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.