Monday, July 25, 2011

Hirhurim Does Philosophy!

Hirhurim has a new post about philosophy and faith. I had been waiting for one of those as blog fodder!

His argument this time: philosopher Leo Strauss once argued "that neither religion nor purely secular philosophy can disprove each other." As such,
His conclusion is that since neither system can be be conclusively proven, the choice of either must be based on faith. Others would revise it to be that the choice of either must be based on non-rational reasons, such as tradition and personal predilections including faith.
What a mind-numbingly...mind-numbing argument. First, what's this abstract dichotomy of "religion" and "philosophy" being unable to disprove each other? I have not read Strauss, but this type of vagueness seems like meaningless hand-waving.

Second, Gil once more retreats into the sort of argument I have mentioned before. Instead of "X is true," he argues "I have the right to believe X without justification." This is intellectually lazy and, frankly, intellectually repulsive. Imagine the conversation:

"Why do you believe in Mormonism?"

"Oh, because I think you could still say that it's possible and plausible if you try hard enough."

"But why do you believe it?"

"Oh, because my personal predilections and upbringing lead me to believe in it as long as it hasn't been unquestionably disproven somehow."

"That's an explanation of why you believe in it, not a reason why you would believe in it."


Monday, July 11, 2011

Unparsimonious Explanations

1. "The ball moved because her hand exerted force on it, and an invisible friction demon pushed it at the same time; the effect is identical to that of her pushing it alone."

2. "The balloon floated because helium is lighter than air, and there is a complex network of magic levitation force field wires hoisting it up; the effect is identical to what we see just if helium is lighter than air."

3. "Species evolved through natural selection, and God guided the process; the effect is identical to that of evolution through natural selection alone."

4. "The Torah was written by humans, and they were divinely inspired; the result is identical to what we would expect if it were written by humans alone."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Limits of Rationalism?

I'm kind of confused by this post. In discussing the limits of rationalism in Judaism, R' Slifkin writes:
In my view, although some of the Rishonim applied the rationalist approach to Judaism without limitations, we cannot do so. This is for both practical and theoretical reasons.
The practical problem is that
"there is considerable conflict between 21st century academic scholarship and 21st century Orthodox Jewish ideology."
The theoretical problem is that
"I think that there is an irreducible conflict between the very nature of emunah and rationalism."
I agree with both these points, and think they are problems for rationalists who want to believe in Judaism. But R' Slifkin also writes:
I don't see this as reason to entirely discard the rationalist approach. Besides, it's just not possible to do so; you can't make people shut their minds off, and Judaism does not expect people to do so....Nevertheless, I think it should be accepted from the outset that there can be limits to this approach.
This is the part I don't understand. Asking people to accept that there can be limits to where their reason takes them is, indeed, asking people to shut off their minds. I agree that you can't do that. So how does he still wind up with the last sentence of the paragraph, that there still must be limits?

Rationalism and reason don't really have limits; Judaism does. I sympathize with his aim--to keep rationalism and Orthodox Judaism together--but I think he realizes they don't really mesh well, and this piece just comes across as somewhat confused to me. Either you end up "limiting reason"--which he recommends, despite recognizing that this is irrational and likely impossible in the same paragraph--or you end up compromising Jewish belief.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"You Assume the Outside World Exists" Part 2

After someone pointing out that his version of "divine revelation to multiple authors" is unfalsifiable, ModernOrthoprax commenter Moshe writes:
You mean like your strange idea that the world that you perceive actually exists, and that your consciousness is not, say, merely embedded in a memory chip?
I thought I would expand on my prior post on why this is a bad argument. Admittedly, this probably shouldn't be responded to that seriously, but I think it's interesting and I think his argument actually backfires on him.

1) Any time you see someone making an argument of this form, it is just about bound to fail. Moshe's argument here is not of the form, "God exists because [...]" or "The Torah is divine because [...]." Instead, it is of the form, "even though I don't have justification for believing the Torah is divine, I have the epistemic right to believe it is because [...]." The problem with this form of argument is that it can be applied indiscriminately to anything, from belief in the Koran to belief in Last Thursdayism. If you have the "right" to believe in things without justification, than so does everyone. And if everything is justified by your argument, nothing has been justified.

2) I think Moshe's argument backfires on him. The existence of the outside world is not, in fact, a strange idea. It's the simplest inference from and explanation of what we experience every time we open our eyes. Moshe's alternate interpretations of the data, in comparison, are extravagant, and so we reject them (beyond philosophical musings).

You can always make more and more complex interpretations of the same data:
-"The existence of dinosaurs is an unfalsifiable question, since God could have planted dinosaur bones and it would look the same."
-"The theory of gravity is unfalsifiable, since I propose a 'Gravity Demon,' whose tricky actions always make things look like they behave according to the theory of gravity."

This would be silly. A) Relative to the null hypothesis that dinosaurs never existed, dinosaur bones provide evidence that they did. B) Relative to different interpretations of the same data, we accept the simplest inference--that dinosaurs existed--and reject extravagant explanations that are interchangeable with the current evidence (e.g., God planted the bones). This point is the canon of parsimony, aka Occam's Razor. Same for a "gravity demon"--we cut down explanatory dead weight.

I don't see how our everyday experience is much different. A) Relative to the null hypothesis that the world does not exist, we have plenty of evidence and experience to suggest it does (i.e. open your eyes). B) Relative to alternate interpretations of the same data, we settle on the simplest one--that the world exists as we experience it. Proposing evil demons tricking us or brains in vats would be an extravagant interpretation.

This is where I think Moshe's argument backfires: the same reason that we accept that the the outside world exists is the same reason I reject divine revelation to the multiple authors of the Torah. Instead of the explanation "humans wrote this work," Moshe proposes, "humans wrote this work AND it was 'divinely inspired' AND it looks exactly the same as if humans wrote it." Obviously, the canon of simplicity dictates that we accept the first interpretation of the exact same data.

Thus, the same logic dictates that I accept the existence of the external world (the simplest interpretation) and reject divine inspiration of the Torah (an extravagant interpretation), rather than Moshe's claim to the contrary.

CAN one still doubt anything and everything? Sure; induction can always be mistaken, a complex explanation could end up correct, etc. But is it reasonable, consistent, and common-sensical to disbelieve in divine inspiration of the Torah in light of basic beliefs about the external world? I believe it is.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Morality without God

I. Theists claim that there is no source of morality without God1 and therefore a) skeptics are "deluding" ourselves by acting moral, b) society would ultimately fall apart without belief in God, or something like that.

II. Let's put aside for the moment the fact that there are serious problems with the idea of God as a source of morality. (See, for example, the Euthyphro Dilemma.) The charge is wrong from the get-go because it misunderstands what morality is. Morality is a fundamental part of human social life--it never was a metaphysical set of commands. In the words of philosopher Patricia Churchland2, it is a "constraint-satisfaction problem" our brains solve: we have different needs and wants living within a society, and morality is the necessary way to balance them.

We are profoundly social creatures, wired to cooperate and flourish in a society. Indeed, cooperating with others has been found to activate pleasure and reward areas of the brain3. Interacting pleasantly with others is fundamental to who we are, and we need to belong with others: over a range of studies, the pain of social exclusion has been shown to activate areas of the brain associated with physical pain4,5. Moreover, social support is linked to many positive outcomes, including physical health6. (Of course, no one but theists in the heat of argument needs this research cited: would you rather go for coffee with your best friend or stab your best friend in the back over $100? Even if you are religious, does your answer have anything to do with God? If you were an atheist, would YOU now want to kill a person for monetary gain?)

Social and moral intuitions run deep: research has found that infants as young as 5 months old prefer a helper to a harmer7. Moreover, our empathic capabilities are impressive: when we see a relevant other in pain, overlapping emotional brain regions respond as when we are in pain8,9, and we feel motivation to respond. Descriptively, we have strong natural moral intuitions that guide us.

III. Prescriptively: The point is, we are very social creatures, and as social creatures, we need cooperation and trust. We all desire to live well and flourish, to borrow Sam Harris's terms10. Given these facts, there are certain things we ought to do to achieve those goals--such as cooperating with each other, creating social and legal institutions that regulate our interactions and create trust with strangers, obeying certain rules and laws, etc. These can be objective descriptions of the world: if we all decide to cheat and steal and kill each other, we will all have objectively less well-being than if we live together peaceably. (Consider: the maximally beneficial solution to a Prisoner's Dilemma is to cooperate). Why ought I not steal? Because I desire to live in a functional, friendly, and cooperative society rather than in a disjoint, terrorized, and broken society--and my not stealing is part of that.

IV. Objection 1: But, the theist may ask, why ought someone desire well-being of this sort? To that, you may answer: why ought someone desire health? Should we be afraid that without God, no one will take medicine prescribed by doctors because there is no objective command to be healthy? It's a silly question. We all want to be healthy. We all also want to live well and flourish as social animals (except for those with certain disorders, who have serious things wrong in their brain and are thus are not particularly relevant). Given that we desire this state, there are objective ways to achieve the goal and ways to get further away from this goal. If I see a tiger and have the goal of not being eaten, I ought to run away. If I am a social animal and have the goal of well-being as such, I ought to obey certain moral dictates.

Objection 2: "Not everyone wants well-being and flourishing! Religious extremists don't care about that stuff, for instance--they care about God's morality for it's own sake!" Answer: Of course they care about well-being. They just think they achieve the highest possible well-being by following certain dictates, i.e. not eating pork, blowing up infidels, disliking homosexuals. Imagine a religion that claimed the following revelation: "God wants you to do XYZ because it is Morally Right. But, if you do it, He will punish you with everlasting excruciating torment and distance from Him. If you violate these laws--which are still God's moral truths!--He will reward you with grace and closeness to Him and all goodness. Don't ask why--no one can understand God's logic!" How many people would follow the dictates of this religion?

V. In short:
1) We are wired to be social, cooperative creatures; we feel pain when we are socially excluded and when relevant others are in pain, and we feel pleasure when included or when cooperating successfully. Our physical and psychological well-being depends on successful social life.
2) Given that this is part of overall well-being we desire, just as we desire health, there are certain things we ought to do to achieve it and certain things we ought not do. The society in which women are mutilated at birth and free-thinkers are killed will objectively have less well-being than a free society, and we ought to move towards the latter.
3) We need no further metaphysical basis for morality; our everyday moral dilemmas are constraint satisfaction problems as we navigate solutions to our basic social needs.

1 I came to many of the general conclusions here on my own, but was also much influenced by Patricia Churchland's BrainTrust and Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape. I highly recommend both to anyone interested in morality, science, and religion.

2 BrainTrust.

3 Rilling, J. (2011). The social brain in interactive games. In: Todorov, A. Fiske, S, Prentice D., eds. Social Neuroscience: Toward Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind. Oxford Press.

4 Eisenberger, N. al. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science 302, 290–292.

5 Kross, E. et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. PNAS, 108, 6270-6275.

6 Eisenberger, N. I. (2007). Using neuroimaging techniques to explore the relationship between social status and health. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 159-160.

7 Hamlin, J.K., et al. (2007.) Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature, 450:22.

8 Singer, T. et al. Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science 303, 1157–1162 (2004).

9 Ochsner, K., et al (2008). Your pain or mine? Common and distinct neural systems supporting the perception of pain in self and others. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience 3, 144-160

10 The Moral Landscape.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Excerpts from the Orthoprax Haggadah

"Now we are slaves, next year free."
The seder is both a celebration of our freedom and a recognition of the ways in which we still hope for freedom. On the one hand, we are relatively free from dogma and free from indoctrination. We have clarity of mind about religion and the natural world, which is a significant achievement.

At the same time, as orthopraxers, we often don't have freedoms we want. We may not have the freedom to speak our minds openly. We may not have the freedom to act as we want. More importantly, we may not be free from emotional confusion or cognitive dissonance about our lifestyles, and we may not have clarity about how best to live orthoprax lives. And so at the seder, we consider how we may be more free at this time next year--what we can change internally or externally to find emotional freedom and happiness.

"In the beginning, our forefathers were idolaters."
Here we recognize the chain that has led us to our present state. Our forefathers long ago were polytheists, who believed they had to appease many gods with religious rituals. Later generations recognized that the world could be more simply and better explained by one personal God. In our day, we recognize that there are even simpler and better explanations for the world and for the origin of religious ritual.

"Of four sons spoke the Torah..."
"The wise son:"
This is the orthopraxer who is "smart" about his orthopraxy, managing to fit in despite it. As you will notice, he does not speak of beliefs, or Torah and science. He simply discusses Jewish law and practice, and he is answered in kind--he lives in this world of practice and avoids conflicts with beliefs, happy to make meaning of the rituals to which he is accustomed. He is probably Zionistic, feels a sense of Jewish identity, and reads Kugel.

"The wicked son."
This is the "naughty" orthopraxer, who cannot help but point out what appears odd to him: why are people still following a Bronze age myth? He is considered wicked by the haggadah because he does not care to fit in; he would roll his eyes at this. This orthopraxer probably reads Dawkins and Pharyngula. It is notable, though, that he chooses to be at the seder to begin with. He may not know why and he may struggle with it, but for whatever reason, he is there.

"The simple son."
This refers to the simple believers or ba'alei tshuva who accept whatever they are told.

"The one who does not know how to ask."
Here are any frum people, particularly intellifundies, who simply don't understand the weight of the questions and conflicts in the minds of skeptics. They have faith that all questions can be answered, or else they read responses to biblical criticism or evolutionary theory without understanding the questions themselves. This is because they do not really know how to ask.

You will notice that there are not any orthoprax daughters listed. This is a shame.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

On Responses to the Ami Orthopraxy Article

"He just started asking questions and looking for answers in books. And like others before him, he could not find any that had any basis in his religious beliefs...Even though these people are not ‘missionaries’ about their atheism, when asked they are very effective at arguing their case – pointing to various internet sites that support their views...

If we are intellectually honest and have ever thought about some of the issues raised by science and other disciplines those questions have at least entered our minds. Most of us reject them immediately as our faith is stronger than our doubts..but there are a large number of people who cannot so easily dismiss those questions."

"The intellectual challenges to Judaism are very real. Fortunate are those of us whose sense of Divine providence in Jewish history, and whose appreciation of the nature and role of the Torah, as well as other factors, enables us to maintain belief in revelation; but if we are honest, we will acknowledge that there are nevertheless intellectual challenges to which Judaism presently does not have a good response. Can we really be hostile towards those who consider the challenges overpowering?"

"They simply left their emunah behind, following instead a nonsensical thought process [editorial: I think that's Yeshivish for "logic"] into the thicket of apikorsus."
-The Ami Article

Goodness. No wonder Ami feels so intimidated by the orthoprax. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that if you actually follow logic and scientific knowledge where they lead you, they lead away from orthodox dogma.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wired for Religion...At the Expense of Science?

In this excellent article, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discusses some psychological origins of religious and supernatural beliefs. It nicely summarizes and expands on a number of ideas I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

While I highly recommend the full article, I found one idea particularly noteworthy. To give some background--Bloom describes how we seem to have two separate innate systems for reasoning about inanimate or animate objects. This makes sense: inanimate objects are acted upon by causal forces, whereas animate beings can move on their own, so it is useful to divide the world into these categories. However, we naturally essentialize this difference, treating them as two distinct categories of things--matter and mind--and we thus become natural dualists. In Bloom's words:

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.

Our animacy detection is so hypersensitive to finding agents that we see intention and goals where there are none. This gets to the striking point in the last sentence above: it means that we are not just intuitive dualists--we are intuitive creationists as well. Bloom quotes Richard Dawkins as saying that it often seems "as if the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism." (Spend five minutes in a blog thread with creationists and you will know what he means.) In a way, Bloom suggests, this is actually true--natural selection runs counter to innate intuitions about agency:

When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

It's not surprising, then, that nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining")... And when asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism—and belief in God—is bred in the bone.

I have previously blogged about psychological roots for supernatural beliefs. Bloom points out, though, that these may actually come at the expense of scientific understanding. At least, I would add, in those who do not work past those gut reactions and understand the ideas involved. Finally, we can see yet another reason why gut intuitions about the universe are of very limited weight when discussing its origins and workings.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Skeptics Are Third-Graders"

I get tired of reading that "skeptics only attack their third grade notions of God and Judaism. They think it's all as they were taught back then, or it's nothing."

Rubbish. When I was still 'dox, I was a rationalist. I argued for the Rambam's position of treating outrageous stories in Tanach as allegories. I argued for the Maharal's style of decoding outrageous statements of Chazal as hidden, coded, allegorical wisdoms. I went through "the Torah is not a science textbook," followed by "the Torah is not a history textbook," and so on. I did everything you could expect from a Modern Orthodox intellectual trying to make Orthodox Judaism rational and understandable.

I reject that. Don't tell me Breishit is metaphorical: tell me what the metaphor stands for, and why I should accept that as true. Tell me why I should believe in any supernatural claims whatsoever, including dualism. Tell me why I should believe any form of Divine revelation occurred--not just the sort they teach you in third grade. Tell me why I should accord any intellectual authority to Chazal, not just simple belief or disbelief in their sayings.

And so on.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vaccine Scare Doctor Exposed as Fraud

Andrew Wakefield, the shamed doctor behind the discredited vaccine scares, is at last being shown to be a complete fraud. His paper claiming a link between MMR vaccines and autism was already retracted for sloppy methods and undisclosed conflict of interest; his license to practice medicine was already revoked for ethical breaches; his results, which examined exactly 12 children, have not only never been replicated, but have been disconfirmed repeatedly. At last, though, new investigations have shown that his study apparently actually faked data:

A new examination found, by comparing the reported diagnoses in the paper to hospital records, that Wakefield and colleagues altered facts about patients in their study.
The analysis, by British journalist Brian Deer, found that despite the claim in Wakefield's paper that the 12 children studied were normal until they had the MMR shot, five had previously documented developmental problems. Deer also found that all the cases were somehow misrepresented when he compared data from medical records and the children's parents.

Deer previously found motives as well: two years before the study, Wakefield was hired to discredit MMR vaccines by a lawyer who hoped to create a class action lawsuit against drug companies. Wakefield was paid an undisclosed $750,000 over time to do so. In addition, Wakefield filed a patent for his own version of a vaccine many months before his study, through which he stood to gain if the other MMR vaccines were attacked. (A brief summary with details can be found here.)

Infants have died because of this man. Measles is on the rise and children are sick because he took advantage of the worst fears of parents to get rich. He should rot in prison.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Arguments from Personal Incredulity

Atomic Theory:
This theory actually claims that everything is made of the same subatomic particles in different arrangements. That's crazy! Try touching wood and then water. They are totally different! How could they possibly be made of the same subatomic particles? Obviously, each material on Earth has its own essence, made according to its kind.

Computer Science:
You're telling me that little gates opening and closing create Microsoft Word and me watching DVDs? That's ridiculous. How could one lead to the other? Obviously there's a typewriter and movie theater inside my computer.

DNA Theory:
You're saying the plan for our bodies is "coded" inside each cell? That's ridiculous! Who's there to read the code? Besides, different cells do different things--how would they know what to do if they all have the same instructions? Obviously, Someone tells each cell what to do.

What? Read a book? Why? Can't you just give me straight answers to these simple questions? Or would these theories only be believed by atheist scientists who don't want to accept the truth? Hmmmm?