Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Using the Scientific Method to Effect Tikkun Olam

Using the Scientific method to effect Tikkun Olam
It was never my intention to start the tikkun blog with three straight, long posts about the mainstream media, but with the war going on, which led to reutersgate and to this I took a slight detour. But it is only a slight one because these posts are the groundwork for what will eventually be a blueprint for a Repaired media. Of course, we would need to know what a Repaired society looks like before describing it’s institutions, and to do that in the way I intended we would need to describe the Repaired individual. Enter: Psychology and the importance of a scientific method in tikkun.
So, what is the scientific method? There is a Wiki on the matter but I liked this textbook explanation by Frank Wolfs, of the University of Rochester, which you can read in full here. I’ll just quote him a little. First of all it should be noted that the scientific method is the way “that scientists endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world.”
The manner in which they do so can be represented by four steps:
“1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.”

The purpose of this procedure is to eliminate any personal or cultural bias that may be present in the scientists mind. It is assumed here that a scientist would want to overcome his bias in order to discover what is true about the world.
The scientific method outlined here is the one usually taught in schools at all levels, but anyone who has had contact with research, especially in the social sciences, will know that this sort of approach is not implemented much of the time and is an object of much ridicule. This is because the scientific method is the result of many assumptions about the nature of the world, man, and knowledge, and the relationship between the three, some of which are simply not accepted anymore. I would like to discuss these assumptions, because I believe they are important to understand if we are to implement a rational, scientific approach to Tikkun Olam.
The first assumption is that there exists a world outside of man, a world that is, for man, an object that is separate from him. For some this may seem a trivial argument. Others have dedicated their lives to the opposite idea: that no world exists or can exist outside of the human head. This is often expressed in the phrase “ if a tree falls in the wood and no one is there – does it make a sound?”
If the world really does not exist outside of it’s relation to man that means the world as an object outside of man and separate from him does not exist and therefore cannot be investigated by man in an objective manner. Therefore “endeavoring to construct an accurate picture of the world” is simply impossible. In this worldview there can be no objectivity, because man is the world and vice-versa – they are in- separate, and so, no objectivity, no accuracy.
The second assumption underlying the scientific method is that there exists a world, one world, which is the true world. Our knowledge of this true world may be incorrect due to individual or cultural bias or because our senses are playing tricks with our minds, but even so, we assume it exists.
The third assumption is that this true world, is a world human beings can discover.
The fourth assumption is that a verification of our knowledge of the true world is possible, by way of prediction. This means that if our model of the world is a true one then we can accurately predict what will happen in this world or at least in that part of it which we claim to understand.
A fifth assumption is that there are causes. There are reasons that things happen. If there were no reasons and everything was completely arbitrary all the time then any reliable and accurate knowledge of the world would be impossible –all knowledge would be obsolete the minute gained, because already the world has arbitrarily changed. (you better not be in airplane when that happens!).

Two worldviews – Modernism vs. Post Modernism
Now let’s rest a bit and see what we have learned till now. It seems to me there are two worldviews. The first worldview, represented by the scientific method I described, is a world that exists outside of man; it is a world of facts, of truth, an orderly world that has governing laws, reasons, causes and results that are observable by everybody and anyone. It is a world where knowledge is worth gaining because it helps us understand the world, because it is the truth about the world. A world where times flows from one point to another in a linear manner, always progressing to the future – such a flow is essential to the causation inherent in this world.
The scientists who created this world vision, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, – they also thought that such an harmonious world is a world that must have been created by God. If He is in this world then everything that happens has a reason, a meaning that can be discovered, and of course where there is such a God there also is a morality that is objective, and applies equally to all men, since it is not dependant on human wishes. This worldview is called, generally speaking, a Modernist worldview.
The opposite of this would be the Post-Modern view, which we hear so much about everywhere we go. This view states that there is no world outside of men – everything is relative to man, therefore there is no “true” world outside of man and no truth to be discovered outside ourselves. In this philosophy objectivity is impossible, at best a charade, while subjectivity is everything. We live in a chaotic world that lacks meaning or direction. Determining causation in such a world is futile, since time may flow in various ways – events in the future may determine events in the present for instance, and anyway there is no point in such knowledge since it will never be the truth about the world because no such truth exists, and for that matter neither does god, and therefore – no meaning is inherent in the world or in our existence, and no objective morality applies to us.

What has all this to do with Tikkun Olam?
It seems to me that if we wish to Repair the world we must adopt the Modernist worldview. We must assume that time is not circular, that it has a beginning and an end. We must assume that there are causes that can be determined or else none of us can be held accountable nor responsible for his or her actions, and no one has any chance of changing their lives, because our lives, without causes that determine them, will be out of our control.
This much is basically inherent in Judaism and actually invented by the Jewish people, together with the introduction of one God into the world. It is clear that when the Sages talk about tikkun – these assumptions about the world are already built-in. Since Judaism influenced the Western world greatly through Christianity, it is no surprise to find Christian, believing, scientists expounding such a worldview.
The problem with the Sages approach to Tikkun is that they never applied the scientific method to this problem. They always assumed things about human nature, but never bothered to prove them. They assumed things about how people can and cannot change – but never really proved that it is so. The best example is from the ethical book that is most influential today – Mesilot Yesharim (path of the Just). In the introduction it is admitted: “I have written this work not to teach men what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and is very evident to them”.
It is the task of science to check these evident pieces of knowledge, and discover what is true and what isn’t. This has never been done in the Jewish world, and what has been discovered in the secular world that is relevant to tikkun olam – has yet to be integrated or even discussed in religious Jewish circles. (This probably accounts for the large numbers of religious people that are out there searching for better knowledge that will guide them in their for truth ). Such a body of knowledge that is scientific (or tries to be – this will be discussed later), and can be applied to tikkun is Psychology.

Leftovers &Clarifications.
1- I am aware that are serious problems with the application of the scientific method to human situations. I will discuss that in a later post, but I will still stand by this statement: A psychological theory can be judged to be more or less scientific according to the methods it uses, and I will strive to do so.
2 – as I stated before – I am no philosopher. I would probably never have approached the subject except that I had to take a university course on science philosophy and methodology, and I became fascinated. And disgusted.
I was fascinated because I quickly realized that all the work being done in Academia (it’s a nation-state, like Macedonia, but with better location) is based upon philosophical assumptions about truth and so on. I was disgusted because we were taught that Post modernism is GOOD and modernism is BAD. And if you asked why, well, because. Because modernists were narrow-minded, racist, chauvinistic, sadistic, white male pigs that forced everybody to think like them.
And post-modernists were beautiful people, tolerant, peace-loving, women or feminist men, who would never dream of using their power to foist their personal opinions upon people that are weaker than they are, except on those occasions when these weaker people – usually us students – happened to disagree with them. When such disagreements occurred, even on the most trivial matters, I found it really hard to distinguish between the violent, raving post modernist professor, and his odious, happily extinct Modernist predeccesor.
I clearly saw that if there is no truth, and only individual viewpoints, then there is a problem. I wondered how my professors could justify their publicly funded work and pass it off as science – the same science that brought us the refrigerator, the car etc. – when they don’t even believe in the concept of truth. (Their answer – we don’t care. We have tenure; we can do whatever we want.)
I also wondered how do we decide, as post-modern scientists who realize that all values and morals are relative, what viewpoints are worth researching? And presenting, and wasting time and money on? The sorry answer was that where there is no truth, and no morality, there is only raw power. So whoever gains the most power he will decide what is important and what isn’t. In my case – feminism was deemed important, as was socialism, the rights and living conditions of all non-jewish, non- white male inhabitants of Israel, more importantly, any and every collective Israeli myth was targeted and meticulously destroyed. In fact, hatred and destruction was the basis of a lot of research, it’s means and its end.
Ladies and Gentlemen – I present you the Israeli Academic Elite. (clap now if you wish)

3 – Quite obviously, these problems plague the Main Stream Media, and no wonder – the reporters and editors do come from the universities.
What kills me is the inconsistency of observing jews that believe in God, in the Truth, follow His commandments, and yet cannot spot a liar or his lies even when they are staring him (or her) in the face from the pages of a newsmedium that does not believe in god nor the truth, and is in fact, representative of every pagan idea our ancestors fought against.
The fact is - if you cannot spot such a lie, then you probably don't really care about the truth, which is why there is such a big difference between Jews (and anyone) that are observant or secular on the one hand, and people that believe on the other. I am secular, but I believe more than most observing jews i have met.

4 – I have relied heavily on the writings of Professor Zev Bechler of Tel-Aviv university. He sees a clear line connecting Plato to Galileo, Copernicus and Newton, to the whole modern science project which was revived in the 16th century and reached it’s peak, according to Bechler with Newton’s last publication circa 1700.
This science philosophy is in a continuous struggle with the naturalist philosophy of Aristotle which is the precursor of our recent Post-modern philosophy which began it’s renewed ascendance in the 18th century. For Bechler the height of this development was Einstein’s theory of relativity. He has written a few short books for the open university in Hebrew and I heartily recommend them. I have not read any of his books that came out in English.


Heading for Sinai said...

A very interesting post. I'm wondering why you think that only a scientific approach to tikkun olam would work. What parts of tikkun olam depend on employing the scientific method? All? Some? I can see that perhaps we would want to use the scientific method to, say, identify the extent to which and how a river has been polluted. But would the same scientific method work in persuading others that it is part of tikkun olam to clean it up? What would that look like?

And what about matters that involve relationships between human beings ("relationships" defined very broadly)? How can we use the scientific method to, for example, determine what the best kinds of families or sexual relationships are? Certainly science has *a* role in working toward answers to those questions (e.g., social science analyses of the effects on children from being raised by homosexual couples), but is science *all* you would want to use?

Another way to ask the questions I am is to refer to a perennial debate in Western philosophy: What part of our human nature motivates us to morally good action? Kant, for example, said that reason is itself motivating, whereas Hume argued that our sentiments (i.e., our emotions and desires) are what motivate us. According to Hume, reason can only identify facts, relationships between facts, and make predictions as to what is likely to happen to those facts if conditions change. It doesn't identify which facts are "good" or "bad." Instead, our sentiments draw us toward some states of affairs and make us averse to others.

If the Humean position is essentially correct, then it's not clear to me how the scientific method alone could ever contrubute to tikkun olam, because science, which identifies facts, their relations, and their implications, doesn't resort to our sentiments (or at least it ought not, as you explain).

Jerusalem Joe said...

for some reason i recieved this in my email - and sent you an answer by mail.

Kim said...

A bit of an agnostic myself, I found this particular blog informative and credible right up to the point where you veered off on your own personal, and obviously subjective, tangent (tirade perhaps?) against feminism, socialism, and all things post modern. To quote your accusation against the sages, “[t]hey always assumed things about human nature, but never bothered to prove them. They assumed things about how people can and cannot change – but never really proved that it is so.”

Prove to us, then, that the ideologies of feminism, socialism, and such contradict human nature. Prove to us why people cannot change their assumptions about equality between men and women, or about why rabid, self-interested capitalism is superior to group oriented socialism.

“This [scientific approach] has never been done in the Jewish world”, you say. I’m inclined to agree.

Jerusalem Joe said...

Dear Kim,
you said:
"Prove to us, then, that the ideologies of feminism, socialism, and such contradict human nature."

That was not my point. I did not say anything about these ideologies, nor did I judge them specifically.My point was that if we wish to Repair the world effectively the assumptions underlying our actions, whether we are feminists or capitalists or whatever - must be thoroughly checked and this cannot be done within a philosophical framework that denies the existence of reality.
If the results of this fact checking are that feminism is the answer than so be it.
If you do read this blog than you already know my own conclusion which is very mixed and context-based.

"Prove to us why people cannot change their assumptions about equality between men and women, or about why rabid, self-interested capitalism is superior to group oriented socialism."

This is a blog dedicated to change so obviously I believe that people can and do change all the time.
As to what is better, capitalism or socialism, that is a very interesting question which can be answered I think on a psychlogical basis. I'll write about it.

Thanks for commenting!