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The Closing of the Liberal Mind

Unfree societies, it seems, can indeed innovate as long as they’re willing to accept the scientific method


Can religious societies innovate to produce scientific breakthroughs like those that came out of the secular West over the last century, or are they too backward-looking and blinkered by tradition to break new ground?

Just a few years ago, the latter argument became a central talking point in one of the biggest geo-political stories of the day: the astonishing rise of China.

Back then, American politicians were waking up to the fact that the Communist giant had emerged as a potential rival. Turbocharged economic growth was enabling China to lay down the world’s largest high-speed rail network, its cities to sprout a forest of skyscrapers, and its military to invest in high-tech kit meant to challenge US supremacy.

But for much of the 2000s, even as it became clear that millions of blue-collar jobs outsourced to China weren’t coming back, policymakers shrugged. What US workers lost in jobs, the free-traders claimed, they made up for with cheap goods at Wal-Mart.

Besides which, the trendy argument ran, the Chinese were only good at copying and manufacturing low-grade knock-offs. Their specialty was wholesale industrial espionage, the systematic pilfering of American know-how. Ultimately, Beijing’s single-minded drive to overtake the West would fail because the US would stay one step ahead of China.

The argument was based on a theory: that innovation requires free thinking, the ability to question absolutely all assumptions, and so only truly free societies could innovate. Hence the fact that innovation was only unleashed once Renaissance Europe shed itself of the obscurantist shackles of Catholicism, and hence the failure of countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran to contribute meaningfully to progress.

In the same way that the despotic Middle East could never produce a Silicon Valley because of the region’s conservatism, China’s lack of freedom would doom an attempt to produce anything really cutting edge.

At the time, the argument that China would be stuck in a halfway house — not quite closing the technological gap with the West, because only true freethinkers could innovate — struck me as too convenient.

There was the undeniable fact that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia — two of the most autocratic societies in memory — pioneered many scientific breakthroughs. Did the fact that Soviet researchers were discouraged from painting like Picasso mean they couldn’t design ballistic missiles?

And the corollary of the close-minded argument — that religious fundamentalists couldn’t contribute to science — seemed historically illiterate. Many of the scientists and mathematicians of the Golden Age of Islamic science, such as Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian scholar who pioneered algebra, were practicing Muslims.

From the Rambam to the Ralbag, the Jewish People have themselves periodically had men great in both Torah and the sciences of the day. The fact that they are the exception, not the rule, is simply a matter of priorities: it’s the inner world of the spirit, not the outer material conditions, that is the focus of Torah study.

Two decades on from the theory’s heyday, with China battling America for dominance in advanced tech such as AI, no one is making that argument anymore. Unfree societies, it seems, can indeed innovate as long as they’re willing to accept the scientific method and throw sufficient resources at research.

In retrospect, the whole theory was part of the smug, self-satisfied narrative peddled by Western elites that conveniently equated technological prowess with a certain set of economic and ethical ideas. Like so many elite certainties, the theory has been discredited in a world where the West has lost its primacy.

I was reminded of that old talking point in a recent, unlikely context: the levayah of Reb Yitzchak Nachshoni z”l.

Yitzchak, a columnist at Mishpacha’s Hebrew edition who passed away suddenly at age 69, was a pioneer of religious journalism, editing a series of independent newspapers such as the now-defunct Yom Hashishi, in an era when most newspapers were organs of different Israeli political parties.

He brought a blend of sagacity, long memory, and talent to the business of writing. More important, as I discovered when we shared a night-long delay in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport last year, he was a wonderful, pleasant person to be around; a blend of yerei Shamayim and sophisticate.

At the levayah, Yitzchak’s old friend, Rav Abba Weingort — a leading talmid of Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the Seridei Eish — quoted his rebbi’s discussion of the religion-innovation paradox, applying it to the niftar.

Rav Weinberg observed that there’s an inherent tension between religious tradition — which by its nature means preserving what came before — and progress, the pursuit of what’s new.

In the Torah context, that tension can mean that it’s difficult to form a response even when societal changes challenge the viability of the Torah way of life.

Two gedolim who reconciled the contrasting demands of old and new, says the Seridei Eish, were Rav Yisrael Salanter and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Each reacted in his own way to the vast challenges triggered by the crumbling of the ghetto walls.

But despite their differences in approach, both succeeded because they’d managed to synthesize “Shibud shel mesorah v’cheirus shel yetzirah” — the “subservience of tradition and freedom of creativity,” as Rav Weinberg put it.

In other words, they’d found the golden pathway in which total fealty to Torah goes hand-in-hand with innovation.

Returning to the Western world, if the Seridei Eish concedes that tradition poses an inherent challenge to progress, that doesn’t mean that today’s secularists are in any better shape than the religious obscurantists of old.

Like Galileo, forced to recant his scientific theories by a Church that saw his views as heresy, there’s nothing open-minded about a medical establishment that is increasingly fearful to speak the truth about the biological reality of gender difference.

Where was the great tradition of free-thinking when the famed Oxford Union debating society sparked student fury for hosting Kathleen Stock, a professor who has the temerity to defend women’s rights?

The kind of extremism now emanating from the great Western universities has been amply documented. What hasn’t received such attention is what it all means for innovation.

In a stunning reversal, a century after a free-thinking Western academic culture forced Rav Weinberg to deal with Jewish tradition’s attitude to progress, some of those very academic institutions are now actively hostile to rational thought.

If sanity isn’t restored, how long will it be until the Chinese reverse the paradigm, and claim that liberals are too close-minded to innovate?


 (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 964)

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