Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tefilla as Gedankenexperiment

5. Now no tree of the field was yet on the earth, neither did any herb of the field yet grow, because the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil.
When the creation of the world was completed on the sixth day, before man was created, no herb of the field had yet grown. And on the third [day], where it is written:“Let the earth bring forth,” they [the plants] had not yet emerged, but they stood at the entrance of the ground until the sixth day. And why? Because He had not caused it to rain, because there was no man to work the soil, and no one recognized the benefit of rain, but when man came and understood that they were essential to the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and the herbs sprouted. — [from Chul. 60b]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

If there were a Gedankenexperiment about Man's constitution - What would it be?

Courtesy of Wikipedia-Gedanken

A thought experiment, sometimes called a gedankenexperiment in German, is a proposal for an experiment that would test or illuminate a hypothesis or theory.[1]
Given the structure of the proposed experiment, it may or may not be possible to actually perform the experiment and, in the case that it is possible for the experiment to be performed, there may be no intention of any kind to actually perform the experiment in question. The common goal of a thought experiment is to explore the potential consequences of the principle in question.

Famous examples of thought experiments include Schrödinger's cat (pictured above) , illustrating quantum indeterminacy through the manipulation of a perfectly sealed environment and a tiny bit of radioactive substance, and Maxwell's demon, in which a supernatural being is instructed to attempt to violate the second law of thermodynamics.
Schrödinger wrote:
One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in aGeiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a "blurred model" for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.[3]
The above text is a translation of two paragraphs from a much larger original article that appeared in the German magazine Naturwissenschaften ("Natural Sciences") in 1935.[4]
Schrödinger's famous thought experiment poses the question, when does a quantum system stop existing as a mixture of states and become one or the other?
Each alternative seemed absurd to Albert Einstein, who was impressed by the ability of the thought experiment to highlight these issues. In a letter to Schrödinger dated 1950, he wrote:
You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality, if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing with reality—reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. Their interpretation is, however, refuted most elegantly by your system of radioactive atom + amplifier + charge of gunpowder + cat in a box, in which the psi-function of the system contains both the cat alive and blown to bits. Nobody really doubts that the presence or absence of the cat is something independent of the act of observation.[5]
Thought experimentation in general

In its broadest usage, thought experimentation is the process of employing imaginary situations to help us understand the way things really are (or, in the case of Herman Kahn’s "scenarios", understand something about something in the future). The understanding comes through reflection upon this imaginary situation. Thought experimentation is a priori, rather than an empirical process, in that the experiments are conducted within the imagination (i.e., Brown’s (1993) "laboratory of the mind"), and never in fact.

Thought experiments, which are well-structured, well-defined hypothetical questions that employ subjunctive reasoning (irrealis moods) -- "What might happen (or, what might have happened) if . . . " -- have been used to pose questions in philosophy at least since Greek antiquity, some pre-dating Socrates (see Rescher). In physics and other sciences many famous thought experiments date from the 19th and especially the 20th Century, but examples can be found at least as early as Galileo.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Know thyself and Thy Mesorah

In private communication with David Guttman, as well as in comments on David Guttman's blog to R. Micha, I made reference to the significance of Rambam's model of the soul in understanding the Mesorah as presented in the MT. I have been thinking about this statement of mine about the soul a lot lately. How do I illustrate what I mean, without resorting to meaningless terminology, or as my dear student RJM puts it so eloquently, heavy jargon?

Ignorance of Self
The answer lies, as it so often does, in allowing Rambam to speak for himself, without getting in the way. In Shemone Perakim, Rambam presents the issue of developing proper Middot in the soul by means of an important analogy, one which deserves our undivided attention.

ואתה יודע, שתיקון המידות הוא ריפוי הנפש וכוחותיה. וכמו שהרופא, אשר ירפא הגופים, צריך שידע תחילה את הגוף אשר ירפאהו בכלל וחלקיו - מה הם, רצוני לומר: גוף האדם, וצריך שידע אילו דברים יחלוהו וישמר מהם, ואילו דברים יבריאוהו ויכוון אליהם, כן רופא הנפש הרוצה לתקן מידות האדם, צריך שידע הנפש בכללה וחלקיה, ומה יחלה אותה ומה יבריאה

Rambam instructs us to reflect upon our educational relationship to himself as a Baal Ha-Mesorah, as being like that of the therapeutic relationship of a doctor to a patient. In so instructing us, Rambam is not interested in some feel - good, pretty words. There would be no need for an elaborate technical description of the soul to achieve a feel good experience. Rather, Rambam seems intent on fostering a certain insight into the Mesorah we otherwise would overlook. But what is this insight?

The answer is obvious in the Rambam, yet somehow mystifying to us. By virtue of telling us that the Doctor of the Soul must come to learn the nature of the soul, it is clear that most of us, do not have knowledge of our souls. This simple fact, that we need instruction by a Baal Ha-mesorah to identify our souls, implies that we do not know how to identify our very selves. 

This notion, that we do not know ourselves, is also implicit in the dictum of the great philosophers of Greece. What could "know thyself" mean, if not that we are currently ignorant of what and who we are? Clearly, wise men generally,and Rambam in particular, intend to awaken a reader who needs to first and foremost be informed that he ,in fact, does not know his own soul, that he is unaware of his very identity as a human being. It is the removal of core ignorance, the inability to identify  ourselves, that constitutes the education of Torah and Mitzvot. 

But is this not preposterous, to say that we do not know who and what we are? Not if we consider the reality of education, Jewish and Non-Jewish as we experience it today. In fact, ignorance of soul is the elephant in the room that permeates all education. Education is totally preoccupied with the results of soul -problem solving- to the absolute exclusion of considering the soul itself as a phenomenon.We all know that educators limit themselves to politely solving problems proper to the popular fields of study -the various "subjects.”  For them, the crowning glory of man lies in the ability to solve official problems about all things, other than ourselves. No wonder then that the focus of modern education lies exclusively in the issue of either which problems to present, or perhaps the proper sequence of such problems. When was the last time we saw the identification of the soul, its whole and parts, as an important issue in school? Such talk would be a disaster, it would waste so much time, we would never cover the subject matter of general and Torah subjects! No wonder we never stop to consider the best way to understand mizvot as the means by which  the soul can be given tikkun through the therapy of a Doctor.

This  failure on the part of education to isolate a natural “thought ability” underlying the act of the identifying and solving problems of particular subject areas is bizarre. Is not all of modern science founded on the notion that all things have natural principles, open to our research? Why should man, body and soul, be exempt? How does this ignorance of our very selves arise?