Philosophers have long debated how knowledge is acquired. Empiricists believe in the primacy of our senses for determining human knowledge. Rationalists believe that many of our most important ideas and knowledge can be attained by methods independent of our senses and experiences, such as by intuition and deduction.
One strict empiricist was Thomas Reid (1710-1796), a Scottish philosopher whose philosophy brought him in conflict with Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume, another Scottish philosopher of the same time period. Reid believed that our senses inevitably lead us to valid beliefs. Any belief that is contradictory to this “common sense” is false, given that common sense beliefs must be in accord with each other. He explained that every significant discovery is achieved through “patient observation, by accurate experiments, or by conclusions drawn by strict reasoning from observations and experiments, and such discoveries have always tended to refute, but not to confirm, the theories and hypotheses which ingenious men had invented” (Essays on the Intellectual Power of Man, 367-368).
This debate has led to fascinating, if sometimes confusing, dialogues. However, can empiricism offer practical ways to improve society today? Kwame Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University who was raised and has studied and lectured all over the world, is one who seeks to know how fundamental progress can be achieved through translating philosophical thought into action. He has published widely in many areas of philosophy, and is keenly interested in how philosophical theory affects political thought and action.
Employing his extraordinary multi-cultural education, Appiah proposes in his lecture series Experiments in Ethics that we must have empirical backing for our philosophical theories. He explains:
Nothing is more usual than for writers, even, on moral, political, or physical subjects, to distinguish between reason and experience, and to suppose, that these species of arg¬umentation are entirely different from each other. The former are taken for the mere result of our intellectual faculties, which, by considering a priori the nature of things... establish particular principles of science and philosophy. The latter are supposed to be derived entirely from sense and observation, by which we learn what has actually resulted from the operation of particular objects…
But notwithstanding that this distinction be thus uni¬versally received, both in the active and speculative scenes of life, I shall not scruple to pronounce, that it is, at bottom, erroneous, at least, superficial…It is experience which is ultimately the foundation of our inference and conclusion (Experiments in Ethics, 10).
Appiah goes beyond the mere philosophical argument to urge an active pursuit of justice:
Morality is practical. In the end it is about what to do and what to feel; how to respond to our own and the world’s demands. And to apply norms, we must understand the empirical contexts in which we are applying them. No one denies that applying norms, you will need to know what, as an empirical matter, the effects of what you do will be on others, as an empirical matter, the effects of what you do will be on others (Experiments in Ethics, 22).
Jewish thinkers have also examined this issue. Maimonides explained the importance of the quest for truth and how we must alter our positions in line with new observations. Significantly, he noted that Aristotle had been accepted over the old beliefs of Jewish sages on an astronomical question: “It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory: for speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof” (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:8).
Rambam further explains: “Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs … A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back...” (Letter on Astrology)
Rav Moshe Feinstein, the 20th century Jewish legal authority, explained that many aspects of Jewish law can be affected by contemporary science: “We thus see that unless we are compelled otherwise, we should assume that matters that are dependent on nature should be based on the assessment of the rabbis of every given time” (Even Ha’Ezer, 2:3). On many matters we must apply contemporary research to apply timeless values in the real world. Other times, we break beyond the academies to the populace to “go out and see” (puk chazi) what is being done.
The rabbis had the humility to acknowledge new findings and the importance of legal evolution:
“Six things heal the sick”–and the Talmud explains each one. You must first of all know that the healing practices that we do now is not the same as the healing practices that the earlier authorities practiced. And there were certain matters that the earlier authorities knew regarding properties of foods that we do not know now. And nowadays we cannot rely on those [early] healing practices, because we do not know how to perform the practice effectively… (Responsa of the Geonim, Harkavi, 394).
In the 1950s, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog lamented that, as science progressed and added to our knowledge, “we bury our heads in the sand” when science comes in contact with the Torah: “It is imperative that we cultivate from within our holy yeshivot – from the geniuses among them – people to be men of science of every field, and thus we will not be dependent on others regarding matters of physiology, chemistry, electricity, and all matters that touch upon our holy Torah.”
For example, there is currently a debate concerning various gun control provisions, including a restoration of the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine ban that had been in place from 1994 to 2004. Consider the following facts from contemporary researchers:
• 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings during the past half century occurred in the United States
• 5 of the 11 deadliest shootings in America occurred from 2007 onward [after the Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire]
• States with the strictest gun control laws have the fewest deaths by firearms
• States with the most guns tend to have the most deaths by firearms
• The assassin who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords fired 31 shots in 15 seconds due to his large magazine clip (33 rounds). Only when he stopped to reload was he subdued. Had he not had access to the large clip, he would have had to reload much earlier, and more people would have survived.
• In the July 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, the killer’s 100-round magazine jammed, perhaps saving lives. However, the killer also had a 40-round clip for his pistol.
• All 26 victims of the December 2012 Newtown, CT, mass killings were killed by a semi-automatic rifle with a high-capacity magazine.
In contrast, gun control opponents have flooded the Internet with claims that gun control does not work, but offer vague denunciations of old computer games, exhortations to arm even more citizens, and offer no explanation for why high-capacity magazines are necessary for hunting or target practice. There are moral truths that do not require empirical investigation to be verified, and every law of course cannot simply be overturned based upon new scientific findings. However, much of the application of those moral truths requires empirical tests to ensure they achieve the moral goal. For example, Jewish law wishes to save innocent life. In the debate between gun control and gun rights, the data clearly demonstrate why increased gun control will achieve this goal. Jewish law seeks to balance the value of self defense with the value of saving life. The statistics help us to identify what Jewish law must endorse. A more complete explanation of the Jewish approach to gun rights and gun control is needed.
This is just one example. If we truly care about honoring our core Jewish values then we must ensure our principles have the correct impact. To do so, we must embrace not only the descriptive but also the prescriptive, not only the “is” but also the “ought.” Rather than getting caught up in stubborn ideologies or partisan politics we must have the humility and courage to embrace empirical research and apply evidence within our argumentation.
There are countless Jewish moral dilemmas posed in the 21st century that require constant reassessment of contemporary research and the facts on the ground. Empirical research must be applied, in the most pressing way, to end-of-life issues and other pressing moral dilemmas. The Torah is actualized when our timeless Jewish values are kept alive and relevant by acknowledging and wrestling with new realities in the most intellectually honest and critical ways.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"