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.