Where You Stand Depends on Where You Start


By N.S. Palmer

We like to think that we base our beliefs only on logic and evidence, but we don’t.

Don’t worry. It’s not just you. Or me. Nobody does.

If we start with different assumptions, we interpret evidence differently. Based on those different interpretations, we reach different conclusions.

It’s essentially a simple point. Will driving west get you to California? It depends on where you start. If you start in Nevada, then yes. But if you start in Hawaii, then no; you’ll need a swimming suit and shark repellant.


Likewise, do parallel lines intersect? If you start with the assumptions of Euclidean geometry — what you learned in school — then they don’t. But if you start with the assumptions of spherical geometry, then they do.*

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888), one of the founders of Modern Orthodox Judaism, was keenly aware of the problem. Our basic ideas and assumptions determine how we see the world. We can’t really test them because they’re so basic. We just have to take them or leave them.

Most people in Western countries hold vaguely scientific assumptions. They think that logic and experimental evidence are the only valid tests of truth. Even though most of their own beliefs don’t meet that standard,** they use it to assess religious claims such as the truth of the Torah.

As a result, Hirsch said, they evaluate the Torah in terms of the secular world instead of evaluating the secular world in terms of the Torah. It makes a difference where you start:

“Within the circle of Judaism the Divine law must be the soil out of which your intellectual and spiritual life is to grow, not vice versa. You must not from your own intellectual and spiritual life produce the basis on which to establish a Divine law.”***

One thing that Hirsch does not contemplate is that we might adopt different world-views for different aspects of life. To repair a car engine or hunt for quarks, we might adopt the assumptions of secular science. On the other hand, to decide how we should live or what we should do, we might adopt the assumptions of the Jewish tradition.

But they don’t conflict unless we try to substitute one for the other where it doesn’t belong.


* That is, spherical geometry has no parallel lines in the same sense as Euclidean geometry has them.

** The philosopher F.H. Bradley defined metaphysics as “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.”

*** Horeb, p. 11.

Works Cited

Brannan, D. (1999), Geometry. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Grunfeld, I., translator (1962), Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Soncino Press, New York.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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