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.