Judaism’s epistemic crisis

by Brian on November 22, 2017

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Politics

Are we on the verge of an “epistemic crisis?” Vox Magazine’s David Roberts seems to think so. And it has implications for battles we’re seeing in the Jewish world, from the Western Wall to the army induction office.

In a recent article, Roberts pondered with alarm what happens if FBI special counsel Robert Mueller proves his case that Russia colluded in the 2016 U.S. elections, but half the population simply dismisses Mueller’s conclusions because, as Roberts explains it, we’ve lost any sense of shared language on the concept of truth.

This is not an isolated topic that touches only U.S. politics. The breakdown of common language can shed light on why in 2017 people still refuse to vaccinate their children or accept the danger of climate change.

How did an ancient Greek word that I’ll bet most of us have never before spoken aloud become one of the greatest challenges facing the modern world?

Let’s take a step back. “Epistemology” is the branch of philosophy having to do with how we know things and what it means for something to be accurate or inaccurate.

When Roberts wrote that we’re in an epistemic crisis, he meant that we no longer agree on the standards for what we believe exists, is true, has happened or is happening.

It’s easy to see if you’re a Trump critic. The president claims, for example, that there were millions of unlawful votes cast in the 2016 election, causing him to lose the popular vote. A commission was established to investigate, even though studies repeatedly show instances of voter fraud to be very rare.

But that’s not enough for the Trump “base.” And if the commission concludes there was no funny business going on in the voting booths? The base may very well reject that as “fake news.”

Another example: 97 percent of climate scientists believe that the earth is warming and that human activity is the most likely cause, but that’s a narrative climate change deniers won’t accept. The scientific method, with its empirical systems of data collection, hypothesizes, tests and results, can’t compete with group beliefs to the contrary, no matter how much evidence is presented.

I see the same thing in the Jewish world. The study of epistemology can be a good way to understand why squabbles along the religious/secular divide quickly become so fraught.

The catalyst for the recent Days of Rage held by ultra-Orthodox extremists is essentially epistemological. One side says “every young Israeli must serve in the army”; the other says “no, Torah is keeping Israel safe.”

A similar argument animates the fight over the Western Wall, where one group demands all Jews be able to worship as they please, while the other yells that there’s no support in Jewish texts for non-Orthodox expression at the Kotel.

These are really proxy arguments for the biggest one of all: God or not.

A scientifically-minded atheist says “prove to me that God exists.” A believer counters: “faith is beyond proof.”

I used to engage in this exchange around the Shabbat table. It was consistently fruitless. You can’t convince an atheist to accept the existence of God without science, and you can’t convince a religious person to drop his or her entire worldview because archaeology doesn’t back up biblical claims of miracles, exodus or conquest. We’re simply not speaking the same language.

When I was growing up, it seemed the world was moving in the direction of science and rationality. When Francis Fukayama wrote his famous essay “The End of History” in 1989, it felt like the population – at least in the West – was coalescing around a single narrative, one that was liberal, democratic and science-positive.

Post 9/11, though, the world has been pulling in the opposite direction, galloping towards fundamentalism.

We shouldn’t be surprised: it’s a problem the Bible foretold.

The Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis is a brilliant parable for the nature of humanity and our lack of shared language. Unless you read the Bible entirely literally (in which case the Tower documents the creation of a new linguistic reality), the Babel story smartly frames what already existed in human nature – and continues to exist to this day.

Social media is the Tower of Babel amplified. It allows us to retreat into our respective echo chambers where all we’re exposed to is people with the same views – that is, the same language.

“The End of History” approach has taken a beating in recent years. Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order presented perhaps the most compelling counter argument: that history is alive and kicking harder than ever in the form of clashing “civilizations” that transcend borders.

Swap out “civilization” and substitute “shared language” (or the lack thereof) and we come full circle. Huntington’s clash of civilizations is today a full-on clash of epistemology.

I dreamed of a different Jewish world, one in which pluralism was its lingua franca and Jews of all types broke bread not heads together.

“If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done,” writes Vox’s Roberts ruefully.

The good news is that there will be ebbs and flows with different groups gaining the upper hand at different points. But at this particular moment in history, I fear we’re not heading towards a shared language any time soon.

I first pontificated on Judaism’s epistemic crisis at The Jerusalem Post.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: