Sunday, December 19, 2010

Knowledge in Tradition or Modernity: Transmission vs. Production

Yet another way to conceptualize the problems between traditional Judaism and modernity, of which the Torah-Science issue can be seen as an example:

Knowledge in centuries past--say, pre-Enlightenment, for convenience's sake*--was largely conceived as a process of transmission. Students took in the words of their teachers, and passed them along. Think of the emphasis on tradition in Jewish education--"mesorah:" the word has its root in something being passed from one person to another. In this model, knowledge was achieved in the past, and people in the present can write commentaries, and then super-commentaries, and then marginal notes on anthologies of commentaries on super-commentaries. Even the medieval European academies were largely focused on passing down the works of Aristotle.

The modern scientific and epistemological framework, on the other hand, treats knowledge as something to be produced. If you have a question, run an experiment and create knowledge. This phrasing of it is an oversimplification--we certainly stand on the legitimate production of knowledge of those who came before us. (Contrast to the opening line of Pirkei Avot, in which it is received transmission all the way back to the beginning.) Besides which, experiments can also shed light on a greater area of ignorance to be explored. Nonetheless, the focus of modern pursuit of knowledge looks forward, not backwards. The idea is implicit in that very phrase of "pursuit of knowledge:" we pursue knowledge, not receive it.

Many books and blogs that try to square off specific issues in Torah and science miss this in treating it as a problem of discrepancy of facts. Whether or not Genesis is taken literally has little to do with how I determine what I know about the world.

*A gross oversimplification, again. Alhazen in the Islamic world and Roger Bacon in the European world were emphasizing experimental methods in the 10th and 13th centuries, respectively. But the Enlightenment is a nice time to point to when it really became a big deal.