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The environment, scientism and harm

This is a backgrounder to the lecture which is to take place in Glen Eira City Hall Wednesday 11th November.


To book to attend this event click Environment, Science, and values



The standpoint of Torah, as of the Noahide laws, the universal ethics given for all humanity at Sinai, is that a person may not act destructively towards the environment. The environment - all of nature's resources - was given by G-d to the human being, to utilize in the service of G-d, that is to say in the pursuit of a moral and purposeful existence. Not only should a person thereby not cause harm, whether directly or indirectly to another, but he or she should not also wantonly destroy useful natural resources. This, does not, however, mean that the person is a "servant" of nature. To the contrary, nature is there to help the human being in his or her Divinely mandated activities (of which work, productivity and gain to support an ethical life, is one), and thereby nature is also brought to its purpose and  elevation. 

To fulfil this human mandate, the person is not required to make cosmic prognoses about nature and to serve these prognoses. Rather he or she is to act now, prudently, in the present and largely short term scheme of things in a way which is productive and not wantonly destructive. That is all. Religiously informed humanity has always known that there is a Creator, and that the world's continuation and guidance from moment to moment is His work. He is not bound by any set of rules (which we call and construe as "nature" and describe through "science"), other than, and for the duration, of His desire that they be so. This does not mean that the human being has no effect on the order of things. To the contrary, G-d has built free choice into the human being, allowing him or her to improve or harm the state of things, but also to elicit, through prayer and merit, G-d's intervention in the creation, to bring the rain, success to crops and so forth. The expectation of rain was not and is not understood solely as a deterministic meteorology; humanity prayed for it. "Nature" is an alterable default, which never made human prayer and merit superfluous.

Traditional religion respects the immense practical accomplishments of science. Science, however, is not the same thing as truth, it has not laid its finger on the metaphysical essence of things. Science deals practically with the data before it, using its presently efficacious "laws". When it projects mechanistically ahead into time, or when it projects back in time, in neither of which zones, past or present, where it has no data, it actually usurps the role of religion - of belief - in which it has no authority. Its "laws" might suggest consequences for the past and future, but it must be wary of anticipating "G-d's hand". Science plays on the surface of nature, it is pragmatic and provisional. The dogmatic science of the cosmic future would have to be the science of G-d, of Whom there is no "science". Science should be wary of becoming scientism, science made religion.

In our own lifetimes, we have lived through scientific projections of global cooling and global warming. I do not propose, nor am I equipped, to enter the present scientific discussion of the future - for or against "global warming". Human beings have lived through plenty of changes, "natural" and human-made. If people are in the present acting non-destructively and with reasonable short term prudence in the immediate context of nature (not apparitions of the cosmic future) that is all that is asked of them. Their merit will ultimately (notwithstanding short term difficulties) bring the "rains in their season", and bounty from G-d's Hand.

The attempt to "sew up" the future by science takes science out of its empirical range, and makes the remote apparition of a cosmic process an idol or a beast, which must be served and appeased. Traditional religious values enjoin us not to harm here and now and prepare for the future in the visible, practically appraisable short term. Do our carbon emissions harm here and now, and if so, how could they be cleaned up? If not, let them be. But in anticipation of a "scientifically" captured future, to bring in an  Emissions Trading Scheme, which threatens all kinds of dislocation and harm to jobs and livelihood delivers a far more certain and present harm than our present carbon emissions. Were it successful (unlike the failed European scheme which actually saw an increase in carbon emissions) it could become the centralized and globalized administration of the future by those who certainly possess no power of prophecy.


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I read Rabbi Cowen"s article with interest. Much of what he said resonated with me, especially his comments with regard to the proposed emissions trading scheme ("ETS") and the fact that its proponents do not have the power of prophesy. Although it is PC nowadays to promote an ETS, I firmly believe it is likely that such a scheme will lead only to the increased cost of essential services rather than to a reduction in emissions, for the simple reason that polluters will purchase credits to allow them to continue to pollute and then pass on the cost of purchasing the credits to us, the paying public, by increasing prices. In the result, a massive industry will grow up out of the smoke and fumes with little benefit to mankind. But what I would like to add to, with some personal musings, are the Rabbi"s comments with regard to the relationship of science and religion - a relationship which is so often characterised as being "in conflict" by the "religiously and spiritually challenged". At this time of year, when we read the story of creation - often a starting point for those who challenge the divinity of the Torah - I often reflect on the fact that, in my humble view, there are some "lay proofs" of the divinity of the Torah to be found within the text itself and I would like to offer two, both of which concern animals. I hasten to add that those of us who believe that God"s word was revealed at Sinai (which created a moral absolute against which all human behaviour in all ages must be measured) require no such proofs! On the fifth "day" of creation, we read that God created life, initially in the sea and created the "taninim hagedolim", which is conventionally translated as the leviathan - a large fish, according to Rashi. We know, however, from elsewhere in the biblical text, that "tanin" means "reptile" and that "taninim hagedolim" would therefore seem to be a reference to "giant reptiles". Is this not a reference to the dinosaurs? The science of palaeontology has been known to man for only a few centuries yet even the greatest sceptic accepts that the Torah is thousands of years old. How could the author have known anything about the creation of giant creatures, let alone that those creatures were reptiles, unless, of course, the author created them? In parashat Shmini we read about the "simanim", the signs which signify whether an animal is kosher. The two signs are given (cloven hoof and chewing the cud) and it is absolutely clear from the text that both signs are necessary. The Torah could have stopped there. There was no need to go further (as it does) and name the four animals which have one sign but not the other (the camel, the hare and the rabbit being the only animals which chew their cud without having cloven hooves and the pig being the only animal having cloven hooves without chewing its cud). Yet the Torah took that "risk" when much of the known world had not yet been discovered, including the Americas, Australia and other vast tracts of land. What a "risk"! Had another animal been found displaying one of the simanim but not the other, that discovery might have challenged the divinity of the text to some. However, no other animal has been found! The "risk" was no risk at all because the author well knew that no other such animal existed on the planet. You may have observed that I referred to the fifth "day" of creation. I did so because it is no great leap to regard the word "yom" as indicating "period" rather than to a 24 hour day. Our definition of "day" is the world rotating once on its axis relative to the sun. As the word "yom" is used before the creation of the sun, it seems obvious to me that that word, in some contexts, means "period" and in other contexts, means a "day" as we know it. Best wishes for the success of the forum. Geoff Bloch

Posted by Geoff Bloch on 2009-11-09 21:54:34 GMT