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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Crackpottery: The Good and the Bad

The term "crackpot" is derogatory. Intentionally so. The essential meaning of the term is theories which lay so far outside of the paradigm that the amount of work that would need to be done to provide them a foundation that could compete with the foundations of the reigning paradigm is more than is reasonable to expect.

All paradigm-buster ideas are crackpottery at first. Germ theory, for example, was a total paradigm-buster. And advocates of the theory were treated as lunatics at first. This is not a weakness of the scientific method/system. It's a strength.

Human knowledge progresses by building atop previous knowledge. If we all had to start from scratch, we'd still be living in the bronze age. Maybe even the stone age. We require a foundation of knowledge which we can rely on, generally speaking, before we can add to the knowledge base.

The burden of proof is necessarily on anyone who comes along with a theory outside of the paradigm. And the reason is, as stated in the first paragraph, that it isn't reasonable to expect others to do your work for you.

One of the mistakes crackpots often make is to question a long standing and established view, and expect everyone to address the subject as though they were all living in a time before the view became established. In politics and religion, this is where reform movements come from. They rely on the premise that someone has gone awry along the way, and that it's necessary to "pretend" that we're back before things went wrong and "turn left instead of right", metaphorically speaking.

Crackpots who do the gruntwork and lay a solid foundation for their paradigm shift, and demonstrate that the new paradigm works better than the old one stop being crackpots, and become leaders in the new paradigm. Crackpots who don't think they should have to do so (or who fail in the task) wind up ranting on street corners (or now that the Internet exists, on forums and bulletin boards and blogs).

I'm not a scientist, but this is more about the sociology of knowledge than any particular field. Let me give an example from a discussion that's going on even as I write this, in the comments section of a blog posting by Rabbi Gil Student. In this case, a poster named Yossi wants to challenge the Jewish belief that God is immaterial. That He has no physical body. This is one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith as enumerated by the Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides), and is considered by Orthodox Jews to be as fundamental a concept as the very existence of God. He bases his challenge, for the most part, on Exodus 33:18-23. And it's true that the text, read without any outside context, would seem to support his contention.

But this is where crackpottery comes in. The verses in question have been around for millenia. They have been studied incessantly by an entire nation, in the context of the rest of the Torah and in the context of the Oral Torah which Jews believe was given along with the written text. And it was concluded that these verses do not mean that God has a physical body.

If Yossi wants to build a case which addresses all the relevant rabbinic texts addressing this issue and attempt to present it as a new paradigm, he can do so. In the case of Orthodox Judaism, it won't have much of an effect, since Orthodox Judaism is predicated on the idea of an unbroken chain of tradition, and proposing that the entire Jewish nation went wrong 750 years ago (for the sake of argument) is pretty much a non-starter, but in terms of the sociology of knowledge, it would at least be a rational act. Simply dismissing millenia of scholarship and presenting an understanding of the text out of a knowledge-vacuum is the kind of crackpottery which doesn't need to be taken seriously.

When Rabbi Student posted "There is nothing to discuss with someone who believes that God has body parts," Yossi grew angry. This was his reply:


Your response that what I write is heretical and don't discuss them, has on reflection made me quite angry. It is the response that I would expect from poorly educated primary school Rebbes who do not know haw to deal with difficult questions that ultimately test the limits of the Rebbes own knowledge. "We don't think like that" rather than engaging in discussion and searching for answers. It is completely anti-intelectuall to litereally say that some ideas are not worth exploring! While I have tremendous respect for you, your response shows nothing but small mindedness.

This is a case of someone proposing a radical idea, far outside of an accepted paradigm, and expecting everyone to be willing to "engage in discussion" with him, "searching for answers." The problem with this is that Yossi hasn't bothered to build any kind of conceptual framework which would provide a foundation for his idea. He wants to ignore everything which has preceded him and have everyone else ignore it as well. As I stated above, we had to recapitulate our entire knowledge base from scratch in each generation, we wouldn't have anything like the civilization we have. This is one of the attributes of humanity which animals lack. An animal can learn from its experiences, but it doesn't pass along a corpus of knowledge to the next generation.

I'd like to add a caveat. I personally advocate any number of radical ideas. In the areas of politics, history, archaeology, economics, and religion. It's fair for me to be called a crackpot in those areas where I haven't provided a comprehensive foundation for the ideas. I'm not putting myself in a different category from Yossi and those who think like him. I don't think there's anything wrong with being a crackpot in that way. That's how knowledge grows. The problem is when someone refuses to recognize his or her own crackpottery.


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2 Comments:

Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Any signs of Velikovsky's chronology of events being raised from the realms of crackpottery yet? Has everyone among his supporters abandoned the planetary catastrophes he outlined in Worlds In Collision?

7:14 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Well, see, that's the thing. Velikovsky's chronology, as such, doesn't work. There are other chronologies that are still in the running, though.

And the chronology and catastrophism aren't completely linked. The catastrophism part could be true and the chronology part be off, or vice versa. My personal take, as someone who isn't big into the catastrophism thing, but also doesn't have a lot of background in earth sciences, is that Velikovsky drew conclusions that were too big for the evidence. Did something happen that people were describing in ancient records? Yes, it seems so. But just because they thought it was one thing doesn't mean it was.

I'll give you an example. About 18 years ago, I'm living in Maaleh Adumim and working at Intel in Jerusalem. I get off the Intel van and start walking up the hill to where I live.

And I stop dead. Because the sky was... well, there were clouds. And they were all in bright pink and purple pastel colors (I guess it was summer, and the sun was getting close to setting). But they looked solid. And they looked...

Okay, it looked like a guy sitting on a throne. A woman in a gown standing next to him. A ginormous stalactite, wide at the top, with a guy chained to it. And all of this was huge. Overwhelming.

And I stood there and took this all in, and over the next 5 minutes or so, the clouds gradually drifted just enough so that the scene blurred. But I'll always regret that I didn't have a camera. And the thought that went through my mind was, "Imagine people seeing this 3000 years ago. You could pretty well start a religion around it, or at least a myth."

Were there catastrophes? Pretty likely. Were they of extraterrestrial origin, like comets and such? Maybe, but even if the people then thought so, that doesn't mean it was the case.

8:26 AM  

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