Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Two, section one

Soul Defined: The Human U-Turn (Chapter Two, section one)

The author begins the chapter by asking what exactly the soul is and how we can relate to it. To, “…give us a glimpse into the power and nature of the soul,” he tells several glurgy stories.

The first is again related to WWII, and is about two concentration camp inmates. In a bad moment one tells the other that God loves him and gives him a hug. The second man would later claim that hug saved his life. The author asks, “If human existence is limited to the physical dimension, how can something as ethereal as love stave off death?” Firstly, in this case I would argue that it was hope, shared experience, and sense of meaning that helped the man survive, not “love” per se. Secondly, love is not as “ethereal” as the author would imagine, but is instead an emotion generated by our brain through the release of the neurotransmitters oxytocin and serotonin, a process “limited to the physical dimension.”

The second story is about a sickly boy who, told by doctors he would not live to adulthood, ran away from home and became a circus strongman through, “will power… and the power of the mind,” and lived to be an old man. The author implies that it was his mind/soul that overcame his illness and allowed him to perform amazing feats. Leaving aside that circus acts are just that – acts – there are several possible explanations for the boy’s recovery. 1) The doctors may have been mistaken. 2) The training and bodybuilding he went through to become a strongman strengthened his weak body and allowed it to fight off the disease. 3) There really is something to the mind-body connection. The belief that one will get better causing actual improvement is a well-known phenomenon called the placebo effect, and it is the main thing that drugs are tested against for efficacy (that is, trials are conducted to see if the drug’s active ingredients produce improvement over the placebo effect produced by a sugar pill). It is entirely plausible that the boy’s, “strength of mind [could] counteract the weakness of the body,” especially when we remember that the mind, as an emergent property of the brain, is part of the body. Thus we can discuss the influence of the mind on the body without having to posit a metaphysical soul.

The author cites several other cases of people who overcame extreme physical limitations to have notable careers. These people are to be admired for the fortitude and hard work that it took for them to succeed despite their disabilities, but their success neither implies a metaphysical soul nor tells us anything about the soul if it does exist. Attributing their success to the 'power of the human spirit' is an emotional appeal that actually detracts from the credit they deserve for their extraordinary achievements. It is the equivalent of saying, “Yes, they worked hard, but their success is really due to their fairy god-mothers waving their magic wands.”

The author claims that, “The above examples suggest that an invisible, non-physical component can profoundly affect corporeal reality.” They do no such thing! In none of the examples given is it necessary to posit a soul to explain the reported phenomena, and if the author’s statement is taken to refer to the mind alone (though I have no doubt he means the soul) it must be remembered, as I stated above, that the mind is as corporeal as any other part of the body.
{incorrect scientific fact, emotional appeal, unwarranted assumption}

The author provides a quote from Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch in which Rav Hirsch explains that man’s body was taken from the earth, but that which makes him alive is the spirit breathed into him by God. He further explains that this spirit survives death.

This is reassuring to a species aware of its own mortality, but it is theology, not science.

The author states that the relation between the spirit and the body is now beginning to be investigated scientifically, and that new experiments have shown the spirit’s effect on the body. I have a feeling that “spirit” in relation to these experiments is a synonym for “mind,” not, “soul,” but let’s see what the evidence shows.

The first study he cites showed that patients who merely believed they had received surgery to reduce pain in their knee showed just as much improvement as patients who had actually received the surgery. While this is a good argument against continuing to perform said surgery, it is merely a demonstration of the placebo effect. This is not “groundbreaking” as the author claims, but merely yet another affirmation of a well-known effect. It is also not evidence for the power of a transcendent human spirit, but a fascinating insight into how our beliefs about a situation influence our experience of it.

In the second study he cites, one in which patients with Parkinson’s were given either a dopamine injection or a placebo, the author explicitly states that, “the placebo – or rather the patient’s expectations – caused the brain to release as much dopamine as the active drug!” These are very interesting results, but it does not show, as the author claims, “That thoughts, hopes, and expectations can produce such demonstrable physical effects reveals the power of the spirit.” Unless, as I speculated above, “spirit” here means “mind.” The results show how our mind, as an emergent property of our brain, can affect our brain and cause it to inhibit the activity that produces pain and increase the activity that releases dopamine. This is similar to how clicking on an icon on your computer screen – an image produced by software, an emergent property of the ones and zeros encoded on your computer’s hard drive – can cause the physical door of your disc drive to open.
{equivocation fallacy}

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Duex Ex Homo Sapiens

I just finished reading an excellent book, “Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable” by Bruce Hood. The book explores how the way our minds are wired leads us to intuit the supernatural. It’s concepts such as the ones in this book, the way our minds really work as opposed to our intuitive understanding of how our minds work, that kept me interested in psychology in college.

Among other things the book discusses “essentialism,” the tendency we all have to think that there is a metaphysical essence attached to all objects and organisms that makes them what they are. The idea of essences goes all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy, and Dr. Hood quotes a Greek philosopher to make his point. He tells the story of the Ship of Theseus, a famous ship in the Greek world which saw years of service. Over its lifetime, parts of the ship were replaced as they became warped or rotten. Was it still the same ship at the end of its service as it had been at the beginning, despite having had many of its planks replaced? What if one were to take the cast-off planks and assemble them into a second ship? Which would be the real Ship of Theseus, the one that had parts slowly replaced, or the one that was made of the original, now cast-off planks?

A modern-day Ship of Theseus lies at anchor in Boston Harbor. The USS Constitution is an eighteenth-century wooden super-frigate, and is the oldest ship in the world to hold a continuous naval commission. Built during the “pseudo-war” between the United States and France near the end of the1700s, it became famous during the War of 1812 when its crew watched shot from the British frigate HMS Guerriere bounce off its sides and gave it the nickname, “Old Ironsides.” In the over two centuries it’s been in service, every splinter of the Constitution has been replaced at one point or another. Is it still the same ship that traded broadsides with the Guerriere?

That we still think of it as the same ship despite it physically being made up of entirely different material is because of our intuitive sense that there is some essence that defines an object as itself, an essence that is separate from the physical material it’s made of. We see the Constitution as an entity, not merely as a thing made of wood and steel.

Dr. Hood suggests that we have this sense because it helps us identify objects and people as having a continuous existence. He cites a rare neurological disorder in which patients are unable to identify people and objects as those they are familiar with, and instead insist that their parents have been replaced with exact duplicates; and that their closets are full of clothes that are the exact size and style as the ones they own, but belong to other people. Their sense of the essence of objects and people is damaged, and they don’t intuitively connect the beloved parents they spoke with before they became sick with the identical-looking people they’re speaking to right now.

The sense of essence then is extremely useful, as it allows us to intuit continuity. This is even more important with people than with objects. While the entirety of the Constitution has been replaced over the years, it still looks much as it did when it was first launched in the late 1700s. People, on the other hand, change as they age. My daughter today looks almost nothing like she did when she was born. Then she was a tiny, wrinkly, floppy thing that did nothing but eat, sleep, and cry. Now she’s nearly three feet tall, talks incessantly and loves to run and jump. Yet I intuitively see her as the same person.

This brings us to the soul. Our intuitive sense of essence, of a supernatural component to objects’ and peoples’ identity, lends itself to the instinctive assumption that there is metaphysical soul which animates our physical body. The sense of essence creates the illusion that there is something more to the people we interact with than their physical bodies, and together with other phenomena, such as our experience of our consciousness as existing in a metaphysical space somewhere behind our eyes; our sense that we occupy our bodies and drive them around like meaty vehicles; our difficulty truly conceiving of our own non-existence and a world that we are not a part of in some way; and the lack of obvious physical change at the moment of death, causes us to infer a metaphysical entity that animates the body and is the actual person we are interacting with – a soul.

Unfortunately for proponents of the existence of a soul, none of these things are evidence that a soul exists. Intuiting essence is useful to us because it lets us identify objects as having a continuous existence, but essences aren’t real in an objective sense – for either ships or people. Our sense of our consciousness as separate from and in control of our bodies is just a quirk of experience – our consciousness is an emergent property of our brains, and some of the brain areas responsible for various experiences have already been identified. Our consciousness is not any one of the experiences produced by discrete areas of the brain, but the sum of those experiences. Our difficulty conceiving of a world in which we do not exist is due to our complete lack of experience with our own non-existence – an experience that would be impossible to have. And the lack of an obvious change that turns a person into a corpse is because we cannot detect brain activity without sophisticated equipment. People die because their body breaks and stops working, much the same way a computer will stop working if a circuit board is cracked. There is no ghost in the machine that makes a computer work, just silicon chips, ceramic platters, and electric current. And there is no need to posit a soul to animate our bodies, just neurons, neurotransmitters, and bioelectricity.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section four

This is a milestone for me. Two posts in one day! I've rarely had two posts in one week.

Where Dwells the Self? (Chapter One, section four)

Before I even begin to read this section, I would like to try to answer the heading’s question. The self, if we define it as one’s personality and ability to think and make decisions, dwells mostly in the pre-frontal cortex. Let’s see what the author’s answer is.

The author cites black holes as a phenomenon that we cannot observe directly but whose existence can be inferred from its effects. He asserts that black holes cannot be detected by “any instrument whatsoever” because their extremely high gravity keeps anything from escaping. This is not technically true, as Stephen Hawking showed in 1974 that black holes do emit a form of radiation (which was named ‘Hawking Radiation’). Still, his point that we can know about things we cannot detect directly by observing their effects is a valid one.
{incorrect scientific fact}

The author asks why it is that both people and animals ingest the same sorts of food and the same sort of nutrients travel to their brains, yet only humans produce art. He asks, “…the outcome is so different. Why?” The answer is that the structure and capabilities of the brains of various species are different. The implication that some metaphysical soul must be responsible for transforming the base nutrients into human experiences ignores this basic physiological fact.

He seems to be again trying to use art as evidence of a soul. This is a bad argument because art can be adequately explained by brain function without the need to posit a metaphysical soul.
{argument from ignorance, ignoring known explanations}

He goes on to list a number of things in what seems to be an attempt to show that our sense of self is separate from our physical bodies. It is true that we tend to think of ourselves as something other than our physical bodies. Our consciousness seems to dwell in an abstract mental landscape and most of us think of ourselves as existing somewhere behind our eyes. But here he is putting the cart before the horse. The concept of a soul probably developed because of our perception of ourselves as disembodied consciousness “driving” our bodies around like meaty vehicles. That we have this perception is in no way evidence that our consciousness is actually that disembodied soul.

Consciousness is most likely an emergent property of the brain. That we don’t perceive our thoughts, emotions, or sense of self as coming from the brain has no bearing on whether or not they actually originate within our skulls. Work with fMRI has consistently shown that various areas in the brain are responsible for emotion and cognition.

The author brings news stories and anecdotes to demonstrate that “we” are not our bodies – that is, we are not our limbs, heart, skin, etc. (More accurately, the anecdotes show that we don’t think of ourselves as our bodies.) Again, this is because we perceive ourselves as a consciousness driving the body around like a vehicle. That we think about ourselves this way is an interesting psychological phenomenon, but it doesn’t demonstrate that consciousness is caused by something separate from the body.

He now attempts to show that “we” are not seated in our brains.

First he asks if, theoretically, your memories and knowledge (and presumably personality, though he doesn’t mention that) could be transferred to another brain, would that become you, and would your old brain, wiped clean of your memories, still be you? I’m not sure what his point is exactly, but in such a case the old brain would cease to be you and the new brain would be you. This is because “you” – that is, your consciousness - is not the squishy grey matter in your skull, but is an emergent property of it. Much like the software that runs on a computer isn’t itself chips of etched silicon but is an emergent property of the information encoded on those chips.

Next he asserts that someone with complete retrograde amnesia (he merely says "amnesia," but to cite antegrade amnesia in this context makes no sense) still has a sense of self. I think he is trying to show that our memories are not our sense of self. Amnesiacs, however, do not lose all of their memories. They usually lose only certain types of memories and most sufferers retain knowledge of who they are. Further, retrograde amnesia is often more of a recall problem than damage to the memories themselves, so that an amnesiac's memories may still influence him even if he can't explicitly recall them. Even if it were the case that amnesiacs suffered complete loss of all memories yet retained their sense of self, this only shows that memory is not the only component of our self-identity.

There is a rare type of amnesia called dissociative amnesia where the sufferer does lose his sense of self, further disproving the author's claim. In such cases if the patient does not recall his former identity he will develop a new one. If, as the author claims, the sense of self is rooted in the soul, the change of self in patients with dissociative amnesia would imply that they switched souls. Yet I don’t think that is what he is trying to suggest.
{incorrect scientific fact}

The author then suggests that identical twins, who have the same DNA (and, he mistakenly thinks, identical brains), should have the same personality and interests if raised in the same environment. He claims that the fact that each twin has a unique sense of self shows that self is a property of the soul rather than the brain. This is a bad argument because: 1) Twin studies have shown that even when raised apart in different foster families, identical twins develop remarkably similar personalities and interests. This shows that biology has a profound effect on things that the author is claiming are products of the soul. 2) The differences that do exist between identical twins are caused by environmental differences. Siblings raised together do not have exactly identical experiences. Even in the womb, nutrient and hormone levels will vary slightly between the fetuses. Once born, differences in experiences early in life will produce differences in brain development; and in general throughout their lives different experiences will help shape their identities.
{incorrect scientific fact}

His next example is just silly. He asks if a clone, which has identical DNA to the person being cloned, will have a distinct sense of self or just be a copy of the original. Contrary to their portrayal in science fiction, in real life clones are just babies with one parent. Creating a clone is not like putting a paper in a copy machine and getting an exact duplicate. The clone, while genetically identical to the parent, will have different experiences and therefore a different sense of self.
{incorrect scientific fact}

The last two examples show a lack of understanding of how the brain develops. While biological predisposition has a large effect on brain development, so does experience. The experiences we have are literally hard-wired into our brains. Memories are encoded in neuronal connections, and therefore our experiences affect the physical structure of our brains.

He now quotes a number of scientists who assert that the self is separate from the brain without telling us why they think this is so. Granted, the book is not primarily about neuropsychology, but quoting opinions without providing actual evidence is an appeal to authority. I also have a suspicion that he is engaging in quote mining. A quick internet search of some of the scientists he quotes shows that their research does in fact support the mind being a property of the brain, making it very unlikely that the quotes used by the author mean what he implies they mean.

As an instance of a misleading quote, the author cites a “scientist, Dr. David Chalmers of Australian National University and director of the Centre for Consciousness.” Googling Dr. Chalmers’ name shows that he is not a nuero-scientist as the author implies, and is in fact not a scientist at all. He is a Professor of Philosophy. While philosophy is an intellectually stimulating and interesting field, it is not science, and therefore Dr. Chalmers’ philosophical opinions on the physical laws governing the mind-brain relationship carry no scientific weight. According to his biography, Dr. Chalmers is a proponent of dualism, but many of the arguments cited in the admittedly brief summary of his work seem to be appeals to ignorance. His is also a minority view, and many prominent scientists and philosophers have refuted his thesis.

The one bit of research the author does cite is an experiment where parts of the brain were subjected to electrical stimulation. The experimenter was able to elicit vivid memories from the subject, but the fact that the subject knew that these were memories and that electrical stimulation could not produce decisions were taken to mean that the sense of self is separate from the brain.

The first part is silly, as anyone can produce vivid memories of the past simply by closing their eyes and calling up the memories. Yet we always know that these experiences are memories. There is no reason to think that the experience of a memory triggered by artificially stimulating the brain would be any different than the experience of a memory evoked in the usual manner.

The second part is more interesting, but work with fMRI has shown that specific areas of the brain show increased activity when subjects are engaged in decision making, providing evidence that decision making is a function of the brain. The inability to produce decisions through electrical stimulation shows that we have an incomplete understanding of how the brain produces decisions, but that in itself does not show that there is a metaphysical component to the process. To claim such would be an argument from ignorance.
{incorrect scientific fact (x2), spin, appeal to authority, possible quote mining}

The author has failed to show that the soul exists, whether by inference or otherwise. That we can produce art is not evidence for the soul. That we perceive ourselves as separate from our bodies is not proof of the soul. That science doesn’t completely understand consciousness is not proof of the soul. At best, he has shown that we can’t completely rule out that the soul exists (if we define soul as a disembodied sense of self), but the burden of proof rests on the one making the positive claim to prove his claim is true, not on everyone else to prove the claim is false.

Bloggers vs. Conformists

DovBear put up a post this morning fisking the article, “Doers Vs. Bloggers” by R’ Aryeh Zev Ginzberg that appeared in last week’s 5 Towns Jewish Times. I read the article and started writing a comment, but when it got over two pages long I realized it would have to be a post. I’ve tried not to duplicate what DovBear already has up. I recommend that you read the article before you read this post, as the post doesn’t really flow on its own.

R’ Ginzberg is upset that we don’t play nice, that we challenge preconceptions and require logical consistency and accountability. Boo hoo for him.

> What has happened to us? Where is the Yiddishe compassion for a Jew, and for his wife and children? What makes one Jew spend his time attacking another Jew and judging him in the most brutal terms, all while hiding behind a computer screen?

In other words, whether he is guilty or not is irrelevant. He is frum yid, and we should all follow our instinctive emotional urge towards clan solidarity. If you actually think about the issue it means there’s something wrong with you! Not only that, but if you discuss the issues using a computer, instead of, say, a telephone or around the dinner table with friends, its extra evil.

> To read some of the comments on a blog (that have been sent to me) from Torah-orientated Jews who speak with such bitterness, hatred, and dismissal of so many wonderful people, organizations, and even, chas v’shalom, of gedolei Yisrael

Chas v’shalom someone should speak in a dismissive manner of a gadol b’Yisroel! Where is your kovod rabbonim? The gedolim are holy beyond our understanding, and it is not for us to criticize them. What, you want them to be accountable? You want them to justify what you think are unwarranted and frivolous bans? How dare you, you evil menuval!

> I wonder what the rosh yeshiva would say if he read some of the thoughts expressed in these anonymous blogs … In truth, he probably wouldn’t say anything; he would just tear k’riyah.

This is an emotional appeal. That negative comments about gedolim on blogs would, in R’ Ginzberg’s opinion, cause this R’Y to tear k’riyah, or even that these comments might be loshon hora, does not mean that the commenters are wrong. (Wrong in the factually incorrect sense. Obviously he thinks they are wrong in the moral sense.)

> While I have long been disturbed by this assault upon our Torah values by the infiltration of the “bloggers” in our community and the great harm that it has brought us

Such as…? R’ Ginzberg doesn’t specify. I suppose he may be referring to the above mentioned disparaging of gedolim, but while he might consider this to be morally wrong, I don’t see how it causes actual harm.

> I could not conceal my disappointment in both the choice of venue that he had made to express his thoughts

Here R’ Ginzberg shows his real bias. The problem isn’t with the thoughts expressed, but rather with the venue.

> and the great loss that the greater community has as a result of qualified people with so much to contribute, in word and in deed, having left the “world of doers” and entered into the “world of bloggers.”

Apparently speaking at the Agudah Convention is “doing” and contributing to the greater community, while saying the exact same things on a blog is to merely “create a venue for others to vent their frustration and hatred towards the individual and/or the community at large.” In R’ Ginzberg’s opinion, then, all dissemination of opinion should be strictly one way, from the authority to the masses. He probably pines for the days when news was controlled by the big media outlets and the average person’s opinions were restricted to his immediate acquaintances.

Additionally, if R’ Ginzberg’s worry is that the opinions of “qualified people” won’t reach a wide enough audience if they are published on a blog instead of delivered in a speech at the Agudah convention, the solution is to encourage people to read blogs more, not to ban them. For every qualified person who might speak at the Convention, there are others who won’t be invited but can express their valuable opinions in the blogosphere. I suspect R’ Ginzberg’s real problem with blogs is not that those he agrees with won’t get wide enough exposure, but that those he disagrees with get any exposure at all.

> What we desperately need are more doers. One thing we definitely do not need is more bloggers in our community.

What we do not need are more self-righteous people certain that their way is the only acceptable way, concerned that someone may express an opinion not approved by the gedolim or disrespectful towards them. For those used to living in a world where the gedolim are sacred, where communal norms are sacrosanct, and where disagreeing with tradition is heresy, the possibility that norms may be challenged and the leaders disparaged is frightening. Boo hoo for him.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section three

Plants, Animals, and Human Beings (Chapter One, section three)

The author begins this section by asking how to make a plant happy and (as a representative of animals) how to make a cow happy. Leaving aside for a moment that there are many types of plants and that cows are hardly representative of all animals (I excuse the arbitrary representation of all animals by cows because it is just meant as an example), the ingredients given for each organism’s “happiness” (assuming that plants or even cows have something analogous to emotional states) show a woeful ignorance of biology. The plant is prescribed “the right amount of light, air, and water” – no mention of nutrients or opportunities for procreation. The cow’s needs for food and to “propagate” (a word actually better suited to plants) are acknowledged, but the author also suggests hitching “him to a plow.” As if cows (and by the way, a “cow” is by definition a female, not a “he”) are meant for plowing and they need job satisfaction.
{incorrect scientific fact, teleology}

He goes on to say that providing a person with the same – nourishment, job, and exercise – does not guarantee that they won’t be depressed or commit suicide. (The author seems to be using depression and suicide as a barometer for happiness.) That is true, but that’s because people, unlike cows, seek both meaningful social interaction and purpose in their lives. We have the questionable blessing of being self-aware. I would also like to note that clinical depression and suicidal ideation is a mental illness, and not merely the result of dissatisfaction or unhappiness with one’s life. Mentally healthy people normally do not commit suicide no matter how awful their lives may seem, and clinically depressed people are not happy no matter how wonderful their lives are. Pointing to illnesses to show that a given factor does not provide happiness is misleading at best. The opposite of happiness is sadness, not depression (let alone suicide); just as the opposite of physical strength is weakness, not muscular dystrophy.
{incorrect scientific fact}

The author then writes: “There is obviously a drastic difference in how to define happiness when it comes to an animal versus a human being.” What he probably meant was that there is a drastic difference in how we go about achieving happiness in an animal versus a person. If it was a matter of definition it would be a meaningless point. After all, if the definition of happiness is arbitrary then we could call it happiness for animals when they are branded with a red-hot branding iron. Obviously, when he’s speaking about animals being happy he means something approximating what we mean when we talk about people being happy.

The reason that the means for achieving happiness are so different may have more to do with his choice of example than anything. He is continuing his mistake of treating “animals” as a monolithic category. It’s true that different things make cows and humans happy, but it’s also true that different things make cows and tigers happy, and there are yet other differences between tigers and slugs.
{incorrect semantics}

The author now cites Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While Maslow’s hierarchy provides a useful rule-of-thumb, it’s not exactly on the cutting edge of psychology and was based on conjecture rather than on actual experiments or studies. Since then it has been confirmed by some studies, but it is still somewhat controversial and is useful mostly as a rule-of-thumb.

The author acknowledges only the lowest level of needs, the purely physical, as being shared by people and animals. Yet the next level, the need for safety, is also shared by both people and animals; and the third level, the need to belong and be recognized by a social group, is found in many social species besides humans. The author refers to the highest level of the hierarchy, the need for fulfillment of potential and self-actualization, as a uniquely human need. I don’t know how he reached this conclusion, as 1) there are many people who feel no need to self-actualize (that they may be derided by some societies as underachievers is beside the point, and is dependent on the society in which they happen to live), and 2) I don’t know of any studies that have tried to examine self-actualization in animals. Until it is studied, the most we can say is that we don’t know if there are any other species that feel compelled to achieve as much as possible.

He now states that, “No cow or chimpanzee will ever contemplate a Rembrandt painting, seek to learn something that has no bearing on his own personal existence, or join the Peace Corps.”

It is true that humans are the only species to produce visual art, but so what? What makes this particular quirk so ennobling? The emotion art can evoke? Emotion is just chemicals and electrical signals in the brain. That we happen to be wired to react emotionally to certain images, and that some people are capable of producing images that provoke emotional responses in others, does not make the production of such images an objectively ennobling activity.

It is probably true that animals don’t seek knowledge that has no bearing on their own existence, but again, so what? That humans do seek knowledge that isn’t immediately useful to us is just another quirk, albeit a more practically useful one in the long run than art. Is the author trying to make collecting trivia into the defining difference between people and animals? It is a difference, and one that has been influential in helping our species develop a growing body of knowledge, but it is hardly a metaphysically ennobling trait.

As for joining the Peace Corps, well, animals clearly do not have the social sophistication humans have achieved and do not form globe-spanning organizations. But altruistic behavior has been observed in other primate species, proving that the desire to help others in not a uniquely human trait.
{questionable scientific fact, false significance}

The author now states that the need for self-actualization is said to reside in the soul, and asks if “the existence of the soul can be proven?” If the need for self-actualization is real, it resides, as does everything we experience, in our brains. That this need is supposedly universal makes it all the more obvious that is must be part of our makeup. All typically-developing humans are born with needs, abilities, and predilections that are hardwired in our brains. These include reflexes, physical drives such as hunger, a liking for faces, a tendency to organize the world into patterns, a desire to avoid pain, and abilities such as learning to talk and walk. Neuropsychologists have identified the areas of the brain responsible for many of these inborn traits and continue to work to pinpoint which area does what. Perhaps someday they will identify the cluster of neurons responsible for our need to self-actualize. (Assuming, of course, that the need to self-actualize is a real phenomenon.) Perhaps not. Either way, there is no need to posit a metaphysical soul to explain what is basically an emotional drive.
{unwarranted assumption}

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section two

The Soul of the Matter (Chapter One, section two)

To frame the discussion of whether there is a difference between people and animals the author cites the fact that humans and chimpanzees share 99.4% of their DNA. He then asks, “If the singular difference between animals and humans is based on the mere fact that we genetically surpass monkeys by 0.6%, then we are only different in degrees and not kind. How dare we discriminate between animals and human beings?”

Here he makes the same mistake he did before when he cited Nazi Germany as an example of the evils of evolution. Evolution is not a ladder, and we do not “surpass” chimpanzees by 0.6%. We are merely genetically 0.6% different from chimpanzees. The author also mistakenly refers to chimpanzees as monkeys, when they are not monkeys but rather are great apes. Among other things, monkeys have tails, apes do not. This is a fairly common misconception, but again this speaks to the quality of the book’s scholarship.

He then is guilty of the equivocation fallacy with his use of the word “discriminate.” Discriminate can mean either: “to distinguish by discerning or exposing differences” or “to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Chimpanzees and humans have clear differences, and to discriminate between them (first definition) is natural. However, the use of the word calls up the second, pejorative, definition and suggests that acknowledging the distinctions is a bad thing.

Lastly, he generalizes from chimpanzees to all animals. Perhaps, given their similarity to us, chimpanzees should be accorded special treatment. But that does not translate into equating people and all other organisms. This unwarranted generalization may stem from the human tendency to perceive the world in distinct categories. The author is using two categories here, “people,” and, “animals.” He is treating these categories as discrete and homogenous blocks. If these categories are an accurate description of the world, then they can be compared to one another. But the truth is that humans and animals are not separate categories. Humans, animals, even plants are all organisms, and each organism can be evaluated on a number continuums which might be relevant here, including complexity, intelligence, and sentience.
{incorrect scientific fact, equivocation fallacy, false distinction}

He then lists some animals that are in fact superior to humans in specific ways, including the, “blind bat, [which] through its sonar ability, can maneuver its way through the most complex obstacle course.” The bat is in fact not blind, and some can see about as well as humans. Bats use echolocation to navigate because they hunt at night, and, like humans, cannot see in the dark. This mistake doesn’t actually affect his argument, as bats do still have an ability (echolocation) that humans don’t, but once again this speaks to the book’s quality of scholarship.
{incorrect scientific fact}

The author quotes a Professor Singer who argues that people saw themselves as superior to animals in the Western world because the Bible states that God endowed people with a soul. Given that it is the soul that makes us superior, the author states that if he can prove the existence of the soul, even Professor Singer would acknowledge human superiority.

The author is conflating the professor’s conjecture as to why people do (in general) in fact consider themselves superior to animals with a claim that a soul is a valid justification for considering ourselves superior. (Note that I am endorsing neither Professor Singer's claim nor his controversial ethical theory.) Be that as it may, I am willing to concede that if there actually is a God, and He endowed humans with a metaphysical soul which other species do not have, then in the soul-bearing category we would be superior to animals. Further, depending on exactly what properties said soul endows upon its possessor, possession of a soul may be a valid justification for classifying people as a separate category from and superior to the rest of the animal kingdom.

I should note that there is no need to look to a metaphysical soul to find ways in which humans are superior to other organisms. Humans are far and away the masters of adapting the environment to suit our needs. While other species change the environment, build dwellings, create tools, even domesticate other species, none of them approach the scale on which humans use and create things for our own benefit. We are also the most intelligent species on the planet (as measured by problem-solving ability), and the only one capable of transmitting truly novel information and abstract concepts.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Introduction & Chapter One, section one

The following is a point-by-point critique of “Search Judaism: Judaism’s Answers to a Changing World” by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer. I’ve summarized each point and then explained what I think is wrong with it. Below the discussion of each point I’ve listed the errors and/or fallacies contained in the point.

The errors in the book fall into three broad categories: instances where the author presented one side of a debated issue without the other, and implied that the interpretation presented was the only one; instances where the author’s facts were simply wrong; and logical fallacies.

Search Judaism: Judaism’s Answers to a Changing World
Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer

The book starts off, in its first sentence, by claiming that Avraham had no tradition about God and that he was a monotheist. I suppose this is true, in a sense, about the biblical God, but ignores the influence of Canaanite gods on the image of God in the chumash, which extends to using the names Baal and El as names of God. It also ignores the evidence in the chumash itself that the early Jews were hhenotheistic (devoted to the worship of a single god while acknowledging the existence of other gods) rather than truly monotheistic.

The introduction says that the book is meant to provide an alternative to “rote, habit, and uninspired Judaism” so that one can come to “actual knowledge of God.” Let’s hope it lives up to the hype.

Chapter One
The chapter begins with the question: Are humans just like other animals, or are they something more? While current evolutionary science sees humans as just one of many genetically similar species on this planet, this does not, as the author claims, mean “there is nothing wrong with behaving like an animal, because we are, after all, animals.” This is a straw-man argument meant to evoke an emotional response from the reader; meant to make the reader recoil in moral disgust from the proposition that humans are just like other animals. There would be something wrong with a dog behaving like a cat, something wrong with a goat behaving like a lion, and there is something wrong with a human behaving like a member of another species. It does not follow from the fact that we are a species of animal like any other that we are therefore going to behave immorally. It does mean that we humans aren’t “special,” but hey, that’s just the way it is. That we may want to be special doesn’t mean that we are.

It also ignores studies of behavior in great ape species that show many behaviors, particularly social behaviors, similar to those found in people.
{emotional appeal, straw-man}

Humans and Animals (Chapter One, section one)

There follows a story illustrating the ridiculous extremes people go to caring for their pets, including expensive health care, homes, clothes, etc. Here I must note that such extremes are not the norm and do not represent a trend.

The author then asks if it is moral for people to spend money on expensive medical treatments for their pets when there are children in need of operations; if it is moral to buy expensive clothes for pets when there are people who need to be clothed. This question assumes an either-or situation: that if the pet owners didn’t spend their money on their pets they would donate it to those in need rather than spend it on, say, a cruise, or a fancy car. Such a situation is not the case here. These pet owners are not deciding between their dog’s health and that of a child, but between their dog’s health and a vacation. If people want to spend their money on something the rest of us find foolish, that it their prerogative.
{emotional appeal, false dilemma}

The author states that he has noted historically an inverse relationship between how much people care about animals and how much they care about other people. Even if this is true, confluence is not causality.

He then states that Ancient Egyptians venerated animals to the point where they did not eat animal products – according to Ibn Ezra. Leaving aside that “Ancient Egypt” spans several thousand years of changing social rules, this just isn’t so. There are wall scenes in Egyptian tombs that depict dairy activities (milking cows, preparing cheese), and there is similar evidence that Egyptians’ diets included a wide range of meats, poultry, and fish.

As a counterpoint to the Egyptians’ supposed extreme veneration of animals, the author claims that the great monuments of Ancient Egypt, including the pyramids, were built by slaves. While it’s true that some monuments were built by slaves, and slaves were involved in building the pyramids, most of the labor was done by peasant farmers in the off-season, their labor serving as a form of tax to the monarchy. (I suppose I should just be glad he didn’t claim the pyramids were built by the Bnei Yisroel.)

He goes on to claim that the Egyptians worshiped a host of animals as gods, and lists them by name. It is true that Egyptian gods were associated with animals, but it wasn’t such a simple relationship. The gods were not animals, but were usually depicted as men or women with the head of the animal they were associated with. Thus Anubis, for example, was depicted as a man with the head of a jackal.

The preceding two points don’t actually affect the validity of his argument, but they seem indicative of the overall level of the book’s scholarship.
As a final condemnation of the Egyptians’ supposed veneration of animals and degradation of people, he says that the Torah commands we bring animal sacrifices to drive home the point that there is a difference between humans and animals. In world where (supposedly) humans were considered inferior to animals, Hashem wanted us to know that in fact we are far superior to animals.

Firstly, I don’t really understand the logic here. How does sacrificing animals show that people are superior? It could just as easily be interpreted to mean that animals are superior to people, and therefore a more worthy sacrifice for God. Secondly, this ignores the influence of surrounding cultures, all of which (including the Egyptians who are supposed to have held animals in such high regard) sacrificed animals to their gods. From an anthropological viewpoint, it is likely that the ancient Jews were influenced by the religious practices of those around them. There is even support for this view from within the bounds of Torah. The Rambam says that Hashem commanded the Bnei Yisroel to bring karbanos because all peoples in the ancient world brought sacrifices, and it would have been too difficult for the Jewish people to be too different.
{incorrect historical facts, confluence/causality, spin}

As a second example of historical kindness to animals and cruelty to people, the author cites Nazi Germany and Hitler’s vegetarianism. Again, confluence is not causality. That Hitler was a vegetarian has nothing to do with him being a genocidal monster. To illustrate the silliness of this line of argument, I would like to note that the Nazis also all wore pants. Are we now to infer some kind of causal link between pants and mass murder?

I should also note that his choice of examples, Ancient Egypt and Nazi Germany, both evoke strong negative emotions in Jewish readers, and just barely stop short of being condemnations of a practice in and of themselves (e.g., the Nazis did X, so X must be bad). I doubt these examples were chosen arbitrarily, and find it much more likely that they were chosen specifically because of the emotional reaction they cause in order to create the illusion that the author’s argument is stronger than it actually is.
{confluence/causality, emotional appeal}

The author now segues into an attack on evolution, implicitly claiming that biological evolutionary theory justifies Social Darwinism. It does no such thing, as the theory of evolution is merely an explanation for biodiversity, not a moral framework. Again the Nazis are cited, even though the corrupted evolutionary theory the Nazis used to justify their horrors had almost nothing to do with biological science and everything to do with justifying their claim of being the master race. It was based on the mistaken notion that evolution is a ladder, with some species (or in the Nazi’s useage, races) “more evolved” – and therefore superior – to others. Evolution does not work that way. The theory of evolution simply states that those animals which are best adapted to their environment will be the ones who survive to breed, and that therefore changing environments shape a specie’s development. Thus animals will gain, and more importantly for this discussion, LOSE abilities in the process of adapting to their environment. The Nazi’s claim that they were ubermenchen, more evolved than other races, was evolutionary nonsense.

Now the author makes a statement that is shocking in both its display of ignorance and blatant emotional manipulation. He says, “In theory, what could be wrong with a Darwinist, who didn’t like the color or style of your hair, weeding out your genes from the human gene pool? Scary, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is scary. It’s scary how ridiculous and malicious this statement is. Let’s break it down.

1) Hair style? Really? Because hair style is genetically determined, right?
2) What would be wrong with it is that murder and/or denying someone the right to have children is morally repugnant, regardless of how biodiversity came about.
3) Breeding existed long before Darwin, and was in fact part of what led him to come up with the theory of evolution. Breeding people for hair color could have been thought up, carried out, and possibly even justified in the interest of creating better people without Darwin.
4) That certain traits are selected for naturally because organisms with those traits out-survive similar organisms without those traits in no way justifies a person selecting and/or suppressing physical traits in other people, especially when doing so violates the other people’s human rights.
5) This is like claiming that the germ theory of disease justifies rape and murder. After all, if viruses use people to create more of themselves, even to the point of killing their host, then it must be okay for me to commit rape to procreate and to kill anyone who tries to stop me. Of course, people aren’t viruses – nor is anyone entitled to decide the course evolution should take for his fellow human beings.
6) It is a straw-man argument attempting to claim that evolution justifies murder, which as demonstrated above just isn’t so.
7) It is an emotional appeal designed to link Darwinism with murder and thereby make evolution reprehensible.
8) Even if all of the above was not true, and Darwinian evolution really did justify eugenics, that in no way affects whether or not evolution is in fact the correct explanation for biodiversity, making this an appeal to consequences.
{Incorrect scientific fact, spin, emotional appeal, straw-man, appeal to consequences}

The first section of Chapter One seems to be an attempt to show that:
1. Animals being considered more important than people is a sign of a degenerate society.
2. Evolution claims that humans are just another species of animal and (logical leap here) therefore animals are as important or are more important than people.
3. This is horrifying and justifies murder. (Not true, as demonstrated above.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Gift of Apologetics

For Chanukah my mother-in-law got my daughter a doll, my wife something for the house, and me a book that claims to be able to bring the reader to, “actual knowledge of God.” The book is “Search Judaism: Judaism’s Answer to a Changing world” by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer. I Googled the author’s name and found that he works for Aish HaTorah; that his shiurim are posted on a site that boasts of having lectures from over 250 speakers, yet mysteriously has pictures only of the male lecturers (either none of the female lecturers were available to pose for a picture or a grainy head shot of a woman is an unpardonable breach of tznius); and (courtesy of Only Simchas) that he was married the same year I was.

I’ve picked up books like this before in good-faith attempts to see if there is some proof I might have missed, and invariably I put them down in disgust after coming across an awful argument or blatant untruth. The most recent was a couple of months ago when I picked up “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” by Rabbi Shmuel Waldman. I didn’t get very far when I ran across a Judaicized version of Pascal’s Wager. Struck by the absurdity of using a proof created by a Catholic theologian in defense of his own religion as an argument for Judaism, I stopped reading. I’ve come to have very low expectations for these kinds of books.

Still this was a gift, and I know my mother-in-law meant well. My wife told me that her mother had done some research before buying the book to try and find one that would appeal to me. (I’m touched by her effort, though in all honesty I wish she would just let it be.) The least I could do was read it. I decided to write down my thoughts as I went along.

So far I’ve gone through the first chapter, and I have over eleven typed pages of critique. It’s not just some fuzzy logic, it’s not appeals to the possibility that God might exist, it’s not even that its wrong on the main points that the author is trying to make. It’s wrong on Every. Single. Point.

I’d estimate about 85% of the statements in the book are either factually wrong or logical fallacies. Its full of examples and anecdotes clearly meant to push emotional buttons, and the chapter ends with what I’m pretty sure is an exercise in quote-mining. (Though I do have to admit I’m not certain, not having read the quotes in their original contexts.)

I’m thinking about turning this into a project. I usually post two or three times a month. Using this book as source material, I could put up a post every day for weeks. Is anyone interested in reading it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Agudah Convention (A Parody)

This post is something different than my usual reminiscing and attempts at philosophy.

A while back XGH had a post about “The Atheist Convention”, a song by Abie Rottenberg. As I wrote there in the comments, as a kid I had really liked this song. It’s got a catchy tune, its upbeat, and it tells an inspiring little story. As my attitude towards religion has changed over the years, so has my opinion of the song. I still think it has a catchy tune and is upbeat, but I now find the story kind of insulting. The message is that inside every atheist is “buried faith,” and all it takes is a single incident for an atheist to abandon his convictions and run to the faith endorsed by his culture.

The original song from Journeys

(I've written before, here, about the idea that people think that everyone, deep down, really have the same beliefs that they do.)

The following is a parody I wrote which turns the premise of the song on its head. It’s not perfect, as the abandoning-faith-due-to-tragedy trope is recognized in the religious world and is considered less legitimate than someone with intellectual questions, but it keeps the premise that all it takes is a single incident to make someone abandon their convictions.

“The Agudah Convention”

The plane took off on schedule from La Guardia
On a bright clear sunny summer's day
What a cheerful trio they appeared to be
They were off the ground westward bound
To the Agudah Convention in LA

Yankel was a Rabbi from Manhattan
Dovid shteiged all day in Sheepshead Bay
Yossi was a teacher out in Woodmere
With the clouds below they were on the go
to the Agudah Convention in LA

Aren't you glad that we'll be staying at the Hilton
I can't wait to hear the gedolim’s latest bans
Did you hear this year they're letting in YU guys?
The convention should be absolutely grand

There'll be speeches that will ponder our difference
The secular world will come under fierce attack
That "science is all evil" is our motto
And gravity is a theory not a fact!

Yankel made a bracha over dinner
Yossi and Dovid answered amen
There was a maskil in the next row shaking his head
Could he be so not want to be included
In those with someone up there watching over them?

Suddenly there was a big explosion
Everyone began to scream and wail
The plane was in a spin and losing altitude
Yankel cried "Hashem save us"
Dovid "Next time I’ll take the bus"
And in Hebrew Yossi said, "Shema Yisroel"


Just after that final awful impact
When nearly everyone on board had died
Somehow some way the engines spun and caused a spark
As Yossi watched from the trees
With what seemed to be great ease
The remains of his friends the fire fried

Yossi lost his faith in G-d in heaven
"If God existed He’d have saved us on this day"
The maskil turned and asked reb Yossi with a tear,
"with your friends now passed away...will you still be going to pray
At the Agudah Convention in LA"

Yankel's now buried in Yerushalayim
Dovid’s tomb is near his yeshiva
and Yossi's still a teacher out in Woodmere
But now they call him Doctor, and on superstition he gives lecture
His stifled mind ignited
While flying on United
To the Agudah Convention in LA

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Growing Up Different

Growing up in the Yeshivish world, it seemed that Europe, the alte heim remembered warmly in stories, the land where the pious Judaism of our forefathers once flourished, was an area that extended from Russia in the East to Lithuania in the North, Hungary in the South, and Poland to the West. (Not that I had a great grasp of geography as kid. Far from it.) The stories that were told, from those about the great tzadikim we were to emulate to those about the simple folk we were to identify with, all took place in small patch of Central and Eastern Europe. The names of the towns, the Yiddish the characters spoke, the social structure, all had their roots in the shtetl.

I identified with none of it. I heard no stories at home about Poland or Russia. No family tales of the poretz, the czar, the bitter winters and rapacious peasants. Nor was there any reason I should. My family was from farther west, from a place that, when it came up at all, was the source of the smart-aleky Maskil in older stories and of unspeakable horror in those from the mid-20th century.

All four of my grandparents grew up in Germany, in places like Berlin and Frankfurt-am-Main. I have photographs of my great-grandfathers in their uniforms, circa 1914. I know very little about their service, and it’s likely they were drafted rather than volunteers, but they fought for Germany. More than one of my great-great-uncles died in France in the Kaiser’s service, fighting for a country he thought of as his own. One, a doctor living in California, voluntarily returned to Germany to serve his country.

When WWI ended and Germany was forced to cede its eastern lands to the newly reconstituted Poland, one of my great grandfathers, who had been living just across the new Polish border, moved west to Berlin rather than trade his German citizenship for a Polish one. Unlike the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe (and Poland, Hungary, etc. which I’ll throw in with Eastern countries for simplicities sake), German Jews saw themselves as full members of the German nation.

The Jews of Eastern Europe were, for the most part, poor, oppressed, and not very patriotic – often because they weren’t allowed the privileges of citizens. Western Europe was a very different place.

These differences expressed themselves in ways other than just patriotism. Jews in the West tended to be wealthier and better-educated than their Eastern brethren, a difference which accounts for the popularity of cholent in Eastern Europe and its absence from the West. This dish, which many frum people today consider their Shabbos incomplete without, was unknown in Germany. While cholent today may be expensive, it was originally a relatively cheap stew made with potatoes, beans, and a bit of meat and bones for flavor. Tasty and filling, it was the perfect Shabbos dish for people without a lot to spend. The richer Jews of the West had chickens and meat for Shabbos. My father first tasted cholent when he went away to yeshiva for bais medrash.

There are also differences in hashkafa and minhagim. In general, most of the kaballah-inspired minhagim prevalent among Eastern European Jews are not part of the German experience. My family doesn’t make upsherins, we don’t wave a chicken over our heads before Yom Kippur, and we don’t wear a kittel at the seder. At my wedding (and my parents’ and my siblings’) I didn’t wear a kittel, I didn’t wear a torn coat, and I didn’t untie my shoes or take off my gold cufflinks. My wife and I stood under the chuppah wearing a tallis over our heads and facing away from the audience.

Most of my classmates were descendants of the Eastern Europeans who have come to dominate American Orthodoxy. (So much so, that one is either a chassid or a litvak. In common usage in the yeshivish and chassidsh worlds, there are no other categories.) I was different from them. Not very different – we were all from middle-to-right-wing Orthodox homes. But I was different in that I didn’t personally identify with stories of Eastern European figures. To my classmates, these characters were their alter zaides. I didn’t even have a zaidy. I called my grandfather “Opa,” German for Grandpa. Underscoring the difference even more, my family did things differently than my friends did, differently than I was taught in school.

Like all yeshivish kids, I learned the Yiddish sing-song about the Seder. “Tatty comes home from shul and puts on his kittel…” Mine didn’t.

I learned to say the Ma Nishtana in Yiddish. My mother’s parents, at whose home we spent Pesach when I was little, spoke fluent German and could understand Yiddish, but no one in my family spoke Yiddish.

Before Yom Kippur I learned in school how we shlug kaporos. At home, I heard how we didn’t shlug kaporos, and could you imagine actually taking a chicken and swinging it over your head?!

Then there’s the best one of all. You must wait six hours between milchig and fleishig (always said that way, even though no one waits between milk and meat, only between meat and milk). This minhag is taught as part of hilchos kashrus. Except my family only waits three.

For me, the illusion of a monolithic mesorah promulgated by the Yeshivish world never had a chance to take hold. Sure, everyone knows that there are people out there who only wait three hours, or who wear taleisim before they’re married. But for most it’s not something they notice. It’s one thing if one or two of your friends do things a little differently than you do. It’s another when nearly everyone does things differently than you do.

I think this may be another small ingredient in my path to religious skepticism. Seeing what I was taught as normative in school disregarded by my family in practice – disregarded because no one in the family had ever done these things - taught me that not everything I learned was a tradition stretching back to God at Har Sinai.

Monday, November 23, 2009

V’shinantam L’vanecha…

My wife’s fourteen-year-old sister called yesterday.

“Are you coming over today?” She asked

“I’ll be over later this afternoon,” I said. “Why?”

“I’m having a history test tomorrow,” she said. “I need your help studying. I haven’t really been paying attention in class.” She laughed.

“All right. Sure. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks. See you. Bye.”

I arrived at my in-laws house later that afternoon. My daughter ran off to be spoiled by her other teenaged aunt, and I sat down at the dining room table with my sister-in-law, her notes, and her textbook. She opened the book to chapter three, “Ancient China.” She read from her notes, and I looked through the book and explained the material to her as best as I could. For a while we discussed ancient China’s geography, political system, and social makeup. Then we came to the section on religious beliefs. Specifically, ancestor worship.

“What does it mean, they ven-er-ated their ancestors?” She asked.

“In ancient China – and some people in China today – believed that their parents, grandparents, and other family members that passed away went to a different realm of existence where they continued to have an interest in and influence over their children’s and grandchildren’s lives.”

She looked at me quizzically.

“They davened to their dead ancestors for things.” I explained.

She grinned.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“They ‘davened.’” She said, making air quotes with her fingers.

“Yes, they davened, without the quotes.” I said. “They believed that their ancestors had influence in the world. The same way we daven that we should be healthy, our kids should be well, we should make money, they davened to their ancestors that they should be healthy, their kids should be well, their crops should grow and be plentiful, their animals should be healthy…”

She laughed. “Yeah, but when we daven its for real. Hashem answers us when we daven, and when He doesn’t, its because He says no because it wouldn’t be good for us.”

I wanted to point out to her that the Chinese were just as sincere in their prayers as she was in hers. I wanted to point out that in their belief system, their prayers were the ones that “real” and it was praying to an incorporeal monotheistic God in the sky that was silly. I wanted to point out the non-falsifiability of the claim that God answers all prayers – except for those He doesn’t. I wanted to point out that the same claim could be reasonably made about a rock, or a chair, or absolutely anything: if what you prayed for happens, attribute it to your prayer to the chair; if it doesn’t happen, its because the chair, in its infinite wisdom, knew that it wouldn’t be good for you, and so said no.

I didn’t point out anything. Instead, I let it go and moved on to the next section in the textbook.

As nice as my in-laws are, as kind, warm, and caring as they are, they would be very upset if I caused their fourteen-year-old daughter to have doubts. As it is, they’re not that happy about how much I’ve changed the way the daughter I married thinks. Nor are they happy about what I might teach their grandchildren.

Which brings me to the real problem, one that many in my position share. Educating my sister-in-law in comparative theology is not really my place. Nor do I think that it would be right at her age for me to deliberately and overtly change her worldview from the one her parents are trying to teach her. But educating my children and shaping their worldview is my place. More accurately, I want to make sure my children have the breadth of knowledge and the intellectual tools to decide for themselves what their worldviews will be. How do I this without making them pariahs in a community with a narrow definition of acceptable worldviews?

The first step is probably getting out of New York and away from the segmented sectarian communities that exist here. Moving to a more Modern community - one in which most ‘secular’ knowledge and an ostensibly rationalist epistemology falls within the bounds of community sanction – is another. As for where to go from there, well, we’ll see.

Monday, November 9, 2009

People Like Me in Entertainment Media

There aren’t any.

All of the characters on TV, in movies, in the books I read, are all different than me. There were never any characters that I could truly identify with, someone that looked and sounded like I did. I suppose that is what it means to be part of a minority.

Except that there are Jewish characters all over the place. It seems like every third TV character is Jewish. Whether this is a result of the American tendency to erroneously hold up Judaism as one of the great (demographically) world religions, or Jewish writers creating characters that are coreligionists, I don’t know. But even these characters weren’t people I could identify with. They are mostly “informed Jews” – they look and act just like everyone else, and only reveal that they’re Jewish in December each year so that Chanukah can be shoehorned into the Christmas episode. If they have any Jewish characteristics, they’ll be highly stereotypical ones, like eating bagels. If they are at all religious, they’ll be on the extreme left wing of the Reform movement – a rabbi will officiate at their wedding, but that’s about it. The few depictions of Orthodox Jews are always of Chassidim. After all, a character in a long black coat, a fur hat, and long curly payos is much more interesting than a guy in a business suit with a fedora or a yarmulke on his head. (The only exception I can remember ever seeing was in “It Could Happen To You” in which a yeshivish-looking guy in a white shirt and yarmulke is seen mailing a letter.)

I identified with none of these characters. As much as TV and movies are a fantasy, for me there was an added layer of distance from reality. None of the people depicted were even close to “real” because none of them resembled anyone I knew.

I think this underlines the cultural isolation of the Orthodox world. While some liberal Chareidim and the Modern Orthodox partake of what the general culture has to offer, we aren’t really a part of it. There is nothing in it with which we can identify. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Worth of a Sandwich

Our intrepid heroes, inter-planetary explorers, have landed on the Planet of the Week, a Brave New World where No Man Has Gone Before. Before long they meet the native’s leaders and are having a merry old time - until they begin to discover that things aren’t quite right. The idyllic society has a nasty underbelly, and it is their duty as heroes to Right All Wrongs and expose the evil to the commoners.

Before they can, their once-genial hosts catch them. They are told that they cannot leave the planet, because they might report what they have seen to an outside authority; and they cannot stay, because they might tell the commoners the truth about their utopia. But their captors are not so backwards as to execute them, or toss them in a cell and throw away the key. Instead they are to be hooked up to a virtual reality machine, where they can live out the rest of their lives in a fantasy of their choice, while their bodies are kept alive by IV feeding. Our heroes declare that such a solution is unacceptable, as they could never be happy or find meaning in a life they know to be entirely artificial.

I think most people would agree with our heroes that an artificial existence would be meaningless. We would agree that getting married, having children, a career, being active in the community – in short, all the things we value as indicators of a life well spent – would be meaningless if acted out in a virtual fantasy world. Despite having our every desire catered to, such an artificial existence would quickly lose its novelty and become depressing as we realize that nothing we do really matters.

Why we would feel this way is an interesting question.

An even more interesting question is why we don’t feel this way about the “real” world.

If raising children, being active in the community, etc., are not considered meaningful in the virtual world, then we can conclude that it is not the act itself that has value. The actions and experiences of the individual are the same in the real and virtual world. Rather, the value must be the action’s effect on others. Because there are no “others” in the virtual world, only virtual constructs, the actions are not considered to have value.

The question then is why do we think that the impact of our actions on others give the actions value? Do our actions in fact have objective values, or is it merely that we are wired to believe that acts which help others are meaningful? If so, what if the virtual reality machine could be tweaked to make those hooked up to it believe that making turkey sandwiches has intrinsic value, and they happily spent the next sixty years making turkey sandwiches. Is that bad? They would be happy and would believe they led a meaningful life. How is being programmed to believe altruistic acts have intrinsic value any different than being programmed to believe that making turkey sandwiches has intrinsic value?

If there really is no difference, and person in a virtual world programmed to believe making virtual turkey sandwiches has value can find the same fulfillment that an unaltered human in the real world can find in being altruistic, if in the virtual world tombstones read, “expert turkey sandwich maker,” instead of, “loving father, devoted husband, invaluable member of the community,” then our meaningful, productive, altruistic lives really have no more intrinsic value than the virtual world’s inhabitant’s years of sandwich making.

Havael havalim hakol hevel

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wild Mass Guessing

The title is taken from here, and describes what happens when fans of a fictional work try to “fill in the logic holes and rationalize the weird.”

This was the phrase that sprang to mind when I read a short d’var torah on sukkos. The article started by asking, “Why do we sit in sukkos,” and, “Why is Sukkos in the fall?” To which the obvious answer is, ‘because it’s a harvest festival, and people camped out in huts in their fields while they were bringing in the harvest.’ Of course, this isn’t at all spiritual, merely practical. The holiday, canonized in the chumash, has to have connections both to the miraculous past of the Bnei Yisroel and to glorifying God’s name. So various views were quoted, including a discussion of whether the sukkos are a representation of the ananei hakavod or are a remembrance of actual huts which Klal Yisroel lived in while in the midbar; and whether sukkos is in the fall because that is when the Jews camped or because by living outside when it is getting cold we are showing that we are doing so because God commanded it and not because it is fun to camp out.

If one accepts that Sukkos evolved from a harvest festival, the discussions among the meforshim seem kind of silly. They are an attempt to make sukkos fit into a spiritual framework that probably wasn’t in place when the holiday first started, and into which it was never really molded. [Unlike, say, All Hollows Eve, which was a deliberate attempt by the Church to turn a pagan harvest festival involving spirits into a Christian holiday involving the dead.] These rabbonim, fans of the spiritual framework of Rabbinic Judaism, are engaging in wild mass guessing to fill in the holes.

For a long time now, my initial reaction to any unfamiliar religious concept or practice I come across (and any I’m used to that I really start thinking about) is, “How did that get started?” Unfortunately, the traditional answers are often like the above d’var torah’s discussion of Sukkos. Wild Mass Guessing by various people attempting to construct something that makes sense out of various disparate parts, full of retcons and discontinuities, often bending over backwards to explain something that makes perfect sense when approached without preconceptions into which it needs to be made to fit. When it comes to how well these apologetics work, Your Mileage May Vary.

As the Wild Mass Guessing page says,
Warning: Prolonged exposure to these pages will result in them making sense.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does the Future Matter?

Most of my life I’ve had a “future orientation.” As a kid I always saved things for later. When I got prizes of candy in school I would bring it home instead of eating it right away. I once lost out when I tried to bring home an ices, and it melted in my knapsack. I would carefully ration out the goodies I got on Purim, always worried that if I finished it now, I wouldn’t have any later – never mind that my mother kept a cabinet stocked with cookies and candies. I felt that it was important that I have my own nosh available if I wanted it. I would sometimes put things away for when I got married or had kids. Most of that stuff is still in my parents’ attic.

As I got older planning for the future became more realistic and more important. I had to do well in school so I would get into high school and college. I went to bais medrash because I was told that if I didn’t, I would never find a shidduch. (As it turned out, that wasn’t true.) I went to grad school so I could find a job.

I realized recently that the future I’ve been planning for my whole life is right now. I’m married, I have kids, I’m finished with school and have a job (sort of). And… that’s it.

Sure, I still have plans for the future. Like, I’d like to buy a house someday. But I’m not pushing towards those goals the way I used to. My attitude has changed from sacrificing the present for the sake of the future to enjoying the present and letting the future come when it may.

On a somewhat related note: I was thinking this morning about the conservation movement that’s grown up in the last couple of decades. Save the planet for our children and all that. And I was wondering, why bother?

It seems to be driven by our instinct to preserve our species and based on the premise that it is worthwhile for us to make sacrifices in the present so that future generations will survive and progress. But this presupposes that humanity will be able to survive and progress indefinitely. That’s simply not true. In a few billion years the sun will burn out. Even if we colonize other solar systems, all the stars will eventually burn out, and ultimately humanity will die out. What is the difference, ultimately, if that happens in a hundred years or a trillion? Emotionally, we can’t really process a trillion years, and so tend to dismiss this distant inevitability as unimportant. On the other hand, a hundred years from now is within our grandchildren’s lifetime, maybe even our children’s. Still, emotion aside, humanity is doomed. Does it really matter when?

I’ll leave you now to more cheerful thoughts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Virtue of Faith Despite Adversity

A while ago, I wrote a post, “Why Is Faith a Virtue?” Particularly faith in the face of adversity. Why is the greatest tzaddik in the frum world the person who, despite personal tragedy, holds on to their emunah?

I think I have an answer. From conversations that I have had with various frum people I have gotten the impression that many believe that everyone sees the world the same way they do. One person told me outright that “The goyim don’t really believe in their religions the way a frum person has emunah in Hashem.” In their view, everyone really believes in Hashem. The only reason someone wouldn’t believe is if they are pretending. They’ll even say that sometimes a person will pretend so well that he will fool himself into really thinking that he doesn’t believe, but deep down he knows that Hashem in the Borie Olam and Yiddishkeit is the Truth.

As an aside, this might also answer a question I’ve had in Chumash. The meforshim condemn Pharaoh for his answer to Moshe’s demand in the name of Hashem to free the Bnie Yisroel: “Who is this God you speak of?” From Pharaoh’s point of view, this is a perfectly legitimate question. There is even a medrash that says he looked through a book of gods and didn’t find Hashem’s name there. The Egyptians had a whole pantheon of gods, and knew the pantheons of other nations. Why should Pharaoh, the embodiment of Ra on Earth, take orders from a god of slaves, a god whom he had never heard of?

The answer could be in the belief I cited above that everyone really, deep down, knows that Hashem is the Borei Olam. Everyone, even Pharaoh. (Never mind that he had legitimately never heard of Hashem. He just KNEW.) So Pharaoh not bowing to Hashem’s will, and worse, having the audacity to ask who He is, is evil.

In the same way, a person who experiences a tragic event doesn’t go through a logical process where he decides that an omni-benevolent God wouldn’t do such a thing, and therefore decides God doesn’t exist. At best, he knows that God exists, but he’s angry with God, and so refuses to acknowledge Him out of spite. Contrast this with someone who experiences a tragedy and continues to trust in God.

Remember, legitimate disbelief is not a real option. A person either believes and continues to trust in God, or believes and pretends he doesn’t out of anger/spite. Which of these attitudes is the more virtuous? Clearly, the more socially useful (in a non-democratic society anyway), and therefore virtuous attitude, is continued trust in a leader despite an apparently tragic mistake.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Truth in Religion and Science: Working Backwards, Working Forwards

[I know this has been done to death, but I thought I’d write up my own take on it anyway.]

The most basic difference between science and religion, the one that makes them butt heads and complicates any discussion of the two, is their difference in epistemology.

Modern science starts with the assumption that we know nothing, and painstakingly have to establish every assertion as true. There have been studies done to confirm and quantify things that everyone takes for granted, such as that something that is farther away looks smaller than something that is closer. Scientists confirmed that this is true, and more importantly were able to describe the equivalence between distance and size, which has implications for eyewitness testimony. Ideally, research is conducted to confirm or deny and/or measure a specific point. Negative results can be just as informative as positive results. It is a flawed, human process, but one that is self-correcting and that builds on itself. It starts from nothing and, by collecting, investigating, and quantifying data, reaches conclusions. These conclusions are then tested by other scientists to see if they are accurate, and are modified in response to new data. Science works forward, the evidence pointing towards the conclusions.

Religion works in exactly the opposite way. It takes a given premise as a fact, and then looks for evidence to confirm the premise. Most importantly, disconfirming evidence is either devalued or ignored. Since the premise is known to be true, any evidence that shows it is false is de facto flawed. Religion works backwards, with the conclusions determining which evidence is correct.

This is a feature of not just religion but of many non-scientific beliefs, including pseudo-sciences. Disturbingly, I’ve found such belief systems in my own profession. Psychology is one of the soft sciences, and in some places it’s so soft it’s fluffy. Classic Freudian psychoanalysis, which has entered popular culture as the definitive form of psychology, is an example of this. Freud never performed research, and based all of his conclusions on a very limited number of case studies from his own practice. He assumed that he and his patients, all of whom were upper-middle-class Viennese, were representative of humanity. He came up with a lot of clever psychological mechanisms to explain their various disorders. When researchers tried to confirm his theories, they found that he had been right about a surprising number of things, but that he had mostly been wrong. Psychology changed from focusing on the subconscious to focusing on observable behavior and to describing cognitive processes. Yet it took decades for traditional psychoanalysis to be abandoned, and it continues to be used today in a modified form.

Another example I came across is William Glasser’s Choice Theory. I first heard of it in a counseling class in grad school, and I thought that it sounded very interesting. But when I got his books from the library and started reading them, I was dismayed to find that they were mostly conjecture. Worse, he claimed that if only everyone would ascribe to, study, and understand his theory, the world would become a Utopia. It sounded like he was trying to start a religion. I still think that the basic premise of his theory, that everything we do is a choice, can be a useful therapeutic tool. Many people feel that their problems are caused by forces they can’t control, and so rationalize not doing anything about them. I think that Impressing on them that their life is a result of their choices can be a powerful motivator for constructive changes. But I don’t think it is anything more than that.

Both classical Freudians and Glasser operate the same way religions do. They assume that a premise is true – neurosis are caused by subconscious pressures, everyone’s problems could be solved if only they would understand that it is their choices that cause them – and pick their evidence to conform to the premise.

On the other hand, there is research that makes me proud of my field, like forensic psychologists quantifying the size an object appears at a given distance, or findings in social psychology like the classic Milgram experiment. These studies produce evidence that can then be used to form theories. Sometimes they are wrong, but the faulty data is eventually weeded out and the theories are stronger for it.

I think that in religion, in science, in every field, we should try to move from evidence to conclusion rather than from conclusion to confirmation. It is the best way we have of knowing what is.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ellul, the Month of the Storm God

Here we are in Ellul, the month when we try to convince God to judge us favorably for the coming year. I thought I’d post a few questions about this month I’ve never found decent answers for.

1) I’ll start with my oldest question. In first grade at the beginning of the year I learned that we blow shofer every day during Ellul, except the day before Rosh HaShanah. On Erev Rosh HaShanah we don’t blow the shofer in order to confuse the Satan. Apparently by blowing the shofer we have warned him that Rosh HaShanah is coming, and he has been preparing his case against us. When we stop for a day he thinks he has missed Rosh HaShanah and is confused, which ruins his prosecution of us.

How does this work year after year? Maybe the first time we did this the Satan would be confused, but the hundredth? The thousandth? This is the same being who we are always being warned is super-clever, who is able to lead us astray while making us think that we are being pious, then going to the Heavenly Court with perfect arguments against us. Is he really so dense that after three and a half millennia he hasn’t figured this out?

And once he does figure it out, omitting shofer on Erev Rosh HaShanah is a heads-up that tomorrow is the big day. Kind of counter-productive.

2) I understand that being judged can inspire one to try to better himself. And I can understand that being more careful than usual for a limited time (a month) is easier than doing the same thing indefinitely. But what do people think they gain by adopting extra-pious practices just for Elul? Do they think that God will be fooled into thinking they are better than they really are? Or is it supposed to work like a bribe? “Hey God, I’ll do a little something extra for You, and come Rosh HaShanah You do a little something extra for me.” *Wink*

3) Perhaps the least serious, but the one I find the most annoying, are the cute vorts that darshan the name of the month of Ellul. It is undisputed that we adopted the names we use for the months from the Babylonians. The Babylonians named their months after their gods. So anyone who makes a drasha from the name “Ellul” is finding deeper Jewish meaning in the name of a Babylonian god. I know that most of these vorts are just meant to be cute, but it smacks of historical revisionism to try to find hidden Jewish meaning in the name of a pagan god. Especially since so much of Judaism is designed to be specifically anti-pagan.

A quick Google search turns up a Babylonian god named Enlil, who was a weather god. Wikipedia says that it was “sometimes rendered in translations as Ellil in later Akkadian, Hittite, and Canaanite literature.” I don’t know if this is actually where we get Ellul, but seems to be a good possibility. So let’s all try to be better servants of God during this month of the God of Storms.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fences of Tissue Paper

I had an interesting conversation this past Shabbos with one of my wife’s friends. She’s a fairly typical frum girl, went to a somewhat liberal bais-yaakov type school, and is well-educated (master’s degree). She came to visit us Shabbos afternoon, and I’m afraid that the conversation turned to religion. As the conversation moved from minhagim to halachah she realized that I think most of it is nonsense.

It was fascinating how she brought up the typical arguments in favor of Judaism, no doubt gleaned from high-school and seminary hashkafa classes, and how easily I was able to brush them aside with counter-arguments. It was like walking through a security fence made of tissue paper. Of course I didn’t change her mind, but to her credit she readily admitted that I had some good points.

The conversation brought home to me again that most frum Jews (and I imagine most other religious people too) never give much thought to why they believe what they do, and accept the “proofs” they are taught as children without ever evaluating these ideas as adults. Worse, this girl is probably somewhat smarter than average, yet her ignorance of history (even Jewish history), theology, and logic was appalling. Granted, theology isn’t a particular interest of hers, and most of us are ignorant of subjects which don’t interest us, so perhaps she can be excused. But the fact remains that she is going through life with an unexamined belief system, relying on flimsy arguments she was taught as a teenager.

Another interesting thing I noticed was that many of the points that came up I’ve seen around the blog-sphere or have discussed here. I realized that as I write, ideas that have been floating around inside my head for years coalesce into coherent points. It also (unfortunately?) makes them more prominent. For the most part, I’ve managed to compartmentalize. There’s what I believe (or don’t), and there’s what I do. As the ideas become more prominent, it becomes harder to perform the actions without thinking about them. Why bother? Well, that’s another post.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll

[I wrote this back in March and never got around to posting it.]

This morning on the news I saw a profile piece of a woman who was apparently a famous singer in the 60’s. The piece covered her life from her rise to stardom in her late teens; through an early marriage which she abandoned a few years later, rocky relationships with male singers, and drug addictions; and ended triumphantly with her rebuilt career and latest album release.

What struck me was that her biography matched so well with the yeshivish caricature of non-frum life as ruled by passions and inevitably hedonistic.

I wonder if modern celebrity culture could be reinforcing those stereotypes. In many science fiction stories characters worry about aliens judging humanity based on what we broadcast. Obviously, the aliens would get an extremely distorted view of human culture if their only exposure was radio and TV broadcasts. Yeshivish society, which goes out of its way to isolate itself from the rest of the world, knows of the world only through cultural osmosis. Big stories usually manage to leak through, perhaps from someone who listens to the news on the radio. The stories get passed around, and the result is a distorted version of the news show’s 10-second blurb caricaturing the latest celebrity scandal. These stories are repeated as proof that the outside world is morally corrupt.

I don’t have any evidence that this actually happens aside from some limited personal experience, but its an interesting thought.