Sunday, December 19, 2010

Knowledge in Tradition or Modernity: Transmission vs. Production

Yet another way to conceptualize the problems between traditional Judaism and modernity, of which the Torah-Science issue can be seen as an example:

Knowledge in centuries past--say, pre-Enlightenment, for convenience's sake*--was largely conceived as a process of transmission. Students took in the words of their teachers, and passed them along. Think of the emphasis on tradition in Jewish education--"mesorah:" the word has its root in something being passed from one person to another. In this model, knowledge was achieved in the past, and people in the present can write commentaries, and then super-commentaries, and then marginal notes on anthologies of commentaries on super-commentaries. Even the medieval European academies were largely focused on passing down the works of Aristotle.

The modern scientific and epistemological framework, on the other hand, treats knowledge as something to be produced. If you have a question, run an experiment and create knowledge. This phrasing of it is an oversimplification--we certainly stand on the legitimate production of knowledge of those who came before us. (Contrast to the opening line of Pirkei Avot, in which it is received transmission all the way back to the beginning.) Besides which, experiments can also shed light on a greater area of ignorance to be explored. Nonetheless, the focus of modern pursuit of knowledge looks forward, not backwards. The idea is implicit in that very phrase of "pursuit of knowledge:" we pursue knowledge, not receive it.

Many books and blogs that try to square off specific issues in Torah and science miss this in treating it as a problem of discrepancy of facts. Whether or not Genesis is taken literally has little to do with how I determine what I know about the world.

*A gross oversimplification, again. Alhazen in the Islamic world and Roger Bacon in the European world were emphasizing experimental methods in the 10th and 13th centuries, respectively. But the Enlightenment is a nice time to point to when it really became a big deal.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Proof for Textual Divinity...Right?

And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith. (Qur'an 2:23-24)

Or do they say: "He (Muhammad(P)) has forged it?" Say: "Bring then a surah (chapter) like unto it, and call upon whomsoever you can, besides Allah, if you are truthful!" [Qur'an 10:37-38]
(Culled from here, as is most of the following)

When Muhammad was challenged regarding the divine origin of the Koran, he pointed to the text itself as his defining miracle. Arab poetry at the time of Islam's origin had two styles: tightly constrained rhymed poetry with clearly set meters, and prose. On the other hand:
"The Qur'an is not verse, but it is rhythmic. The rhythm of some verses resemble the regularity of [rhymed prose], and both are rhymed, while some verses have a similarity to Rajaz in its vigour and rapidity. But it was recognized by Quraysh critics to belong to neither one nor the other category."
In other words, Muhammad offered a simple challenge: if the Koran was a fake, someone should produce Arabic writing--even just a bit of it--that approaches the linguistic majesty of the Koran, which is neither poetry nor prose, rhythmic yet meaningful. It was something as yet
unseen in Arabic writing. But as scholar EH Palmer admitted, "the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur'an." Oxford Arabist Hamilton Gibb similarly wrote: "As a literary monument the Koran thus stands by itself, a production unique to the Arabic literature, having neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom. Muslims of all ages are united in proclaiming the inimitability not only of its contents but also of its style."

The point should be obvious. Mohammad claimed his work's style reflected its divine origins. Now, if he was wrong, no one should have believed him, right? How would you start a mass lie about the nature of Arabic writing? Or was it a mass conspiracy? Unlikely. If even one talented Arabic poet in the last fifteen hundred years could write in the same style, surely people would have heard about it and rejected what Mohammad said. But the very fact that the Meccans accepted Mohammad's point--along with the Koran's claim being upheld, with no one paralleling it since--shows that he spoke the truth. Therefore, the Koran must be divine.

Right, Kiruv Rabbis?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Real Kuzari Argument, and Why Rabbi Gottlieb Needs It

I think Gottlieb recognizes an important point, and much of his bad argumentation is to try to make that point work. While The Kuzari is now most famous for its mass revelation argument, that idea is actually not the central one of the book. Rather, the main theme R' Yehuda HaLevi develops is that to a large extent, apologetics don't matter if you have a revelation. For example, HaLevi will discuss a commandment that seems to make no sense by saying: "First of all, it doesn't need to make sense. We have the brute fact of revelation, and even if we don't know why God told us this, the fact is that he did. An experience of God telling us something overrides our questions about why. Nonetheless, we can try to offer some reasons just for its own sake." Then he suggests some possible apologetics.

I think it's a great strategy in a lot of ways, and I think Rabbi Gottlieb gets this. In his web page on the age of the universe (I'll deal specifically with that page another time), he responds to the question of why God would plant misleading evidence in the world. While he offers a possible rationalization, he begins by noting: It doesn't matter, because the brute fact is that He did*. In Gottlieb's web page on Biblical Criticism, he says that any linguistic analysis of the Torah is irrelevant, because it's not written by humans and so the brute fact is that God wrote it however God wrote it. He just notes that he thinks there is reason to accept that the revelation happened, and then he moves on.

What does all of this depend on, though? Certain knowledge that the revelation actually happened, of course. That's the trick of it. I think Rabbi Gottlieb is on the right track with the apologetics to some extent: if the revelation actually happened, then the reasoning becomes less important, as R' Yehuda HaLevi points out--though arguably not entirely. The problem is, you need a good reason to believe in the revelation to begin with, which then has to serve as the foundation of everything else. That's the reason the "Kuzari Principle" about mass revelation is so important to Gottlieb. Without it, he lacks that bedrock of revelation to support the apologetics, and suddenly you have a lot of bizarre things to explain away.

*This is a poorer example since it also depends on the belief that the Torah is to be taken literally--one could believe in revelation but still trust the evidences of their senses over a literal interpretation of scripture. It gets the point across, though.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rabbi Gottlieb: What a Putz

I have to thank Shilton for pointing me to this, which I thought deserved its own post.

This man actually has a degree in mathematical logic, but everything he argues seems to consist of two rules:

1) Assign acronyms to things, and then make truth value statements with no regard to actual logical relationships. ("If we call belief in Torah 'BIT,' and we assign variable 'BIT' a truth value of 'true,' we find that belief in Torah is unquestionably true.")

2) Bring up simple-sounding examples that have no relevant relationship to what you are discussing. ("If Reuven and Shimon are on a boat and Reuven falls off, surely we would say there are now fewer people on the boat. Similarly, the Torah is unquestionably true.")

In the above link, Rabbi Gottlieb responds to the point that belief in mass revelation could have developed gradually by myth formation, as opposed to his strawman in his "Kuzari Principle." The first three-fourths of the response consists of rule #2 being applied. ("But you see, something can be possible but implausible." Yeah, thanks.)

His actual argument (in the last two paragraphs) consists of rule #1: A myth process would probably lead to a belief that is false. But a National Experiential Tradition ("NET") is true, so it cannot have come from a myth.

Sorry? Does he think that makes any sense? Yes, the point of the myth development idea is to show how it could be false. That you previously ignored the realistic scenarios in which it could be false does not mean that those scenarios are now inapplicable, just because you already labeled it as true.

MAYBE--and just maybe--this kind of thing would be forgivable (with an eye roll) for someone who truly had no way of knowing better whatsoever. But Rabbi Gottlieb should. And so: what a putz.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Brief Overview of Materialism and Supernaturalism

(Apologies to Idealists and Neutral Monists)

Empiricist Materialism: Stuff exists. Complex stuff is made of simpler stuff, until you get to the simplest stuff there is. We learn about stuff because we experience it with our senses and can reason about it--the combination of which leads to our ability to experiment on it.

Supernaturalism (aka Dualism): Two kinds of things exist. One kind we know about because we experience it and can reason about it, also letting us experiment on it, as above. The other kind cannot be experienced or understood, cannot be experimented on, and is nothing like the first kind of stuff.

Pantheism/Spinoza's God/Einstein's God: The basic nature of the first kind of stuff--the kind we do experience--is still mysterious, unknown, and awe-inspiring.

Supernaturalist religion: Option 1) The second kind of stuff is what is special, mysterious, and awe-inspiring, and has a truer reality than the first kind of stuff. Option 2) The first kind of stuff is mysterious, and so therefore it is explained by the unknown second kind of thing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Emotion Research Meme

I've come across the following meme enough times now (most recently in a comment on GS' blog) that I'd like to respond to it and clarify. The meme says something along the following:

Research from psychology and neuroscience says people make better decisions with their emotions, so we should trust our emotions over our experience and intellect. So stop being so darn logical when it comes to God.

Reality check: that's a distortion of the research, which generally says something along the lines of, "emotion and cognition are more intertwined than we used to think." In contrast, the believer is acting as though emotions and logic are totally separate and emotion has been found to be superior.

The main research usually cited (though not in the latest case I'm responding to) is Antonio Damasio's Somatic Marker Hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, when we make decisions, our brain creates a representation of the bodily state we would feel if we went ahead with the alternative under consideration. I.e., you are deciding whether you want to stick your hand in a fire, and your brain creates an affectively-laden representation of how you would feel, and you pull your hand back. Thus, decision-making and emotional cognition are intertwined, and can't be pulled apart neatly into logic vs. emotions.

The more recent example I saw cited neuroscience research, which suggests that emotionally-laden stimuli are treated as more salient by visual and attentional systems. (In other words, emotional things, like things that could hurt you, get higher priority in being processed by your brain.)

Does any of that mean we should "trust our emotions over logic?" Not really. It means that even when we think we are thinking logically, there may be emotional representations at play that guide our judgments. Or, that emotional overtones may determine what our brain finds important enough to attend to. Now, there is indeed research that suggests that in some cases a gut decision will be better than a deliberated decision, but that's about conscious vs. unconscious processing, not emotion vs. reason.

But we already knew the research couldn't have meant what the believers claim it does. Let's consider what it would mean if we should literally trust our emotions over experience and logic:

Fred is afraid of getting a shot, and so he refuses to do so. His doctor tries to persuade him that he needs the vaccine before he goes overseas, but Fred insists that he is better off trusting his emotions, which tell him not to get the shot.

Arthur feels a special high around his cult leader. Arthur's parents try to show him the facts about the leader's scamming history, but Arthur insists on following his emotions and giving up all his money to the cult.

Does anyone actually intend this? Of course not--they want it only to apply when it comes to emotions regarding religion. But it's important to note how the research is being distorted in these scenarios and the religion scenario: part of the reason these scenarios are bogus is that Fred also has a "somatic marker" of what it would be like to get malaria and die, which will also influence his decisions. That's the point--the research says emotions and logic are often intertwined on both sides of a decision, whereas the believer is acting as though logic and emotion are separate and emotion has been found to be superior. This is just plain wrong.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Obligatory Beliefs

Orthodoxy is replete with discussions of what one may or may not believe. Some people are minimalists (e.g. Marc Shapiro), some are maximalists (e.g., I dunno, pick your anti-Slifkin-ite). But I don't find minimalism here much better: the very notion of a mandated belief seems bizarre and repugnant to me. How can you be obligated or forbidden to believe something? If it seems true, believe it, if not, don't, and if you're not sure, say you're not sure.

Now, one can be obligated by reason, in a manner of speaking. If a teachers shows you a perfectly clear geometric proof, you are forced to accept it, so to speak--it's not a choice. But how can there be an a priori discussion about what you may or may not believe, which forces you to choose beliefs?

It leads to some interesting consequences for the more rationally-inclined believers--the kind of thing XGH used to mock.

A couple months ago, I sat with a number of people, a couple of whom were wholeheartedly relating miracles and magical incidents that supposedly surrounded one of the Gedolei Hador. (Frankly, I found the supposed miracles to be parlor room stuff, but I'll put that aside.) One other person present made all the right skeptical points: was there any independent verification? For those people who claimed they were healed by the rabbis prayers, do we know the total number of people who asked for healing prayers?

But then he stopped and said: "But on the other hand, Judaism has some tenets of our faith that might sound silly to an outsider, but we believe them. Are we supposed to believe these kind of things are possible as well?"

I thought, exactly. Once one has admitted the concept of religiously mandated beliefs to the picture, how can one scoff at crazier beliefs? As far as I can tell, minimizing which beliefs are mandated does not help: once this is an acceptable notion at all, why not take all midrashim literally, or believe modern rabbis have prophetic powers? Etc. The reason, it turns out, is because our hypothetical rationalist doesn't think those beliefs are actually mandated--not because the beliefs are silly.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

There is Grandeur in this View of Life

I recently overheard two women talking. One was discussing her pregnancy, and how she had undergone her first ultrasound. She then exclaimed, "God is so amazing!"

This seems like a nice spring board to discuss a common accusation against skepticism. The religious believer sees wondrous miracles inhabiting her life, and the cold, rational skeptic turns it all into mechanisms and equations. The religious person sees the divine gift of life, and the skeptic sees only chemicals and processes by reducing everything scientifically.

I'd beg to differ, though, about that caricature. The baby developing inside her began as one single cell, containing half her DNA and half her husband's DNA. That cell then began dividing. Now, each daughter cell and granddaughter cell would get the exact same DNA as the original one--and DNA, of course, comprises the instructions telling a cell what to do. The cells have to eventually take on different jobs, though, throughout the body. And so over time, the cells differentiate in terms of which genes they express, first into simple groups based on small chemical or physical differences. Over more time, the differentiations accumulate until you have liver cells, nerve cells, skin cells, etc, each of which expresses only some of the genes in its DNA and thus performs a different job. Incredibly, no one guides this process, even though it begins from one cell with one set of DNA. The differentiations flows from local rules, as if a paper filled with magnets in the right way would fold into a beautiful origami pattern on its own.

This child will then be born with innate cognitive functions developed by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, for more complicated ones, and millions of years for more basic ones. It will begin imitating others rapidly after birth. It will form attachment with its mother in a particular stage. It will learn language in a later stage, in the same age range as other children. It will go on to develop a theory of mind around age four. All of this is programmed to unfold, with no one having programmed it.

When I consider all of this--not to mention, for example, the complexities of the DNA code written in only four bases on a more micro scale--I am filled with awe and wonder at the complexity involved. That this complexity could emerge on its own over thousands of millions of years via a simple algorithm--and go on to allow the love, pain, and friendship the child will feel at some point--is all the more mind-boggling.

In comparison, isn't reducing it to "God is so amazing" a little cheap? If one were struck by the processes involved and felt an immanent God equated with nature behind it all, that would be one thing. Or if "God is amazing" were just an expression of gratitude and wonder, great. But doesn't Someone magically getting the baby in and out--and I don't mean to belittle her excitement, but that's how she seemed to mean it--pale in comparison to the truth, which is itself quite wondrous and awe-inspiring?

There can indeed be grandeur in this view of life.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Torah of Science

Rabbi Slifkin posted about a forthcoming book by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman to be named The Torah of Science. First of all, does anyone think a new Young Earth Creationist book will have anything original or intelligent to add? It would save everyone time and trouble if Rabbi Meiselman would just point to any other YEC screed, and Rabbi Slifkin would just point to any one of the many books thoroughly debunking and refuting YEC. In any case, here's my quick take on it.

If the book is actually to be named "The Torah of Science," Rabbi Meiselman has rendered his case irrelevant before it has begun. Torah--to an Orthodox Jew--is revealed knowledge that cannot be changed or questioned. Science, by its nature, needs to be questionable and challengeable. It must be placed under scrutiny, tested and retested, and modified when necessary. In other words, there is no and can be no "Torah of Science." Science must be fallible and fluid, not regimented and ruled in the way that there is "Torah of business practices" or "Torah of medical ethics." The phrase "Torah of science," used in this way, is an oxymoron and speaks to the intellectual dishonesty bound to be rife in Meiselman's pages: he will be trying to squeeze science into the set of conclusions he thinks it must obey. This concept is anathema to anyone who cares about science.*

Of course, I am assuming the above is the sense in which he means "The Torah of Science." I suppose it could also mean, "lessons for Torah to be gained from science." Something tells me this is not the way in which he means it, though. (As pointed out by others, it could also be a nonsense phrase trying to be the opposite of Rabbi Slifkin's book and to sound like it cares more about Torah. That's likely, but that would probably still contain the implicit message I'm describing above.)

*There are, of course, accepted rules or frameworks governing procedures of good science. However, those frameworks are themselves open to argumentation, questioning and development based on reason and evidence--which is how they came about to begin with. Moreover, they are about procedures, not about conclusions.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dennett on Rational Inquiry into Religion

I posted a comment based on the following on the OPR blog in response to some claims of, "truth is subjective, and you cannot rationally inquire into religion without psychological coloring," which somehow is being used to defend religion. In any case, the following is my regular response to that sort of thing. It is a quote from Dan Dennett responding to a slightly different charge that warrants the same response:
One reader of an early draft of this chapter complained at this point, saying that by treating the hypothesis of God as just one more scientific hypothesis, to be evaluated by the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general, Dawkins and I are ignoring the very widespread claim by believers in God that their faith is quite beyond reason, not a matter to which such mundane methods of testing applies. It is not just unsympathetic, he claimed, but strictly unwarranted for me simply to assume that the scientific method continues to apply with full force in this domain of truth.

Very well, let's consider the objection. I doubt that the defender of religion will find it attractive, once we explore it carefully.

The philosopher Ronaldo de Souza once memorably described philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net," and I readily allow that I have indeed been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgement was up. But we can lower it if you really want to.

It's your serve.

Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: "What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tin foil. That's not much of a God to worship!". If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: "oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves?

Either way the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug's game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down."

The point is straightforward. If truth were entirely subjective and rationality were impossible on this topic, we could not be engaging in discussion where I am supposed to answer rationally. In many cases, though, the very fact that someone proffers reasons for their beliefs (and tries to convince you of them!) belies their claim that we cannot engage in rational discussion or inquiry. If it were true, all bets would be off, and there would be no connection between a claim they make, their reasons for making it, and what I infer from it.

Edit: To clarify, the point is not simply that if rationality is out the window you may as well believe anything about God. The point is that if rules of rationality are out, we cannot have a discussion at all--and the believer wants me to follow those rules while he does not. As I write in the comments, the example could have read:

"What you say implies that you hate children! What kind of an argument is that?"

Or: "What you say implies that muffins have consciousness! Isn't that a little farfetched?"

It's a crazy inference by any standard of rationality, but that has been tossed out rather asymmetrically by the believer.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

But Why a Good God?

I wrote at one point about some psychological phenomena that suggest a root for religious tendencies, but I would like to reorder them to raise and take a stab at a new question. To recap, it is quite plausible that religion is a byproduct of cognitive abilities and tendencies including (but not limited to):

a) Theory of mind. We impute minds to others, including assuming they have beliefs, desires, goals, etc. This is a much more useful way to understand and predict the behavior of others than viewing them as complicated machines.

b) Essentialism. We tend to assume things have hidden essences that make them what they are, sort of like Plato's ideal forms. Probably useful for categorization of things.

c) Anthropomorphism. We are good at detecting patterns and are particularly attuned to detecting human (or otherwise agentic) features, but sometimes overdo it for a variety of reasons.

Cross these together, and you can get a disembodied agentic mind that constitutes an anthropomorphized essence of the universe (or something like that). But here's my question: why is God assumed to be good, and why is God looked at as a father figure? Why not a neutral essence? One important factor in exploring this is how universal the "goodness belief" is: if it's culture-specific, it may just be an add-on to the main religion package. That could change what level of explanation to look for--i.e. from evolutionary advantage or universal psychological phenomenon to a successful meme in particular cultures. (Admittedly, the gods did bad things in Greek myths, but as far as I know, they still expected piety from humans.) In any case, while I'm leaving the goodness issue open as an earnest question, I did think of two possible candidates, both of which I mentioned in that previous post without recognizing their significance.

1) One is the Just World Hypothesis: people are motivated to assume the world is a fair and just place, which seems to be comforting--if people get what they deserve, I can be good and therefore protected. And if the world is just, shouldn't we assume the agentic essence of the world is just and good? In this option, God's assumed goodness is a side effect of the Just World Hypothesis spilling over into the mix.

2) Another possibility is Illusions of External Agency. We all have "psychological defense mechanisms" that sometimes make us happier with what we have (for example, in post-decisional dissonance reduction). However, we usually aren't aware of the operation of those systems (would they work if we were?), and so people often assume that they got something objectively good, and go on to assume it must have been provided by a benevolent external agent. If religious belief arises in part from over-application of agency to the universe, this type of illusion could create the sense that it is a benevolent agent. In this option, God's assumed goodness is more intrinsically part of the anthropomorphic mix.

I'm not sure if these are the answer--or part of the answer--and again, I wonder how universal the goodness-belief is to begin with. I also still wonder where the parent part comes from. Why would a benevolent agentic essence be viewed as a father figure as well, or a creator? Perhaps this has roots in ancestor worship or crossovers from creation myths, but I don't know enough about those to say. Or is it connected to morality and parental relationships more directly somehow? Any ideas?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Evolution and Religion: Thoughts in Progress

Many religious people--including many or even most Modern Orthodox Jews--view the fact of evolution as compatible with religious tradition: Genesis is not to be taken literally, and God had a guiding Hand over the process of evolution.

Now, I like this take on religion and evolution, mostly because a) it's what I believed when I still believed, and b) it's good for honest religion and honest science. Indeed, some point to commentators like Ramban, who seems to suggest that God may have inserted a soul into a man-like animal to create humans. However, it is obvious that many religious people find evolution threatening, and it's important to ask why. Moreover, I have come to question the idea that religion and evolution can be squared so easily; it can be done, I'm sure, but I think it's harder than I used to assume. Here's a list of issues evolution presents for religion, some of which are culled from recent points I or others have made around the blogosphere. I'd be interested to see if anyone has any other points to add, or thinks these aren't such serious issues for the conciliatory point of view.

1. Evolution contradicts Genesis. An obvious starting point, yes, but even for those who say the Bible shouldn't be taken literally, one might wonder why God would write an account that looks like an actual description of creation to those who don't know better. I assume it was taken as literal by many people over a very long stretch of time, so how come only those of us living in the last 151 years get to understand that it is metaphorical? Is this not theologically confusing? ("God is mysterious and had a reason," I suppose. Post hoc and vague, but not unusually so. "People couldn't have handled it back then, so God waited until we were ready," I have also heard. I say: have you been to modern day Texas?)

Beyond this more minor point, though, some of the details become challenging. For example, Genesis discusses the creation of different animals, clearly stating that God created each animal "l'minah"--"according to its kind." From an evolutionary point of view, though, there is no such thing as a fixed, stable species with its own essence. Any two species can be connected via a series of intermediates in some pattern, with no sharp dividing line between them: any animal in the series was very similar to its parents and offspring. At a certain point, two groups of animals are different enough that they can no longer interbreed, and we call them two different species. So, the allegorical reader of Genesis must not only understand "God created" as "God guided the process of evolution," but also understand details such as "l'minah" as using "lashon b'nei adam" ("the common language of people"). Alternatively, the "creation" of a species involves the insertion of some essential soul into random animals in a series. (As noted above, IIRC, the Ramban actually suggests something along these lines about the creation of humanity--but that's what set humanity apart from animals. And, which animal should get the special essential soul of the species, if none had previously been essentially different from the prior or following links in the chain?)

To sum it up: evolution is not creation, and Genesis contains a creation story. It seems like it might need to be understood as a myth that contains a moral message in order to get off the ground, doesn't it? And at that point, aren't we wondering why God is writing a creation myth?

2. Let's suppose God has indeed providentially guided the process of evolution. Again, this gets harder when you examine the details. For hundreds of millions of years, animals have been competing, suffering, and dying. As may be obvious, animals can feel pain, so it is easy to begin to see "nature red in tooth and claw" when you consider evolutionary history. All that time and all that suffering was mandated by God to have a mechanistic process that would eventually churn out humans, in a tiny blip in the timeframe? The problem of evil becomes magnified a thousandfold.

3 & 4. As noted in the last post I put up, Western religions assume humans have a special place in the universe. Evolution creates two problems for this. First, humans are a part of the same mechanistic process as all natural life, not on a special metaphysical plane--even though we still have unique abilities in the animal world. Second, at some point, presumably, a new species will branch out of Homo Sapiens--making it a little harder for us to be the be all and end all. Once again, you have to assume the insertion of a special essence into humanity. Cognitive science has not been kind to the "ghost in the machine," though, making it an unnecessary entity that has been posited.

5. Evolution explains away the appearance of design in the universe, and as such, makes it unnecessary to posit that Someone was guiding the process (explored in more depth here). Like the ghost in the machine in cognitive science, one is positing the unnecessary to explain the data.

Of course, it's certainly still possible to accept evolution and theology, and I hope many people continue to do so. However, it's interesting and worthwhile to consider why it is so threatening to so many religious people and how well it can actually be squared with religion. The above contains my first stab. Any thoughts?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Humanity's Naïve Self-Loves"

I recently came across the following quote from Freud:

"Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self‑love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe…The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world…But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present‑day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind…This is the kernel of the universal revolt against our science." (A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Eighteenth Lecture)

(Freud's conception of the psychoanalytic unconscious is not the one accepted by cognitive scientists today, and I don't know whether or not the above was truly at the root of criticism he faced. But, Freud was perhaps more right than he could have known about the third "outrage" to humanity's naive worldviews. Modern research on the cognitive unconscious in psychology and cognitive neuroscience has presented a wealth of evidence that picks away at the notion of a unified, directly-known, causal, conscious self.)

In any case, sort of sums things up, huh?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Arbitrariness of Gosse

It occurred to me recently that I don't get the logical structure of the Gosse approach to evidence for the age of the Earth, evolution, etc--i.e., God planted mounds of evidence to test our faith. Let's say, for the moment, that we're ok with the bizarre theological implications of a trickster God. I still don't get it.

For the believer, theoretically, God created both nature and the Bible. The accounts in each clearly contradict each other (for a Biblical literalist, at least). So, what reason is there to claim that nature is the deceptive side, and the Bible true? Isn't it just as likely that the account contained in nature is true, and God is deceiving us in the Bible? From a logical standpoint, I don't see a reason to pick one over the other.

Obviously, the rest of the religion is built around the Bible, so that provides psychological motivation to protect that side. But I don't think I ever realized how arbitrary their choice seems on logical grounds, even putting aside the other problems with the idea (verifiability, Last Thursdayism, etc).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"You Assume Other People Exist, I Assume God Exists"

For some reason, I keep coming across this argument for faith now. I'd like to explain here why it's a bad argument.

The argument generally goes something like this, as articulated by a couple commenters on XGH's blog:

"We all proceed under assumptions that cannot be properly scientifically tested. You assume other people exist. I assume God exist. Neither of us is bothered by the fact that absolute truthiness of either of those propositions can ever really be known. We simply proceed with our lives, you and me both."


"The simple point is that there are some certainties in life that come prior to reason [such as the existence of the external world/other people]. Faith is one of them. Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean that it's not so."

The problem with the argument is that it's just a bad analogy. The real comparison would be, "You assume your direct empirical experience with other people is what it seems to be, rather than an elaborate hoax or dream. I assume God exists."

In other words, we have a great reason to assume the external world or other people exist--namely, our sensory experience. It's just that we can doubt these things with an extreme form of doubt, and we assume they are what they seem anyway. We're not making up an external world from a blank. Similarly we can have good reason to accept the results of a scientific experiment if it works--it's just that we can always doubt it based on the induction problem. In contrast, there's no empirical experience that provides a basis for faith in God.

To make this point clear: for the analogy to work, the believer would need to have direct empirical experience with or evidence for God, and then say, "Well, I could doubt this experience/evidence as the work of an evil demon, but I will assume it is real just like I assume the external world is real." This is not the case, unfortunately, which means that there is just no connection between the faith case and the other cases.

Without this connection, one would need some reason to put faith in the category of "things accepted even though they can be doubted." Otherwise, the argument basically goes, "You have what I am calling an unprovable belief [because it could theoretically be doubted], so I can believe anything." Literally. There's no discrimination between one belief and another--faith is automatically approved because something else can't be saved from Cartesian doubt, with no justification for putting faith in the same category. (Notice how they always say, "And faith is the same," without explaining why.) If that's true, rational discussion has been thrown out the window since all beliefs are fair game without justification, and it's pointless even to bother thinking about it or trying to justify faith (or anything else).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Cognitive Dissonance

In 1954, a housewife reported receiving mysterious "automatic writing" from aliens from the planet Clarion. Through these writings, she learned that the world was going to end via a Noah-like flood on December 21st of that year, and she began publicizing this fact. More specifically, she advertised that those who believed in the flood would be saved by a UFO that would rescue them.

Believers left jobs, colleges, and spouses to join the group that would be saved. They gave up their possessions and lives to prepare for the event. December 20th approaches, and they gather. The clock strikes midnight--the appointed time for salvation. There is no alien savior. The group waits--perhaps their clocks were fast. By five in the morning, though, it is clear no one is coming for them. But wait--the leader suddenly receives a new piece of automatic writing, declaring that the flood has been called off, thanks to the light spread by the group of believers.

The individuals here gave up their entire lives on the promise that they would be rescued from a flood at midnight of December 20th, 1954. You might expect that once they received clear and irreparable disconfirmation of that belief, they would angrily reject it, and demand compensation. Instead, psychologist Leon Festinger reports (in his book on the event), the crowd grew more attached to the belief.

This was a case study that grew into a robust literature in social psychology on cognitive dissonance theory. Bluntly, the theory states that if someone has two opposing cognitions--i.e. a belief and an opposing action--they will experience an unpleasant psychological tension. As such, they will resolve the tension somehow, most likely by changing their belief to accommodate their action. The individuals in the Clarion cult had devoted too much behavior to the cult. When push came to shove, there was no way for them to reconcile their actions with a belief that the UFO-flood story wasn't true--so they adjusted their beliefs in line with their actions. (Achrei ha'peulot nimshachim halevavot may be true, after all.) Participants in experimental psych labs do the same thing all the time, albeit with lower stakes. For example, participants will get paid only one dollar to write an essay they disagree with, and will end up agreeing with the position more than they used to--because if they don't agree with it, their unconscious reasoning goes, why are they defending it well for such little reward? Participants who are paid twenty dollars, on the other hand, do not need to rationalize their actions to themselves, and so do not change their beliefs.

The nimshal? If you are in the position of doubting your previous beliefs, you have a few options. You can look at your actions, and everything you have devoted to orthodoxy, and conclude that you simply must believe it after all--and come up with new justifications for said belief. Or, your actions can eventually change in line with your new beliefs. Or, you can become orthoprax, and just live with constant intellectual dissonance. If you're lucky, you'll alleviate some of the dissonance by finding some justification for the actions you are doing, such that they seem merited (for example, you like the community). Then you end up like an experimental participant offered $20 to write an essay you disagree with. You don't have to change your beliefs to match your actions, or change your actions to match your beliefs. You know exactly why you wrote the essay. It's not because you believe in it; it's because they gave you twenty bucks.

And if you're not lucky...cognitive dissonance it is.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Psychology, Religion, Orthopraxy


Here is a list of psychological phenomena connected to religion I have come up with so far. (Of course, as any psychology article on this topic always notes, showing a psychological phenomenon related to religious belief neither proves nor disproves the belief itself.) Am I missing any? Connection to orthopraxy below.

-Anthropomorphizing of the universe. 1) Partly as error. Humans have a tendency to over-apply agency to things that aren't really agents. Kids do this as they are learning to apply concepts of agency (e.g. saying goodnight to their stuffed animals and meaning it), and adults yell at their cars and computers when they malfunction, see faces in the clouds, etc. In ancient times, people had pretty intense anthropomorphisms (like whipping the sea for misbehavior). 2) Partly as motivated approach to the world. Anthropomorphizing happens when people need social contact and feel lonely, or need to explain something unexplainable. Interestingly, one social psych study (Barrett & Keil, 1996) suggested that religious people were more likely to use an anthropomorphic concept of God than a classic theological one in daily life.

-Just World Hypothesis (referenced in a previous post). People have a need to believe the world is a just and ordered place, to the extent that if something bad happens to someone and we cannot help them, we will often assume it is in some way the victim's fault (either for causing it or having some flaw that "brought it upon them").

-Illusions of External Agency (Gilbert et al, 2000): We have psychological defense mechanisms that make us happy with what we have. However, they work unconsciously, so people often assume that what they have received is objectively good for them, rather than realizing that they their minds have subjectively made it seem good. Consequently, they assume there is an agent looking out for them, since they are getting all these good things.

-Fear of death. This one sort of speaks for itself.

-Supersense. I haven't read the book of that name yet--though it's on my list--but it shows how we develop a sense for the supernatural.

So the question for me now is, can orthopraxy relate to any of these psychological needs and principles? (Not really, as far as I can tell, which is why it seems pretty untenable as a movement to me.) It often feels to me as though being in the skeptic vein pits one's automatic psychological system against one's rationally-determined beliefs. From this lens, orthopraxy comes with the costs of religion without providing any of the core psychological benefits. One lives in constant intellectual dissonance, instead of gaining the relief the lifestyle should provide (in one ideal sense).

On the other hand, though, you can justify it by appeal to practical consequences, and--in theory--other psychological/emotional gains. You get a sense of community, some nice values and traditions, it's what you're comfortable with, etc. And maybe you've got it better than the full believers--you don't accept all the beliefs and whatnot, and get to do more of your own thing, but you get to gain the community (something a la this post).

I guess the point is, orthopraxy: a double-edged sword. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Evil as a Reason to Believe?

Most people think of the problem of evil as one of the prime theological challenges facing religions throughout history.

A commenter writes on XGH, though:

There are many reasons to assume God exists -

1) why do bad things happen to good people?
2) Why do we exist?
3) what is our purpose?
4) How does something come from Quantum Soup if all there exists are laws of physics?

Ignoring 2-4 for now*, it was at first incredibly odd to me that someone cited bad things happening to good people as a reason to assume God exists. This was one of the prime arguments against religion for millennia!

But I realized how much sense that makes. One of the prime motivations for religious thinking, it seems, is to explain the universe in an ordered way. The Just World Hypothesis in social psychology states that we all have a need to view the world as ordered and just. If something bad happens to someone and we cannot help them, we will often tend to assume it must in some way be their own fault. By doing so, we keep the world ordered, and separate ourselves from the bad things that happen.

As such, while an argument from evil would be just about the worst logical argument for God ever envisioned, it gets directly to the root of the matter as an emotional argument for God.

*2 and 3, like 1, are psychological reasons we would like to assume God exists, not standalone reasons to assume God does exist. 4 is somewhat unintelligible to me as written.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Daat Emet

Luke Skyhopper

I was reading Undercover Kofer, and I stumbled across his link to a Daat Emet article which brings Torah sources to essentially prove that the Torah and Halacha cannot have remained intact since Sinai.

Daat Emet is an Israeli site which seeks to to dismantle various dogmatic arguments often espoused by Orthodox Judaism and popularized by the Kiruv movement.

While I have yet to check Daat Emet's sources in the original texts, I figured I'd share the link.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Raising Orthoprax Children


This topic seems to me to be one of the most impossible facing both orthopraxy as a group (movement?) and orthopraxers as individuals. If it will stand as a group/movement (groovement?), orthopraxy should know if it will attempt to be passed down to children, or if it is only a transition stage for those who have lost their belief. Individuals, meanwhile, must face the question: what on earth do you teach children, and how do you raise them in an orthoprax home?

The options, as they appear to me:

1. Try to teach orthopraxy directly--no beliefs taught, but "these are the practices we do, just because this is what Ortho(something) Jews do. It's our community and lifestyle." This seems to get sticky, however, when getting into the cognitive dissonance of traditions like brachot and prayer. ("No, we don't believe in the God of Abraham. Now stop asking questions and go daven Shemoneh Esreh.") Or, when the child gets old enough to understand what Orthodoxy is, and wants to do things Friday night.

2. One parent is orthoprax, one orthodox. The orthoprax one stays quiet and lets the orthodox one do the talking. Perhaps this could actually work for some who don't care much or aren't strong disbelievers, but not a great idea in my view. People need intellectual honesty in their lives as best as they can reach it.

3. Parents recreate their exact life experiences by perpetuating a "noble lie," teaching orthodoxy until the child reaches a certain age. Then, they sit the kid down and reveal that it has been a lie, but the kid is now too emotionally/communally invested to walk away. A repulsive idea, of course, but I include it to point out that, quite frankly, it's the only actual way to perpetuate the orthoprax experience. Orthopraxy is a weird lifestyle, what can I say.

4. A more sensible combination of 1, 2, and 3: orthodox beliefs are taught just in the way many innocent beliefs are taught to or maintained for kids, in a light, left-wing MO manner. (There wasn't much focus on belief in my MO upbringing, now that I think about it--that was when I got to yeshiva.) As they get older, more and more serious age-appropriate discussion about the world ensues.

So, more or less normal LWMO upbringing, but parents will step in to undercut something taught in school if it's past a line to them, and get the child thinking critically about religion at an age-appropriate level.

5. Parent(s) is/are orthoprax, but raise kids more or less Conservative, coming to terms with an ebbing away from orthodoxy. Traditions are kept in the home for traditional reasons, but with greater flexibility than the parents' upbringing would allow. Jewish education is more or less Conservative, and children are given the freedom to do what they would like with the traditions with which they were raised.

Did I miss any?

Of these, #5 seems to me by far the most sensible, but I can see how for some people more invested in orthodoxy, #4 would be more realistic. #5 would mean orthopraxy is not really tenable as a movement for more than a one or two generations. Perhaps that's a shame, perhaps not. Either way, is there a better option?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bits and Pieces 1

Luke Skyhopper

I have been reading about Higher Biblical Criticism and academic scholarship on the Torah since I finished Shana Alef. I'm not a hundred percent sure why, but until I went to Yeshiva, the divine origins of the Torah was never a big deal for me. To me it was the book of our people, and the exact nature of it never really bothered me. I was only vaguely familiar with academic criticism in high school, to the point that I only knew it existed, but nothing of its veracity.

When I got to Yeshiva, Torah study was stressed all day to long, to the point that it was the end in of itself. Until this point I was religious, but lived in a modox household. When I came home, I was free to do what I wished, of course staying within the bounds of halacha. Being in Yeshiva, I felt myself bombarded from all sides by the forces of Orthodox Judaism, not necessarily the modern kind.

At the time I encountered a mental conflict that I've only recently come to understand. Essentially it boiled down to a clash of personal freedom versus being dictated to. Being in Yeshiva I began to feel, somewhat subconsciously at the time, that I had no control of my life. The morality of choices were being dictated by the people who wrote these books hundreds or thousands of years ago. These books were then being interpreted by individuals who I sensed were ignorant, while at the same time pushing their own agenda.

This led me to begin a fight to control my right to live as I pleased.

To clarify things, there was no one telling me what to do in the direct sense of it. The Yeshiva tended to turn a blind eye to most of our activities. Secular music, books etc were completely accepted. The philosophy was strictly halachic, modern scholarship and culture was either disdained or ignored by the Rebbeim. Sure, many had secular degrees, but their outlook was by no means modern.

What bothered me was the belief was that Halacha was dictated to man by God, in the objective sense of the word. Subjective belief was not presented as having any play here, God demanded Halchic adherence in the most direct sense.

Now you might ask youself, "What was this guy thinking? no kidding Modern Orthodox Rabbis believe this." Until then I had faith that Modern Orthodoxy could work as a faith that was humble before science and reality. I guess I wanted to believe that you could be skeptical of fundamentalist beliefs while still calling yourself Orthodox. But my experiences in Yeshiva ran to the contrary.

Rationally proving that God wrote the (through Moshe at Sinai) Torah and gave the laws was never really important to me throughout high school. I believed in my simple way because I thought that such was the approach of my people for thousands of years. The fundamentalist notions that this is objectively true never really got on my nerves until I was surrounded by them in Yeshiva.

At this point I realized that I had to retain my right to freedom and individuality. I suppose it was not until I felt Orthodox fundamentalism really encroach on my life that I cared enough to disprove it, and thus research the Documentary Hypothesis.

Some Things I Value in OJ


Here is a non-exclusive list of some values and practices I love in Judaism, or at least ones for which Judaism offers a strong support structure:

-Family ties, kibud av v'em, kibud zekenim:
There is a strong sense of community built out of family structure. I do believe that in the modern world, there can often be a lack of respect for parents, or a lack of cohesion in a family. Judaism tries to provide structures by which all of the above are supported. Families are brought together through the structure of chagim, Shabbat, smachot, etc; children are taught about familial responsibility, and obligations towards parents; we are taught laws about how to honor the elderly.

No, not the prude sense of it, nor the idea that women need to be forced to hide themselves in silly ways. But I certainly appreciate the value that more attention should be paid to a person's interior; that there is value and dignity to living with some sense of modesty; that some things should be kept special between a married couple. (Say what you will about hair coverings, but isn't it important and valuable that some things between a married couple be kept only for each other?)

-Community bond:
Yes, I believe Orthodox Jews are, at least in a lot of circles, too insular--but that seems like the price paid for the benefits of a tight-knit community. And I do love being able to walk in a Jewish neighborhood on Shabbat and say "Shabbat Shalom" to strangers, and have a sort of instant bond.

There is something unparalleled about having a forced day off from mundane matters, when one must spend time with family and/or rest from the everyday rush (even if there can at times be frustrating sides that come along with it).

-Tikkun olam
The notion that we live in an imperfect world, and it is our duty to fix it. When utilized correctly, what more inspiring mission could we have than that?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bursting Bubbles


One problem I keep facing with blogging is that I'm a softie when it comes to bursting other people's bubbles, even if I rationally think it would be best. Don't get me wrong--if a fundamentalist suggests something wrong or silly, I'll respond, and explain why. But I always feel bad going "on the offensive," explaining why something they think is wrongheaded (on other blogs, that is--I assume if someone is reading mine, they can deal with the kinds of things I'm going to say). If someone has a wrongheaded certainty that comforts them, or may even help them in some way, is it right to burst that? (Even if it is, what if I can't bring myself to do it?)

The former is one of the driving questions of Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Unfortunately, though very honestly of him, he does not offer a direct answer to the question. He more or less suggests that more research is needed on the possible benefits and costs of religion, which is probably true but frustrating.

On the one hand, after all, religious certainty can offer comfort, hope, and strength to a person. Taking away a person's sense of certainty--even if you follow up with "you can still be religious if you want, just don't claim you have a proof for it"--may impinge on all that. On the other hand, religious certainty is what drives so much terrorism, violence, oppression, and land disputes, affecting people of just about all religions. It would be pretty great to get those people to think twice about how sure they are about their claims.

So what do you do with nice religious folk who you don't think will commit any acts of violence, but who have some repugnant views about the non-religious? Or who don't actively work against a pluralistic society, but whose views undermine it? Or who do not engage in extremist action, but offer explicit or implicit ideological support to those who do? Is it cruel to burst their bubbles--from personal experience, this can be a pretty painful process, after all--or irresponsible not to make them think twice? Again, I'm not even talking about trying to make them full-blown skeptics--I don't think I'm going to do that with one or two blog posts, nor do I want to--but rather about contributing to more room for inquiry in their minds.

At the end of the day, Dennett is probably right; we need more research about the effects of religion, and how best to treat it. But does that mean I just stay quiet until provoked in the meantime? I'd love to hear some honest thoughts about this from other people.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Shoutout from Dan Dennett

by JG

From Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon, pg. 224:

"[Some religious leaders] have come to realize that the robustness of the institution of religion doesn't depend on uniformity of belief at all; it depends on the uniformity of professing. This has long been a feature of some strains of Judaism: fake it and never mind if you make it...Recognizing that the very idea of commanding someone to believe something is incoherent on its face, an invitation to insincerity or self-deception, many Jewish congregations reject the demand for orthodoxy, right belief, and settle for orthopraxy, right behavior. Instead of secret pockets of festering guilty skepticism, they make a virtue of candid doubt, respectfully expressed."

Unfortunately, he gives no sources as to where the open orthopraxy is to be found. I wonder if he has the same thing in mind we do. (As a side note, does this make us a pocket of festering skepticism or a site of virtuous candid doubt?)

More on the Gay Question

by Luke Skyhopper

Ok, I am admittedly a bit sick of the discussions surrounding the Gay question of Orthodox Judaism. As a devotee of Orthopraxy, consenting adults are welcome to behave towards each other however they wish. The repression and ostracism of law abiding and innocent people is despicable; end of story.

However I was wondering, what might happen if the greater Orthodox community capitulated to most of the demands pressed by the Gay community at this conference. Orthodoxy can never fully accept the concept of Gay sex or marriage because of conflict with Jewish law, however let us say that everyone openly admits to the existence of people with same-sex attraction. How would that change the atmosphere in Yeshivas (non-coed) ones? Given that the notion of a boys Yeshivas operates, at least partially, with the intent to stifle adolescent attention towards the opposite sex (and focus on the Limmud), what would be done with Gay students? Place them in Beis Yakkov? How could one justify a uniform all-boys approach if it would be counter-productive according to the basic operating principles?...What about male Mikvahs?

Any wide-spread admission and open discussion of Gays within the wider Orthodox community (which I am still skeptical of) would precipitate a rethinking of other social norms. If one discusses the needs of Gay men, why not bring in the Ta'avahs of others such as unmarried people. Admittedly the YU conference was not about the issues of sexual fulfillment, but rather social acceptance. Nonetheless, I can't imagine the former issue remaining dormant for terribly much longer.

Since Gays are a group that seeks intimate fulfillment in way that "deviates" from the accepted norm, conceivably there will have to be repercussions inherent with rethinking such social structures. While such a widespread social reaction within Orthodoxy is still more or less a fantasy, one cannot help but wonder what normative changes such a spreading discussion might bring.

Now on to another topic please.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Contribute to The Praxy Project!

The Praxy Project is a collaborative effort. We are devoted to exploring, broadly:

-Inner life

of the frum skeptic/orthoprax life. Wherever you are on the frum/skeptic spectrum, if you would like to contribute your take on any of these, or share your thoughts or experiences, or tell or ask the public about anything else, please send an email to: jgadfly at gmail dot com.

We hope this blog can not only explore, but also contribute, to orthoprax community--whatever that is.