Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Indistinguishable From Magic (II)

For L.O.
The Talmud relates:

אמר רבא אי בעו צדיקי ברו עלמא שנאמר כי עונותיכם היו מבדילים וגו’

Rava says: If the righteous wish to do so, they can create a world, as it is stated: “But your iniquities have separated between you and your G-d.” In other words, there is no distinction between G-d and a righteous person who has no sins, and just as G-d created the world, so can the righteous.

רבא ברא גברא [ע”י ספר יצירה שלמדו צרוף אותיות של שם] שדריה לקמיה דר’ זירא הוה קא משתעי בהדיה ולא הוה קא מהדר ליה [שלא היה בו דבור] אמר ליה מן חבריא [הנבראים ע”י החברים אתה] את הדר לעפריך

Indeed, Rava created a man, a golem, using forces of sanctity. Rava sent his creation before Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira would speak to him but he would not reply. Rabbi Zeira said to him: You were created by one of the members of the group, one of the Sages. Return to your dust.

רב חנינא ורב אושעיא הוו יתבי כל מעלי שבתא ועסקי בספר יצירה ומיברו להו עיגלא תילתא ואכלי ליה

The Gemara relates another fact substantiating the statement that the righteous could create a world if they so desired: Rav Ḥanina and Rav Oshaya would sit every Shabbat eve and engage in the study of Sefer Yetzira, and a third-born calf [igla tilta] would be created for them, and they would eat it in honor of Shabbat.1

העושה מעשה בסקילה האוחז את העינים פטור אבל אסור מותר לכתחלה כדרב חנינא ורב אושעיא כל מעלי שבתא הוו עסקי בהלכות יצירה ומיברי להו עיגלא תילתא ואכלי ליה

Abaye elaborates: One who performs a real act of sorcery is liable to be executed by stoning. One who deceives the eyes is exempt from punishment, but it is prohibited for him to do so. What is permitted ab initio is to act like Rav Ḥanina and Rav Oshaya: Every Shabbat eve they would engage in the study of the halakhot of creation, and a third-born calf would be created for them, and they would eat it in honor of Shabbat.2

The latter passage raises an obvious question: what is the difference between sorcery, which is prohibited, and “act[ing] like Rav Hanina and Rav Oshaya, which is permitted? Rav Osher Weiss notes Meiri’s remarkable explanation: the latter were utilizing technology (and not, as per Rashi and the above translation, “forces of sanctity”)!

כל שהוא נעשה בפעולה טבעית אינו בכלל כשפים אפילו ידעו לברוא בריות יפות שלא מזווג המין כמו שנודע בספרי הטבע שאין הדבר נמנע רשאים לעשות, שכל שהוא טבעי אינו בכלל הכשוף ודומה לזה אמרו כל שיש בו משום רפואה אין בו משום דרכי האמורי כמו שיתבאר במקומו

R. Weiss himself emphatically rejects this approach, insisting that such a thing is categorically impossible:

והנה דבר פלא מצינו שכתב המאירי בסוגיין … ופליאה דעת ממני ולא אוכל לה, הא זאת ידענו דאין ביד חכמי הטבע כמו גם החרטומים והמכשפים, לברוא יצירה יש מאין אשר לא בראה ד’, וכדרך שכתב הרמב”ן בפירוש התורה (שמות ח’ ט”ו)

ומה שלא יכלו החרטומים להוציא את הכינים, סיבה מאת ד’ היתה להם סכל עצתם ברצונו, שהכל שלו והכל בידו. והנראה בעיני עוד כי מכת הדם להפוך תולדת המים לדם, ומכת הצפרדעים להעלותם מן היאור, יכלו לעשות כן כי אין בהם בריאה או יצירה וכו’, רק מכת הכינים היתה יצירה, ואין טבע העפר להיות כנים על כן אמר והיה לכנים וכו’, ולא יוכל לעשות כמעשה הזה זולתי היוצר יתברך ויתעלה, ואמר ויעשו כן, ולא יכולו, כי השביעו השדים לעשות מאמרם ואין בהם כח

נתבאר להדיא דאין בכח האנושי לברוא יש מאין וכבר נתפרשו הדברים להדיא במדרש (בר”ר פל”ט י”ד)

ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן אמר רבי אלעזר בן זמרא אם מתכנסין כל באי העולם לברוא אפילו יתוש אחד אינן יכולין לזרוק בו נשמה

ודברי המאירי תמוהין למאוד, וצע”ג.3

We find a wondrous thing that the Meiri has written … and this is wondrous beyond my comprehension, and I cannot grasp it, for this we know that it is not in the hands of the natural scholars, like the necromancers and sorcerers too, to create an entity ex nihilo that G-d has not created, as the Ramban has written in his commentary to the Torah (Exodus 8:15):

And that which the necromancers were unable to produce the lice, that was something caused by G-d, to foil their plan in accordance with His will, for everything is His and everything is in His hands …

And these matters have been clearly explained in the Midrash [Genesis Rabbah 39:14]:

and the souls they [Abraham and Sarah] made in Haran – R. Elazar b. Zimra said: If all those in the world gather together to create even a single gnat, they will be unable to imbue it with a soul [neshamah].4

I have tremendous respect for R. Weiss, surely one of the keenest, most thoughtful, and most interesting Torah scholars in the world today, but I am quite puzzled by his stance here:

  • R. Weiss repeatedly uses the phrase “יש מאין”, but if he is using it in its classic, technical sense of creatio ex nihilo, it seems to be a straw man: why must we assume that the rabbis’ act of creation was ex nihilo? Perhaps R. Weiss takes for granted that this is denoted by the term ברא, but the question of whether this is indeed the exclusive meaning of the term is a classic debate among early medieval authorities.5
  • Even if we accept R. Weiss’s understanding of Ramban as denying the capability of creating life to humanity in general, and not merely imposing a limitation on the power of sorcery and the harnessing of demonic forces, גברא אגברא קא רמית? Why must Meiri accept Ramban’s theological and exegetical positions?
  • R. Weiss cites the midrash’s categorical denial that man can ever ensoul inanimate matter. But man can obviously animate inanimate matter – he has actually been doing so for two centuries already, in the form of trains, cars, and robots! Perhaps R. Weiss understands the Talmud to imply that the created man was actually imbued with a soul, and not merely artificially animated, but where does he see that in the text? As we shall see, בג”ה, in a follow-up post, many traditional thinkers assume that the man created man by Rava was not fully human in certain fundamental ways, and Maharsha even explicitly asserts that it did not possess a נשמה (although he concedes that it did have a רוח החיוני שהיא גם כן בבהמה), so why must we necessarily assume that it was the creations of Rava, Rav Hanina, and Rav Oshaya were actually ensouled at all, rather than merely bio-mechanically animated?

Another of Clarke’s Three Laws seems apropos here:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

I find the condescending phrase “but elderly” distasteful, but on the other hand, Hazal were even more scathing toward the elderly – insofar as they are עמי הארץ, as opposed to Torah scholars:

רבי שמעון בן עקשיה אומר, זקני עם הארץ–כל זמן שהן מזקינין–דעתן מיטרפת עליהן, שנאמר “מסיר שפה, לנאמנים; וטעם זקנים, ייקח” (איוב יב,כ); אבל זקני תורה אינן כן–אלא כל זמן שהן מזקינין–דעתן מתיישבת עליהן, שנאמר “בישישים חכמה; ואורך ימים, תבונה” (איוב יב,יב).6

In any event, I reiterate my great respect for R. Osher, but תורה היא וללמוד אנו צריכים.

  1. סנהדרין סה: (דברי רש”י הועתקו מפה). התרגום הוא של מהדורת William Davidson.‏ []
  2. שם סז: []
  3. ר’ אשר וייס, מעשה כשפים וספר יצירה (תשס”ט) []
  4. My translation. []
  5. עיין אבן עזרא ורמב”ן בהתחלת פירושיהם לתורה.‏ []
  6. סוף מסכת קינים []

A Man Hath No Preeminence Above A Beast

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein relates:

Before leaving for summer vacation, members of the [Harvard] department of philosophy once selected Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things” as the inscription for a new building. Upon their return, they discovered that President Eliot had substituted “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”1

I recently encountered a curious halachic dispute over whether the principle of ביטול ברוב, which the Talmud applies to animals, applies equally to human beings:

כרתי ופלתי

אבל אדם באדם לא שייך ביטול2

הגר”י מהמבורג

גם מה שכתב לחלק בין אדם חי לבהמה זה אין סברא לומר ולחלק בין אדם לבהמה לענין ביטול3

  1. R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Mah Enosh”: Reflections on the Relation between Judaism and Humanism”, The Torah U’Madda Journal (14/2006-07), p. 8 []
  2. פלתי סימן ק”י ס”ק י”ב ד”ה אף לפי זה []
  3. הגר”י מהמבורג, הובא בדעת יהונתן על הפלתי שם (מהדורת זכרון אהרן, ירושלים תשס”ו) הערה 38 []

Conning StarCon and Cartesian Dualism

Ever since being presented with the opportunity to cheat on the StarCon Aptitude Test by copying the answers of a fellow cadet with a remarkably large “brain pan”, I have been curious about the relationship of brain size and intelligence. The traditionally assumed positive correlation has apparently stood the test of time: a major recent study finds that there is a definite, albeit weak, correlation between brain size and intelligence, although one of the authors recommends against “measuring job candidates’ head sizes during the hiring process” (or, presumably, when determining whose answers to copy on aptitude tests):

Summary: Using a large dataset and controlling for a variety of factors, including sex, age, height, socioeconomic status, and genetic ancestry, scientists found that people with larger brains rated higher on measures of intelligence and educational attainment. Size was far from everything, however, explaining only about two percent of the variation in smarts.

The English idiom “highbrow,” derived from a physical description of a skull barely able to contain the brain inside of it, comes from a long-held belief in the existence of a link between brain size and intelligence. …

A new study, the largest of its kind, led by Gideon Nave of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Philipp Koellinger of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, has clarified the connection. Using MRI-derived information about brain size in connection with cognitive performance test results and educational-attainment measures obtained from more than 13,600 people, the researchers found that, as previous studies have suggested, a positive relationship does exist between brain volume and performance on cognitive tests. But that finding comes with important caveats.

“The effect is there,” says Nave, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton. “On average, a person with a larger brain will tend to perform better on tests of cognition than one with a smaller brain. But size is only a small part of the picture, explaining about 2 percent of the variability in test performance. For educational attainment the effect was even smaller: an additional ‘cup’ (100 square centimeters) of brain would increase an average person’s years of schooling by less than five months.” Koellinger says “this implies that factors other than this one single factor that has received so much attention across the years account for 98 percent of the other variation in cognitive test performance.”

“Yet, the effect is strong enough that all future studies that will try to unravel the relationships between more fine-grained measures of brain anatomy and cognitive health should control for total brain volume. Thus, we see our study as a small, but important, contribution to better understanding differences in cognitive health.” …

One of the notable findings of the analysis related to differences between male and females. “Just like with height, there is a pretty substantial difference between males and females in brain volume, but this doesn’t translate into a difference in cognitive performance,” Nave says.

A more nuanced look at the brain scans may explain this result. Other studies have reported that in females, the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the front part of the brain, tends to be thicker than in males.

“This might account for the fact that, despite having relatively smaller brains on average, there is no effective difference in cognitive performance between males and females,” Nave says. “And of course, many other things could be going on.”

The authors underscore that the overarching correlation between brain volume and “braininess” was a weak one; no one should be measuring job candidates’ head sizes during the hiring process, Nave jokes. Indeed, what stands out from the analysis is how little brain volume seems to explain. Factors such as parenting style, education, nutrition, stress, and others are likely major contributors that were not specifically tested in the study.

Here’s a slightly older comprehensive review of the scientific literature on the topic, whose introduction surveys nineteenth and early twentieth century attitudes:

We review the literature on the relation between whole brain size and general mental ability (GMA) both within and between species. Among humans, in 28 samples using brain imaging techniques, the mean brain size/GMA correlation is 0.40 (N = 1,389; p < 10−10); in 59 samples using external head size measures it is 0.20 (N = 63,405; p < 10−10). In 6 samples using the method of correlated vectors to distill g, the general factor of mental ability, the mean r is 0.63. We also describe the brain size/GMA correlations with age, socioeconomic position, sex, and ancestral population groups, which also provide information about brain–behavior relationships. Finally, we examine brain size and mental ability from an evolutionary and behavior genetic perspective. …

Introduction

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the relation between whole brain size and GMA was almost universally accepted (Broca, 1861; Darwin, 1871; Morton, 1849; Topinard, 1878). The renowned French neurologist Paul Broca (1824–1880) measured external and internal skull dimensions and weighed wet brains at autopsy and observed that mature adults averaged a larger brain than either children or the very elderly, skilled workers averaged a larger brain than the unskilled, and eminent individuals averaged a larger brain than the less eminent. Charles Darwin (1871) cited Broca’s studies in The Descent of Man to support his theory of evolution:

No one, I presume, doubts that the large size of the brain in man, relatively to his body, in comparison with that of the gorilla or orang, is closely connected with his higher mental powers. We meet the closely analogous facts with insects, in which the cerebral ganglia are of extraordinary dimensions in ants; these ganglia in all the Hymenoptera being many times larger than in the less intelligent orders, such as beetles…

The belief that there exists in man some close relation between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties is supported by the comparison of the skulls of savage and civilized races, of ancient and modern people, and by analogy of the whole vertebrate series.

I recently encountered a nineteenth / early twentieth century source not cited by the paper, the always fascinating Rav Eliyahu Kalatzkin’s endorsement of the correlation between brain size and intelligence. Due to a curious intersection of the timeless principle that correlation does not imply causation and some classic nineteenth century scientific confusion, however, he rejects the common assumption that brain size affects intelligence, arguing that this is actually an example of reverse causation: the self-evident (to him) nature of an extreme form of Cartesian dualism – “it is inconceivable that the brain, combined of phosphorus and albumen and the like, can engender intelligence and knowledge” – prompts his suggestion that it is actually greater intelligence that causes greater brain size, rather than the reverse:

וההכרח לומר דהא דקאמר שמעת מימיך אומר חמור זה יוצא צינה עליו, הכוונה שאינה מסובבת לו יסורין וחולי, כאשר הרגש הכאב הוא בעצבי ההרגשה המובילין להמוח, ואין שוטה נפגע, וביחוד החמור המצויין בסכלותו,1

ובהבעלי חיים הפקחים כמו הקוף ירבה כמות המוח,

[ויש שאמרו כי גם באנשים ירבה כמות המוח לפי ערך תבונתם, ומזה ישפטו כי המוח יראה פעולתו על כח השכל, ופליאה דעת איך יחולל המוח המורכב מפאספאר ואלבומין וכדומה, את כח השכל והמדע, וקרוב הדבר אשר יחליפו הסיבה להמסובב וכי יגדל וירבה כמות המוח על ידי עבודת העיון והתבונה, והעבודים בעמל ידים ירבה מרוצת הדם בשרירי ידיהם, ומזה יגדלו ויתחזקו שרירי ידיהם, ואנשי מדע אשר יעמלו ברעיוני חכמה והרגשות עדינות יעוררו רגשות עדינות וקלות בהעצבים ומרוצת הדם, וכאשר הקל יצוף למעלה, מקומן בראש ומוח, ורגש תאוה מוחשית מקומה באברים תחתונים, ורגשות זכות המחוללים תנועה זכה בדם ועצבים, מקומן הגבה מעלה, ובעבדות המוח אשר יתעצם שמה מרוצת ותנועת הדם, מזה יגדל וירבה כמות המוח, אם אך לא יחלישו ברוב יגיעה ועבודה שאינו לפי כחו, ובקלקול ופצע במוח יאבד האדם כח תבונתו, אף כי התבונה והשכל הוא ענין רוחני, כאשר יסתמא בקלקול העין, כאשר מוחש ההבטה הרוחנית, תראה פעולתה על ידי העין]

ובהם יוסיף גם הרגש ומכאוב2

R. Kalatzkin acknowledges that damage to the brain will impair the intellect; I do not understand his reconciliation of this fact with his stance of substance dualism.

[Further reading: another review of the scientific literature; some popular articles; Wikipedia discussions.]

  1. It is unclear where the donkey gets its reputation for foolishness. Livestock.com claims (also without any sourcing): “In general donkeys are quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn. Donkeys have a notorious reputation for stubbornness, but this has been attributed to a very strong sense of self preservation.” []
  2. אמרי שפר סימן ל”ד אות י”ב []