Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Dawn of Creation

(BBC News 4/8/09)

Sunrise in Jerusalem
"'It was like seeing the sun for the very first time," said one spectator

Across the world Jewish people have been celebrating Birkat Hachama, or the Sun Blessing, as Erica Chernofsky witnessed in Jerusalem at daybreak.

The blare of a ram's horn filled the early morning air, alerting the thousands of people gathered at the Western Wall that the sun was about to rise.

When it finally appeared above the ancient stones on Wednesday, the crowd gasped in unison and then began to recite a special blessing: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who makes the works of creation."

To those standing at Judaism's holy place, known to them as the Temple Mount, this was no regular sunrise but one that only occurs every 28 years.

The Sun Blessing - Birkat Hachama in Hebrew - takes place when the Sun returns to the point at which it was, Jewish tradition says, when God created the world thousands of years ago.

Joel Atkin and his daughter Shelby
How many chances do you get to do something like this?
Shelby Atkin

"What an amazing experience," said Joel Atkin, who came to watch with his daughter Shelby, 17.

"It was like seeing the Sun for the very first time."

"How many chances do you get to do something like this?", Shelby asked excitedly.

The source of the ancient tradition comes from the Talmud, a set of holy Jewish writings which states that, "he who sees the Sun at its period recites the blessing".

"Its period," it later explains, recurs every 28 years on the vernal equinox, the date when the Sun crosses the equator.

It is more commonly known as the first day of spring, when Jews believe the Sun was created.

In the Biblical book of Genesis, the Sun, along with the moon and stars, was created on the fourth day, which in modern times translates to Wednesday.

The Sun returns to this position, believed to be its first position, every year.

Emotional moment

But only once every 28 years does this happen both on the vernal equinox (as calculated by Jewish tradition) and on a Wednesday - just as Jews believe it did when the universe was created.

Sunrise in Jerusalem
Some view the Birkat Hachama as an important reminder not to take the Sun's energy for granted

"It's one of those occasions you just don't miss," echoed Jeremy Shebson, in Jerusalem from London on holiday.

"The one thing we don't appreciate are all the wonders of the world, and an event like this makes you appreciate something that happens every day."

As the sun began to rise slowly higher above the Wall, the throngs of Jewish men clad in black and white prayer shawls, their heads adorned with tefillin (black leather boxes containing Bible scrolls), jostled for the best spot.

A few women shed tears as the sun lit up the morning sky, and held up their prayer books to block the sharp rays as they recited the special blessing.


However, the tradition is deemed by many to be based on archaic calculations, which today are known to be erroneous.

I heard this could bring redemption, and I came because I want redemption to come today!"

Two thousand years ago, Judaism, along with other Middle Eastern cultures, believed the length of the year was 365 days plus 6 hours.

But centuries later, Judaism readjusted the calendar year to 365 days, five hours and 55 minutes, while modern science now puts the year at 365 days, five hours and 48 minutes - 12 minutes less than the original calculation.

This small discrepancy adds up when multiplied by thousands of years.

Wednesday's event was actually celebrated 19 days later than the real first day of spring, which fell on 20 March, explained Professor Ariel Cohen of the astronomy and atmospheric physics department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"So it's a very nice tradition but 2,000 years ago, it was a tradition based on scientific values, and today they need to re-evaluate,' he said.

"Now that we know it is no longer accurate we have to either modify the tradition or abandon it completely."

Rabbis acknowledge this inaccuracy but stress that the mathematical calculations are less significant than the meaning behind a tradition that has been kept by Jews for centuries.

"There are many opinions as to when exactly to say Birkat Hachama, some even say you should recite the blessing if you haven't seen the Sun in three days because it is cloudy," says Rabbi Shlomo Vilk.

Man praying at the Western Wall
Crowds of worshippers gathered to say the blessing

"But it's not the day which is important, it's about appreciating the creation of the Sun, such a powerful source of energy that we all take for granted."

This year, the event has added significance as it falls on the eve of the holiday of Passover, marking the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.

Some rabbis even view it as a sign heralding the coming redemption and arrival of the Messiah.

"In Judaism we want the Messiah to come every day, but we do say there are times that are more opportune and significant," explains Rabbi Mordechai Genut, an astronomy expert and prominent figure in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.

"It doesn't mean it will happen, but it's a good sign."

Rabbi Vilk relates redemption less to the cosmic event and more to the people who celebrate it.

"The Messiah will come if we will all be good. If everyone goes out to say this blessing, the Messiah will come because we appreciate what we have and bless God for it."

While not everyone who woke up early to witness the special sunrise expected the Messiah, Tzippora, 42, had not entirely ruled it out:

"I heard this could bring redemption, and I came because I want redemption to come today!"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The End of Philosophy

(NYT April 8, 2009)

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but ... what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.”

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.