The Scientist as Poet; the Baal Mesorah as Scientist

by Mordecai Plaut

(Page 2)

From the book "At the Center of the Universe".

Thus the product of science cannot be said to be universal truth or even the truths of the universe. Its endeavor cannot be to produce a synthesis of experience; as we have known since Hume, induction does not work. Science aims rather at literary creation. It tries to produce a mythology for modern man. The scientist does not merely read the book of nature. From nature he draws the inspiration to compose a poem for man.

There is a well-known saying, often cited in connection with Galileo, that the Bible teaches how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.(16)

The Mesorah is not the Bible. It certainly includes more, but it is not even clear if the portion of it which is commonly identified as the Bible is, in fact, identical to the Bible referred to by Galileo or his contemporary. In any case, it would be misleading to substitute "Mesorah" for "Bible" in the saying mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Galileo thought that the book of nature could be read through observation and experimentation to provide unambiguous knowledge of how the heavens work. As we have pointed out above, this is now generally seen as a somewhat naive enthusiasm born of the freshness and power of the genuinely new methodology which Galileo used. Empirical data can only rule out some systems. It cannot make any positive determination of theory. The only truth and falsity that is available to systems which would call themselves "empirical" is that which is within a theory of choice. "...there is no extra-theoretic truth, no higher truth than the truth we are claiming or aspiring to as we continue to tinker with our system of the world from within."(17) Science can not teach how the heavens really go.

If the Mesorah does not teach how the heavens go, it is mainly because it does not care. The facts and laws of the physical universe, such as they are, concern it only insofar as they relate to its other concerns. Astronomy, for example, is discussed only to the extent necessary to calculate and resolve the differences between the lunar and the solar years and to construct a stable calendar. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the calendar which is included in the Mesorah predates the Gregorian solar calendar in common use by over one thousand years. Though it is more cumbersome since it uses a true lunar month rather than the approximate one of the common calendar, its accuracy is at least comparable. Aside from a few issues of this kind, such general questions as an accurate theory of Mercury, the nature of the observed astronomical objects and their composition, and the cataloging of observed objects, which are typical of the concerns of professional astronomers, are not of interest to the Baal Mesorah. The material world, vast, complex, and interesting though it may be, is the lowest part of reality. It enters into the sphere of concern of the Mesorah only on a need-to-know or an incidental basis.

There are higher parts of what there is which are no less vast, no less complex, and no less interesting, no less amenable to creative analysis, and much more satisfying to study. Our potential to explore these parts is only latent unless it is properly developed. It is the prime concern of the Mesorah to develop this potential and to actualize it. (It also gives guideposts and information about them).

It is worth noting that the structure of these areas is no less elegant and no less logical than modern scientific theories. This should not be surprising since, after all, there is only one Architect.

G-d looked at the Torah and created the world.(18) Scientists look at the world and create their theories, and the world they look at is only a relatively insignificant part of what G-d created. The theories they propound can be no better than what they see, and are often only approximations of even that (usually called "idealizations").(19) The Mesorah contains the original blueprints, the Axioms from which the whole world was deduced.

The Mesorah aims to develop our capacity to investigate and understand the higher parts of the world. When it wants to refer to the material world the Mesorah often describes it as that which is under the sphere of the sun. Thus, for example, when Koheles (Ecclesiastes) writes: "There is nothing new under the sun," he means to include the entire physical universe but not the higher realms in his disparaging comment.(20) Similarly, when Rambam (Maimonides) characterizes the contemporaries of Moses by the fact that "all their investigation did not pass the sphere and its powers and actions because they had not gotten away from the sensible nor achieved intellectual development," he also means that they were all concerned solely with the material and empirical and had not perfected their capacity to deal with higher things.(21) Part of the Mosaic task, as reported in the Mesorah, was to change that.

If we are willing to identify science with technology we can paraphrase the earlier saying to read: Science tells how to go to the heavens but not how the heavens go, but the Mesorah tells how to go to Heaven by telling us how Heaven goes. Science is the thoughts of man on the world. Traditional theology is the thoughts of man on G-d. The Mesorah contains the thoughts of G-d on man.(22)


(1) Much of the work has been done in relative obscurity. As a result, it might be worthwhile to identify some by the positions they have held. Derek J. DeSolla Price was Avalon Professor of the History of Science at Yale University, Cyril Stanley Smith was Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Devendra Sahal teaches at New York University.

(2) Sahal, Devendra, Patterns of Technological Innovation (Reading, Pa.:Addison Wesley, 1981), p. 30.

(3) Braudel, Fernand, The Structures of Everyday Life (New York:Harper and Row, 1981), p. 27.

(4) Sahal, Technological Innovation, p. 32.

(5) Smith, Cyril Stanley, "On Art, Invention, and Technology," Technology Review, June 1976.

(6) Price, Derek J. Desolla, "Is Technology Historically Independent of Science? A Study in Statistical Historiography," Technology and Culture 4 (1965). Part of a symposium entitled "The Historical Relation of Science and Technology."

(7) Ibid., p. 562.

(8) Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 7.

(9) Zimmerman, Chaim, Torah and Reason (Jerusalem: Tvuno, 1979), p. 230f. See also critique of Russell's work.

(10) Duhem, Pierre, "Physical Law," Danto, A. and Morgenbesser, S., eds., Philosophy of Science (New York: The New American Library, 1960), p. 184.

(11) Kuhn, Copernican Revolution.

(12) Levi Strauss, Claude, Structural Anthropology (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1967).

(13) Kuhn, Copernican Revolution; idem., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

(14) Popper, Sir Karl, Objective Knowledge (London: Oxford University Press, 1972).

(15) Quine, Willard V., Theories and Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981). Especially essays 1, 2, 4, and 7. Most of Quine's arguments and opinions on the relevant matters are recapitulated here: idem., "On Empirically Equivalent Systems of the World" Erkenntnis 9 (1975), 313-328; idem., "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," From A logical Point of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961). Also, Hanson, Norwood Russell, "Number Theory and Physical Theory: An Analogy," in Cohen and Wartofsky, eds., Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 2, 1965, pp. 93-119. The analogy is that both are without foundation.

(16) Gingerich, Owen, "The Galileo Affair," Scientific American 247 (August 1982), 120.

(17) Quine, "Empirically Equivalent Systems," 327.

(18) Bereishis Rabba, I, 1.

(19) Hempel, Carl G., Aspects of Scientific Investigation (New York: The Free Press, 1965), p. 116.

(20) Koheles I, 9.

(21) Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Kapach, Y., trans. (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1977), Chap. 63.

(22)Hirsch, Samson Raphael, Gesammelte Schriften, quoted in Introduction to Horeb by I. Grunfeld, p. xlix.

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