Saturday, February 27, 2010

Free Will at Gunpoint

An often-repeated explanation for why we don’t see conclusive evidence for God’s existence is that such evidence would take away our free will. Let’s ignore for the moment the question of whether or not we actually have free will, and examine whether the claim has merit.

I wrote in my last post that if God commanded us to do something, we would be best advised to comply because we don’t have the ability to successfully defy an omnipotent omniscient being. I think this is what is meant by the claim the evidence of God’s existence would take away our free will.

Defying God is not like defying a human power. People break the law all the time, but that’s because they think there’s a good chance they won’t get caught. An omniscient Being knows everything that you do. People can rebel against governments. How do you fight an omnipotent Being? Even someone with a gun to his head might defy his assailant. After all, the worst the gunman can do is killing him, sending him to oblivion or, even better, a hero’s welcome in heaven. How could we defy a Being who has the ability torture us for all eternity?

Were God to reveal Himself to us, there really would be no rational choice but to do as He says. However strong our desire to, say, rob someone might be, our certain knowledge that God was watching us and would punish us would keep us from doing so. It would seem, then, that this is a good argument. There is no evidence for God because such evidence would effectively leave us without free will.

The problem with this argument is that, while it explains why the world is as we see it (with no obvious evidence for God), it violates Ockham’s razor. We could more simply say that there is no evidence for God because there is no God. Adding a God who refrains from proving His existence because such proof would ruin free will is an unnecessary complication. Further, the argument asks us to accept the lack of evidence of God’s existence as evidence that He exists. After all, if there was a God, and He wanted us to have free will, the world would look exactly as it does now!

This reminds me of a story posted on DovBear about a month ago. A woman was told her baby was breech, and went to a kabbalist for a segulah to make the baby turn. He told her of a segulah to make the baby turn, with the caveat that if the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck the segulah wouldn’t work. The woman went to the place the kabbalist had told her and did what was needed for the segulah… and the baby didn’t turn. When the baby was born, it was found that the umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck. Had it turned, it would have strangled. This was hailed as a miracle! The segulah, guaranteed to work unless the umbilical cord was around the baby’s neck, had worked exactly as expected! The baby hadn’t turned!

As I commented there, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that NOTHING happened, and nothing happening was considered a miracle.

Similarly, while the evidence-ruining-free-will argument adequately explains why God might not prove His existence, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is no evidence, and no evidence is being presented as an argument in God’s favor.

As best, the evidence-ruining-free-will argument shows that the lack of evidence cannot be taken as proof that God doesn’t exist, because there is at least one plausible explanation for the lack of evidence that includes God’s existence. It is a way for the rationalist believer to explain the lack of evidence. It does not, however, in any way demonstrate that God does, in fact, exist.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Does Being Wrong Make Something Wrong?

That is, does being morally wrong make something factually wrong? Specifically, does a religious demand for an immoral action or religious sanction of an immoral attitude show that the religion is false?

A little over a month ago, Hedyot posted one of his “Better Know A Kofer” interviews, this one with a woman who calls herself Derech Acheret. The interview implied that she had rejected Orthodox Judaism because she found its inherent misogyny immoral. My initial reaction was that this is not a valid reason to reject Judaism’s truth-claims.

About a week later I read a post by Brooklyn Wolf in which he discussed whether it is halachicly permissible to violate Shabbos to save a non-Jew’s life (and whether he would be able to adhere to halacha in that situation). Wolf asked if one witnessed a car crash on Shabbos, would one permitted to save the non-Jewish driver and his small child? According to a strict interpretation of halacha, it would seem not. (The consensus among the commenters was that there are sufficient loopholes to allow for saving the driver and child, and that practically speaking one should do so, but that’s somewhat beside the point.) Here, my instinctive reaction was, “This halacha is immoral! Another strike against Orthodoxy!”

A moment later I realized that my reaction ran counter to the position I had taken in the discussion on Hedyot’s blog. And so I began to think more about whether the immoral aspects of a religion is reason enough to reject its truth claims.

To begin with, there is the question of what makes something moral. Religion takes the stance that we can know what is moral by following what God tells us to do. The Euthyphro dilemma, the question of whether God’s commands are moral because they are what God commands or if God commands that which is moral by some other, objective standard is not relevant to this discussion. I am not concerned with how the morality of religious directives is derived. It is enough that they are assumed to be moral. Given that the religion is assumed to be moral, our personal sense of morality, influenced as it is by the culture into which we happen to be born, is irrelevant. If it is true that the religious dictate is moral, then our sense that it is immoral is simply wrong.

It is not enough, then, for our personal sense of morality to be at odds with religious teachings. After all, if it is true that an omniscient God handed down these commands from on high, who are we to disagree? Rather, it is necessary to deal with the underlying assumption that religious dictates are inherently moral. To do this, we need to address the basis for that assumed morality, the religion’s truth-claims about God.

Before I get to that, I want to address why we have the instinctive reaction that tells us that immoral (by our personal standards) religious dictates are proof that the religion is wrong. I think it comes from an assumption that religion teaches us what is what is good, and when its teachings outrage our moral sensibilities, we see that as evidence that the religion is wrong. The implicit argument can be laid out like this:

Premise A: Religion always teaches and commands us to do what is good.
Premise B: Therefore, a religion that demands something immoral cannot be true.
Premise C: The religion dictates something that is bad.
Conclusion: The religion is not true.

As I stated above, though, it is entirely plausible to argue that the religious teaching in fact embodies a timeless moral truth that we, unfortunately influenced by the culture we live in, wrongly perceive as immoral.

It is therefore necessary to address the foundations of the assumption that religious dictates are moral: The claim that they were handed down by God, Who only commands us to do that which is moral. This can be broken down into three premises:

1) God exists.
2) God handed down these religious commands.
3) God only commands that which is moral.

If any of these premises are false we have a valid reason for rejecting the religious commands. I think that 3 is largely irrelevant in a practical sense. Even if God were sadistic and commanded us to act immorally, we would be well advised to do as He says. We simply do not have the ability to defy an omnipotent Being and have it end well for us. You could argue that trusting such a Being to be good to us if we follow His commands is foolish, but I think trusting Him to make us miserable if we don’t is a safe bet. Practically, we would have no choice but to do as we’re told and hope for the best.

For the theist who objects to a given religious dictate, attacking premise 2 is the best way to go. If one can make a good argument that God never commanded the particular practice you object to, or that his commands were misunderstood, or that society has warped the true intention of the command and piled layers of unnecessary, objectionable practices on top of it, then the particular practice can be altered or abandoned without rejecting the overall religion.

For the atheist, showing that premise 2 is false in all cases would disprove a religion. Showing that Matan Torah probably wasn’t a historical event, for instance, and that the Torah was compiled later from extant mythology would be a valid reason for rejecting Judaism’s dictates. The lack of evidence for premise 1 would similarly be a valid reason for rejecting religious commands.

It seems that some people who reject religious claims do so because they find certain religious beliefs or practices immoral. Before recently noticing and giving thought to this tendency, I also often took immoral religious commands as evidence that the religion is wrong. But, to answer the question in the post’s title, that I think something is morally wrong doesn’t make it factually wrong. It could be that I’m mistaken about morality. It could be that I’m correct, but that God demands the immoral action, in which case it is in my best interest to comply.

I think that rejection of religion should rest upon rejection of its truth-claims, not on objections to its morality. At best, showing that religion is immoral only disproves one of its claims, the claim that religious dictates are good and guide one in leading a moral life. Far more important are the questions of God’s existence and His will. To reject a religion simply because you object to the demands it makes of its adherents or the culture it supports is an appeal to consequences: I don’t like it, therefore it’s not true.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Haman’s Ingratitude

The following is something I wrote almost a year ago, when I was still playing with the idea of starting a blog. It’s the first piece I ever wrote with the intention of posting. Now it’s finally the right time of year to put it up.


The Artscroll Kol Dodi on Megilas Esther is “adapted from the shiurim of R’ Dovid Feinstein.” It has the Hebrew text of the Megillah, Artscroll’s English translation, and a semi-detailed explanation that draws on midrashim and meforshim and follows the Megillah almost word-for-word. This morning during megillah reading I was flipping through my copy reading entries at random. Some were interesting, some I had issues with, and one particular entry was an incredibly convoluted piece of illogic.

“…explained Haman’s animosity for her [Esther’s] people. Saul had waged war against Amalek and killed most of the Amalakaites, the nation of Haman. On the other hand, Saul had spared King Agag, and it was only because of that misplaced mercy that Haman had come into existence – where was his gratitude? Haman represented an extreme example of a familiar, if unpleasant, aspect of human nature that people resent those who help them.” (7:5, p.119)

Stop and think about this a moment. Saul “waged war” on Amalek and wiped out nearly the entire nation, men, women, and children. (Even the farm animals were killed, just in case any of the Amalaikim had magically transformed themselves into livestock to escape the sword.) It would seem perfectly natural that anyone who survived what can only be described as genocide would be justified in hating the nation that had destroyed his ancestors. But no, here we learn that Haman hated the Jews because Saul had been kind to his great-great-etc.-grandfather. And what was this great kindness Saul did for Agag? He let him live!

This reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables. A wolf got a bone stuck in his throat. Desperate to get it out, he asked a bird with a long beak to pull it out for him. The bird understandably did not want to put his beak down the wolf’s throat, as this would put his head between the wolf’s jaws. “You have nothing to worry about,” the wolf assured him. “I’ll even give you a reward.” Enticed by the promise of a reward, the bird pulled the bone from the wolf’s throat. Free of the painful bone the wolf started to trot away. “Wait,” the bird called after him. “What about my reward?” The wolf stopped, turned back to him and replied, “I let you stick your head in my mouth and didn’t snap it off. Isn’t that reward enough?”

Much like the wolf in the fable, the author of this megillah seems to feel that if one could have killed another and doesn’t, it is a gift bestowed upon the spared party.

[Incidentally, the moral usually paired with this particular fable, called “The Wolf and the Crane,” is: “In serving the wicked, expect no reward, and be thankful if you escape injury.”]

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Defenders of the Faith

I recently had an interesting, if unpleasant, experience after commenting on Someone left a link on XGH’s blog to an article there by Rabbi Fingerer, the author of Search Judaism.

Here I feel I should mention that I have nothing against him. That I got a copy of his book as a gift is purely a coincidence. Since I started critiquing Search Judaism I’ve been noticing articles in frum newspapers by Rabbi Fingerer. On the whole, he seems intelligent, tolerant, and well-meaning. That he happens to often get his facts wrong is almost beside the point. I truly think that if more people in the frum world took his approach, tolerating questions and genuinely trying answer them, the society would benefit greatly.

I left a comment on the article at Matzav explaining what he got wrong. I had a hazy notion that Rabbi Fingerer might respond and we might have an interesting discussion. At the very least, I could have an intelligent discussion with other commenters. To my dismay, I was instead subjected to vicious personal attacks by the commenters there. It rattled me enough that I responded in defense of myself, something that I realize now I shouldn’t have done. I have no desire to be a troll, especially not accidentally.

I did notice a few interesting things about the comments people left. In no particular order: they assumed that there was something wrong with me for disagreeing with them. They seemed to think that words and phrases could be used for emphasis regardless of their actual meaning. They think that typing in all caps makes their point stronger. They seemed unable to believe that there could be more than one person in the world who disagreed with them, claiming that I and two other commenters who also expressed disagreement must all be the same person. One commenter even claimed that he knew me from yeshiva – apparently he was in school with someone who had questions, and assumed I must be the same person.

Worst of all was that no one bothered addressing the arguments. The conversation went something like this:
Article: A, and B are true, because of C.
Me: B isn’t true, and A is because of Y.
Commenters: You’re a poopyhead!

Of course, they didn’t actually call me a poopyhead. What they said was far more viscous. I finally understand the jokes about atheists eating babies. Here was a group of people that knew absolutely nothing about me, yet assumed I was a horrible, vile person they couldn’t let their children near simply because I disagree with their religious views. Okay, a detail that’s fundamental to their entire worldview, but still, that’s hardly a basis for judging someone’s character. Even the person who found my blog (and he seemed very impressed with his “research,” as though figuring out how to use Google was a major accomplishment) didn’t bother to do more that skim a post or two, as evidenced by accusations that were at odds with what I have actually written.

What surprised me the most about all this is how much it bothered me. Here was a group of random strangers, whose opinion could in no way affect my life, even if they by some chance found out who I am, and yet the barrage of vitriolic comments and insults shook me. Social censure by an entire group is a powerful thing.

After giving it some thought, I realized that they weren’t reacting to me personally. They were reacting to a perceived attack on the foundations of their worldview. They were attacking a caricature, the ATHIEST, who they were free to tear down in defense of their beliefs. The particular person who triggered the defense, or even that there was a real person they were attacking, was irrelevant.

I also realized that the mass insults were sophisticated defense mechanism evolved by the religious meme. Questioners are to be insulted, taunted, and shunned. By these means they can be forced to agree with the group, at least outwardly, thereby nullifying the threat to the meme’s continuation.

Lastly, thinking about the social dynamics of my experience made me realize that I don’t actually know any people like those commenters. I’ve lived in a frum community all my life and nearly all of my friends are believers. All of them know, more or less, my opinions on religion. Some enjoy discussing it with me, and some don’t, but none of them hold it against me. The commenters on Matzav are those whom all the frum people I know think of as the right-wing crazy people.

I’ve come to see this episode as a learning experience, a first-hand taste of just how central religion is to some people’s worldview and how unpleasant they can be when that worldview is threatened.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Little Miracle

When we drove to the hospital this morning, it was just the two of us. A few hours later, there were three of us in the recovery room.

Births are surreal. We knew for almost nine months she was coming, but it wasn’t real until the moment the nurse handed her to me. Now, at home with my older daughter while my wife is in the hospital with the younger one, it’s still not quite real.

Holding her while the doctor finished his work, looking into her tiny face… knowing that my life had suddenly changed, was suddenly fuller, that there was another person in the world whom I would be important to… it’s surreal and wonderful and awe-inspiring. That I know why I feelthe way I do, the evolutionary reasons and nuero-chemical reactions that caused me to instantly fall in love with that red-faced little girl, lessened the miraculous feeling this morning not one bit.

I thought about writing about my reactions today compared with those I might have had ten years ago, or those a true believer would have. Perhaps another time. For right now, I’m going to enjoy my little natural miracle, oxymoron and all.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Kollel Meme

I had one of my younger brothers as a guest last Shabbos. He recently started dating, and the conversation soon came around to his plans for the future. To my surprise, he said that he’s planning on learning in kollel for a year or two before getting a job. This is a guy who just finished college, is in yeshiva right now mainly because all of his friends are, and who had no problem skipping Friday night davening. He could be eligible to work in his chosen field in few months. Yet he expects to stay in yeshiva until at least a year after he’s married, whenever that may be. Why?

Orthonomics had a post yesterday about the entitlement felt by some members of the kollel community. (Some commenters pointed out that the post she linked to may be a parody. After re-reading it, I’m undecided. I hope it is.) While commenting on her blog, it hit me that the kollel lifestyle is a meme. In retrospect this is rather obvious, but I was struck by how this realization made so many things suddenly made sense.

Back in June I had a post about the condescending attitude the yeshivish world has towards those that don’t sit and learn. Those who work are considered less-then, nebachs who couldn’t make it in yeshiva or were unfortunately forced by their circumstances to earn a living. “Baalei baatim” is only a hair above “am haaratzim.” Even among the less extreme in the yeshivish world, among those who are willing to grant that ballei baatim can be as righteous as yungerleit, those who sit and learn are seen as the ikker. Their learning sustains the world, and the wage-earning baal habayis should consider it his honor to support those who learn full time.

Never mind that the lifestyle is unsustainable. Never mind that many people in their mid-thirties, with too many kids and no marketable skills, suddenly find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Never mind that the society encourages a myopic, insular, xenophobic, narrowly-defined world view. Yeshivas are full of very smart, kind, warm-hearted people who firmly believe that the best policy is cutting themselves off from the world as much as possible and demeaning everything except talmud torah and everyone (to varying degrees) who doesn’t share their full-time obsession.

Viewed as personal opinions, the attitudes of the yeshivish world are insulting to anyone not in yeshiva. The attempt to brand all “secular” knowledge as pointless at best and trief at worst seems short-sighted, even foolish. The attempts to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and to brand new technologies as a sakana seem misguided, even counter-productive to maintaining their society.

When the kollel lifestyle is viewed as a meme, all of these things suddenly make sense. The veneration of the full-time learner and the pity for the nebach who has to work keeps people learning. The lack of opportunities keep people from finding jobs that might take them away from the yeshiva. Banning the internet and related technologies keeps people away from opinions that might cause them to leave the lifestyle.

Even when people do leave kollel under financial pressures and get jobs, they teach their kids that learning is the ikkar, and the kollel life is the ideal. They work because, nebach, they are no longer able to sit and learn. The meme passes on to another generation.

My brother, despite the ability to start his career in the near future, despite reading the yeshivish Yated only so that he can complain about the ridiculous things they write about, despite having no great love of learning, is planning on living the kollel lifestyle, if only for a year or two. Viewed as an independent decision, this is irrational. Viewed as the perpetuation of a meme, it makes perfect sense.