religion & science (response to Norbert Samuelson)

I was invited to respond in a special edition on Judaism and science in the Reform Jewish Quarterly to an essay by Norbert Samuelson, who is one of the few scholars in modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy to take contemporary science seriously. I’m excerpting from my remarks below. They represent a first published stab on my part. The reflections were largely based on intuition, but I’m pretty happy with the result.

(Finding the right image for this post was a little tricky. At first, I thought I’d go with an image of light or something like. But this would have been too cute, and too kitschy. So I went with this image of the Large Hadron Collider. Better to stick with a bit of apparatus, than with the thing itself, some image of a scientific datum meant to elicit “awe.” Like a church, the machine is part of a point I want to make about artificial, laboratory environments and the kind of effects produced by them.) (Since posting this post, Andy Parkinson at  sent me this link about the aestehtic propoganda of the LHC:

Many/most of the contributors to the special edition on Judaism and science were invested in attempts to square the gap between science, on the one hand, and the humanities, including religion and Judaism, on the other hand. At stake is the believability of religion in relation to contemporary science. I’m fundamentally sympathetic to this line of argument, even if my own view is a bit more contrarian.

About all this I had say:

What science has always brought to religion is a sense of scale more vast than both the anthropocentrism and the relatively bounded world-pictures in biblical and rabbinic religion. Of course, one sees a non-anthropocentric conception of the natural world in Maimonides, for whom the world proceeds according to a logic irrespective of human desires and projects (ha’olam k’minhago noheg). The modern and contemporary world-picture of the natural world is still more vast. In fact, “picture” may not even be the right word for it. Radically acentric and non-imagistic, it beggars the medieval one presumed by Maimonides. The world is too large and too small even to be pictured. Entire stretches and strata of the natural world lie beyond the limits of the human imagination. In this, God is not uniquely un-representable, as might have once been thought.


The resistance to science in the humanities is not, however, purely arbitrary. What I will call “the problem of different strata” is so extreme, methodologically, that it could very well undermine the “integrated view of total reality” for which Samuelson hopes. The ontological gap between strata relevant to quantum mechanics and strata relative to the domain of human consciousness might be too large for any human thought to bridge; and how to figure God into this gap is hard to imagine. It would seem impossible to make any direct and complete inference from [1] physics, chemistry, and biology to [2] the conscious plane of human experience, and from there to [3] metaphysics. If we cannot be sure about the exact interaction between chemical dynamics and human consciousness, how much more vexed will be any attempt to interpret the physical world and mental image-work in theological terms? The classical dualism between body and soul, matter and mind has been surpassed. In effect, the challenge posed by Samuelson is to think across a vexing intersection defined by three irreducible strata.

I understand why Samuelson privileges the microscopic world-picture in his essay here. Solid objects dissolve into “a sea of fluid beings constantly flowing past, through, and into each other, ultimately coalescing to form new actual entities.” This picture provides an aesthetically appealing purchase on material dimensions that transcend the limits of the optical eye. But this purchase is only heuristic, as it is in fact given to the naked eye by means of a technological apparatus. It is anybody’s guess what an “infinite repository of an idealized universe” might have to do with what Samuelson citing Whitehead calls “the primordial nature of God” or the “consequent nature of God.” It is not the internal coherence of the concept that I fail to understand as much as the hermeneutical decision to refer anything having to do with physical properties back to God. Maybe this repository has something to do with the nature of God or maybe it relates more simply to the nature of nature. I do not see any way to resolve this aporia one way or the other.

Related to the problem of different strata is the problem of data. Before this rabbit hole, I would certainly pause, confident that I will never understand the formulas, equations, and arguments that constitute inquiries and debates in the sciences. From the other side of things, I see no reason to commit theology to a dataset with a shelf-life of three, five, ten, or twenty five years. I would maintain, then, that the impact of science on religion and theology will not occur at the granular level or scale pursued by scientists. My guess is that the general impact of science is a more diffuse operation. It works at the level of larger paradigms that reflect the consensus in this or that scientific community and then mediated through technological innovations, popular scientific writing, journalism, literature, and the visual arts.

I for one do not believe that science is self-interpreting. In relation to science, the purpose of all the human arts, including the practice of religion is to make it possible for us to scratch out a place on the surface of our planet, and to stay committed to the strata of lived life and conscious human perception. In religion, this means to delimit a place in this world before God, and to do so rationally with philosophy. It used to be said that physics has nothing to do with this level of meaning-making, that a physicist cannot tell us how to live or how to pray to God. I am no longer sure this is true, not entirely. The problems of different strata and data notwithstanding, Samuelson is right to say that it is “not sufficient to simply say science speaks about one kind of universe and Judaism about another kind of universe.”  It would be nice if religion could learn how to take its place in the world with the modesty and skepticism with which the best practitioners of science approach data and theory. As Samuelson understands, religion requires the sound and realistic understanding of the physical world that only science can provide, even though I hazard to think that the religious interest in science is affective and existential, not primarily scientific.

Scientists routinely claim that there is nothing outside the physical universe. I do not understand how to adjudicate this kind of claim. At most, scientists writing in a popular idiom will offer up as ersatz spirituality or ersatz poetry a kind of pious awe before the physical world. When they do so, they often sound naïve, at least to scholars trained in the humanities who themselves have also learned to distrust attempts to draw a clear line between facts and values. While these almost apologetic attempts to share their enthusiasm with others are admirable, there are limits beyond which science cannot probe without ceasing to be science. Samuelson is right to argue that theology needs science insofar as religion is understood to have deep roots in the physical world. Nevertheless, I cannot see what science as such might want from religion and theology.

Perhaps this is the place to settle the matter. I doubt it is possible to resolve by means of any integrated, scientific theory the basic quandaries riddling religious life and thought about the transcendence or immanence of God, the absolute or relative reality of material substance, and the moral meaning of life. Unlike Samuelson, I do not think that the rabbis ever sought to “determine what they mean when they [said] that God is the creator of the universe” (emphasis is mine). As I read them, their theological thinking is more loose and associative. While I do not think that science can answer any of these theological questions in terms of definite contents, I am in complete agreement with Samuelson that science will enlarge in a formal way the sense and conception we bring to those questions.

Samuelson opens his essay noting the fear and anxiety with which the Jews in antiquity met the dominant force of Greek wisdom and Hellenistic culture. Their cultural universe was defined by the volatile, super-colliding smash-up of civilizations and the transformative impact of new ideas and methodologies on religion and religious experience. With his own immersion in Jewish intellectual history, especially in the medieval period, Samuelson has a pretty good vantage point from which to consider how this all worked out. I get the sense that, having seen it before, Samuelson suffers from no anxiety whatsoever. His approach to the brave new world of contemporary science is recommended for being fearless. The complaint against early modern science in its classical, mechanistic age was that it makes everything “determinate.” In contrast, modern and contemporary science tends to make the world less determinate, fixed, and stable, more de-substantialized, pixilated, “dematerialized.”

As I see it, the encounter with science encouraged by Samuelson will not make religious belief more rational. The opposite outcome is more likely. My guess is that the encounter with science will underscore just how quirky religious thought really is at heart. What is the relation between spirit, on the one hand, and matter, anti-matter, and dark matter, on the other hand? Is God, as Samuelson avers, indeed “the God of particles”? What does it mean to include particle physics and quantum mechanics into God’s creation and the Kingdom of God? Science provides religion heightened levels of high-order fancy at the crossover of disjointed perceptual and conceptual strata. Perhaps we will all come to the conclusion that mater is spirit or spiritual; and that sprit is matter or material, and to finally square religion with Spinoza’s famous dictum, “god or nature.” My bet, though, is that the view of the world provided for in contemporary science will itself explain or determine nothing. Increasingly, its vision is the vision of a world made more strange and ec-centric, not less. The presence of God contributes to an intensified sense of strangeness persisting just outside the frame of any scientific world-picture.

[[Zachary Braiterman, “Jewish Philosophy, Science, and the Humanities” in The Reform Jewish Quarterly, (LIX: 1, winter 2012),  pp.52-56]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to religion & science (response to Norbert Samuelson)

  1. Only slightly connected to your theme, more your choice of photo, and as it seemed such a coincidence that I should see both in such a short time frame i wondered if you might be interested in this article

  2. zjb says:

    terrific article! thanks, andy

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