of a legendary time period by attributing lifespans in the hundreds of years (like other ancient cultures), or that the earth went through a hitherto undetected, inexplicable time-dilation effect, and that the Torah tradition knew about it all along? The second thing that's important to note here:
I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
I hadn't - and still don't have - anything but the most superficial introduction to physics, let alone Relativity Theory. I was making speculations based on total scientific ignorance. As the author says:
The problem with it is, that's not how time dilation works. It's a fairly typical example of trying to understand a complex phenomenon that is really described mathematically, believing that you understand it and can work with it using nothing but informal prose.And in relation to my "General Relativity" speculations regarding the Ark, he says:
To get the time dilation effect that he wants for the ark - to keep bread oven-fresh and warm for a week - would entail an absolutely astonishing gravitational field, and tidal forces that would tear the earth apart... Relativity does nothing to help: it solves a small problem (why a loaf of bread supposedly stayed warm) and replaces it with a much bigger problem (why the earth didn't shatter into a new asteroid field due to tidal forces of a massive localized gravity field).Right, so not only was I speaking from ignorance, but I also got rid of a smaller problem by introducing a far bigger one. This is precisely what makes so many claims outlandish. Whether it's paranormal claims of UFOs, ghosts, or telekinesis, religious claims explaining miracles, or conspiracy theories about 9/11 or the moon landing, for any of these to be true would require any number of momentous, untested, unevidenced - and therefore highly improbable - assumptions to be accepted. The author concludes:
It's also typical of what always drives me crazy about fundamentalists. Why can't a loaf of bread staying warm just be a bit of poetic license? Why can't talk of how long a day is for an angel just be a bit of poetic phrasing, instead of a bogglingly stupid way of talking about the speed of light?Tough medicine to take, but he's right.
Shock Treatment: Is There a Place for Mockery?This rebuttal to my essay was an emotional and intellectual shock to the system. Not only were my precious creative ideas demolished, but I was ridiculed as a "fundie" (fundamentalist) and other epithets, both in the piece itself and in the comment section. I was heartened by one commenter, who noted:
I was slightly distracted by the number of ad hominem references (e.g., bozo etc.) in this post. I have no sympathy for crackpots, but demolishing their position does not require (nor is it aided by) constantly calling them bozos and idiots.But I don't think it's any coincidence that this take-down coincided with my foray into skepticism and desire to learn more about critical thinking, science, and the perils of cognitive bias. Certainly it led to me pulling my article, as well as my "Torah Technology Institute" website. It led to a total reevaluation of my approach to Torah. And I thank Dr. Chu-Carroll for that. Truly I do. It was a painful process of transformation, but I haven't looked back.
Could this have been accomplished without my having been mercilessly mocked? I'd like to think so, but I wonder whether a bit of shock therapy wasn't precisely what I needed to give me the proverbial "kick in the rear" to move forward in my thinking more definitively, more rapidly.
But where it comes to mockery as a strategy, I suppose I'd tentatively conclude as follows:
I think there is a place for "general" mockery where it targets ideas, subject matter. There's a place for humor and bluntness, shaking our heads and venting frustration at unfathomable ludicrousness and ignorance.
But there are almost always better ways to argue and change minds than through mockery. And when it's personal, directed toward an individual, that is another thing entirely. The idea of a group reveling in another person's humiliation not only reflects an aspect of human nature that can hardly be called our most noble side, it runs counter to the ethical values to which I personally subscribe.
Even on the rare occasion when a ridicule-laden essay manages to change the subject's mind (note the astonishment in the author's "update" at the start of the article), it's probably best thought of as a "mitzva ha-ba'ah be-aveira" - a good thing which comes as a result of a wrongful act. And social interaction where the ends justify the means I don't think is a place we want to be.