Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Natural vs. Man-made

We are now in the month of Shvat during which we give due consideration to the trees. But the fact is that after the cheyt in Gan Eden, our food supply is not defined as much by fruit as by bread that is made by man. Adam is told bezeas apecha tochal lechem [by the sweat of your brow, you will eat bread], and bread become the quintessential form of sustenance. We don't merely gather our food, we plant, water, tend, harvest, winnow, pound, knead, shape, and bake it. We may even experiment with new recipes to try to improve it. 
I was thinking about this in light of R' Akiva's argument with Turnus Rufus and the argument of intelligent design that Nassim Nicholas Taleb just hints at in a footnote on p. 170 in The Black Swan. He is in the midst of rattling off discoveries that resulted from the serendipity of randomness or "unintended consequences" rather than design, like the discovery of penicillin. Though he positions himself outside of the debate, he says: "creationists believe that the world comes from some form of design while evolutionary theorists see the world as a result of random changes by an aimless process. But it is hard to look at a computer or a car and consider them the result of aimless process. Yet they are."
Much as I like most of the book, I have to say that he clearly errs here. Yes, there have been serendipitous discoveries that could play a role in the construction of a computer or a car, but the whole can only be assembled by design. Even the famously accidental discovery of penicillin required an intelligence to apply what had been observed to a form that could be administered to patients. Another thing is that one does not just sit back and wait for discoveries to show themselves serendipitously. Alexander Fleming just happened to benefit from the fact that his own messy tendencies resulted in moldy bread in proximity to bacteria, but he was researching bacteria. If he had not been, the observation would not necessarily had registered.  Thomas Edison famously tested out 2,000 different substances in making his light bulb. Had he hit upon the working filament right away, we may have pointed to another random discovery, but that is not how it worked. 
Let's go back to bread: (though the mold formation that was key to penicillin is a natural process) the loaves  don't come to be on their own. There is a consciousness at work in preparing and mixing the ingredients that go into it. There may be happy accidents along the way. For example, the bread may have baked too close to the fire, and the person who ate it may have discovered the appeal of toast. Or someone may have left it to rise longer than usual and found an improvement there. However, bread is still a human product, something that is key in the famous debate between Turnus Rufus and R' Akiva recounted in  Midrash Tanhuma Tazria 5:
Turnus Rufus posed the question, "Whose works are superior, those of God or those of man?"
 R' Akiva answered unequivocally: "Those of man are superior." Turnus Rufus persisted: "But look at heaven and earth, can man make their like?" Rabbi Akiva disqualified that argument by pointing out a type of apples and oranges flaw there: "Do not draw on what is above human experience and control, but rather on that which is within our range."
Then they got to the crux of the issue when Turnus Rufus asked, "Why do you circumcise?" 
R' Akiva saw that coming, as he replied, "knew you would ask this question, and so I anticipated you by declaring that human works are superior to those of God." 
 Rabbi Akiva then brought him sheaves of grain and rolls and said: "The former are the works of God, the latter of man. Aren't the rolls preferable?" 
[Some accounts of this interaction end here, for the point has been made that the purpose of human beings is to improve on nature by application of intelligent design to work what is given into something better. But, in fact, Turnus Rufus did not concede the point so easily, and the debate continues.]
Turnus Rufus persisted: "If He requires circumcision, why is the child not born that way?"
 Rabbi Akiva replied: "Why indeed, does the umbilical cord come out with him and he is suspended by his navel and his mother cuts it? He is not born circumcised because the Holy one Blessed be He has given the commandments for the purpose of refining our character through them. This is why David declared: 'The word of the Lord refined'" (Psalms. 18:31).

This is very consistent with the notion of ha'adam nifal kefi peulathav [man is formed by his actions] which the Sefer Hachinuch offers as the reason why there are so many mitzvos to do. It also fits beautifully with the prohibition of declaring that heavenly mercy extends to the mother bird in the mitzvah of shiluach hakan.  It seems that Turnus Rufus was willing to accept the fact that a Deity had created the world. In fact, he seemed to accept the concept of intelligent design and viewed the world as perfect. What he was not prepared to accept was that the Creator was concerned with human actions. That is why R' Akiva pointed out the areas of creations that are not perfect in their natural state. They were made so to give human beings the task of improve them and in doing so improve themselves.

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